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Macro Trends: Why the World Feels Like It’s Unraveling

Macro Trends: Why the World Feels Like It’s Unraveling

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the issues that matter most.

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If it feels like the world’s unravelling…that’s because it is. I know, I know, I’ve patented that line by now. Today, though, we’re going to discuss it in a little more detail. It’s a macro trend by now, that everyone should be thinking about. Let me put it more formally—we can call this one “global disintegration.”

Macro Trends: Global Disintegration. The unravelling of modern, post-war institutions holding our world together.

That definition might sound dramatic, but the truth is you’ve already been alarmed by one aspect of this macro trend. I’m sure that you heard about Trump…encouraging…Russia…to attack NATO members. Whew. That was a line that echoed around the world, striking horror into the hearts of heads of state, not to mention average people, everywhere. 

Think about how dramatic, warped, and dangerous that really is for a moment: Trump encouraged Russia to attack NATO members. To Trump’s empty head, of course, everything’s a shakedown, and he appears to think that NATO pays America (it doesn’t.) How profoundly destabilizing is it for a contender for the American Presidency and a former President to say that? More than you might think. 

Institutions are guarantees. Without a guarantee, an institution can’t be said to work. What Trump did is to create doubt that thus removes the guarantee, and that’s already done much of the hard work of…

Undermining global order. “Global order.” It’s a strange, maybe somewhat creepy term, that we’ll come back to. First, though, another example of global institutions unravelling—the one above, of course, couldn’t be more striking or literal, an American President who wants to undo the world’s foremost security institution, which is one of the pillars of the post-war world. Where else do we see global institutions unravelling?

Consider the situation in Gaza. Not your personal beliefs, per se, just the situation as it is. The UN’s relatively toothless, as it often is—meanwhile, Biden’s seemingly unconditional support is costing him the support of progressives en masse, as children and innocents perish. Nations from the “Global South,” which is a nicer way of saying “the poor and not white world,” brought a case before the International Court of Justice, which has no effect whatsoever, despite its verdict.

Whatever you might think of the UN, the truth is that it’s an institution that holds our world together in many ways. It’s easy to criticize it, and even to demonize it, as the rising tide of fanaticism sweeping the globe does, but it’s Global Goals were astonishing, remarkable achievements unparalleled in the sweep of human history. They really did lift human progress, help to start eliminating poverty, give billions access to food, water, sanitation, education, power an era of democracy, and so on. That should and must be recognized as a set of triumphs echoing through the pantheon of human civilizations.

And yet of course the UN is enemy number one for the world’s many rising authoritarian movements, a prime target of the new wave of nationalism slash fascism erupting in every corner of the globe. It’s demonized as a target of conspiracy theories, which mainstream media foolishly legitimized by “both-sidesing” the issue, never really teaching people about what aspirations like the Global Goals actually accomplished. That’s not a defense or an apologia—I’m just trying to teach you a few facts about reality.

So that we can understand this macro trend seriously and carefully. When I speak of “global disintegration,” and mean that the institutions holding the world together are unravelling, it’s not metaphorical or a prediction: it’s literal, and happening before our eyes. NATO and the UN are just two examples, but there are many, many more, and in the examples above, you shouldn’t just think of “them,” per se, but the larger idea: institutions of global peace and democracy are now unravelling, the few we had to begin with.

Here’s another example. Global trade has been declining in recent years. How bad is that? I sit even bad? That’s a reversal that comes after centuries of increases. Trade has peaked for many reasons—the prime one being that this model of trade has failed. China and India being the world’s producers, while the rich West overconsumes—that model’s not sustainable anymore. Not just in planetary terms, but even in simple financial ones: every player in this model, from America to India to China to Europe and beyond, is facing profound social turmoil and prolonged economic distress.

Yet while there are good reasons for the decline of global trade, it’s an ominous sign, as well. Declines in trade predict that nations go from being good neighbors, if not allies, then at least on friendly terms, to racing down the slippery slope of nationalism, rivalry, adversariality, and finally, to enmity. Trade knits civilizations together—it always has, from ancient ones, like Egypt supplying grain to Rome, to modern ones. And as and when we see trade decline, it portends clashes and conflict, which is precisely what we see rising around the globe.

All of that brings me to why we should want global institutions. To say something like that, to a certain kind of person, provokes scorn these days: it makes you a “globalist” or whatever the insult du jour is, to mean you’re not a good, obedient, little nationalist. But these aren’t the same thing—to want global institutions of, for example, peace, prosperity, and democracy is hardly to want a global conspiracy of authoritarian control by the Illuminati or what have you, however the crackpot theory goes. 

Why should we want such institutions? Let’s go back to Joe Stiglitz’s seminal list of global public goods. 

"In Stiglitz (1995) I identify five such global public goods: international economic stability, international security (political stability), global environment, international humanitarian assistance, and knowledge."

Just as national institutions provide national public goods—think of a universal healthcare or retirement system, for example—so only global institutions can provide global public goods. Stiglitz’s list rocked the world—it reshaped the way that we think about what a world is. What it’s there for, why, in a sense, a civilization exists. It was a groundbreaking, beautiful idea, based on generations of thinkers before him, from Amartya Sen to Mahbub ul Haq.

Think of what’s on that list. International economic stability. Who provides that? The IMF and World Bank do, or are supposed to, chiefly—and yet even they’re under severe…if not attack…then constraint. Even they can’t raise a few hundred billion to make the necessary investments to fight climate change at a global scale—which is one of the next public goods on Stiglitz’s list. Think of how political stability and international security are now under severe threat, as figures like Trump literally shred the foundations of the post-war world.

Then there’s knowledge itself. Ponder that one for a moment: think of how the hard and far right have effectively controversialized science itself, devalued it, turning things as simple as modern medicine into raging issues that are somehow in “doubt.” Bad faith actors from demagogues to propagandists have undermined knowledge itself, whether through Big Lies, conspiracy theories, crackpot lunacy, or just sheer vitriol aimed at anyone telling the truth, from journalists to scientists. But a civilization can hardly progress without knowledge—hence, our is going backwards, as the institutions of science, literature, art, and journalism come under severe, prolonged, sustained attack, right down to democracy itself, perhaps the ultimate form of knowledge, in deep history’s eyes.

All this is why and how our world is unraveling. A civilization can only aspire to higher, greater, and fuller levels of global public goods. If and when it fails to provide, develop, nurture, seed, cultivate them—what arises in their absence? The absence of knowledge is ignorance, fear, lies. The absence of peace is violence, hate, and conflict. The absence of a livable environment, as we’re finding out the hard way, is an age of surreal planetary catastrophe, from mega-fires to killing heat to drought, famine, and shortage. 

Our world feels like it’s unravelling because it is. Global disintegration is one of the great macro trends of our age. That’s a sad and foolish thing, history will say. Our primary task as a civilization isn’t to merely pull apart, and bicker and squabble over the remnants of failed paradigms, fighting more and more bitterly over what morsels are left—while the world burns. It’s to invest, seed, nurture, cultivate, grow. In formal terms, we can call that a “surplus.” Of what, though? In the end: these great and beautiful things. Peace, democracy, prosperity. Knowledge. Selfhood. Grace, meaning, truth, fulfillment, possibility. 

It’s all these we’re really losing in this dismal age. And until we remember what we’ve forgotten, which is all the above—things will go on as they have been. Unravelling.

Let me leave you with one final and beautiful thought

Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, described knowledge in the following way: “he who receives an idea from me, receives instruc- tion himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me”. In doing so, Jefferson anticipated the modern concept of a public good.

This thought, which is the fount, basis, idea of all progress itself, really, changed history. There is a way of existing in which we are not rivals, hated enemies, warring tribes, killing over resources, in the name of power—but in which we fulfill one another even as we are fulfilled, in which we serve the higher, eternal purposes of truth, beauty, and goodness. But do we remember the power and beauty of this idea at all today?

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