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The Next Ten Years and the Fate of Civilization, Why We’re at a Crossroads in History, Plus, What Broken Ages End In

The Next Ten Years and the Fate of Civilization, Why We’re at a Crossroads in History, Plus, What Broken Ages End In

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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  9. In Rome, socialists warned of 'real danger' ahead of the EU elections (Euro News)

(Why) We’re at a Crossroads in History

It’s hard to believe, but we’re almost halfway through the 2020s. It’s the year 2024, and…how would you say things are going? For us, whether as societies, the world, a civilization, human beings? 

I often say that we’re at a turning point or crossroads in human history. I think that sometimes people imagine I mean this metaphorically. But I don’t. I mean it literally. It’s almost halfway through the 2020s, and we’re at a turning point in human history, right now

This year, the next one, the rest of this decade. They’ll determine the trajectory we’re all on, collectively, for decades to come, and perhaps longer. Think of the next year, two, five, as a hinge, that’ll determine whether history swings up—or down. 

Today we’re going to talk about just how—and why—a little bit.

This year is a crucial one for democracy, if you haven’t heard already. An unusually large number of elections are taking place. But it’s hardly just that. In a very specific context, and not a sunny one. Democracy’s barely hanging on by its fingernails, at just 20% of the world fully so, and dropping like a rock. Meanwhile, these elections are also, therefore, unusually crucial. Like America’s choice in November, between Trump’s overt authoritarianism, and Biden’s nascent path towards, perhaps, modernizing a decrepit America. The EU will vote for its parliament, too, in June, and we’ll see if its rightwards drift continues. And many more.

What does all that mean, though? The central questions are: will history repeat itself? Will growing fissures of collapse become jagged cracks, fragmenting our civilization itself? Are we going to choose implosion or reinvention?

The Next Year, the Next Decade, and the Next…Century, or the Fate of Civilization

These elections aren’t the stuff of normal politics anymore. They’re going to determine a very, very great deal, and their results will echo through history.

There’s the obvious issue of the climate. Electing a Trump—or a far right European Parliament, for that matter—would basically kill what little progress we’ve made on climate change, and savage any hope of what we can in the little time we have. Right now, despite all the global efforts, and there have been plenty, we’re still on track to basically hit every planetary tipping point that we know of. And that puts in the crosshairs of catastrophes that will make the last few summers look like walks in the park.

"The climate,” though, is no such thing, really. People think of it as disconnected from “the economy,” but it isn’t anymore, and the linkage between the two will continue to become clearer and clearer as the months go by. Already, insurers are pulling out even rich areas, sending premiums soaring. Inflation, too, is already driven in significant part by climate change—which causes everything from droughts and crop failures to supply chain breakdowns—and that’ll only accelerate. Meanwhile, as costs rise, incomes stagnate, and living standards stagnate and fall.

When we talk about “the economy,” the idea that many people have is that “growth” is some kind of manna from heaven, something God-given, that happens all by itself. It assuredly isn’t. And the problem we face in this decade is that we’re out of easy sources of it. In fact, we’re out of sources of it, period, which is why living standards are stuck or falling—sure, there’s “growth,” economically, but it’s phantom growth. The average person is now getting poorer, while the wealthy go from ultra rich to mega rich, meaning that little real value is being created now—it’s just being siphoned off to the top, from one social group, to another.

What Broken Political Economies End In

What does that do? It destabilizes politics, of course, as it’s done throughout history. Extractive economies can only really grow through war or conquest, in the end. And one of the reasons we’re seeing conflict rise throughout the world again is because our world economy has turned extractive in this sense—now, it’s sort of a zero-sum game to see who can take what from whom. Real growth, the good kind, which is things that benefit us all, not just me taking from you, which leaves you worse off, and only creates phantom growth—that’s hard to come by now. And so violence and war are sweeping the world again.

Our world economy is headed for, to put it plainly, a trajectory of disaster, if current trends hold. Debt loads for nations and people have skyrocketed. Investment’s fallen. Together, those two things herald the end of an era in which societies cooperated to create grand institutions and systems, especially of public goods. Because debt loads have soared, and investment’s fallen, we haven’t created what are known as global public goods, which are everything from health to income to security to stability to peace itself. In a very real sense, you can think of the rise of war as the absence of the global public good of peace.

America and China and Russia are locked into a game that nobody, right now, can win. Each depends on the other, in a kind of weird, insoluble puzzle of a world economy. America buys stuff from China that’s made from Russian resources, whether oil, energy, lumber, or steel. Meanwhile, Russia gains the money to finance its aggression. This is the world economy in a nutshell, and that picture can be shaded in, but the problem is that it’s become a zero-sum game.

As it’s played, elites in each of those countries siphon off the wealth, leaving working and middle classes destabilized, feeling neglected and abandoned. The result is a class of global super rich, but tremendous discontent, rage, and dissatisfaction convulsing societies. And those sorts of emotions lead, in the end, if we’re not careful, to war. You can already see that beginning to happen—now imagine that America elects Trump, and its nuclear arsenal is in the hands of a demagogue who wants to be dictator.

We should be very careful. Economies like ours have traditionally led to situations of explosive conflict, not just within societies, but between them. Right now, we often say things like “our societies are at each others’ throats,” or they’re hyper polarized, or they’re bitterly divided. But the next step after internal conflict is usually conflict between nations. What do far right demagogues excel at, after all? History tells us that they’re best at sparking just those conflicts, and if you think things are bad now, this is one way in which we’re at a turning point in human history.

The 2020s and the 1930s

This decade feels like a repeat of the 1930s, in many ways. Fascism and authoritarianism are on the rise, explosively so. Violence is breaking out. People seem to be all to easily seduced by demagogues, lured almost thoughtlessly into traps of the mind and spirit, like hate, spite, and rage. 

Why is all this happening? Because our world economy is broken. Badly broken. I’ve tried to explain how above, in simple terms. Debt too high, investment too low, inequality soaring, working and middle classes cracking and breaking under the unbearable strain of crises that never end.

The UN Secretary General recently said that we need a New Deal for the world. He’s precisely right. This world economy is broken, and it’s not going to be able to carry us through the next few decades, let alone the next century. And in a very real sense, this is what all the geopolitical tensions are really about. The problem is that we don’t have a blueprint for the next one.

Take the triangular relationship between America, Russia, and China, for example. If America’s going to wean itself off of China’s goods, who’s going to supply it with basic goods? The same is true for Europe. One answer is the typical nationalist reply of: never mind! We’ll make it all ourselves! Raise tariffs! But of course that will only make things far, far more expensive, and people are already in the teeth of a cost-of-living crisis. They might say they want that, but it’s not much of a workable solution. Nationalism and demagoguery hold no answers to the great problems of this age, as ever.

A better answer lies in the implication of a New Deal. What’s the subtext of using that phrase? That gains are shared more equally. Investment is had, in large-scale projects that benefit all, creating new industries, jobs, careers. Thus, moribund social groups are given a new lease of life. And in that way, stability returns to society. Economically, a “multiplier effect” creates a new source of growth, lasting generations to come.

It’s not too hard to see how that needs to work in our world. Biden recently leapfrogged Europe, and proposed that the wealthiest and corporations pay significantly higher taxes. In order to fund greater investment in public goods—like, in his budget, for example, universal childcare. In our world, that logic must be employed at a civilizational scale. We aren’t going to survive much longer like this, underinvesting, heavily indebted, destabilized—all while the existential threat of climate catastrophe and ecological breakdown accelerates.

That simple logic is how we get out of this mess. We are going to need a New Deal for the world. The only question is whether we have one before or after. Before or After, in Capital Letters. Before or After climate collapse. Before or After another world war, by the looks of things, and through history’s clear implication of what economies as imbalanced as ours lead to. Before or After democracy implodes to vanishing point, demagogues ascend to power, and clash with one another, just as they always do.

Only this time, of course, we don’t have time for the horror and stupidity of all that. 

Getting From Here to There, or the Challenge of Institutional Innovation

There are situations in life and history where one can see clearly the destination that needs to be arrived at—and yet it’s impossible to see how one gets there from here. We’re in just such a moment. I think most sensible people will understand the need for a New Deal at a civilizational level. And yet the immediate question is: how do you get there from here?

There’s an answer to that question, and there’s a non-answer to that question, and the non-answer is more revealing than the answer. The answer is: nobody knows. Nobody has the faintest clue, really, how to begin approaching such a task. 

But why is that? Well, think about us. We’ve never really had to have a New Deal as a civilization before. Even the most powerful country in the world, America, has only managed to do it once, and that’s at a national level. At the level of a world, the civilizational one? We barely know how to exist, be, relate, interact, at all. We don’t even have a deal, really, let alone a “new” one. What we have are a patchwork of treaties and agreements, which let us create a deliberative body, the UN. And that body, as Gaza, among many other things, has taught us, is that power will ignore it when it wants to.

We don’t know how to get there from here, because we’ve never done it. So that first part—“we don’t know”—isn’t some kind of admonition towards powerlessness. Rather, it’s an admission pointing towards the next challenge. For us. Humanity, the world, civilization, call it what you like. We are going to have to figure this out, just as we figured out so much before, that seemed impossible, then, too, from trying the fascists for genocide, to beginning to eliminate hunger and violence, to going from imperialism to nationhood.

Think of the work of the next century in three phases, then. Phase one: figuring out how to get there from here. That’s going to take a lot of smart lawyers, lobbyists, writers, intellectuals, artists, novelists, filmmakers, thinkers, professors, financiers, politicians—of a new kind. Then comes the world of actually getting there from here. That’s going to take engineers, scientists, researchers, builders, tradesmen and women, architects, creatives, and many, many more. Finally comes the work of leaving here behind, and staying there. That’s going to take managers, accountants, administrators, executives, supervisors, analysts, and so on. Those phases aren’t sort of totally concurrent, one, two, three, but kind of overlapping.

That’s the real work of now. And I think that many of us are beginning it in our own ways. Whether we’re writing about it, like me, or pushing our organizations to pioneer, like many people I know, or researching many aspects of today’s polycrisis, like my academic friends, or beginning to tell stories to move people in a new direction, like artists I know. 

It’s a turning point. But we don’t know, yet, which way it will all turn. That part is still up to us. But it won’t be for long. These are the crucial moments, months, years, my friends. I wonder if we know it—because if you ask me? We should honor that imperative.

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