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Time for a 1989 moment for global capitalism?

By Kristof Decoster
on August 21, 2014

Tomorrow, in IHP’s Featured Article, my colleague Bruno Meessen will reflect on a particularly bloody day in 1914 and draw some lessons for global health. Yet, it’s increasingly obvious that people don’t seem to be very good at learning any lessons from the past. As the headlines can tell us, modernization and technological advances haven’t made us much more ‘human’, in the good sense of the word – even in the smug European Union we’re learning that painful lesson again at this very moment. But maybe I’m too pessimistic – after all, I’m part of the ‘doom and gloom’ Generation X. From what I hear, Generation Y is far more ‘hands on’ and pragmatic. We’ll need them in the years ahead.

But if you ask me whether the human species is able to destroy itself in the coming decades, I’d say wholeheartedly  ‘yes we can!’.  I’ll explain why.

I personally think we urgently need a kind of “1989 moment” for current global capitalism, dominated as it is by multinational companies, “the markets”, the ultra-rich and/or parts of the financial sector. In the best Hollywood tradition, huge masses would suddenly understand that this system isn’t working, neither socially nor ecologically, and would take to the streets. Unfortunately, we’re not anywhere near such a sudden awareness. Even if capitalism only exists for a bit more than 300 years, and so you would think we should be able to come up with something else again, I’ve become very pessimistic about our ability to come up with an alternative system in the medium term – that’s one key difference with 1989 (when at least some alternative was around). There’s something about capitalism, greed and status differentiation that seems to appeal to most human beings.  The word ‘resilient’ has been invented for capitalism, it appears, even if Marx thought otherwise. By way of comparison, I’m a lot more optimistic about the fact that human rights can, in a few decades, be seen as universal. But really questioning capitalism? As in ‘people matter, the economy comes second’? …

A 1989-style moment for global capitalism would require people on both sides of the political spectre to come to this realization – well, you don’t need the Ayn Rand crowd, but you do need people on board who identify themselves as ‘centre-right’. Instead we see that even among the so called ‘left’, people are very divided. Some think it is possible to arrive eventually at an inclusive/green capitalism, others don’t believe this at all and have even become very cynical about our liberal representative democracies, with anti-representative democracy theorists at the forefront  (although these neo-anarchists don’t consider themselves as leftwing anymore), pointing out the oligarchic capture in our plutocratic systems.

In short, reaching a critical mass of people on both sides of the spectre, who understand the intrinsic long term destructiveness of this system, and who are willing to change their own lifestyles drastically too, I don’t see it happen any time soon, even if awareness of global and national inequality has no doubt increased vastly in recent years. Yet, I might be wrong – somebody like David Graeber seems to believe that we will see 2011, years from now, as a watershed moment, when suddenly things began to seem politically feasible that had been considered as ‘unrealistic’ before.

But for all I can tell, you have the merry world of Lancet Commissions and SDG draft documents (where, in spite of all the bickering ongoing, at least some vision and project for a sustainable and more inclusive future can be found), and then there’s the real world. The world of murky ‘behind the doors’ negotiations on trade agreements (TTIP, TPP, TISA, …) that seem hell-bent on giving even more power to multinationals. A world with a  Middle East set on fire, in which quite a few young people must be very frustrated about the outcomes of the ‘Arab Spring’, that suddenly seemed to open a political window for a better society. Instead, they got civil wars, restoration of authoritarian regimes and jihadist groups filling the vacuum in other parts of the region. Speaking of the latter, jihadist groups exploit the emptiness of capitalism as a ‘higher cause’ for young, marginalized people, who have been fed on a diet of some of the worst ingredients of capitalism (Rambo, porn, horror movies, discrimination & exclusion…), combined with resentment of neoliberal, neocon and other imperialist interventions as well as state terrorism in the past and present (although I’m sure that’s way too simple as an explanation for the phenomenon). IS commits horror on a scale that reminds us of the worst times in the 20th century. Americans might not like to hear this, but beheading brave American journalists and massacring and raping scores of innocent people is the jihadi version of ‘shock and awe’.

Finally, we also live in a world in which some huge companies resist any decent response to climate change, whereas others (both countries and companies) are already seeing huge potential for profits in climate change adaptation and global warming. Some, the really wicked ones (Canada, Russia, …) even do both, it appears.

And then there’s how our media (and social media) work. By way of example, I’m not sure anybody noticed this week, but we’re still 500 days  away from the MDG deadline. Conversely, everybody on social media now knows about the ice bucket challenge or the beheading of James Foley, in spite of trending hashtags like #ISISMediaBlackout. Another example:  World Humanitarian Day, also ‘celebrated’ this week, pointed out the fact that deaths of aid workers have reached a record high. I don’t think hashtag activism  has jumped on this cause, though.

People like James Foley, humanitarian workers (like polio vaccination staff in Pakistan), and health staff in West-Africa or MSF volunteers getting ready in Brussels to join them in the Ebola fight are the real heroes of this era. They, too, are willing to sacrifice their lives for a higher cause, and in this way show us a mirror too – one that many of us, thinking of their own petty lives and careers, find a bit discomforting, if we’re honest.

To sum up, although I obviously can’t speak for my own Generation, generation X is still struggling with a good Theory of Change – mine basically can be summarized as ‘we’ll have to wait for the next and even bigger financial crisis/meltdown’. As that’s not exactly an attractive scenario for common people around the world, I count on Generation Y to come up with a better one.

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