The Cycle of Civilization and the Twilight of Neoliberalism
Many mainstream pundits now admit that the rise of the right wing populism is due to the neglect, over the last 40 years or so, of many people, leaving them to rot, as the rich got richer. Four decades of stagnant wages, soaring housing prices, shitty jobs, and so on have left people willing to vote against the status quo, no matter what they’re voting for.
This is all very nice. It is even a good thing.
But the warnings were given for decades. I remember very well warnings about rising inequality as early as the mid-eighties, and doubtless some were warning sooner and I missed it due to my youth. And the people making them often said, “This is bad because it will lead to the rise of very bad people, like in the 30s.”
Learning after reality hits you in the face with a shovel, repeatedly, is good, but it’s not as good as avoiding getting hit in the face with a shovel.
Of course, the problem is that elites, “pundits,” only got hit in the face with a shovel recently. The last 40 years may have been a terrible time to be a peon, but they were the best time to be rich, or a retainer of the rich, in modern history. Maybe in all of history. Yeah, Babylonian Kingdoms and Roman Emperors were richer, but what you could buy with it was limited (though sex, food, and the ability to push other people around are the basics, and have always been available).
So, the people with power saw no reason to stop, because the policies were making them filthy rich and impoverishing people they didn’t know or care about. Heck, impoverishing ordinary people was good, it made services (and servants) cheaper.
For quite some time, I pursued a two-prong (worthless) strategy. I told the people being fucked that they needed to fight back and scare the shit out of the elities, or the elites would keep hurting them. And I told the elites that as much as the peons seemed to be willing to take it and take it, eventually they would rebel.
Neither strategy worked, and even though the peons are now in revolt, they are backing policies which may help them somewhat in the short run, but which will be bad for them in the middle term–at least so far. (I have some hope that the left will win some in Europe. Spain’s leftists and Corbyn are the most promising signs so far.)
This is, really, just the normal cycle of history. There are bad times, and people eventually learn from them, and create good times, and the people who grow up in good times are weak and don’t really believe the bad times can return, so the bad times return, and the bad times at least make people tough and sometimes get them to pull together, and then they create good times.
Sometimes that cycle breaks down–usually because the bad times make people meaner and more desperate and break them down rather than bring them together, and then you get dark ages. Other times, the good times last for a few generations, not completely destroying the virtue of the people and their leaders immediately, for reasons I’ve touched on in the past and will discuss more in the future (you can read Machiavelli in Discourses on Livy if you need a fix now).
While this is the normal cycle of history, and it may be usually yawn-inducing, if tragic to those caught in it, we are unfortunately also at a point where we’ve done so much damage to our ecosystem that we’re in the middle of a great die-off. We also have climate change which, I suspect, is now not just beyond stopping, but which has reached an exponential, self-reinforcing period of its growth.
On the bright side (sort of), the technology which let us dig this hole gives us a better chance of digging ourselves out, but only a chance.
This is where we are at, and the hysterical reaction of many to Trump and to Brexit is a bad sign, because it hasn’t even begun to get really bad yet. It is going to get so much worse than this that people will look back to the reign of Trump as good times.
This is what we sowed, it is what we are going to reap, and it is what we are going to have to eat. It’s just that simple.
None of this means there is no hope. Some stuff will work out startlingly well, as was the case with the US and FDR in the 30s. Some stuff will be far worse than any but the most realistic thinkers are willing to contemplate, and in the middle of this it will still be possible for many to be happy, to find love, and to live satisfying lives, just as it was during the Great Depression and World War II.
It’s a weird metaphysical question, “Could this have been stopped?” and I’ll leave it aside for now. If we believe in free will, and if we want to have some hope that the future won’t follow the same pattern until we drive ourselves extinct, let us hope that it could have been stopped, not for what it says about the past, but what it says about the future, and about humans.
I’ll write more soon about our current period, best called The Twilight of Neoliberalism. For now, gird your loins. There will be ups and downs, but basically, it’s going to get worse. Find the happiness you can in the middle of it, and don’t let your happiness or well-being rest on geopolitical events you cannot control as an individual.
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