In a book released last month, Indian thinker and public intellectual Pankaj Mishra has attempted to sketch out the origins of today’s globally charged environment, replete with anger, frustration, and distraught. It is worth reading.
Over recent years, social discontent has amounted in the face of economic strains and stresses. Across south and central Asia, parts of Africa and most of the Middle East, and increasingly in many Western countries, armies of especially young people have been consumed by runway unemployment and severe economic hardships.
From the hundreds of socially dislocated and economically excluded masses, terrorist groups and authors of extremist ideology have effortlessly indoctrinated and recruited individuals willing to die for a conveniently defined agenda.
Mishra cogently shows that the global apocalyptic currently looming on the horizon has striking parallels with the vagaries of the industrial revolution that peaked at the end of the 19th century.
The capitalist economic system that emerged conterminously with the industrial revolution wrought large-scale social dislocations, material deprivation, and overall economic stress. The commodification of every aspect of human life prepared a powder keg that exploded in 1914: the outbreak of the First World War.
There was a lull, otherwise referred to as the interwar period, between 1919 and 1939, the 20 years during which Western nations did very well in preparing for the second round of a global catastrophe: the Second World War.
The economic edifice built from the early 18th century through the end of the 19th century had to be rethought as the Second World War drew to a close and the Japanese surrender in summer 1945. An economic system of rapacious pursuit of individual profit and material accumulation had built up the blocks for two world wars and the worst ever economic crisis, the Great Depression.
At the Bretton Woods conference in July 1944 in the United States, convened to chart a new direction for the global economy, there were two leading architects of a post-war economic orientation: the American Harry Dexter White and the Briton John Maynard Keynes.
Keynes made a persuasive case for tempered market economics with social safety nets for the economically disadvantaged and government intervention to rectify market failures especially in ensuring full employment.
This post-war consensus against free economic orthodoxy led to roaring economic recovery and unprecedented prosperity in the intervening decades. It delivered enormous prosperity in the West but also strong economic performance in the poor countries of the global periphery, in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.
But American military adventures in Vietnam precipitated a move back to the blind faith in the magic of markets.
Political and economic instability in the 1970s starting with the Arab-Israel war and the global oil crisis in 1973, the plunge of commodity prices on the global market, the Iranian revolution, the hostage incident in Teheran, and the American invasion of Afghanistan all in 1979, and the global recession of 1979-81 all combined to strike a blow against post-World War Keynesian economics.
These developments ultimately culminated in the ascendance to power of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and Ronald Reagan in 1981 in the UK and US respectively. The rest, as they say, is now history. The world was taken back to crass capitalism.
The European welfare state was rigorously dismantled, especially in the UK. Between 1979 and 2013, the American middle-class, as a share of the total population, shrunk from 33 per cent to 26 per cent. The growth in wealth and income concentration today parallels that at the turn of the 19th century.
The world’s top one per cent earners, about 70 million out of the seven billion people in the world, have between them 46 per cent of global income/wealth. Since around the end of the 1980s, there has been an acceleration in income inequality in the West with less-skilled workers taking a heavy beating as multinational corporations sought cheap labor in Asia.
The economic stress and strain in many European countries has driven young men to find appeal in jihadist agendas. Quite a few have either handed themselves to martyrdom at home or made the trip to join ISIS in the Middle East and al-Shabab in Somalia.
In Asia and Africa, economic desperation has benefited political entrepreneurs who instrumentalize religion to easily lure young people into adventure with heavenly promises. No less crucial, economic desperation has driven thousands into perilous pursuit of fortunes through suicidal treks across the Mediterranean.
There have been two major economic revolutions in the modern era: the industrial revolution in the 18th century and the technological revolution that started in the last quarter of the 20th century. The first revolution pulverized man and commodified human beings. The upshot was two tragic word wars.
The second relaunched a new round of egregious pursuit of enrichment in a world of enormous material wealth side-by-side with biting poverty and gross deprivation. The upshot is runaway populism, demagoguery, xenophobia, and blunt racism.
The masses facing grave economic want are only happy to lend their support to the theatrics of demagogues and ultra-nationalists. Yet even for many of us who are supposedly privileged, the fear and anxiety keeps sprawling. These are terrifying times.
The author teaches political science at Northwestern University, Evanston/Chicago, USA