The 21st century may be that particular moment in history in which the Western world is discovering for the first time that no institution, however powerful, can manage history.
The year 2020 has started in the West as the year of maximum suspense. The various dramas of 2019 had built to a crescendo that seemed unrivaled in the sheer number of open questions with no obvious answer history had thrown into the arena. Everyone was aware of the conflicts and debates that would determine the world’s future, but no one had an inkling of what decisions would be made and what orientations determined.
Every four years, the US holds its presidential election, which is always considered of monumental importance, but never so much as in 2020. Unlike 2016, when everyone anticipated the election of a “more-of-the-same” candidate in the person of Hillary Clinton, this year the US presidential election is built around the agonizing suspense associated with sitting US President Donald Trump’s life, image and character. The election has existential implications for the Democratic Party and, depending on the outcome, potentially on the Republican Party as well. To say nothing of American democracy itself.
If the suspense wasn’t already intense enough, the end of 2019 saw the official launch and successful first stage of Trump’s impeachment. More like a comic interlude than high drama, the impeachment process has significantly complicated the electoral logic that pundits have so much fun playing with.
In the UK, the never-ending Brexit drama may actually be ending… or rather starting. It had already kept people entertained for the best part of three and a half years by its utterance inconsequence. By 2019, this had led to a meltdown of the Conservative Party until it was miraculously revived by the least likely person, Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
At the end of last year, the world learned not only that Johnson now held all the reins of power, but that Brexit was actually going to happen. Dates were announced, but what Brexit would look and feel like for the people and the economy was less certain than earlier in 2019 when everyone across the political spectrum teamed up to prevent any decision from being made.
Those two issues alone — the US presidency and Brexit — meant that both North America and all of Europe were ensconced in a guessing game about the possible shape of their future.
Alongside those two high-profile dramas, there was the ever-shifting trade war between the world’s two richest economies, the US and China. Its outcome will directly affect nearly 2 billion people and indirectly touch the entire globe. Will one man’s tweets determine the fate of the global economy? That question alone describes a state of prolonged suspense that people have amazingly learned to live with. And the fact that we accept that suspense tells us what kind of watershed in history we have now reached.
And there was India, after an election confirmed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s stranglehold over the institutions of a nation with a population nearly the size of China’s. India is already teetering on the brink of a populist civil war under the leadership of a prime minister who is sure of his power and less and less concerned with hiding his proto-fascist proclivities. Many smaller nations have been undergoing similar trends, one of the larger ones being Brazil under the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro.
In the background, the human race — especially its younger generations now championed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (youngish) and Greta Thunberg (youngest) — struggles with the continued incapacity of governments and other institutions of authority to deal with the ever more obvious effects of climate change. The imminent disaster is gathering momentum in the face of a universal refusal on the part of governments to act in any significant way.
Then, as the year 2020 opened for business following New Year’s celebrations, President Trump, while playing golf in Florida, made the monumental decision to throw the entire Middle East off balance by assassinating popular Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi militia leader. Since that event on January 3, everyone has been left wondering what this means for the “forever wars” that Trump promised to end. Are they ending, gaining speed, simply “refueling” or turning into something altogether different? Everyone agrees that there will be a significant impact. But what will it be?
The Guardian reports that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani “said Washington did not realise what a great mistake it had made” and that “US citizens would be feeling the impact for years to come.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Feeling the impact:
Living in fear of undefined forces due to the impossibility of anticipating what decisions dominant political institutions may make at any given moment
Ever since George W. Bush’s declaration of the “war on terror” in 2001, geopolitics has become a game of impact-creating events — in other words, a war not “on terror” but “of terror.” Before Rouhani could speak about US citizens “feeling the impact,” Iranians had acquired the habit of feeling the impact of US sanctions and threats, as the BBC reported in 2018. But that had already been the case for the Iraqi people following the first Gulf War in 1990. The UN-imposed sanctions on Iraq resulted in the deaths of 500,000 children. The methodology of terror had already been tried and tested.
General Soleimani was killed in a US drone strike. Blanketing the skies of numerous countries across Asia and Africa with potentially murderous drones has become the principal means of terrorizing entire populations in the name of the “self-defense of American lives,” as explained and justified by one professor specialized in national security issues.
The people who live in zones where US military drones are constantly flying overhead live in a permanent state of “feeling the impact.” In other words, terror has literally replaced every traditional form of diplomacy. And now the Iranians appear to be saying to Americans in the Middle East: It’s your turn to get used to it.
The real drama we see unfolding today concerns the perception people have of how the political history we are living through is constructed. In the West, governments and the political cultures they produced have, since the end of World War II, consistently sought to manage historical processes. That is how they reassure their own populations. They regard the conflicts and crises that will always emerge as tests of their ability to control sequences of events.
In the past 30 years, those means have increasingly come to resemble strategies of terror. Whether it’s sanctions, threats of reprisals (as a response to the most recent reprisal from the other side) or drone warfare, the aim is to inspire in their adversaries a terrified sense of helplessness. Justifying the Soleimani assassination, former US vice-presidential candidate Joe Lieberman spelled out the logic according to his lights: “[H]is death will diminish the chances of a wider conflict because the demonstration of our willingness to kill him will give Iranian leaders (and probably others like Kim Jong Un) much to fear.” It’s reassuring to know that fear of sudden assassination will keep us safe. That isn’t what history tells us, but it is Lieberman.Embed from Getty Images
Rule by fear has even come to seem like a way of life, a feature of everyone’s landscape, not just political leaders, who in fact are the least vulnerable. For a lot of people in a lot of troubled nations, terror and suspicion have become something certain, something they can count on experiencing on a regular basis. But with the advent of Donald Trump — a man who might at any given moment reach for his iPhone to tweet something incoherent or launch a nuclear war — the uncertainty principle that rules the world has become exponentially magnified.
The only honest way to characterize our focused 2020 vision of history and its processes is as a monumental blur. It’s no longer a question of guessing who will win an ongoing war (nobody) or an ideological dispute (ideology has been replaced by profit), or even who will gain or lose an advantage in conflicts that just keep plodding on. The stable state version of the geopolitical universe, in which things would just carry on, has given way to a big bang view of history, one of implosion rather than explosion.
What’s different is that now it is no longer a question of understanding how any group of people — whether it’s a nation, region, ideology or religion — will find a way of muddling through and eventually taking control. Every existing political and cultural foundation (and, first of all, the very notion of democracy) finds itself in a state of existential threat or dire uncertainty. But whereas in the past people saw revolution as the means of restoring stability, even that perspective has disappeared.
The news we watch on television will still be about the effort we make to maintain continuity in the face of adversity, especially within the consumer society where there’s still plenty to consume, at least until the atmosphere itself takes its revenge. But even that continuity of unbridled consumption (increasingly of opioids) has never looked quite as precarious as it does today. In reality, it barely exists. Only hyperreality keeps the illusion alive.
This article was originally published in Fair Observer
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