How to understand 2020 – the worst year in living memory

It’s fair to say that 2020 has been the worst year in living memory. The world has, in the span of just a few months, been plunged into one of the most widespread and severe crises since the Second World War. Even the Cuba Crisis of 1962, with all its implication of nuclear armageddon, was over in – as it were – a flash. Right now, the world is months into a crisis that won’t abate for another year or more. And society is bending under the strain.

In a way it was predictable. Society was already in difficulty before the pandemic hit. The current neo-liberal version of capitalism has long since reached its use-by date; times change, attitudes change, society changes, technology has changed – and with that, the way economies work must also shift. That was made clear by the General Financial Crisis of the 2007-10 period, which exposed the mechanisms of neo-liberalism for what they were. But there was nothing to replace it with, and that’s produced strain. Add to that the behaviours that have followed as those who have benefitted from neo-liberalism have tried to preserve it, and the world was probably ripe and ready for a general social crisis. The pandemic, in that social sense, has simply been a trigger – the straw to break the donkey’s back, as it were.

But there’s been another factor that has fuelled the fires. Social media. Twenty years ago, it barely existed. Today it’s ubiquitous to the point where even diplomacy, it seems, can be conducted via Twitter. Utterances on one platform or another become headline news, sufficient to torpedo the careers of celebrities, or to provoke mass condemnation. And it has fuelled the spread and credibility of a dismaying array of wild conspiracy theories. In many respects, it seems to me, the basic realities of human nature have been exposed by the mechanism. Curiously, this was predicted by Arthur C. Clarke, who visualised the social outcomes of free and ubiquitous global communication decades before it became a reality.

Crisis? What crisis? A photo I took of a 1:1 scale diorama at the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre.

To me the interesting part is that the companies enabling this are, at best, amoral. As an example, Facebook suspends accounts on a guilty-as-accused basis, without telling the affected person why, and without recourse. Such policy puts me in mind of Kafka’s 1925 novel The Trial, where his hero Josef K. was accused of a crime, but not told what it was, or given detail to defend himself. This is the exact reverse of the moral principles on which western law is based.

You see the problem: a concatenation of social strains, driven by an economic approach that is two generations or more old, and a globalised society given voice by a specific style of ubiquitous communication – to which is added a huge dislocation in the form of a pandemic.

Is there a way out of the mess? To me, the first step is to understand why people are behaving as they are. What lessons can we draw about human nature from the way it’s been expressed, often via social media, during this time? And then, does this understanding show us a way forward?

Of course I wouldn’t pose such questions without offering ways of answering them. And the challenge to understanding – first off – is to pick the right tool. My pick, based on the professional historical work I’ve done along with an undergrad degree I did, way back when, under a student of Jane Goodall, is the relatively new science of evolutionary biology. Also known, sometimes, as ‘evolutionary psychology’. As with all intellectual tools, it doesn’t provide complete answers – nor can it be pushed too far. But it does, I think, offer insights and provoke discussion. Which is important.

Watch this space. Meanwhile – any thoughts as to why the world appears, right now, to be going to hell in a handbasket?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2020

13 thoughts on “How to understand 2020 – the worst year in living memory

  1. Maybe the pendulum has drifted as high as it can go, maybe it stayed high for awhile, but now the doppler effect has caused it to move again. Maybe gravity is pulling us to the event horizon… maybe we may finally fall through a black hole and end up in another universe 🙃

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    1. What worries me is the historical favourite term, ‘general crisis’, where a combination of events essentially collapses society. It happened in 17th century Europe. Historians have argued over the proximate causes but the underlying issue was a dire concatenation of social systems approaching use-by date, into which flowed external factors (climate change driven by the onset of the ‘Little Ice Age’). People lost their heads – literally in the case of Charles I, of course. I hope the 21st century doesn’t turn into another one.

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  2. Those who went through the Korean and Vietnam wars may differ on the worst year, but I know what you mean, because this concerns the home front, the people usually protected from horrors.

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    1. Yes, the individual experience will always differ from the overall way something plays out. There will be people today who have barely been affected by Covid-19, others whose lives have been turned upside-down. Wars are a great example of how that one works – indeed, the home front were often actively shielded from the true horrors by those who had to face the actual fighting. I think that wars were, socially, a far larger impact than the pandemic too, demonstrated by the way the 1918-19 flu pandemic ran second place at the time to the fact that the First World War was ending.

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  3. 2020 has been a ‘perfect storm’. Or as Murphy would have it, anything that could go wrong, did. And is still doing so.
    I’d like to think that there’s a rational explanation for what’s happening, but I have a sneaky suspicion that every so often the dice just land in an extreme way. Sometimes the extreme is very very good, and sometimes it’s a 2020. 😦

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    1. This year definitely rolled low and then failed its saving throw! My hypothesis for major historical events (of which this is certainly one) is that they often come out of random concatenations of incident – such as the appearence of a new virus – which overlay wider and more predictably cyclic trends. Those trends are themselves usually shaped in detail by events that, often, are also somewhat unpredictable. So yeah – the dice roll just didn’t work for us this year.

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        1. Dungeons and Dragons reference. Rolling dice low meant the intended action hadn’t worked. A player often got a ‘saving throw’, another die roll to see if they missed the worst effects of the failure. When I played I always found myself rolling low and then missing the save. A lot. Kind of like 2020.

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  4. Interesting reflections. The sad thing is that the bad guys seem to be winning in so many places – populism and nepotism, the sheer arbitrary power of social media. The good guys, such as the UN and WHO, seem to be effectively sidelined by this trend. Who knows where this will end up – historically it has been wars, but the penalty on society and humanity is so great with modern weaponry. That didn’t stop Hitler, or Assad, and warfare is now pursued by much more subtle means eg Putin. And yet, as you say, psychologically we understand so much more. There has to be reason for hope!

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    1. The bad guys always win, historically. Well, they either win or they cost an awful lot (usually in innocent lives) to stop. The reason, as far as I can tell, is that they’re prepared to act in ways that people with any proper sense of moral compass are not. Sad but true: deceit, bullying and aggression are successful strategies to get ahead. And a lot of human history revolves around people doing that, and others then having to pick up the mess. Often it takes a generation or more. What worries me is that the potential for this behaviour is in everybody, and it’s one of the reasons why social media has taken the trend that it shows of late, with the descent into aggressive polemic, falsehoods and so forth.

      To me, the these behaviours probably reflect a strategy that worked OK during the hunter-gatherer period and probably allowed humanity to survive the Pleistocene bottlenecks. It’s past its use-by date now, but the tendency to go that way seems to be hard-wired. Sigh.

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      1. That ‘hard wired’ term comes from electronics, there is no reason to assume the human mind has any equivalent – but yes, there is quite a lot of history that suggests it. I say that we are at a time in our evolution where historical behaviours are no longer a good model – other models are available. That’s because of the things under discussion – the internet (more than social media) and Covid 19/neoliberal failure. Everything is now global as never before and the disease is, I think, just a disease which is globalised like the markets. It was going to happen. There will be Sars Cov 3 at some point unless there are radical changes in human behaviour -the point’s been made this is a meat-eater’s pandemic and that’s true. I think the stock markets have yet to crash (I predict DOW below 10k March ’21!!:) and when they do there will have to be a financial/social reckoning of some sort. There is a lot of money doing nothing in this world. Doing nothing is not going to be an option, I think, even for the filthy rich. It’s ‘Gaia theory’ if you like, it’s up to us (and *them*) how much we help achieve a new balance. It will become absolutely imperative beyond what we see now even. Gold at $2,000 Everyone asleep.

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