I write this in December 2020, as one of the most difficult years in living memory draws to a close. Globally. It’s rare that virtually the whole planet shares a crisis. Usually it’s due to war. This time, it’s a pandemic, and the whole has been buoyed on an unprecedented swirl of social media.
The result has been a sense that 2020 has been a disaster. What surprises me is the amount of material I’m seeing which suggests that, come 1 January 2021, all will come right – I mean, 2021 couldn’t possibly be a worse year than 2020 – er – could it?
Actually, history tells me that it ain’t over until it’s over. Crises of this nature don’t shut down because the calendar’s rolled into a new year. Nor do they come out of a vacuum. If we dig beneath the surface we find that ‘2020’, in all its dimensions, has been brewing up for a generation. And it will, I suspect, take as much time to really resolve.
Let’s take another year of specific crisis, 1848 – the year when Europe’s major governments collapsed, one after another, at the hands of rioting poor who – once we strip away some of the proximate issues – were tired of being punished by economic systems that transferred all their money to the rich. The revolutions themselves were over within that year, but the issues that drove them stretched back a generation or more. Nor were these wider socio-economic issues resolved: they were still playing out in the twentieth century.
My take on ‘2020’ is that the pandemic has brought deeper issues to a head, all given voice and power by social media. In particular, there is the way neoliberalism has been playing out. It’s the prevailing economic approach across much of the current world, and we’re into the second generation of it: even current policy-makers were brought up within the system. The problem is that it’s also reaching its end-game. A system that structurally transfers wealth from the poor to the rich, that takes no genuine account of environmental damage in the quest to profit the rich, and where money – of itself – has become a tradable commodity, can’t last forever. The General Financial Crisis of 2007-10 showed that up, but nobody did anything to change the system that caused it. As a result, economists have been warning for some time that a fresh economic crisis is looming.
Into this has come a new phenomenon: social media. It has been a leveller, enabling free communication between people globally, to unprecedented scale. But it’s been framed by the constraints of the short messages and visual memes to which it leans. It’s exposed a good deal about human behaviour in large societies along the way: particularly our tendency, as a species, to believe what validates our specific self-view. And so social media has provoked an explosion of conspiracy theories about the pandemic.
The pandemic, in short, hasn’t alone made 2020 a crisis; it’s been a touch-paper. Take any of the deeper issues away, and the pandemic would have been bad – a crisis and tragedy by any measure. But I suspect it wouldn’t have had quite the scale of what unfolded. In this mix, the normal things that happen to people have also gained dimension: personal issues that would ordinarily have been difficult but manageable have become much more problematic.
What all this tells me is that the crisis of 2020 won’t go away in a hurry. First step, of course, is to deal with Covid-19. I expect it will take much of 2021 to manufacture enough vaccines and to get them rolled out to the world’s populations. But that won’t make the other problems go away. The global economy will continue to teeter. The social issues that follow from structural transfer of wealth will only intensify. Environmental problems won’t go away. And so it goes on.
I suspect 2021 will not be the end of the crisis. Could we call it the end of the beginning? Maybe. Thoughts?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2020