Saturday, July 7, 2012

The End of the Honeymoon

I've always tried to improve my understanding of history, particularly recent history--not only does it echo more loudly than the ancient stuff, it's also more directly relevant to the things I deal with day-to-day, and it reveals patterns that have yet to fully establish themselves. Things like the North-South cultural divide of the United States, or the cultural divide between the United States and Canada, have deep historical roots and, therefore, a buttload of historical inertia. Though specific aspects can certainly be changed, in general Newton's First Law applies; a cultural phenomenon in motion will continue ahead unless acted on by something else, and when you've got a phenomenon that's had hundreds of years to build up steam, look out.

When it comes to recent history, the phenomena have just started to pick up speed, and even a small change made early enough can send it flying off in an entirely new direction. In that respect, I've started to look at the 1990s in a different way.

Imagine a guy who's stepped out on his own and is trying to make things good; trying to build a comfortable life for himself, trying to find a nice girl to settle down with. He hits and misses but keeps his apartment clean and stays in dating trim, and eventually he finds the woman for him. They tie the knot, they settle down, they live in wedded bliss--for a while, at least. But the guy knows he's in a comfortable spot now, and becomes less diligent. He doesn't exercise as much. He doesn't clean up after himself as much. He allows himself to lie back in a comfortable groove, but while he does so the qualities that allowed him to get there gradually slip away.

Sound familiar? It should, because it's supposed to be an analogy to the problems of today. The big difference is that where the dude settled down and let himself go, modern Western capitalism outlasted communism and... well, just look at some of the headlines.

Nag, nag, nag--give it a rest, I'll pick it up when I pick it up! Lay off!

In retrospect, it's easy to see that the 90s were practically a second run of the 1950s, but without some of the social problems that made the original 1950s so loathsome if you weren't one of the Elect. In 1989, Francis Fukuyama seriously suggested that liberal democracy marked the "end of history," that society and culture had evolved as far as they were going to and it was all down to the details. For much of the West, the 1990s were something of a "vacation from history" - the Cold War was over, the Soviet Union had fallen, the threat of nuclear annihilation was gone, and the major challenges that had faced the leaders of the world for decades were suddenly overcome.

An optimist might have thought it meant that the countries of the world would therefore be free to tackle other issues that had been shoved to the sidelines, like poverty and the environment and the plight of the Third World--and, to be fair, some progress was made on this sort of thing... but most people don't go on vacation to get things done. They do it to relax, and after the end of the Cold War the West hung a "Gone Fishin'" sign on the door and let it gather dust until 2001.

Today, though, the problems of 2001 almost seem like those of a completely different universe. Today the problems are money, power, and their abuse--problems like corporations siphoning more and more authority through schemes like the privatization of police forces, the denial of collective bargaining for unions, banks manipulating the markets and ruining the livelihoods of millions for petty profit, and the concentration of more and more political, economic, and social clout in fewer hands, all the way down to the modern trend of unpaid internships: exploitation of the proletariat, twenty-first century style.

Why? Although the wheels on this started moving decades ago, I believe things really got in gear thanks to the collapse of the Soviet Union--a collapse which meant that since communism had been discredited, capitalism no longer had a motivation to be on its best behavior. In 2012, there doesn't seem to be any feasible alternative in existence or on the horizon. The modern world's marketplace of ideas has, essentially, become a captive market. Competition, they say, is a key factor of free market capitalism, but the lack of competition in the world of the mind means that it can get away with murder today.

It's not too late, of course. The inertia is still building, but there's still a chance to nudge things in a new direction. Otherwise, well... consider what happens if this goes on. I don't like what I see.

1 comment:

  1. Well, how clear is the pattern?
    Internationally, the 90s were marked by at least two significant issues: the more obvious one that got the most attention at the time was the flair up of ethnic fighting that seemed to follow in the ebbing away of Cold War stabilization: in particular Yugoslavia and Rwanda, where we saw what was truly one of the great genocides of the 20th century. In retrospect, perhaps the more significant international issue, many have argued, was the US grand-strategic decision to behave, in the post-Cold War unipolar moment, as a globabl hegemon. Or at least, to attempt to.
    Domestically, the 90s were notable for a round of painful budget balancing, which was highly contentious at the time.
    All things considered, how boring can we really call the 90s, and how much of a sea change really occured in 2001?