Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Great Powershift

These days, most intelligent conversations tend to focus on two alternative possibilities. First, the more pessimistic ones, see the current recession going the same way as the Great Depression did, slowly altering political opinions and driving the world into protectionism and national chauvinism, finally leading to some kind of great war, which may lead to an end of civilisation. The proponents see a challenger power, like the 19th century Germany, in China, and the incumbent in the form of the massive global empire of the United States. Next, there is the optimistic view, which does not see a violent end of the civilisation but a re-balancing: This is more the doctrine of decline of the West and the rise of the rest. This view suggests a power-shift, to China and India, and possibly Brazil, and that they would emerge as the World's preeminent economic powers, in a replay of what happened during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth century Europe.

To be clear, this is not the only views on the table: There is a large and influential group of theorists and policy thinkers who seem to believe that history does not matter anymore. In their view, history has ended - we create the future possibilities by our action and it is ignorant, and superstitious, to think that history will repeat itself in some form. They point to huge contradictions of the power-shift view, that India and China have major internal weaknesses and an almost total dependence on Western financial mechanism to ever achieve the kind of superiority or even the disruptive preeminence that they are expected to do. Besides, there is indeed some merit in thinking that the future will not happen in a vacuum and the intricate power mechanisms laid out by the successive waves of globalisation are unlikely to be undone.

However logical it seems, there is a history of the view of irrelevance of history and the belief that things would go on failing to materialise. History may not have repeated as the sceptics claim, but things have surely changed. The current times surely contain all the symptoms of an impending change, and rather than dismissing it, or being overtly pessimistic about it, it is worthwhile to explore the nature of these changes.

So, here is a fourth possibility: That we are coming to an age of interdependence, rather than national self-interest. Indeed, we seem a long way off because the voters love the jingoistic rhetoric and political parties regularly pander the protectionists and the racists, but the worldwide economic crisis is deep enough and persistent enough to outlast these views and to lead us into a new era. The second world war was indeed a terrible consequence of economic protectionism that followed the great depression, but it was also a start - a clear demonstration of how nationalism, seen as a progressive and liberating idea till that time, can turn into an uncontrollable demon. We learnt those lessons, which paved the way for tentative steps towards global interdependence, the rise of global institutions, greater respect for treaties, insistence on supra-national governance and open trade. In time, these lessons have been forgotten and we have reclined back into some of the mistakes we have made in the past. However, as history does not happen in a vacuum, we don't necessarily go back all the way and push the whole mankind to the brink to remember the lessons we have already learnt once.

This is not a new idea, and modern humanists always discussed the possibility. However, it seems the time for this idea has come. The reason clearly is that we are facing the severest crisis in sustaining consumer demand in the history, and at the same time, there are two billion people on the earth who do not have enough to eat or any medical care, education or modern amenities. Clearly, we are hitting some kind of limit with the selfish pursuit of self-interest, the engine that drove modern capitalism for last two centuries. Our current solutions - that enterprise will save the world - is bound to fail: The crisis that we are facing is not because we didn't want to make money or take risks, but that we took too much risk and everyone had a tunnel vision defined by their self-interest. We never thought whether our neighbours have enough to eat is our look-out. We thought we can keep Capitalism going by fortifying ourselves with ever more complicated laws protecting private property. However, we did not acknowledge that our neighbour's well-being catches up with us in tomorrow's economic news, and private property, even in its most physical form, is a manifestation of social trust on us. In a sense, we are just the keepers of social assets, and when the society teeters to the brink, we come to lose everything that we have.

Finally, returning to the opening idea about the shape of the world to come, I am an optimist but I don't think a power-shift will happen. Rather, it will just be more equal world, governed by ideas of better cooperation between governing units, which may or may not be today's nation-states. Even if the nation-states continue to exist, they would accept more supra-national sovereignty within the framework of their constitution, an idea which the current new-Tory lunatics in Britain and tea party goers in America fail to realise altogether. But that's the shift we are looking at, not China overtaking America, or something similar.

We are not working for replay: We are waiting for a revolution in ideas. 

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