The 2010s: good society, bad economics and ugly politics

As we enter the last month of this decade, the time has come to consider how the 2010s will be remembered. Not everything has been negative, but almost.

Decades define history: they help us evaluate historical periods and set them into context.

We remember the 1920s for the turbulent post-war years and slow recovery, the 1930s for the Great Depression and the rise of fascism, and the 1940s for the fight between ideologies and the reordering of the international world order. An unprecedented level of prosperity and the start of the Cold War shape our memory of the 1950s. It was also the time of the struggle for independence on the African continent.

The Sixties experienced a period of protest and revolt, in the Seventies prosperity suddenly became undermined, and the Eighties fundamentally changed the global economic order through the emergence of neoliberalism. Nineties – we got the internet. Early 2000s – Iraq. And now?

If each decade has its defining moments, how will we come to think about the one whose end we are witnessing – the 2010s?

Economy: a decade of reckoning

It has been a bad time for the economy. The decade started with a big bang – the great recession and a European debt crisis – and ended with avoidable fluctuations. Trade wars and Brexit have rocked stock markets, youth unemployment is still a major challenge, and the impact of digitalisation on labour markets goes largely unaddressed.

On a more fundamental and important level, neoliberalism has failed. Free markets and decreasing regulation might have created record employment numbers (though not even everywhere), but at the same time produced previously unseen levels of wealth inequality and precarious jobs. Thomas Piketty’s 2014 bestseller “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” deserves more than one award for starting the debate on inequality.

Poverty has been fought successfully in some parts of the world, but the dependence of millions of UK citizens on food banks is shameful. Moreover, digitalisation of public services has often entrenched social exclusion rather than bridge it.

Politics: a decade of disappointment

Political developments have not looked particularly promising either. The Arab Spring was unable to bring about the change many people had desired. The multilateral world order has been weakened by President Trump, who pulled the US out of UNESCO and the Paris Climate Agreement, and has created a power vacuum in global geopolitics. China will take the opportunity and fill it.

China’s economic rise has given its authoritarian political model – persecuting minorities and suppressing dissent – great weight while liberal ideas are under attack around the world. Public resistance in Hong Kong is one of only few signs that the communist regime has not entirely achieved its goals (yet). Meanwhile, Germany has lost its voice and strength in Europe but French President Macron has yet to prove similar leadership quality.

In fact, the conflict in Syria might best reflect the political circumstances of our decade: a disappointed population (as in South America), a retreating America (as in NATO), a paralysed European Union (as in the Balkans), a strengthened Russia (as in Crimea) and a rise in refugee numbers heading towards Europe with all its domestic consequences.

Add the failure to curb carbon emissions, and voilà the 2010s in a nutshell.

Society: a decade of hope

Ultimately, the ray of light has been society. #Metoo and #Timesup have encouraged women to speak out against assault, discrimination and misogyny, even though much remains to be done on gender equality. Lately, Greta Thunberg’s activism against climate change has produced tangible results. “Flightshame” has forced airlines to engage in carbon offsetting to avoid declining sales, green parties have experienced a revival, and the Fridays for Future movement has become hard to ignore.

These developments give reason for hope. However, economic and political decision-makers have demonstrated over the past ten years how much damage ill-suited theories can cause, such as neoliberalism for a world where work becomes increasingly automated or unilateralism in the face of global warming.

As naïve as it may sound: if the social changes ought to be lasting, new kinds of economics and politics will be required. Sustainable growth without trickle-down belief, multilateral solutions to global problems, defence of democratic values, regulation of digital companies, fighting discrimination, ending polarization.

Only then can we claim that the 2010s have been a turning point for good, after all.

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