At the year end, one must reflect on the past year and think through what the new year will bring.
Since Brexit and US President Donald Trump, the last two years have been the most stressful I have experienced. After six months of protests in Hong Kong, I think Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf is right, it is rigged capitalism — “unstable rentier capitalism, weakened competition, feeble productivity growth, high inequality and, not coincidentally, an increasingly degraded democracy” that is destroying the present neoliberal order.
Worse, societies all over the world are being polarised into echo chambers turbo-charged by biased social media that push hate and dislike of foreigners and those of different races and creeds. We disagree and you are wrong. Gone are the days of listening to the other side.
Take climate change, for example. The United Nations warns, “The last four years were the four hottest on record, and winter temperatures in the Arctic have risen by 3°C since 1990. Sea levels are rising, coral reefs are dying and we are starting to see the life-threatening impact of climate change on health, through air pollution, heatwaves and risks to food security.”
Actress Jane Fonda claims that 90% of Democrats and 39% of Republicans feel that the US government is doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change. This suggests that the Left thinks that nothing is right, while the Right thinks what the Left presents as facts is fake news. In the US, there is huge polarisation, with the only common area of foreign policy being where the American strategic rival is marked as China.
Globalisation was supposed to bring everyone together — convergence towards common prosperity. Instead, divergence happens because the hollowed out middle class thinks that the neoliberal order of free markets is a CON game, rigged against them. The confidence game is essentially an information game — we get advertising from commercial business and propaganda from governments. Since it costs almost nothing to produce fake news, we are now overloaded with false and misleading information, feeding our own biases, pushing hate and dislikes. This divides the world into tribes and non-tribes, nations and foreigners, friends and enemies.
In the Age of Information, we are all suffering from “Severe Information Disorder Syndrome” because information spreads virally and bad information, especially mal-information pushed to mislead with bad or evil intent, can create havoc with very little cost to the perpetrator. As the poet TS Eliot asked in his 1930’s poem, The Rock: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”
Indeed, we have weaponised information, finance and military hardware to threaten and weaken our rivals. The new Cold War is all about mal-information created through social media through hacks, viruses and social memes. As the Nazi propaganda chief Goebbels used to say, repeated lies become accepted truth.
The Industrial Revolution created three major revolutions that had a huge impact on the rest of the world. The 1776 American war of independence was a break from the British empire, enabling more enlightened people to colonise a vast continent with natural resources protected on both sides by the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. In Europe, the French Revolution overthrew the monarchy, under the rubric of “liberty, equality, fraternity”. But the ensuing terror and chaos led to a seizure of power by Napoleon, who wasted most of France’s resources in fighting the rest of Europe.
The Czarist monarchy took much longer to fall, but the 1917 Russian revolution also resulted in a Stalinist regime of concentrated power. Thus, technological revolutions do not necessarily bring democracy, but swing from cycles of mass rule to elite rule and vice versa. If we look at the visualisation of democracy over the centuries, we notice that while electoral democracy grew significantly in the 20th century, in recent years, anocracy (elected but with presidential or authoritarian characteristics) has increased at the expense of elected democracies.
Indeed, mass protests signal that what the people want is more fairness and social justice, with an environment that is secure for them individually, socially and environmentally.
The trouble with rigged capitalism is that too much time and money is spent on politicking with little delivery of good outcomes for the voters. Because it takes money to fund electoral politics, the system is inherently rigged for the elite who control the media and the political machinery. This maintains the status quo, whereas what is required is to get rid of the vested interests that prevent change for the better.
The US-China rivalry can, therefore, be simplified into the unipolar power reacting adversely to convergence as the rest of the world narrows the gap with the US in terms of economic and technological power. Instead of competing according to the rules set by the US, the unipolar power has decided to change the rules of the game — a divergence from the “norm”. But even the threat of “decoupling” cannot deny the fact that with widespread knowledge and technology, the gaps between the advanced countries and the rest of the world will still narrow. Convergence is happening despite attempts to diverge or protect.
What “condivergence” really means is that life is not about false binaries of pure black and white, good versus evil. Life is all about different shades of grey and the interaction between differences that transforms the world into something new and very different from the past. This is what makes life so interesting, that it is always changing.
Economics alone cannot predict the future, because it is now political, social, technological, ecological and all about rivalry. The world has become much more complex and simple theories will not be able to explain how it is evolving.
When the climate is heating up, nature may be inflicting more costs and uncertainties than humans can control through new technologies or policies. We cannot solve our common, global issues by single nations alone, how ever powerful. We must try to work together, but not being able to work together is precisely the barrier to any good solution.
The Conservative win in this month’s election settled only one thing: that the British people want closure on an unending, confused Brexit debate. But how the UK builds its future in a post-Brexit world is simply another unknown.
This is the state of the world in 2019 — we may know what we do not like, but we do not know how to get to what we do like. The year 2020 is meant to be one of good vision. We wish for better clarity on all issues in the years ahead. Happy New Year and Season’s Best Wishes.
Tan Sri Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from an Asian perspective