According to an article in the Economist magazine, the state of affairs in the world, most especially so in Europe, “looks a bit discomfortingly like that of 1913.”
Like that on the eve of the First World War, in other words.
That’s an overexaggeration made for effect. But it’s not wholly off target.
There are similarities between 1913 and today. Then, a new power — Germany — was challenging the established international order, as China is today.
Then, the world economy was globalized, with fewer barriers to goods going from anywhere to anywhere to anywhere than exist today. Then, income inequalities were almost infinite.
The key similarity, it seems to me, is that there is today, as there was then, an inchoate sense that things are out of joint.
Two contemporary trends stand out. One is the widespread skepticism about, in substantial areas outright rejection of, government.
This is what the whole Arab Spring was about.
The same is true in Europe, and not just in walking-wounded countries like Greece and Italy.
Thus, in France, the popularity of the brand-new president, François Hollande, has dropped to a historic low.
In Canada, the fact that we are doing better economically than just about any other industrial democracy hasn’t saved Prime Minister Stephen Harper from widespread speculation he could be defeated in the next election or have to step down ahead of it.
A parallel force is growing skepticism about the phenomenon of globalization, once so attractive because it seemed to open the whole world to us, even to make us all citizens of the world.
This backlash is strongest in Europe.
New right-wing nationalist parties have emerged, such as the U.K. Independence party in Britain and the comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Star in Italy.
The newest is Alternatives for Germany, which, because it is in Germany, is the most worrying of all.
The common targets of parties like these are the European Union, which is attacked for having botched the euro common currency system and so caused widespread unemployment, and liberal immigration policies that are seen to have led to social violence.
The hard truth is that there is substance to these criticisms.
The EU did botch its grandiose currency system, a confession just made also by the long-esteemed International Monetary Fund.
And even liberal-minded countries like Sweden and Holland are having to rethink their immigration policies.
The harder truth is that remedies are not easy to identify.
The problem with globalization may be that it is a reach far too far.
It transfers too much power from nation-states to distant institutions over which people can exercise little control, as opposed to their own national governments, which they can actually punish by periodically removing them from office.
As for the widespread skepticism — even outright rejection — of governments (whether national or pan-national), this may be like trying to stop an incoming tide, as once did King Canute.
As we all know, parts of the world are roaring ahead, China most obviously.
The outlook for many others, ourselves included, and the United States and Europe, is far more doubtful.
The economic growth we’ve taken for granted ever since the Second World War and which enabled us to fund an ever-expanding welfare state, has about it the look and feel of being over.
If correct, the defining cause isn’t the mismanagement of this or that government.
It’s that we are all too human.
Having got to the top, it’s difficult for us to work as hard as we did while clambering up the ladder.
We’re not about to crash.
But the comfortable days of things forever getting ever better may well be over.
Humility, once regarded as an excuse by losers, may become a necessary virtue.
Richard Gwyn’s column appears every
other Thursday. firstname.lastname@example.org