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The decade of magical thinking

"Call it the Decade from Hell, or the Reckoning, or the Decade of Broken Dreams, or the Lost Decade. Call it whatever you want - just give thanks that it is nearly over." - Andy Serwer, Time, November 24 2009.

“Call it the Decade from Hell, or the Reckoning, or the Decade of Broken Dreams, or the Lost Decade. Call it whatever you want – just give thanks that it is nearly over.” – Andy Serwer, Time, November 24 2009

Bookended by economic crises, acts of terror and questions surrounding the fragility of democracy, it is not unreasonable to label the Noughties the Decade from Hell, or the Uh-Ohs, although somehow this is not quite apt. Above all, this was a decade during which we blindly hoped and foolishly acted in ways which only evaded facing the inevitable. Suppressed realities surrounding our Western liberal capitalist model of American unipolarity, became horrendously apparent in a series of cataclysmic events. This was, in fact, the decade of magical thinking.

The period of post-Cold War peace and economic prosperity – or the ‘Long Nineties’ if you will – were brought to a shattering halt by three events of tremendous importance: the bursting of the dot-com bubble; the disputed election of George W. Bush; and the terror attacks of September 11 2001. The latter of these will come to be seen as the most significant, since it demonstrated in the clearest sense that after twelve years of American diplomatic totality, alternative centres of power and theory were beginning to emerge.

September 11 transformed our understanding of the wider ideological paradigm, a concept previously believed to be dead. Once, capitalism had fought against communism; now it was secular democracy seeking to combat the rise of militant Islam. As a result, after a period of fumbling about in the dark, the West turned on the light to recognise its common purpose and clear enemy. That said, throughout the decade, it became apparent that the secular democracies themselves did not necessarily understand their new foe.

The War on Terror, the invasion of Afghanistan and the Mesopotamian fiasco exemplify this magical thinking. All three were applications of outmoded forms of combat onto the new world stage. This is particularly true in the case of the Afghanistan intervention, and our attempts at nation-building in an ungovernable state. For sure, NATO allies did on the whole succeed in driving Al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan, but the democratic structures implemented to replace the Taliban proved to be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof. Moreover, unable to launch attacks from inside Afghanistan, Islamist terrorists merely relocated in the mountainous, lawless regions of Pakistan and failed states like Yemen and Somalia.

Western powers’ handling of economic conditions further demonstrated a pathological need to avoid acknowledging reality. When the dot-com bubble burst throughout 2000 and into 2001, it ought to have been a repudiation of the ‘get rich quick’ ethic on Wall Street and in the City. However, rather than institute new financial practices, President Bush merely sought to solve America’s economic woes by slicing taxes for the rich and allowing these reckless stock practices to continue.

Where one bubble burst, another inflated. New wealth was built on real estate and debts relating to it. Once house prices began to decline in 2006 in the United States, and the United Kingdom in 2008, people began to enter into negative equity: debts increased, mortgage agreements collapsed, foreclosures skyrocketed and out of this global recession ensued. In the decade of magical thinking, Western governments could foresee crisis and even recession, yet thought it better to appease their financial centres in the pursuit of short-term economic growth.

In terms of its wider significance, the accession of George W. Bush proved to be the most important event for American democracy since the resignation of Richard Nixon. The fraught nature of his election, coupled with the arrogant manner of his presidency, would have disastrous consequences for the expansion of freedom, liberty and democracy around the world. Once a democratic hegemony had seemed inevitable, but in different pockets of the globe alternative regimes emerged, providing new answers to regional problems that they believed Western capitalism could no longer answer. In Latin America, Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales and Fidel Castro formulated a powerful leftist bloc, offering an alternative economic model built upon Venezuela’s petroleum-centred prosperity which has influenced the rise of the left in neighbouring states like Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina.

Moreover, China – economically more liberal yet still politically repressive – used the rewards of rapid economic growth to entrench its influence in Africa. In return for oil, minerals and other natural resources, China has granted African states billions of dollars with no strings attached in regards to internal development vis-à-vis poverty and democratisation. For instance, the Chinese leadership consistently supported Robert Mugabe, and today continues to provide aid to Omar al-Bashir’s genocidal regime in the Sudan and the murderous military junta in Guinea.

Therefore, the decade of magical thinking was an epoch in which the United States and the West refused to recognise the changing nature of Weltpolitik with disastrous consequences for the global influence of its politico-economic model. Western powers proved to be in many respects the cause of their own decline: in the system’s failure to recognise an oncoming economic firestorm, its inability to act as a responsible beacon for an ideal democracy, and most importantly, its consistent incompetence in dealing with the rises of international Islamic terrorism.

The Noughties, thus, have been a painful, decade-long transition from uni- into multipolarity. India and Brazil are still relatively embryonic, but Russia is in a period of resurgence and, most critically of all, China has emerged as a contender on the diplomatic stage. Make no mistake though, the United States is still very much the kingmaker, but her role and influence has altered significantly through the blossoming of China’s economic prowess. China will have a tremendous influence over the next ten years, of that there can be no doubt; but the next decade will ultimately be shaped by the West admitting to its previous flaws, its state of delusion and its magical thinking, and resetting its course within a changing world.

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