When is this going to end?
I can’t be the only one who will greet the first dawn of 2022 with this thought. Not just the you-know-what, about to enter its third year, but also the stubbornly non-progressing economy, the disturbing sort of politics that threaten to overtake so many countries and the increasingly unfriendly relations between major powers. When will we return to the normal world?
And I cannot be the only one who has come to suspect that these are, in fact, some of the ingredients of what is now the normal world – that we have just lived through the passing of an era, and this morning is part of a new one, still impossible to name or define.
It is with this thought that I have been reading the forthcoming book Slouching Towards Utopia by J. Bradford DeLong, an economist and historian at the University of California at Berkeley (and a former U.S. deputy treasury secretary), excerpts from which he has been sharing. You can tell a lot about historians’ views by where they place the beginning and end of the 20th century, and he is arguing for a “long twentieth century,” starting in 1870 and ending at some point after 2010 – the beginning and the end of the age of globalization.
The innovations of 1870, he writes – not just globalization but also the modern corporation and research lab – ended the 10,000-year period in which “dire poverty” was the defining human trait and made health, freedom and choices central to the human experience. They also ushered in decades of horrific wars and ethnic slaughter driven by a brutal contest between extremist utopias of the right and of the left, but this, in his view, cannot overshadow the 140 years of record-breaking progress in human well-being.
This is a counterargument to the idea of a “short twentieth century,” beginning with the First World War in 1914 and ending with the fall of the Soviet empire in 1991. That era was defined by the late British historian Eric Hobsbawm and employed in famous works by the likes of Francis Fukuyama and Margaret MacMillan.
Of course, an era is an arbitrary and made-up concept, and both definitions are equally valid. Dr. DeLong’s globalization-focused era is worth taking seriously because it speaks to our growing sense that this current moment – not the 1990s or 2000s – marks the end of something and the beginning of something else, not just in economics but in politics, international relations and our way of life.
The years after 2010, he writes, saw wealthy countries “reeling from the Great Recession that had begun in 2008, and thereafter unable to resume economic growth at anything near the average pace that had been the rule since 1870.” This decline in growth led, especially after 2016, to “system-destabilizing waves of political and cultural anger from masses of citizens, all upset in different ways and for different reasons at the failure of the system of the twentieth century to work for them as they thought that it should,” leading to nationalist governments and closed borders.
Many other economic observers have concluded that globalization, as a world-defining force, ended around 2010. The post-2008 “reshoring” and retreat of supply chains, the return of industrial manufacturing to the United States, the decline of international inequality as China became a more middle-class and inward-focused country and ceased to be a cheap-labour pool, the rise of authoritarianism there and the parallel rise of protectionism in many countries, the supply shocks of closed borders – these are all heralding the end of the globalized epoch.
Neither historians nor economists are in the business of prediction, and both generally fare poorly when they attempt to do so. Dr. DeLong concludes simply that “the Grand Narrative of the long 20th century could no longer be made to fit. It was a new set of stories, needing to be made comprehensible by a new Grand Narrative or Narratives. What it or they are we cannot yet know.”
An obvious conclusion, drawn by many lately, is that we have entered an era of nationalism, of closed enclaves, spheres of influence and tight-knit groups of countries sharing trade, climate and political interactions. This would be difficult to navigate for globalization-dependent countries such as Canada.
But whether it is a temporary retreat into a more atomized world, as we saw in the 1920s and the war years, or some sort of permanent shift is harder to say. That’s why this is such an edgy, uneasy moment.
Hegel likened this mysterious feeling to the Owl of Minerva, which, according to Greek legend, “takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering,” which is to say that we only really understand our moment in history when it has recently passed. With the grey light of a new year, we’re only beginning to spread our wings.
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