Commentary / World

Why normal times will not return

by David Howell

There is a school of thought that believes when a few current global problems have been surmounted, normal times will return both to world politics and to world economics.

For example, many believe that when U.S. President Donald Trump finally gets his comeuppance, the old and generous America of Uncle Sam and Pax Americana will return, the U.S.-China trade war will wind down, peace will break out in the Middle East and we will back to business as usual.

Or in Europe, once the British, led by new Prime Minister Boris Johnson, have made a clean break from the European Union, things will settle down in the region, trade patterns will resume as before and Europe’s march towards greater integration will continue as before. Relative world stability will resume its reign as people resume their business and some degree of certainty returns.

These complacent views are wrong and are dangerous because they divert efforts from preparing for a quite different world, posing different challenges, especially on the political side, which lies ahead and of which the sinews are already visible.

The prime cause of this upheaval, its destruction of all previous “normals,” is the tiny silicon chip and its ever multiplying processing speeds. It is the staggering informational, connecting, organizing, revealing, coordinating yet fragmenting impact of this still accelerating technology that has placed power in mass hands, to an unprecedented degree, and drastically weakened old political hierarchies in both democracies and autocracies alike.

But those who hope that this process leads on to a new era of democratic unity and stability, with tyrants toppled and privileged networks exposed, are in for a big disappointment. The dispersal of power to the masses, and the crumbling of respect for and trust in past ruling classes, opens the path not to a more liberalized order but to a cacophony of rivalries, disputes and grievances, amplified as never before and making governing far harder than ever before.

The late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once observed that there was no such thing as society and she was much criticized for it. But of course she was right in the sense that society is not some beautiful and coherent body of views but a broken mosaic of a thousand differing and shifting viewpoints.

The great British historian G.M. Trevelyan argued that politics is the outcome, not the cause, of social change. In the West, this new scale of social chaos is already playing back into politics and governance, multiplying political parties, generating angry demands for the recognition of endless varieties of identity, interest and local cause, and making decisive leadership and guidance more difficult than ever, just when it is needed most.

In the loop of sequence and consequence, this creates new frustrations and disappointments, leading in turn to widening outrage and still more political instability.

This rage is intensified as other mounting effects of new technology and the communications revolution cut in. Notable among these are the ways in which modern globalization, the child of the chip, first disrupted blue-collar employment in the West and now invades white-collar and middle-class security.

Services may have taken over from manufacturing in Western economies, but if many services can now be better, and far more cheaply and swiftly, performed by individuals from Asian, African and Latin American sources, that destroys white-collar careers and is already doing so. Then along comes robotic artificial intelligence and machine learning, again chip enabled, which automates a huge range, although not all, of service jobs, creating a deep sense of unfairness and injustice, and producing yet further demands on already weak governments to “do something” to protect people’s security and living standards.

All this is a recipe for turmoil out of which the need for new kinds of political management (“politics” meaning literally the affairs of the citizens) are emerging. The young in the West are now said to crave strong leaders, and care much less about endless and fruitless democratic argument and old ideological conflicts. Both younger and older generations advocate “direct action” and taking to the streets.

Faith in the capacities of the political class to deliver on the new great issues of global warming, or gender equality or even the more mundane issues of good housing and health care for all grows steadily weaker.

Either way the missing ingredients now are trust and respect. These are the glue without which societies cannot cohere and without which common loyalties cannot be sustained.

But note that this is presented as very much a Western state of affairs. Neither Japan — nor China, although in a very different way — seem to suffer so much from the anti-establishment, anti-elitism with which the West is now infected in the hyper-information age.

Is there some quality of respect and loyalty here, toward the state, toward family and parents, toward community, arising out of a different philosophical tradition, for which the West can now learn? For example, should belief in competition, so central to Western economic theory, be tempered by a greater sense of obligation, which is so strong in Japanese business life?

To paraphrase the great British statesman George Canning, could the new Asian world be called upon to redress the balance of the old West?

Almost all the supporting pillars of Western certainty and continuity are now under challenge. Even the measures by which progress is judged are in question, as the economists’ old friends, like gross domestic product, are derided as poor guides to the true welfare and health of a society. Other intangibles may now matter more, and other forms of capitalism may bring more politically manageable outcomes.

From the East, with its economic and now increasing technological predominance, with its giant cities and supermodern social and physical infrastructures, come the simple lessons that family respect and obligation, some deference to elders and dutiful support for law and authority, may fill the moral vacuum.

How authority is also to be properly and soberly held to account, how freedom (but not license) is to be exercised, how free speech (but not abuse or slander or fakery) is to be upheld, how human rights are to be balanced with responsibilities, how leaders are also to be true servants — these are now the conundrums of Western life and culture.

And until they begin to be resolved, there will be no return to normal times, either within nations or geopolitically.

David Howell is a Conservative politician, journalist and economic consultant. He is chairman of the House of Lords International Relations Committee.