Following the end of the Cold War a new international political consensus quickly emerged. The collapse of the Soviet Union had shown the western model of democratic capitalism to be the superior system and that, it seemed, was that. As both the lone remaining superpower and paragon of triumphant liberal values the US would from now on serve as the undisputed leader of a world order modelled in the western image, in which acceptance of the market and respect for individual rights ruled supreme. Ever more economic, social and cultural freedom was where the arrow of progress appeared to point, with anything that hinted at central planning or government interference cast into the proverbial dustbin.
It was a brave new world—or at least a vision of one—around which political movements of both right and left were compelled to gravitate, whether willingly or not, that at its inception looked so unassailable there was even serious talk about the possibility humanity had reached the end of history. The point, that is, at which the great ideological questions about how to organise society had been decisively settled.
Fast forward a couple of decades, however, and you find a rather different picture emerging. In the years since the 2007/08 financial crisis the international system established in the wake of the Cold War has begun to fracture. The unerring belief in the power of the market that was characteristic of the early 1990s—along with with the deregulation, privatisation, unfettered globalisation and worship of big business that sprang from it—has been found wanting. Wealth has not only failed to trickle down, as the advocates of economic liberalisation promised. It’s been siphoned up, as a reckless financial sector found itself bailed-out at public expense, with nigh-on a decade of falling living standards, stagnant wages and spending cuts the result.
Needless to say this new economic normal—otherwise known as austerity—has led to ever increasing levels of public disenchantment. And when you factor in the challenge to American/western hegemony that the rise of China and a revanchist Russia pose; the troubles of the European Union (Brexit, migrant crisis, a still fragile Eurozone); a Middle East in flames; the implacable menace to the civilised world that is Islamic extremism; a growing populist backlash against mass immigration in particular and globalisation in general; proliferation of nuclear weapons among unstable states, the North Korean regime especially; climate change and other forms of environmental destruction, along with an ongoing technological revolution that’s radically reshaping every aspect of human life—you have a recipe for significant political upheaval.
As traditional elites struggle to maintain their legitimacy in face of palpable public anger, civil strife and electoral upsets have become increasingly common. Ever more fragmented polities, coupled with the opportunities the internet has provided in terms of the ability to directly reach mass audiences, in turn provide fertile ground for heretical outsiders of various hues and at times exceedingly dubious credentials to prosper. Far-right nationalism is back with a vengeance, as is social conservatism, and with them good old-fashioned bigotry. Apathy has given way to engagement and there are even signs of a socialist revival, less than 30 years after it was pronounced dead and buried.
These are both exciting and, yes, to some degree terrifying times in which to live. About this there can be no doubt. All that was solid has melted into air. All that was holy is now profane. And a quarter of a century of international consensus about everything from global warming to free trade is now in a most precarious of positions. The times, as Bob Dylan famously sang, they are a-changin’—and at a bewilderingly fast pace, too.
What will come next? Who will grasp the contemporary zeitgeist and in doing so command the future? In this respect there is a world to win, though potentially also a world to lose. But that, in short, is the challenge which now confronts us. The challenge we must—and given the stakes surely will—rise to, else humanity itself risks being consigned to the cosmic ash heap.