Rene Burri Alexandria Egypt 1962
2016 brought a lot of changes, or rather, brought them to light. In reality, the world has been changing for many years, but many prominent actors benefitted from the changes remaining hidden. Simply because their wealth and power and worldviews are better served that way.
It’s entirely unclear whether we will ever get a chance to see to what extent the efforts to hide developments have been successful, or even been perpetrated at all, because we don’t know to what extent truth and reality will be accessible in the future.
What we can say at this point in time is that the changes 2016 delivered were urgently needed. There are many people out there who just want to turn back the clock, and change everything back to how it was, but they can’t, and that’s a good thing, because the way things were was hurting too many people.
2016 will go down in history as the year when a big divide between groups of people in the western world became visible, a divide that had until then been papered over by real or imaginary wealth, as well as by ignorance and denial.
When politics and media conspire to paint for the public a picture of their choosing, they can be very successful, especially if that picture is what people very much wish to see, true or not. But as we’ve seen recently, our traditional media have become completely useless when it comes to reporting news; the vast majority have switched to reporting their own opinions and pretending that is news.
On the one hand, there is a segment of society that either has noticed no changes, or is so desperate to hold on to what they have left, that they resist seeing them. On the other hand, there are those who feel left behind by that first group, and by the idea that the world that is still functioning and even doing well.
The first group has been captivated by, and believed in, the incessantly promoted message of recovery from an economic, financial and gradually also political crisis. The second see in their lives and that of their friends and neighbors that this recovery is an illusion.
It’s like the old saying goes: you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. And that’s why you have Brexit and Trump and why you’re going to have much more of that, certainly across Europe. Things are not going well, and there is no recovery, for a large enough percentage of people that their votes and voices now swing the debates and elections.
It’s not even complicated. This week there was a report from Elevate’s Center for the New Middle Class that concluded that half of Americans, 160 million people, can’t afford to have a broken arm treated (at $1,400). And sure, you can say that perhaps that number is a bit too high, but there have been many such reports, that for instance say the majority of Americans have less than $1000 in savings, and can’t even afford a car repair.
In Britain numbers are not much different. Over the past decade, the country has been very busy creating an entire new underclass. If your economy is not doing well, and your answer to that is budget cuts and austerity, it’s inevitable that this happens, that you create some kind of two-tier or three-tier society. And then come election time, you run the risk of losing.
Both Britain and the US boast low unemployment numbers, but as soon as you lift the veil, what you see is low participation rates, low wages and huge numbers of part-time jobs stripped of all the benefits a job used to guarantee. It allows those who still sit pretty to continue doing that, but it’ll come right back to haunt you if you don’t turn it around, and fast enough.
For many people, Obama, Merkel, Cameron and the EU cabal have been disasters. For too many, as we now know. That doesn’t mean that Trump will fix the economic problems, but that’s not the issue. People have voted for anything but more of the same. Which in Britain they’re not even getting either, so expect more mayhem there.
In most places, some variety of right wing alternative is the only option available that is far enough removed from ‘more of the same’. Moreover, many if not most incumbent parties are in a deep identity crisis. Trump did away with the Republicans AND the Democrats, and they had better understand why that is, or they’ll be wholly irrelevant soon.
In Britain, the most important votes in many decades was lost by the Tories, who subsequently performed a musical chairs act and stayed in power. You lost! Losers are not supposed to stay in power! But the other guys are all too busy infighting to notice.
That identity crisis, by the way, is not a new thing. If you look across the western political spectrum, there are all these left wing and right wing parties happily working together, either in coalition governments or through other ‘productive’ forms of cooperation. So who are people going to vote for when they’re unhappy with what they’ve got? Where is that ‘change’ that they want? Not on the traditional left or right.
So you get Podemos and M5S and Trump and UKIP and Le Pen. It’s not their fault, or the voters’ fault, it’s the political establishment that has tricked itself into believing in the same illusion it’s been promoting to voters.
And yes, they have now proven that it’s possible to stave off, for a number of years, a deeper crisis, depression, by borrowing and printing ‘money’. Especially if you can at the same time hit the poorest in your society with impunity.
But in the end no amount of fake or false news on the economic front will allow you to continue the facade for too long, because people know when they can’t afford things anymore. The evidence here is somewhat more direct than with regards to political fake news, though they may well both follow the same pattern of ‘discovery’.
Our societies are still run as if there is no real crisis, as if it’s all just a temporary glitch, as if the incumbent models function just fine, and as if recovery is just around the corner. And we can make it look as if that is true, but only for an ever smaller amount of time, and for an ever smaller amount of people.
The basic issue here is not a political one. It’s economic. Our economic systems have failed, and they can’t be repaired. We should always have realized that no growth is forever, but at least we now know. Or could know, it’ll take a while to sink in.
Next up is a redo and revamp of those economic systems, but that is not going to be easy, and may not get done at all. The resistance may be too strong, warfare -economic or physical- may seem like a way out, there are many unknowns. We could, ironically, get quite far in that redo if we simply cut all the waste for our economic processes, but then again, that would have us find out that much of the system runs entirely on wasting stuff, and wasting less kills the system.
However that may be, and however it may turn out, this is where we find ourselves. Protesting Trump and Brexit is inevitable, but it doesn’t address any core issues. From a purely economic point of view, Obama failed spectacularly, as did David Cameron, as does Angela Merkel. And as do, we will find out in 2017, many other incumbent ‘leaders’.
Their successors, whatever political colors they may come from, will all come to power promising, and subsequently attempting, to restart growth. Which is no longer feasible across an entire country, or even if it were, it would mean squeezing other countries. With corresponding risks.
Trump and Brexit are necessary, perhaps even long overdue, in order to break the illusion that things could go on as they were. But they are not solutions. America needs a big wake-up. Trump looks likely to deliver one. That is needed for the rest of the country to wake from its slumber. Ask yourself: are you going to get weaker from dealing with a Trump presidency? Maybe not the best question, or at least not before having asked: do you know how weak you are right now?
For Britain to leave the EU is a great first step. As I’ve said many times, centralization is not an option without growth. And Brussels has shown us quite a few of the worst consequences of centralization. Nobody should want to be a part of that.
Summarized: for most people, 2017 will be the year of the inability to understand where their favorite worldview flew off the rails. Change can be a bitch. But change is needed to keep life alive.