Eighty years on: Is 2016 the new 1936?
Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
- Karl Marx, 1852
We would all prefer a farce to a tragedy, so let us hope that Marx was right. But he has been wrong a few times in the past, so we must entertain the possibility that what awaits us is tragedy.
The “first time,” in this instance, was the 1930s, when the painfully slow recovery from a global financial crash led to political polarization, beggar-my neighbor trade wars, and the rise to power of anti-democratic, ultra-nationalist leaders in a number of countries. The consequences included World War II, death camps, the first and only use of nuclear weapons, and 40 years of Cold War.
Well, we had our global financial crash in 2008, and the recovery has certainly been slow. Average incomes in many Western countries have still not recovered to pre-2008 levels, and the growth of nationalist and racist sentiment is evident in major countries like Britain (the Brexit vote), France (the rise of the National Front), and above all the United States (Donald Trump).
The wave of non-violent democratic revolutions that transformed so many developing countries at the end of the Cold War ended with the failure of the “Arab Spring,” leaving a new dictatorship in Egypt and civil wars across the Middle East. In parts of Asia the process has even gone into reverse (military rule in Thailand, death squads run by populist elected governments in the Philippines and Indonesia).
Authoritarian, ultra-nationalist governments hostile to the European Union have come to power in post-Communist Eastern Europe (Fidesz in Hungary, the Law and Justice government in Poland). And a trade war is brewing between the United States and China no matter who wins the U.S. election in November.
You could add to the list of worries a new ruler in China (Xi Jinping) who is more autocratic and readier to play the nationalist card than any other Chinese leader since Mao, and a Japanese prime minister (Shinzo Abe) who promises to remove the anti-war clause from the constitution. Not to mention that addict to high-stakes international brinkmanship, Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Quite a list, but does it really mean that we are back in 1936 (fascists in power in Germany, Italy and Japan, civil war in Spain, the Great Purge in the Soviet Union), with the catastrophe of global war just three years away? Or is it just a grab-bag of local problems, failures and worries of the sort that are bound to exist in a world of almost 200 independent countries? Probably the latter.
Right- and left-wing parties are a legitimate and inevitable part of any democratic society, but they both tend to spin off or mutate into more extreme and paranoid versions of themselves in times of economic hardship. It is difficult to argue, however, that the times are really that bad at the moment.
Times are very hard in most developed countries for the old working class, who have been left behind by globalization, and that is where most of the support for right-wing extremism comes from. But there really aren’t enough of them to take over the state: Trump will not win in November, the National Front will not win next year’s French election, and the Brexiteers in Britain – well, that remains to be seen.
The Middle East is a disaster area, of course, but it is a pretty isolated disaster area, apart from occasional small-scale terrorist outrages in Western countries. To live in fear of a world-wide Islamic caliphate is as delusional as to hope for it.
Democracy is not in retreat in Africa or Latin America, and the pluses and the minuses more or less balance out in Asia (military rule in Thailand and more authoritarian elected governments in the Philippines and Indonesia, but more democracy in Burma and Sri Lanka). Nor should we see the triumph of a couple of ultra-nationalist parties in traditionally nationalist Eastern European countries as a sign of things to come in the rest of Europe.
This is not to say that the European Union will survive in the long term without major changes. We are going through a historic shift of the center of gravity of the global economy from the North Atlantic world to Asia, and many things will have to change as a result.
It is possible that the United States and China might stumble into a military confrontation at some point: that risk is implicit in the kind of power shift that is underway in the early 21st century. But we are not on the brink of any great and awful calamity in the world. It is not 1936.