Sometimes it’s possible—even easy—to see trouble coming. And sometimes it’s not.
It was easy a month ago, here in Singapore, to see what the coronavirus would probably do to U.S. and global markets and politics when it showed up for real, because we here on the fringe of Asia were at least a month psychologically advanced over most people in the United States and Europe. When I read U.S. media now, it reminds me of the local Singaporean fare five or six weeks ago. Where to get a surgical mask. How otherwise not to touch your face when you find them all sold out, along with hand sanitizer. What the symptoms are. Who is most at risk. Should we travel, and if so how and where and where not. Panic buying. (And hey, what is it with the runs on toilet paper?) It’s pretty humbling to realize that that for all the instantaneous information technology we have at our disposal and how fast news travels these days, people stateside are just about as slow-witted and deep into their own navels as ever.
But sometimes it’s not so easy to see trouble coming, because it requires dot-connecting—something we have become poor at lately. So everyone knows that there is right now acute mayhem, heartbreak, and worse—Chechen-style deliberate migratory genocide, actually—going on in Idlib province. Everyone knows, too, that the virus is spreading into Europe, and from Iran into the Middle East. So why hasn’t it become obvious and well-understood that if even 1 percent of the would-be million refugees likely to soon spill into Turkey are contagious with the coronavirus—all despite Turkish government and military efforts to prevent their flight—and then if even some manage to get into the Balkans from Turkey, and from there elsewhere into the European Union, this will make the public health crisis in Europe vastly worse?
Time matters with this pandemic. China has managed to flatten the infection curve after an admittedly shaky start. That buys time for others to get their testing, quarantine, care, and eventually vaccine house in order. But the explosion of the virus out of Idlib would undo that purchase of time in a trice. Why is no one in the mainstream press even mentioning this, or asking government officials about it?
Of course, if this happens it will double back and bite hard into the Iranian and Russian populations too, populations whose governments have been aiding and abetting the Syrian government’s war crimes. Just as good deeds do not go unpunished, so do bad deeds. The road to hell, once wrote Saul Bellow, is paved by the same contractor who paves all the other roads. But that’s really very little comfort, for the populations of Iran and Russia are as innocent as the refugees of Idlib. Chances are that many Iranians and Russians will become quite angry about this, with what political consequences no one can predict.
There is a special kind of trouble that is hard to see not only because people are distracted or not paying attention. To see trouble coming from a greater distance, you need to step back to get perspective from history. That’s an acquired skill, and few acquire it. That goes for today’s American political class in spades—arguably the most historically oblivious great power political classes of all time.
Some are now worried that globalization itself is at risk and that recovery from the virus and the associated economic swoon will not be a simple V-shaped bounce-back—or maybe not much of a bounce-back at all. They are right to worry. It has happened before.
The first age of globalization—the first Gilded Age some call it—lasted from roughly the late 1870s to August 1914. It was a time of many magnificent technological advances—the telegraph, the electric dynamo, machine-tool advances par excellence, and much more.
It was a time of rapidly expanding global trade, broadly-spread prosperity, and much optimism. But it was also a time of expanding inequality and hardship for some despite the eclipse of acute poverty for many more.
It was a time of both internal and international migration on a large scale, which created new forms of urban landscape creep, gang violence, and a lot of reactionary bigoted politics. It was hence a dislocated time of uncertainty and anxiety, which caused substance abuse epidemics—alcoholism, in particular—and spike in “deaths of despair.”
It was a time of great power competition for resources and prestige, then in the form of colonial territorial expansion in the less-advanced parts of the world.
It was also a time of radical rejection among small minorities of the new trends—a spate of terror assassinations by anarchists, the rise of militant egalitarian movements and radical anti-market ideologies.
And it was a time when vast sudden accumulations of new-technology-driven wealth and power by individuals and corporations—whom Teddy Roosevelt once called “the malefactors of great wealth”—fed the plutocratization of market capitalism and hence justified much of the criticism being thrown at it.
Any of this sound familiar? Now face future-forward, and listen again.
All this taken together started a war, a very large and destructive war. At the end of the war came the Spanish Flu epidemic. After the mere eight-year interlude of the Roaring Twenties, the collapse of the international economic order continued its dive, and with it, the rickety political order assembled after the end of the Great War. The aging architects of the post-Versailles era didn’t understand the new social and political landscape, and many of them, still shell-shocked from the war, took to engaging in magical thinking, epitomized by the fanciful Kellogg-Briand pact of 1928.
Above all, they did not understand what it meant to have been born in Europe in the 1880s, to have grown to maturity in one of the most optimistic times in history, only to have the rug pulled out from under that generation’s feet, creating a whole continent-wide cohort of frustrated and angry young declassé men and women. Benito Mussolini was born in 1883. Adolf Hitler was born in 1889. The famous Davies J-Curve theory of revolutionary upheaval could not have been more spot-on; too bad Davies and most others thought to apply it mainly to near-term and future leftist upheavals, not to those of the reactionary, romantic fascist kinds that had gone before.
History does not repeat itself, but, as many have suggested, it does rhyme. The markets will recover, one way or another, from the coronavirus pandemic. Maybe it won’t be a sharp V-recovery, but it will recover, for a while at least.
But if the democratic statesmen of the next twenty years do not take the full measure of the plutocratic distortions of the American and global economy and fix them; and if they do not grasp the political implications of the ugly, scarred mindsets of a frustrated and abused generation once come into maturity, they will not see the real trouble that may be coming, yet again, to a planet very near all of us.