The Morning After the Decade Before

Much of the world seems to have woken up this January with the sense that the post-9/11 decade is well and truly over.  While 2008 and its shocks marked the first shift away from a domino set of events that began in September of 2001, the years since the financial crash of 2008 have been years of adapting to the new realities that slowly appeared as the dust from this ‘second crumbling’ settled and revealed a panorama that looked and felt distinctly different.

The fears borne of 2001 rumble on, and the cascading consequences unleashed by Western powers continues to make an impact across the globe, but the events of the Arab Spring, the repeated and unstoppable plunges in stocks markets, followed by the European crisis that defined 2011, have reshaped the political, social and cultural context for much of the globe.

2012 marks the beginning of the ‘reactful years’ —years during which new actors and forms of power will take centre-stage.

Not everyone comes out of decades such as the last in the same state—it all depends on your constitution and on lifestyle.  Quite literally.  Europe and the US look a lot like sad, middle-aged party animals who are paying dearly for a decade of excess.  Others, across the Mediterranean, look more like the proverbial teenagers whose over-excitement is turning a good party bad, because ‘It’s my election and I’ll cry if I want to’.

As for the BRICs, they fall into two camps—the ones, like China and Russia, like old-fashioned socialites at the end of a demanding season—increasingly stiff, unable to learn the new steps, but wielding enough power to be unwilling to let the next generation take over the floor.  And the ones, like India and Brazil, who face potential recession and pervasive areas of poverty the way some impossibly youthful baby-boomers see the odd hip or cataract operation as a way of getting the most out of the health service or to test a long-held insurance policy.

The end of the hang-over and the beginning of detox?

2011 spat out something new out of the convulsions of the previous years.  2012 is the beginning of detox—it will test our limits, but could ultimately reveal new strengths and resourcefulness.   It is the beginning of a set of conscious re-craftings and re-shapings—and it is how different societies come to terms with the apparent scale of the change ahead, and how they seek to impact upon it that is interesting.

At no time has the analysis of the different political and cultural repertoires available to different societies and groups been more important.  At no time has knowledge of the available instruments of change (rhetorical, practical, social, networked) available to civil society mattered more.  Understanding these will enable us to discern the robust from the fledgling, the new from the hackneyed and the fresh from the old and tired.

So it is extraordinary that the past years seem to have taught us very little about how to interpret change, where to look for it, and what to keep an eye on.

Still not focusing on what matters most

Social media experts and communications analysts may be focused on networks and relationships, and anthropologists and political theorists on culture and collective behaviour—but in the wider risk analysis and policy world, things have not shifted one iota: the focus is either on the individual (neuroscience, the ‘animal spirits’) or on abstract deities (‘Great Leaders’,  ‘The Markets’,  ‘States’).  Forget the bit in the middle, the civil societies and networks that are busy remodelling the geo-political and socio-economic life of the planet (‘the grey area where things get done’ as Roger Cohen puts it).  That’s somehow too messy —even if Markets and States are in part aggregates of such group behaviour.

2012 began under the spell of newspaper editors across the world (colluding with the publishing world and anticipating an avalanche of dire predictions and a very bad case of the blues —which, btw, could be bad for TheMarkets), hitting us over the head with the use of an evolved form of ‘positive thinking’: focusing on our potentially hardwired capacity for optimism.

A number of the best risk analysts joined in and all of a sudden, it was too early to write off America, Europe was touted as far more resilient than we think, the Euro would survive, the Middle East would stabilise, Obama is in, the recession that threatened—and continues to threaten—to tighten its grip on much the West will be staved off by puritan notions of sacrifice (especially that of other people’s livelihood), and Iran, well, that’s just sabre-rattling.

Voltaire would have been proud, it seemed 2012 was capable of sprouting more Candides than you could shake a Euro at.  This didn’t last and we were quite quickly back too, if not reality, then certainly an atmosphere that seems more appropriately cautious. Either way though, it all seemed to boil down to optimists vs pessimists, all of them in the service of neuroscience-hype or a rather old fashioned notion of ‘high politics’.

Whatever discussions are taking place, they only ever seem to be rooted in the individual atom, the character or the neurons; or at the very opposite end of the spectrum, in a holism that attributes special prerogative to the already unified territory of classical abstractions, like the State, Society or the Party. The connections which draw these all together are lost in the mist.

Such analyses box us into a type of thinking that creates an enormous blind spot where political culture, civil society and networks should be.  We need realism and middle level societal analysis that takes into account culture, social and political networks, media, informal institutions like families and neighbourhoods, and powerful new ideas and narratives. These are remaking the world every day, and the process is neither neat nor linear. This type of analysis exists, but it needs to be brought to bear on issues of risk and forecasting.

Focus on transformation rather than risk

The world desperately needs an analysis of transformations rather than one of end-results.

Forecasting is important, but everything we know about our world now should lead us to pay more attention to the processes that lead to a result—or we will have no purchase on events or developments.  Only then can we spot change as it’s occurring and interpret it as it unfolds or is about to unfold.  This is equally, if not more, important for those who need to shape the processes of policy and politics, of consumption and production.

Risk analysis tends to see things in binary terms—Europe will survive or collapse; Israel will attack or not attack; the markets react well or badly.  This is understandable, but it’s important to know why the patient is dying, or why he or she seems to be surviving against all odds.  The kind of analysis that the world desperately needs at this point is an analysis of transformations rather than one of end-results.

But, again, this isn’t just about how we look at things, but also, intrinsically, what we look at: the actors we focus on, the events we take to be important, the ideas we think might be revolutionary.

Take the example of Europe, it is quite unlikely that Europe will collapse—the political will and the economic necessity of its existence are far too great (this may not seem obvious to the UK government, but it is obvious to the rest of the world).  But what is more important is to ask ‘what of’ the Europe that will survive?

Will the institutional and legal project that emerges from the current period bear any resemblance to the initial ideals outlined 60 years ago and again over the decades?  Or indeed to what Europeans might wish it to be? Or will the affirmation that Europe continues to exist, completely obscure the fact that we are dealing with an entirely different creature? What is Europe if Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal are no more than poor peripheries? What is Europe if it is unable to deliver on the kind of peace and economic and well-being for which it was designed? What is Europe if it cannot complete its transition toward an integrated geo-political space with a set of shared norms and values that stand de facto against rigged elections, commercial bullying, institutionalised violence and corruption at the highest levels of the state?

Binary visions blind us to deep, incremental but nevertheless fundamental transformations.  Much as our analysis of the Middle East until last year prevented us from detecting the fundamental change that would lead to power shift. So we should do all we can to develop an analysis of risk that is rooted in an understanding of the forces that are likely to shift, ebb, flow, and matter, and therefore shape political and social panoramas in new and unprecedented ways.

Make Five Wishes (for the Risk Industry)

To end therefore, we’re not going to outline our top 10 risks, or even our top three risks, for the year ahead.

Like everyone else, we are monitoring the rise of populism (from South Africa to Hungary from the US to India) with growing concern; we’re worried about the continued potential for protest in the developed world, in the UK, and a rise in street activism across the globe. And we’re also hoping we get more good protests and fewer riots.  We’re watching a bumper year ahead for elections (including China, France, Russia, India, Iran, Venezuela, the US and possibly Pakistan) and of course anticipating a decisive year for the Middle East and for the Eurozone and Europe more generally.   All this in the context of rising nationalism—both in the countries most sharply hit by the economic downturn as well as in those suffering from an excess of economic confidence.

We’re hoping for more good protests and fewer riots.

But prediction and forecast are not sufficient to understanding or dealing with risk in volatile times.  Something needs to be added to that for a full and comprehensive picture to emerge.

So, rather than formulate our top 10 risks, we’ve decided to formulate five resolutions:  five acts of interpretation, five ways of looking at the world that should shape the way we understand change in order to be able to deal with the future.

       1. Let’s acknowledge a watershed when we see one

There is no point pretending it’s business as usual.  Even if there are sectors and regions in which such an illusion is maintained for the moment, the changes that have occurred and are occurring in civil society across the globe will force traditional decision-makers to react—thus prompting counter-reactions.

In our neck of the woods (what we might call the ‘hardship West’) the first consequence will be a continued increase in polarisation—growing inequality of power, access and income.  While there is no predicting institutional collapse or civil war, there is also no doubt that the scale of the changes facing us and the scale of adaptation required of us collectively—in expectations, in rewards and in lifestyle (for a majority of people) is becoming clearer.

From the affordability, or even possibility, of higher education, to the possibility of property ownership, from the shape of career-paths to access to the work of the state—and everything in between: all of it is up for re-design.  For all of Occupy’s failures, its great legacy will be to have set light to a slow burning fuse with a very simple rhetorical message.  And whilst, ultimately, it failed as a political movement, its work in raising awareness (or to use an old fashioned term, in ‘raising collective consciousness’) will have been defining.

This week, the Financial Times, no less, is running a special series called ‘Capitalism in Crisis’. Just a year ago such a thought would have seemed outlandish, and there is little doubting where that meme began.

       2. Let’s engineer the right conversations

As we bemoaned earlier,  although top-notch analysis abounds, it’s the failure to connect those people who work on the ‘hidden wiring’ (such as networks, social media and civil society but also historical trends and social developments) with those who analyse the more traditional aspects of state behaviour that creates our inability to anticipate and then make the most of change.

At Counterpoint, we’re busy connecting these analyses into something fuller and more reliable.  How do the premises of neuroscience and culture cohabit? How is quantum computing going to change how we think of ourselves—and therefore how we predict, anticipate, plan and project? How will different sorts of families provide social stability and institutional flexibility where it’s needed? How can state-to-state relationships be re-imagined through the arts, education, libraries or social networks?

Asking these questions is key to the kind of textured understanding a complex and volatile world demands.

And it will also allow us to overcome two other important obstacles—our narrow interpretation of institutions and the refusal, in some quarters, to see in social media more than elitist gadgets or ephemeral hype.  So:

       3. Let’s look beyond traditional  institutions

Despite relentless proof that the hidden wiring matters, few analysts are willing to focus on the impact and role of non-traditional institutions. Traditional institutions and functions, like political parties, elections and leadership transitions, continue to monopolise analysis.  There is no doubt that they are crucial, but their permeability to movements and unexpected challenges needs to be acknowledged more readily. They are constituted and legitimised by myriad social, political and cultural acts that remain below the radar of traditional analysis, to the detriment of our understanding.

Populism is a quintessential example of an area in which informal institutions and the narrative and mythical ties they provide to formal institutions is hugely important.  Looking at such a phenomenon, be it in the US, in France or in Latin America, from a perspective that does not appreciate cultural and social context is a strategy that yields nil returns.  Populism may be a growing problem in South Africa in light of divisions in the ANC, but it is the death of Nelson Mandela that may light the populist fuse and allow it to surface in any important way.

The recession may be blamed for a rise in populism in Europe, when in fact it is the rising inequality of the past few decades that seems to have fuelled it.

The bumper crop of elections in the coming year will be a perfect opportunity to examine and measure the ways in which traditional institutional markers are up for interpretation and re-interpretation in light of new actors and movements, new stories and references, new means and opportunities.  Even in a place as opaque as North Korea, our focus on the trials and tribulations of Kim Yong Un and his party, should not blind us to the potential emergence of new actors on the fringes of the world’s most closed political system.  And so, on a related note—

      4. Let’s let new social media grow up…

By this we mean three things.

First, let’s stop referring to the ‘digital divide’, except where it unfortunately really matters: chez nous.  Too often the expression is used to refer to regions where, as the ready-made comment goes, ‘people don’t have access to computers and Wi-Fi’.  The fact is that this is a problem that mainly affects the deprived peripheries of the ‘developed’ world; which means it’s not the deep and unassailable problem it is depicted as but, rather, a simple question of political will and policy priorities.  In the ‘developing’ world social media goes via mobile phones and access is based most often on the ingenuity of local providers and the versatility of the phones themselves.

Second, let’s stop thinking of social media as something young people do (sometimes to get a protest going).   Young people have now been doing this for a while—which means that some of them are not so young anymore.

Thirdly, because we only seem to have scratched the surface of social media’s contribution to our world, we seek refuge in wholesale assumptions: social media changes everything or it changes nothing (and, add to that, either ‘entirely better’ or ‘entirely for the worse’—Adam Gopnik’s  ‘Never-Betters’ and ‘Better-Nevers’ ).

On the first issue—the second is not really worth debating—the internet is a tool and delivers on the intentions of those who wield it; it is obvious that social media, but also the advances of quantum computing which will be upon us very soon, has transformed everything: not just in terms of information and media, but also in terms of status and expertise (The Dead Expert: something we have written about before).

And it will continue to transform our identities (which are already multiple) but also our selves which may become, as some scholars put it, more ‘distributed’—shaped by avatars, gaming and the transformation of our relationship to time and space which will be ushered in as the kind of thinking inherent to quantum physics gradually becomes a part of our world.

We need urgently to develop the tools for a more mature and textured understanding of social media and their impact and be willing to acknowledge that they may not just change the world but change our selves in the world.  In political and social terms, this means, at the very least acknowledging the new role that civil societies can play, the new actors it can throw up, unpredictably, and a willingness to look to unusual suspects and unusual places for change. 

      5. … but not fetishise ‘the new’

But social media work on an existing world and its baggage—they don’t create virgin territory or start with a blank slate.  They exacerbate situations or enable new ones, but based on existing repertoires.   While focusing on what’s new is important, it is the combination of new means and demands with existing habits, established institutions and conventions and embedded traditions that craft particular situations.

The current analyses around mobilisation in Russia are a case in point: while they normally end up turning into a pretext for a discussion mainly designed to weed out the optimists from the pessimists or, as some might say the naïve from the realists, Russia could be used to map how the new and the traditional are intertwined, what enduring symbols, myths or narratives are being used, and when there is a break with tradition, how it fits with national or regional forms of radical behaviour.

Or, take Tahrir Square and Occupy at St Pauls: movements formed in the placeless-ness and ubiquity of cyberspace, still find it essential to gather in a single, concrete space, redolent with a narrative and symbolic history.

The fact is that we are witnessing in many areas of the world (everywhere in fact) is RE-invention and not invention. In order to capture its subtlety and its promise, it is crucial to capture its cultural tenor.

As the world settles into an era of new power-bases, new rises and declines, re-invention will be the order of the day.  Tracking its highs and lows will mean a capacity for analysis that brings together past traditions, present circumstances and new means: that is the way we will be able to discern where possible power really lies, what institutions will truly prove resilient.  The movement of adaptation over the next few years will separate those institutions that are truly resilient and capable of reinventing themselves, from those that are dead or dying.

Catherine Fieschi, 2011


Catherine Fieschi


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