A personal reflection by Robin Chater, from the international Think Tank FedEE.
I remember the 7th of August 1998 very well because that was the day I resolved to stop travelling by plane. The attacks on two US embassies in East Africa brought to the fore an organisation called al-Qaeda and I knew instinctively that their next target must logically be an aircraft. The golden age of the 1990s was over and the World’s post-war regained innocence was destroyed. I never flew again until 2003, by which time the post 9/11 security blitz and hysteria had made the entire World so bleak and distrustful. The cold war had ended, but a far dirtier one had begun.
Things had all been so different after Mikhail Gorbachev had announced on December 7th 1988, to a stunned UN Assembly, that the Soviet Union would no longer meddle in the affairs of eastern European countries. The World held its breath – and even doubted its own optimism when events in Tiananmen Square seemed to reverse the tide a year later. But as the year turned in 1989 Francis Fukuyama was declaring the “end of history”, a message that rang out as it was finally realised that western liberalism had triumphed.
Looking back, for those of us that were around at the time, the 90s meant more than the fall of the iron curtain. It was the era of Microsoft and Apple, MTV, “Friends” and wall-to-wall Nirvana, it was the time when Germany reunited, the EU was born through the Maastricht Treaty and Mandela was released from prison. Yes, there was the Rwanda massacre, the first Iraq war and the death of Princess Di, but somehow all seemed essentially set for a positive future and no-one really distrusted change.
But how the benefit of time improves perspectives. Now we can not just ask what went so horribly wrong, but can no longer hope for anything else.
The first crack in the liberal Utopia came as greed – a throwback from the Bush and Thatcher years – met economic naivety for many people who had started online trading. I can recall back in 2005 meeting a complete stranger at a petrol filling station who went into raptures about how much money they had made by trading on-line that day.
“What was the secret to selecting a winner?” I asked.
“That’s the beauty of it, they are all going up every day.”
So, what first went wrong was that the huge bubble burst and “the beauty of it” was no more. The truth was out – that western liberalism was inextricably linked to a flawed capitalism that could never be sustained. By the time the recession was over a cultural implosion had taken place that few of us can still articulate, but only know by its uncomfortable aftermath. Nothing is as it was, or truly works any more. Look at Google trends for proof – we are all more interested in lies, but also in politicians. We respect the law, but not lawyers and no longer believe in words like “trust”, “democracy” or “authority”. The feeling that is more evident as we search the net is fear: fear of uncertainty, foreigners, crime and the future itself.
What thus defines the World as we enter the third decade of this millennium is that we no longer have any faith in the future. This is reflected so well in social movements such as the French “yellow vests”, and protest groups in Chile and Hong Kong. What started with one issue quickly spread to a multitude of discontent. The mass of people do not really know for sure what they want any more, but they do not want the status quo. In fact, what unites everyone is the act of protest itself. Like in the anarchist collectives of Barcelona during the Spanish civil war, the revolution must be perpetuated because it is the ambivalence and confusion that is the fundamental unifying purpose.
It is not the end of history that has taken place, but the death of the future. We no longer wish to know what it will be like in 50 years time. Futuristic movies will now find it very hard to find the Hollywood money to make them. Neither is nostalgia something to shed tears on the Ipad. It is all about “now” and a stark reality that we can no longer escape from. We believe in nothing and can no longer wait for dreams we anyway doubt. Hedonism does not come anywhere near to the state we thirst for, but until then a crazy hell will do.