Will Covid hasten Decline and Fall of the ‘Western Empire’? – Joyce McMillan

It’s the year 2050 and an academic explains the collapse of the US-led, post-WWII world order, via Joyce McMillan.
Was Ronald Reagan's election the moment when the West began to fall? (Picture: Michael Evans/The White House/Getty Images)Was Ronald Reagan's election the moment when the West began to fall? (Picture: Michael Evans/The White House/Getty Images)
Was Ronald Reagan's election the moment when the West began to fall? (Picture: Michael Evans/The White House/Getty Images)

The year is 2050; and somewhere on the face of an overheated and much-depleted planet, a scholar sits down to write a book. There have been many profound crises, in the last 40 years or so, that might attract his or her attention; but the special subject in hand is the great coronavirus crisis of 2020, which – in our scholar’s view – triggered the final breakdown of the global system set up by the western powers in 1945, after their victory in the Second World War.

“During those 75 years of relative stability in the west and north,” writes our scholar, “the postwar system first took a broadly social-democratic form, enabling governments to support economic growth and an increase in affluence by spreading wealth more widely through their populations, and setting up a strong public infrastructure in essential areas such as health, welfare, education, energy and food supply. From the 1980s on, though – as leaders like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan embraced the thinking of pro-market economic theorists who were sceptical of postwar welfarism – the world began to return to a more unregulated, 19th-century model of capitalism, promoting the idea that if the rich were set free to become ever richer – generally by maximising their profits at the expense of workers and suppliers – then that high headline economic growth figure would ‘trickle down’, to the general benefit of all.

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“By the year 2010, however, it was becoming clear that that model did not work in the way its advocates suggested. In strongly pro-free-market economies like the US and UK, real wages for many ordinary workers had long since begun to flatline, and suffered a sharp decade-long decline after the financial crash of 2008-2009. The western countries which were achieving the highest levels of real income growth and human development, in the early 21st century, were those which had put up the strongest resistance to crude free-market thinking, and embraced a more ‘Nordic’ development model, with something like a 50/50 balance between public and private sector activity; and the huge economic success story of this period, in terms of raw economic growth, increasing general affluence, and the eradication of poverty, was the People’s Republic of China, which operated a highly authoritarian form of state capitalism far removed from the small-state ideology then dominating US and Atlanticist thinking.

“Even worse, in the effort to sustain a system which was continuing to enrich the rich while increasingly causing hardship, stress and insecurity to millions of less-well-off citizens, the leaders of some major democracies began, with the assistance of sections of the media, to seek to bolster support for their policies by constructing false narratives that would act as distraction from the real economic and environmental processes taking place.

“Among those narratives was the pervasive blaming of foreigners, and the promise to new build new barriers against them, that characterised both Donald Trump’s US presidential election campaign in 2016, and the British EU referendum campaign of the same year. Between 2015 and 2020 the United Kingdom – its media and government machine – were almost entirely preoccupied with Brexit, essentially an unnecessary and destructive process driven by the false assertions of the Vote Leave campaign; in the United States, meanwhile, the Trump administration became an increasingly chaotic exercise in illusion and delusion, dismissed with scorn by many state and municipal leaders who had to step up to make rational policy in the absence of serious national leadership.

“And so,” concludes our scholar, “when the coronavirus emergency erupted, in the first months of 2020, it found the United States and its most loyal European ally crucially weakened by years of poor leadership and degraded public debate, by systematic underfunding of essential public services, by the ideologically driven privatisation of what should be public goods, and by reckless deregulation of the labour market in areas essential to public well-being.

“The consequences of this systemic failure were grave, and extended beyond the shocking death-tolls suffered by both countries, over a few short months. The combination of an unnecessarily severe Covid epidemic, the lengthy series of economic lockdowns it necessitated, and the collapse of trust in government caused by failures of moral and practical leadership in London and Washington, crucially weakened both the UK and US both politically and economically. By the end of the crisis, both countries had essentially forfeited any claim to global leadership; and it was no surprise when the Chinese government, early in 2022, began to gather allies in proposing a historic conference to reset the global trading and financial system, in ways that would reflect the new realities of power, and finally begin to address the mounting climate crisis.

“As for the people of the UK and US – well, in many areas their civic, democratic and communitarian traditions remained strong; and they began to rebuild from the grassroots, in societies struggling with the consequences of decline, and the substantial material impoverishment of large numbers of their citizens. Many young people left, though; for the new democracies of the Far East, or, if they could, for Germany, Ireland and the Nordic countries. And in the most disaffected parts of the US and UK – California, Scotland, Northern Ireland...”

But here, our scholar turns away from the keyboard, to look at a little bird that has arrived on the window-sill. There aren’t so many birds around in 2050, although some reports say that after two decades of rapidly declining carbon emissions and enforced tree-planting, their numbers are beginning to recover a little. The scholar is hungry now, although the official protein packs in the fridge, supplemented by the odd ration of fruit and salad, are not too appetising. The scholar smiles at the bird, and decides to play some music. It’s British or American rock music of the late 20th century, of course; or perhaps a little jazz, from even earlier. Because when all the armies and profits and lies are gone, and the world is suffocating under the weight of our past misjudgments, some legacies of love and imagination are made to last; and will do, until there are no humans left to enjoy them.

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