The world is sliding into a new Dark Age of poverty, irrationality and war
Feb 24th, 2022
- The world is sliding into a new Dark Age of poverty, irrationality and war
- Vladimir Putin’s expansionism is the latest reminder that human progress is far from inevitable
- By Allister Heath
- Imperialism, war, irrationality, disease and economic dislocation: modernity is ending as it began. Vladimir Putin’s monstrous expansionism is the latest, terrifying reminder that human progress is far from inevitable, and that our wealth and technological advances rest on a set of extraordinarily fragile foundations.
- It is hard to be bullish about the next few years. As the 2020s progress, it will become obvious that our civilisation relied on a series of increasingly invalid assumptions: that genuine, destructive wars are unthinkable between major economies; that real incomes are on a permanent upwards trajectory, powered by globalisation; that technology necessarily empowers individuals; that deadly pandemics are a thing of the past, and biowarfare unimaginable; that our ever-more woke Western elites still believe in liberty, popular democracy and the rule of law.
- It is now clear that 1990 was the high watermark for the principle of national self-determination and liberal nationalism. Communism collapsed, allowing the independence of the former Soviet republics, Germany’s reunification and ushering in a short-lived Pax Americana. The same year, Iraq invaded Kuwait, and a US-led international coalition was assembled under UN auspices, annihilating Saddam Hussein’s army from the air in an astonishing display of technological prowess.
- Some 32 years later, Putin’s despicable Ukraine land-grab marks the final end of that period. It will make it easier for China to annex Taiwan. It will embolden Iran’s own deranged ambitions, and its pursuit of nuclear weaponry, triggering another major war in the Middle East. For now at least, America continues to protect Nato’s occasionally ungrateful members, but Russia’s action ends the pretence that a more general system exists to safeguard the independence of sovereign states. The UN, like the League of Nations before it, is irrelevant.
- Russia’s Ukrainian adventure is thus of far greater significance than the annexation of Crimea, or the Kremlin’s interventions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Putin’s strategy this time around is much more extreme and ambitious, with echoes of Sudetenland.
- The Russian dictator’s rambling speech this week was profoundly anti-modern: he regrets the demise of the Soviet Union, and wants to rebuild an empire based on what he claims was “historically Russia”. The speech could have been delivered by any pre-1914 or pre-1939 despot. There was the fake history, the appeal to blood and soil, the blatant propaganda: it was as old-fashioned and anti-rational as it was chillingly clear. Putin is turning the clock back to the pre-nation state era.
- We are back in a world of competing, imperialistic great powers, where borders are redrawn in their areas of influence, ignoring international law. The sorts of sanctions the West is imposing on Russia will hurt, but not sufficiently: Putin has spent years building up foreign exchange reserves and detaching his country from the global financial system. In any case the West, led by Germany but also the rest of the EU, the UK and the US, are continuing to buy some $700 million a day worth of Russian energy and commodities, according to Bloomberg.
- For now, America still has the ability to inflict pain by cutting countries or institutions out of dollar trades, but in time its power will diminish. The world’s financial system will divide into at least two, with one or more anti-dollar zones based around the renminbi or some other reserve mechanism. Putin and Xi Jinping’s expansionary ambitions will make this a necessity, and they will be supported by other regimes. Imran Khan, the Pakistani prime minister, is on a tour of Russia even as tanks roll into Ukraine.
- The return of a Hobbesian approach to international relations will tragically be accompanied by a collapse in support for free trade and globalisation. How, some will ask, can we simultaneously penalise and trade with Russia? How can we tolerate Chinese technology that spies on us? How can virtue-obsessed companies continue to preach hypocritically at home while engaging with countries that persecute minorities? What will happen to our deep economic ties with China if it invades Taiwan – and how would we cope with the massive recession and 1930s-style financial collapse a trade war would cause?
- The expansion in trade and capitalism since the 1990s was one of the great boons of all time for humankind: it pulled billions out of extreme poverty, hugely improved quality of life and slashed infant mortality. Deglobalisation, triggered by authoritarian militarism, if and when it comes, will be a humanitarian calamity.
- But while the West has largely condemned Russia’s move on Ukraine, it too is racked with its own internal ideological rejection of the modern, liberal-conservative order. Communism never really stood a chance in Europe and America, and a capitalist and democratic West thus triumphed in the Cold War; but the woke ideology, best understood as an anti-capitalist, anti-Western secular religion, has already captured much of the intelligentsia in America, Canada, New Zealand and increasingly Britain.
- In its extreme form, it represents a rejection of the Enlightenment, of freedom and reason; Western history is reviled as uniquely bad, rather than as a remarkable experiment in self-improvement. Individualism is replaced by collectivism and neo-feudalism, and Martin Luther King’s ideal of a colour-blind society by balkanised identity politics. Free speech is dismissed as “oppressive”. Dissenters are cancelled, with cultural institutions, capital and corporations happy to help impose this new orthodoxy. The fear is that technology will be used to increase the power of this new ruling class, rather than to liberate the masses.
- The parallel rise of a related extreme environmentalism – another millenarianist movement, more concerned with self-flagellation than protecting nature – has already encouraged a series of catastrophic errors, not least the abandonment of nuclear and greater dependency on Russian gas.
- So what is the solution? How can we halt the return of authoritarian imperialism? How can we stop a collapse in free trade? How can we defeat the woke demagogues? I’m sorry to disappoint you, dear reader, but there are no easy answers to prevent the world from sliding into a new dark age, and perhaps even in some cases none at all.
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