This year really was remarkable, and it was remarkable on a number of levels: politically, economically, militarily, and, indeed, personally. So many exceptional things happened that, scanning back over the events of 2011, I see myself as a blur, flailing about between massive international stories and personal crises. 2011 was the year of the Arab Spring, and I don’t think even the economic crisis in Europe or the earthquake and Tsunami in Japan could trump that. Three absolutely colossal sequences of events, all of which, in themselves, contain individual events that would be considered huge stories in and of themselves; Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Greece, the Fukushima nuclear crisis… And this is not to mention the Occupy movement, the London riots and the ongoing decline of American industrial might.
Just as the massive earthquake in Japan shifted the planet Earth ever so slightly off its axis, so 2011 saw the planet shift geopolitically. The rise of the Arab street has transformed the Middle East forever. The change is not yet securely in place, but the mechanism of change certainly is. It is difficult to predict what sort of governments and societies might emerge from the popular uprisings in the Middle East, but now that the people have found their voice, there is a real hope that they will no longer allow themselves to be lorded over by tyrants. One can only hope they seek a new direction in liberal governance and not religious fundamentalism. In the case of Egypt, one can only hope that they actually do get their revolution in the end. For, the sad fact of the matter is that a successful revolution means the removal and replacement of the governing body with a new one installed by the revolutionaries, and this has not happened in Egypt yet. The army is still in command as it always has been and despite them allowing elections to proceed, just how much power and privilege they are willing to relinquish is anyone’s guess. A possible worst-case scenario might be a marriage between the military and a resurgently non-secular Muslim Brotherhood. Wait and see.
Of course, Syria is the story of the moment – a situation about which I feel totally incapable of making confident predictions. Will the uprising spread further through the armed forces? Will there be a bloody civil war? Will the presence of Arab League observers ensure a transition to a more peaceful political solution? Will the sanctions hurt the government and security forces sufficiently to disrupt their campaign of oppression, or merely drive the people further into deprivation, poverty and anger, causing them to rise up with greater fury? Will the Assad regime come unstuck, or will they, through deception and manipulation, mitigate change to accommodate their continued rule?
And what now of Europe? The collapse of the Greek economy and their ability to service debt has not so much spread across Europe as it has occurred concurrently with other poor models of economic management. Spain, Ireland and even possibly Italy have all borrowed and spent beyond their means and now face internal crises of spiralling debt, stagnation, stagflation, and mass unemployment. It was once thought that a great strength of the Euro was that should one country encounter difficulties, it oughtn’t be sufficient to effect an economy as large as the Eurozone. Few predicted such a widespread debt and financial crisis, and few also predicted that the response would be so tiresomely old-fashioned. Austerity measures are one way of saving money, but they significantly inhibit the ability to produce money by removing stimulus from the economy. It might be cheaper to support workers on unemployment benefits than to pay them their public sector salaries, but the newly unemployed have very limited purchasing power, this further reducing consumer spending and increasing economic contraction.
Europe it seems, has yet to hit rock bottom, and precisely how it can recover long term is anyone’s guess. No doubt it will, but how with much social compromise? The rising success of authoritarian capitalism in China might be anomalous in the long term, but it could also presage a new model wherein democracy is no longer the inevitable consequence of prosperity. In China, the economy has always been strong when the state has been strong. Democracy might prove too big a risk in so vast a region, too unwieldy and detrimental to the smooth flow of capital and the operation of business and industry. Perhaps this is a particularly Chinese situation, but will Europe, in the grip of its highly divisive social pressures, ultimately seek solace once more in right wing politics: old fascism, new fascism? With China buying up global debt and investing its vast reserves in infrastructure projects at home and abroad, is this the moment when the west fatally stumbles and loses its hegemony? It has, to a great degree, lost much of its legitimacy, and were it not for the Arab Spring, one might fear that democracy itself as a desirable goal globally has lost much of its legitimacy.
This is quite an intense period globally, with communism dead and buried, capitalism has largely reigned triumphant by default. Apart from the more alarming extremes of ideology such as totalitarianism or religious fundamentalism the only real alternative ideology in politics, and one which is by no means intrinsically at odds with neo-liberal capitalism, is environmentalism. As this is seen as a challenge to capitalism, rather than as a means by which to regulate the worst excesses of capitalism, it has been demonised as the new communism – attracting venomous attacks by right wing forces the world over as nanny-state socialism designed to destroy private enterprise and restrict social freedoms, especially in the realm of consumer choice. And, let’s face it, consumer choice is the new democracy, providing sufficient of a sense of freedom to satisfy the over-consuming needs of the largely apolitical middle classes the world over. Singapore is a perfect example of this marriage of authoritarian government and consumer freedom, which may, alarmingly, provide an ideal template for the capitalist management of future societies.
So 2011 was, in some ways a very hopeful year for democracy and the empowerment of people, in others, a testament to the failings of western democratic capitalism versus Asian authoritarian capitalism. It was also a year that saw the further delay of any legal, binding environmental treaty to replace Kyoto, an almost purely symbolic treaty in itself. With governments mostly limiting themselves to voluntary reductions in greenhouse gases, with half-baked promises of a legally binding treaty to be determined in 2015, and hopefully taking force by the end of the decade, we can pretty well write off the next ten years so far as meaningful reductions are concerned. Certainly, there will be further investment in alternative renewable energy sources and other efforts to reduce carbon through greater industrial efficiency, yet without a grand global strategy and any real oversight, governments will default on their promises whenever convenient or expedient, or continue to move the goalposts as they have done for years while increasing carbon output. In truth, they would likely do this with a treaty in place anyway, as has proven to be the case with Kyoto.
The world is only just beginning to grasp the nature of the playing field that has developed in the twenty years since the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. Asia is in the ascendant, well on its way to becoming the wealthiest region on the planet, as it was for most of human history until Europe got lucky and discovered and exploited the wealth of the Americas. Brazil has now overtaken the UK as the world’s sixth-largest economy and the United States will finally be eclipsed by China by roughly 2025, possibly even sooner. To understand global priorities looking ahead, one only has to compare actions and words – governments are really only concerned about their economic vitality and thus the success of the businesses and economic activity that drives those economies – everything else is a sideshow. The gulf between the energy, speed and money poured into attempting to solve the economic crisis and funding the military, and the money and energy applied to tackling global warming, disease, sanitation, the rising cost of food, growing social inequality etc is absolutely staggering. Money talks and bullshit walks. As Leonard Cohen sang, “I’ve seen the future, brother, it is murder.”
On a more personal level, 2011 was an incredible year in which I finally returned to full productivity and regained my engagement with and interest in the world around me. After spending almost eighteen months in a virtual world, it took me some time, from the end of 2010 until roughly June of this year, to fully shake off the hangover and wake up.
To mix up some lyrics by The Church, “I embraced a machine, went through the routine, and hid from the people who were trying to find me.” Well, again, to quote The Church, 2011 was the year I came “back from software limbo.”
An ex-girlfriend once told me many years ago, when largely unenthused about life and engrossed in Baldur’s Gate 2, that it was as though I had lost the will to live. She was right, at the time, in a way, because there have been times when I’ve found, through hard work, drudgery, or indeed, overindulgence, that my interest in things around me has diminished to a shrug and forget “whatever.” Throughout 2009 and 2010, I found myself continually struggling against losing the will to live. Not in a serious sense – I’ve never been suicidal, but in the sense of putting a lot of energy into life and doing active and exciting things. There were moments where I really came back to life, such as the two months in India I had between March and May 2010, yet on the whole I was lacklustre, single and quite frankly, not at all bothered about where I was at in life.
Such a state of being was a luxury of sorts, but when I found things that mattered again, met new people and re-engaged, I was drawn back into reality and began to pay attention to it once more. Without wishing to go further into it, falling in love and getting dumped earlier in the year was the best thing that happened to me in ages. It shook off the last vestiges of the torpor that prevailed even in the post-gaming haze. Going to emotional hell and back, where I realised how much I hated myself and thus needed either to rebuild, reprogram or reinterpret myself, was precisely what I needed. It was only when deeply depressed and despairing that I could see the truth clearly and thus prioritise accordingly. Moving house, working harder, running harder and faster, seeing a psychologist, making new friends, finding new venues, applying myself fully to writing and photography, all proved beneficial. In effect, getting dumped kick-started a thoroughly enjoyable period of personal spring-cleaning that has filled me with hope and purpose. It also put me in a great place from which to meet someone amazing, the best possible finish to a very trying and exciting year. I certainly won’t be forgetting this year in a hurry.