In the 2020s the 1920s Have Become the 1930s
I remember back about the turn of the century Thomas P.M. Barnett emerged as a national security counterpart to Thomas Friedman who could be characterized as devoting himself to explaining just how, exactly, “McDonnell-Douglas” would back up “McDonald’s.”
Barnett’s conformity to the globalization-singing conventional wisdom of the day made him the sort of fashionable Public Intellectual who got written up in places like Esquire (which magazine’s “foreign-policy guru” he subsequently became).
I was rather less impressed than the folks at Esquire. Still, Barnett was astute enough to acknowledge that the whole thing could unravel, citing Admiral William Flanagan in his book Blueprint for Action about the possibility that “the 1990s might be a replay of the 1920s,” raising “the question . . . What would it take for the 2000s to turn as sour as the 1930s?”
The analogy seems to me fair enough. Like the 1920s the 1990s were a period after the end of a major international conflict which it was hoped would never be followed by another like it. After all, those optimistic about the trend of things (at least, in the politically orthodox way) imagined that conflict’s end supposedly auguring the arrival of a more orderly, peaceful — and prosperous — world, with many a parallel quite striking. On both occasions the U.S. had emerged from that conflict as victor, hyperpowered arbiter of the world’s fate, and in the “American way,” the pointer to everyone else’s future amid a financial boom and euphoria over a supposedly epochal revolution in productivity and consumerism bound up with new technology, and immense self-satisfaction about their freer, “liberated” lifestyles — all the while ignoring anything that gave the lie to their illusions, dismissing the financial crises, the international crises, as mere bumps on the road, which they insisted were quite manageable by deified Overseers of the Global Economy, and the stirrings of radicalism at home and abroad (the country certainly had its “status politics,” its “culture wars”) a much-ado-about-nothing on the wrong side of the end of history.
Considering it Barnett — whom it must be noted again, was fashionable because he was conventional — was on the whole optimistic that the challenges could remain so manageable in the long term. (Hence, that “Blueprint for Action.”) Those taking a less sanguine view of these developments thought otherwise, and they have since proven correct as, just as the illusions of the ’20s died, so did those of the ‘90s.
When we look back at the ’20s the tendency is to think of them as having come to an end in 1929, with “the Great Crash.” Of course, the end of the mood we associate with the decade was not so obviously tidy. But it does seem that the illusions of the ’90s may have been a longer time dying than those of the ’20s, dying only a bit at a time, with the way things played out enabling the denials to last longer. One may recall, for example, the rush to declare the financial crisis that broke out in 2007–2008 past — such that even an Adam Tooze, when buckling down to study the event properly, was himself surprised to conclude in a book published a decade later that it had never gone away, as it still has not, simply merging with other crises, like the COVID-19 pandemic and its own attached economic crisis (also not behind us, even if some pretend it is), into something bigger and worse and scarier. (How big and bad and scary? Well, according to one calculation, even before the pandemic economic growth rates had either virtually flatlined or turned significantly negative for most of the planet — which makes all the backlash against neoliberalism — the votes for Trump, Britain’s exit from the EU, and all the rest — that much less surprising.) Meanwhile, if any doubts had remained after a decade of intensifying and increasingly militarized conflict among the great powers, the war in Ukraine has made it very, very clear that the actuality of such things — open, large-scale, sustained interstate warfare between large nation-states in the middle of Europe, and escalating confrontation between NATO and Russia — is a significant and worsening part of our present reality.
Looking at the news I do not get the impression that very many have properly processed the fact yet. But the neo-’20s mood that characterized the ’90s, and lingered in varying ways and to varying degrees long after the years on the calendar ceased to read 199-, seems ever more remote these days, and any indication otherwise ever more superficial.
Originally published at https://naderelhefnawy.blogspot.com.