A New Year: Better or Less Bad?
A New Year: Better or Less Bad?
As 2020 draws to a close one is reminded of the verse by Persian poet Masud Saad Salman hoping that the new year would not resemble the old one.
Masud, of course, was expressing that hope from the Nay Fortress where, having fallen from the grace in the court of a local despot, he had been imprisoned for a year, and was to remain there for the rest of his life. He lamented the fact that Saturday was like Friday and April like March and his share of sunshine reduced to a sickly ray from a hole in the roof of his cell. In other words, he wasn’t doing any better than many us did in the year just ended.
But, let us be provocative, didn’t 2020 have any redeeming feature?
I think it did.
To start with it made most of us understand that as members of the human species we are all in the same leaking boat. The pandemic was like a general amnesty or a conflagration that transcends boundaries and includes everyone, high or low, rich or poor, young or old. The old cliché about the flapping of a butterfly in the Amazon affecting the planet as a whole was never more than a cute abstraction. But the fact that a virus jumping from a beast in a Chinese animal market could travel to the while world is a reality that we have all experienced in various ways.
So, those who insist that this is the end of globalization may find out they have seen nothing of the cursed system yet.
To be sure, the world isn’t going to revert to 2019 as if 2020 hadn’t happened. Just as after Black Death in Europe or the Mongol invasion of large chunks of Asia and Europe things didn’t simply snap back to their original dimensions, this time, too, a return to paradise scenario seems dicey to say the least.
Those catastrophes, the virus-based one and the military one, led to major changes in many aspects of human life. Black Death showed that all the churches and prayer books were helpless in the face of an uncontrollable plague and that only science could have a chance to stem it. The ravages caused by the Mongol hordes revealed the fundamental weakness of ramshackle empires that were to be replaced by nation-states eventually emerging from the Westphalian Treaties.
Over time two catastrophes paved the way for what was to become the Enlightenment, a new way of interpreting the world that slowly but surely replaced the old ones provided by church and empire.
Fast forward to here and now one might say that 2020 has placed question marks in front of many of our certainties. One badly shaken certainty is that of progress woven around the myth of endless growth, or, the possibility of always having our cake and eating it.
The obsession that more is always better is challenged by the notion that less but better might be preferable.
Another shaken certainty is governments, regardless of ideological hue, are often part of the problem rather than a crucial component of any solution. Even ardent advocates of “less government means better government” applaud the decision by almost all nations to print money on a no-tomorrow basis as “timely and wise”. After three decades of worship at the altar of austerity we ae now invited to attach pieces of cloth to a magical money tree and convert to what they call the New Monetary Doctrine.
Nevertheless, our responses to the 2020 catastrophe reveal certain unalterable features of human behavior when dealing with disasters. Here, the Roman historian Pliny the Younger may give us some hints. Chronicling the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 BC, which cost the life of his adoptive father, he divided the reaction of the people into several categories.
First, there were those who tried to flee the disaster, trying to run faster than the molten lava which proved to be faster than them. Next, there were those who, ran towards the disaster area in the hope of saving fellow human beings. Then there were those who took the first boat to get as far away from the disaster area as possible, not knowing that the after effects of the tragedy would catch up with them. Finally, some came from all quarters, including many from afar, to plunder the abandoned houses and shops, to sell snake-oil remedies, and to make a fast buck out of people’s misery.
In the year just ending we have witnessed similar reactions across the world. There were those who tried to flee but were caught up and those who rushed back to help others even at the risk of their own lives. Hundreds of millions were made poorer while a small number increased their wealth, Amazon and Big Pharma being just two examples.
In the political sphere, the way various governments dealt with the pandemic is certain to impact their standing with public opinion at home and abroad. All in all, no government managed to fully gauge a phenomenon about which they knew next to nothing.
And, in almost all cases, whatever governments did or did not proved to have had little or no effect on altering the course of the pandemic. Governments did well or badly in dealing with the economic and social consequences of the pandemic.
One other important feature of the crisis may have been the reassertion of capitalism as the surest means of coping with a disaster hitting us out of the blue. The huge mass of available capital with historically low interest rates, not to mention food reserves at historic record levels, and virtually inexhaustible productive capacities across the globe provided many nations with a shield against potentially fatal economic and social shocks.
In the new year, the pent-up demand imposed by the pandemic is likely to provide a launching pad for an upsurge in global economic activity with emphasis on significant re-localization of many industries and services. In other words, when you have hit the bottom you have nowhere to go but up.
The year just ending taught us not take things for granted and to value even the most pedestrian joys that existence allows us such a walk in a park without wearing muzzles that suffocate us.
However, if 2020 had any redeeming feature it may have been the salutory lesson it taught us neither to despair nor to presume.