Not too long ago, the wham bam of successive world wars taught us a simple lesson: peace is better than war. Ceaseless command and control was to give way to the subtler principles of game theory. Trade and technology, we imagined, would deliver us into a brand new age — the age of income equality, universal rights for all, and a world safer and more just. We thus saw the birth of collaborative unions and global organisations — the European Union (EU), the UN, the World Bank system via Bretton Woods and so on.
So how far have we come along this long trek to a terrestrial paradise? We can all agree if paradise is indeed a place on Earth, it’s surely not in the Middle East. Syria is in ruins, Egypt is in ruins, most of Iraq is in ruins; the rest is on the razor edge of inferno. As of this writing, Istanbul airport is up in flames from two blasts, which have already claimed 34 lives and counting. This is not new anymore. Istanbul has been hit before, multiple times in fact, just in the last one year.
Closer to home in South Asia, there is little cheer and plenty of phantasmagoria. Just recently, Pakistan and Afghanistan exchanged crossfire along the Torkham border. Mullah Mansoor’s incriminating presence in Quetta before his death via drone, and the spectacular failure of Afghan Taliban peace negotiations — QCG — admits of little hope for peace, if any. Not that it’s all rainbows and sunshine elsewhere. As India flirts with America via LEMOA and NSG, while Pakistan offers itself to China via the CPEC, it seems the region wishes to remain a playpen for strategic sadists and megalomaniacs for some time to come.
Turn your attention to the greatest nation on Earth, and all it takes is a single glance at a Donald Trump rally for a cruel reminder of how decades of steady progress is not guaranteed to fly you far from the perch of transcendental stupidity.
At least Europe is peaceful, the optimists would say. Having swallowed most of the inhabitable world in their expansionist land-lust, before chopping it up in arbitrary chunks, the Europeans, it appeared, were a happy bunch. But as Brexit has shown, even this grand Basilica has cracks in its foundations.
It wasn’t too long ago that the allied powers of Great Britain and the US were on fire. Dresden was pounded high up from the skies. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were introduced to uranium and plutonium atomic bombs — radioactive death that came in cute names “Little Boy” and “Fat Boy” — every bit the “rain of ruin” of which Harry Truman had warned the Japanese. Today, though, Germany and Japan are both healthy economies. As for the allied forces, one just voted itself out of the EU, and the other boasts a presumptive presidential nominee who stands to remind us, with every new day and every new tweet, we share 99 per cent of our genome with chimps.
In this context, Brexit comes to us as both symptom and reinforcement of things we’ve suspected all along. First, it points to the flakiness of the modern-day economic system. Within hours of the referendum result, the British pound had plunged to 30-year lows, while the yen had shot up. Reckless financial speculation is, perhaps, one of the reasons for such dramatic swings in economy. The wanton printing of paper money by central banks and the vagaries of fiat currency are part of a greater problem no one wants to talk about.
Second, we are reminded that red tape and over-governance is a disease which can eat up the best of us. There is an irony here. One of the main advantages of something like the EU is that it opens borders, trade and movement of labour between member countries. But what good is it if excessive bureaucracy and regulations imposed by Brussels kills the very fluidity and mobility for which the Union was conceived in the first place.
Third, we are also reminded of the frailty of majoritarian consensus. Are referendums the way to go when it comes to matters of great import? Surely, this referendum will only convince the crazies on the far right that the democratic project (at least its majoritarian variant) is doomed.
And finally, say what you will about globalisation, but we see a resurgence of nationalism, and dare I say, tribalism in much of the world today: Golden Dawn in Greece, Marine Le Pen in France, AfD in Germany and so on. It appears a generation of people, some that fought the bloodiest wars in recent history, are not all too keen on linking up arms and singing Kumbaya with the ‘other’. Millennials may have a different mindset altogether, having grown up in the pampered sappy era of Facebook and Instagram, but borders and flags remain important to the older lot that spilt sweat and blood to secure them. And this is where we see the bloody signs of a new world emerging from the birth canal of an old one: a new generation which views the world not through the narrow chink of corralled, incorrigible nationalisms but rather through a perspective expanded by the boundary-dissolving agency of the internet. Which is why a great many younger people were on Bernie’s camp in the US, and the pro-Union camp in Britain. But this demographic trend can run the other way as well — especially in countries previously colonised, where issues of identity and inherited resentments derange young minds to great acts of terror. How things ultimately pan out remains to be seen, but the process of birth, of the new emerging from the old, is seldom painless.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 6th, 2016.