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The seeds of current global political chaos were planted a decade ago

An anti-government protester
REUTERS/Susana Vera
An anti-government protester shelters himself from being sprayed by a water cannon during a rally outside the Legislative Council building in Hong Kong in September.

If the United States wasn’t in such an uproar at the moment, it might be easier to see that much of the rest of the world is in an uproar, too. 

It’s not just Syria or Venezuela; political chaos in Israel, tensions in the Persian Gulf, trade wars, immigration or Brexit. People are on the streets in countries all over the world. 

While it’s unlikely that anything as dramatic as the fall of the Berlin Wall, 30 years ago this week, will occur, the breadth of protests is remarkable. Hong Kong and Moscow have gotten a lot of attention this year, as have global protests against climate change and efforts to undo Brexit. But mass protest movements forced out strongmen in Sudan and Algeria earlier this year. Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt have been engulfed in protest. In Iraq, 250 people have died; in Egypt, hundreds, if not thousands, have been detained. In Latin America, Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia and Honduras all have seen serious unrest.  

Writing about Latin America recently in Foreign Affairs, Moises Naim and Brian Winter said:  “It is now an open question whether any country in the region can be considered truly stable.” In its own understated way, that’s quite an observation. 

You certainly could name other countries and other regions. And in some of them you can hear an echo of the debate going on in the United States.

What gives? Those looking for common threads focus on perennial issues such as inequality, economic distress, corruption and a lack of democracy. Those problems frequently go hand in hand, and in many places they seem to be sliding together in the wrong direction. But the answer to “Why now?” is most often clear only in retrospect.

In the meantime, here’s another way to look at many of these stories — as a bookend to the decade. You can trace a goodly number of them to events in the news at the beginning of the decade. So how will today’s stories look a decade from now?

It’s popular to regard protests in Iraq and Lebanon as a challenge to Iranian influence, and that’s true enough. Both countries factor heavily in Iran’s effort to project its power in the Middle East, and Tehran has outsized influence on both governments. But that doesn’t make them any less corrupt or the economy work any better; quite the opposite, arguably. 

In those two countries, in Syria and Egypt and arguably in Sudan and Algeria as well, it’s also about the unfinished business of the Arab Spring of 2011. Millions of young people — then and now — have been frustrated by a lack of opportunity and feel that the system has been rigged by a corrupt elite. Leaders have been forced out in Lebanon and Iraq, as well as Sudan and Algeria. Whether there will be real change is another matter entirely.  

For some perspective on what’s going on in South America and Hong Kong, look to Beijing. Protests in Chile, Ecuador and Argentina are largely about economic issues. A boom in commodity exports — largely to China — led to a decade of growth across South America, which started petering out as Chinese demand waned in the early part of this decade. Naim and Winter argue that governments didn’t react quickly enough to rein in resulting budget deficits. When they did, eliminating fuel subsidies in Ecuador and raising public transport fees in Chile, the people reacted, too. In addition, Brazil, which also rode the commodities boom, has suffered from a deep recession. China has helped keep Venezuela afloat with an oil-for-loans deal. 

Promising a return to a stricter Communist orthodoxy, Xi Jinping became the head of China’s Communist Party in November 2012, and its president a few months later. Hong Kong’s protests are a direct expression of fears that Xi, now president for life, is intent on curtailing freedoms that Hong Kong has managed to preserve.

To better understand Russia in 2019, go back to 2011. Vladimir Putin, forced out by term limits, was prime minister. But in September, he announced he would run for president again, a move that opponents denounced as evidence of anti-democratic inside dealing. December parliamentary elections were widely criticized as unfair, including by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Putin won the election in March 2012, and was reelected last year.

The Kremlin has been intent ever since on preventing large-scale protests like those of December 2011; many have traced Putin’s animus toward Clinton to her criticism of those elections. That certainly plays a role in Russia’s efforts to prevent what it sees as U.S. meddling; it probably plays a role in Russian meddling on behalf of President Trump in 2016.

Finally, a couple of reminders. While climate change certainly didn’t start this decade, the U.N. formally adopted the goal of keeping the rise in the global temperature to 2 degrees Celsius at a conference in Cancún, Mexico, at the end of 2010. And while Britain faces parliamentary elections next month that should finally determine what happens with Brexit, then-Prime Minister David Cameron set things in motion in 2013 by promising an up-or-down referendum on remaining in the European Union. 

The past, it’s true, isn’t dead — or even very much in the past.  

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by William Duncan on 11/04/2019 - 10:27 am.

    One could also look further back:

    Since the advent of industrialization and the use of fossil fuels, humanity has been on an exponential population growth curve. From about 1 billion in 1750, to 7.5 billion today.

    Since the 1970, a combination of getting off the gold standard (dollar financialization) and the “green revolution” of industrial commodity crop agriculture, human population has more than doubled.

    Seven and a half billion people following the lead of American style Financialization and consumerism, enormous pressure is put on ecosystems, fossil fuel supplies and fresh water. Ongoing, that means there will be ever more competition for remaining resources, with the inevitable and obvious consequences: eco-degradation and war war war.

    Financialization and this technological age has also facilitated the “plunder of the the commons and the treasury.” Increasingly, the wealthiest are able to plunder and hide assets. The rich get richer and the poor will get poorer – with the inevitable and obvious consequences, as the poor demand change and the wealthy strive to hold on to what they have and gain more.

    The moral of that story is, it is going to get a lot crazier, as climate change, specie extinction, systemic pollution and plain old greed eat away at the ability of humans to sustain, even as population continues to increase. Especially as the proposed fixes for this are mostly of the the same thinking that got us here.

    Degrowth is likely the answer. The end of consumerism and building an economy on food production that takes care of the earth and waters. Empowering people over corporations, banks and billionaires.

    Otherwise expect more crazy crazy crazy.

    • Submitted by James Baker on 11/04/2019 - 12:04 pm.

      A good capsule summary of the path we’ve taken and its eventual outplaying, but couldn’t you have waited for a day when the sun is shining to drop it on us?

      • Submitted by William Duncan on 11/04/2019 - 02:02 pm.

        It is shining now 🌞

        (And what I always tell people with a smile, when they say we are doomed…take care of the heart, and those and what you love…)

    • Submitted by Betsy Larey on 11/04/2019 - 07:00 pm.

      Wish you could explain why getting off the gold standard has had such an affect. I never really understood that. Thanks!

      • Submitted by William Duncan on 11/05/2019 - 09:45 am.


        The Gold Standard implied limits: a tangible asset tied to currency, dictated by price, putting hard physical and psychological limits on growth.

        Financializing currency means there are perceived to be no limits to anything in this economy. Regularly now, when a bank or a corporation or a private equity behemoth looks like it might go bankrupt, the Federal Reserve simply makes money out of nothing but the ether, handing it to these too-big-to-fail entities essentially free. Under the gold standard the Fed would have no such power, the TBTF entity would go bankrupt, just like they are supposed to in a free market. These monopoly entities now realize, they can gamble as they like, and no matter what they do they will be made whole.

        In addition, there are now well in excess of $1 quadrillion, or 1000 trillion dollars of “derivatives” – calls on returns – on a global economy that is said to generate $85 trillion/year; which is to say, the no-limits dollar has generated a shadow economy worth more than ten times the real economy.

        Too, the dollar after gold became what is called a fractional reserve currency, which means every time a dollar is generated, a greater debt is generated. It is a currency absolutely dependent on eternal growth. Debt is a call on the future, a tacit assumption that the future will always be wealthier than today.

        That has created in the American psyche, and increasingly globally, a belief bordering on religiosity that economic growth is essential and eternal. The problem is, we live on a finite planet. Resources are limited. Thinking resources are infinite means we degrade ecosystems with ever greater efficiency, we over-fish the oceans, we pollute with near impunity, we exterminate species, we fill the oceans with plastic, we destroy biodiversity with industrial agri-monoculture in the field and forest, and we assume that this is basically necessary to economic growth – and somehow magically because it has to, we will work out the problems without really having to change anything.

        But we are at a late stage of this. Debt growth, especially since 2008, has far outpaced economic growth. More and more money goes to maintain that debt, both in the dollar, and the earth that we have so degraded – we spend a lot more money fracking and deep sea drilling than we did with conventional oil, as example. The marginal prospects of millinnials compared the boomers at that age, is another example. It has become an irreducibly complex structure/system, which we know from history, creating such systems is called hubris, and they become fabulously fragile with time.

        Going back to a Gold Standard is no panacea, but it is probably inevitable to help reign in the excesses of this economy that has come to believe there are no limits to anything.

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/04/2019 - 11:36 am.

    Ten years? This strikes me as an artificial timeline. I won’t go into detail but Iran’s attempts to extend it’s influence stem back to the Iranian revolution in the 70’s, and we can trace THAT back to the CIA overthrow of Mossadegh in 1953.

    I think in general what this timeline is missing is the general world-wide collapse of neo-colonialism and the ongoing failure of neoliberal markets. Neoliberal “free” markets promised to deliver broad equality and equity but ended up delivering historical levels of inequality, segregation, and disparity. On almost every front from the environment to civil rights the historical trend towards more equality and sustainability has rolled back.

    If you want to put a date on that you would go back to the collapse of Keynesian economics and progressive programs in the 1980’s. We saw the consolation of neolibral/free market strategies that delivered stagnation and policy gridlocks of the following decades. Basically the common thread winding though all this discontent is a rejection of the political and economic systems that service the elite and it’s status quo under the guise of promising more “freedom”.

    If you want read a really nice discussion of this, check out the Op-Ed about David Noble from the Star Tribune.

  3. Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 11/04/2019 - 01:53 pm.

    To understand our current political climate, Nolan McCarty’s book “Polarization” is a good read. Most studies pinpoint the early 70s as the beginning of our polarization, which is not limited to political polarization. This effect does not stop at our borders, but, as Mark points out, it includes the entire world.

    Many attempt to explain it, but there is no agreed upon theory. Adding to Mark’s suspected causes are worldwide media/internet and our ability to find similar views, and Eric Weinstein has a compelling theory on how the fundamental structure of our society began to change in the 70s, exactly when wage stagnation and polarization began.

    • Submitted by Betsy Larey on 11/04/2019 - 07:07 pm.

      Thanks, I’ll buy that book. I would like to understand what is going on and don’t really know where to start. I do think that the Industrial Revolution, along with overpopulation has been a driver. I wish we could somehow prop up family farms instead of the massive agriculture conglomerates. Blame the government for that

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/06/2019 - 08:38 am.

      I know the “polarization” narrative is popular but it’s a false narrative.

      Status quo nostalgia like the polarization narrative because it’s organized around the idea that a collapse of the “center” promotes extremism and chaos. This is a comfortable narrative but it distorts reality.

      We’re actually not seeing “polarization” so much as we’re simply seeing a collapse of the elite power structure that marginalized a vast majority. From a political perspective Neo-Fascists have capitalized on the frustrations and marginalizations for the time being, but nowhere to they actually represent a majority or even 50% of the popular mindset. They are by definition extremists of sorts, but their opposition is by and large populated by people who simply seeking representation and redress for decades long crises that have been ignored by a political systems serving the elite.

      We’re not seeing polarization as much as we’re seeing a larger majority of the population coalescing around liberal agendas. The Polarization narrative is a reaction the liberal agenda that seeks to marginalize common sense programs as “radical” leftist programs in opposition to radical “right” programs. But since the majority who support the liberal agenda aren’t “radical”, they can’t be truly characterized as equal opposition to neo-fascist agenda. In other words, in a truly “polarized” scenario, Sander’s and Warren would have to be neo-communists… but they’re not, they’re just New Deal FDR liberals.

      • Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 11/06/2019 - 09:07 am.

        The book I reference is written by a respected left-leaning political scientist who has published many papers. He references hundreds of studies in his book.

        An interesting tidbit from the book that I have also seen in other articles. The more informed you are about the issues, the more polarized you are. That’s why, as I become more and more informed, I occasionally step back to appreciate both sides.

  4. Submitted by Joe Smith on 11/06/2019 - 10:44 am.

    Societal change has taken place since the beginnings of mankind. Blaming it on climate change or another “cause de jure” is trying make this generation different from others. It is not.

    • Submitted by John Evans on 11/06/2019 - 10:02 pm.

      We are just starting to see changes in human societies caused by climate change. There are more and more climate refugees. Some people are displaced by storms that destroy their homes and infrastructure (New Orleans, Puerto Rico, Haiti). Others are displaced as their streams and wells dry up, and their farm and pasture land becomes desert.

      Count on seeing tens of millions more in the coming decade. Large scale displacements tend to cause or exacerbate armed conflicts as well; conflicts that disrupt places where the refugees go, and prevent rebuilding of the places they left.

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