Dateline: November 2120
Note: The authors, Sienna Mboya and Amélie Paralogos are both great grandchildren of Frank and Rosemarie Kennan, the originators of this blog based on their Library of Civilisation.
An enormous amount of history has been written about the decade starting in 2020 but, in our opinion, not nearly enough attention has been given to that single momentous year and those immediately preceding it. This post is an attempt to redress that gap in the study of the origins of our own Brave New World.
2020 did not start as a year that was going to be any different to the three preceding years. For those years, the world was already in chaos. It was known universally that we faced two existential threats: human induced climate change and loss of biodiversity. Despite the understanding that there was very little time left for the hope of redressing these twin catastrophes, many of those who could take action denied the very existence of both. In the years immediately preceding 2020 the world was also immersed in two, unrecognised, seemingly alternate universes. The first of these was an intense fixation on an economic society: this was a condition that had been building since the Industrial Revolution. This caused a slow, but accelerating, drift away from a society that tried to alleviate the difficulties faced by everyday members, into one that more or less adored mammon. The apparent purpose of humanity was to produce and consume. Anything that interfered with that ideal, such as unions, believers in social justice, and climate realists, were seen as disloyal to progress. The media, conservative and liberal, gave immense amounts of space over to business and the stock market. The whole dystopian reality was probably best summed up by Margaret Thatcher from her perch as Prime Minister of Great Britain when she happily proclaimed that “greed is good”. At times, it seemed that society consisted entirely of Chambers of Commerce.
The second imagined alternate universe related to the more modern development of social media. It was one of the world’s greatest achievements but, in its early years, those who were its masters seemed totally unaware of the destructive forces that it made available to the most unscrupulous of humans. Dialectics and algorithms allowed such gangsters to access, and crudely analyse, the vast troves of personal information available about each individual on a plethora of social media. They then bent the stories that chosen targets were receiving, to exaggerate whatever particular hatred or superstition they suffered from. It seems almost inconceivable from our vantage point a hundred years later that people, including experts, thought that the information on their social media accounts was secure from prying eyes and misuse. Nor does it seem to have crossed anyone’s mind that the democratic ideal of free speech did not include the abomination of anonymous free speech. What happened was that the practitioners of dialectics were able to identify the various extreme constituencies within their own democracies and drown their ability to think by swamping them with persuasive lies, conspiracy theories and biased beliefs that matched each individual’s faulty knowledge or logic. Using such doubtful strategies they could create a winning election strategy. This reversed the aged pattern of democracy so that instead of electing leaders, we gave power to people without any leadership skills who then had to spend all of their time kowtowing to some element of their astonishingly disparate followers. In effect this led to mob rule: an evil that was firmly believed to belong to the distant past. Chaos ensued. In order to maintain the electoral cohesion of such a ragtag group, vis, Alt- Right, racists, misogynists, sexists, fundamental Christians, Ayn Rand disciples, QAnon unfortunates and a thousand other zany creeds, logic had to be abandoned and a whole series of two word, non-answers had to be invented, such as “Fake News”, “Deep State” and “Liberal Lies”. Entire political systems became farcical pantomimes with assorted Queens of Hearts in the lead roles.
The clowns seemed to be varied in their approach to power but they all held the underlying idea, on almost every level, that the past was superior to the present. Trump in America was blunt with his slogan to make America Great Again, without of course, specifying when that Great America existed exactly. Both Russia and Britain hankered after their times of empire. Modi and Erdogan and some Mideastern leaders pined for a true religious Theocracy, while Netanyahu wanted to possess a Biblical geographic state but with no votes for the indigenous population. Bolsonaro and others just wanted to imitate Trump. Europe had its own clowns but they were hampered in their ambitions because the very people who had voted them into office were totally opposed to leaving the European Union with its insistence on rule of law. It was in the midst of this cacophony of unreason that the 2020 pandemic landed and brought with it an unimaginable collection of fears, both real and fanciful. The fear of death or illness, of economic ruin, of social anarchy and of God’s wrath. For nearly two years it did bring carnage, both in bereavement and in mental health. The curtailment of ordinary life, and the sadness this brought with it, were so all encompassing that it was many years before those who had suffered through it could recognise that it had also brought with it an extraordinary, and timely, acceleration in human civilisation. The first pillar of these aforementioned alternate universes to collapse was signalled by the dethronement of Trump – we chose the word carefully. As the scandals hidden by his power and his collection of lackeys began to surface, Congress had to provide extra car parks for whistleblowers trying, belatedly, to rescue their reputations. Only William Barr was unrepentant as he had the surety of knowing that he had been doing God’s will. Whilst America was convulsed with the knowledge that so many of them had been taken as gullible innocents, other related events were playing out across the globe. Nobody had truly understood the influence that tin pot dictators could wield on the simple basis of being a friend of, and having access to, the American President. With his fall, the world breathed a sigh of relief and everything changed. Putin fell within two years as he became anathema to everyday Americans (although there is a valid argument that his collapse was as much to do with the loss of oil and gas revenues as renewables became the norm). In Britain the leader Cummings, a virus like creature, was finished when the technology corporations took a look at our new world and decided that the damage done by operating a major part of their business in a low regulated, off-shore, money laundering island, would have far too great a negative impact on their reputations. With the collapse of that mirage, Cummings had to go
(for the pedants, we are aware that the constitutional leader was Johnson, but this was in name only. In reality he was more an incompetent court jester).
The stormy ending of crude populism in much of the world allowed the smooth advance of the more important social change. The pandemic had allowed, even forced, a great number of the world’s population to examine their societies and their own place in them. The great majority realised that a civilisation that exalted the profit motive above all other ambitions, wishes, moralities and futures, was not taking care of ordinary citizens. This led to what we now call the enlightened Enlightenment. Amongst other achievements this saved our planet, increased our love of science, culture, justice, education and empathy. When the pandemic struck, the first thing that these ordinary people realised was that populist leaders were so totally bereft of ideas for combating the virus that they imitated King Canute in telling the tide to stop coming in or, as an alternative, trying to foist the blame onto some enemy or other. Interspersed were miracle cures and statistics that scientists had never heard of. It was a time of sadness and madness but, nonetheless, it led ineluctably to the most momentous change in human society since the invention of agriculture.
Suffering in lockdown, people had time to consider the return to a normal life that they were expected to ardently wish for. The inferior healthcare, housing, and education that their poverty made inevitable, the stress from long commutes and substandard child care and all of this combined with the ubiquitous and truly farcical disparity in wealth. Even more importantly, from our point of view in their future, they had time to look at the overall system of society with opened eyes. What they saw was that it was not designed to improve the general good but was specifically designed to help those already riding some pig’s back. Dreaming of their children’s future, and experiencing the early wrath of climate change, they began to understand the glutinous appetites of the commercial community. Most of the entities involved are now forgotten, but with a few exceptions: the brutal hypocrisy of the extractive industries, feeding vulture like on an already wounded earth; the great engineering companies, Boeing and Volkswagen, who eschewed their skills for the sake of a few more dollars; and the enormous pharmaceutical conglomerate of The Sacklers for whom a great fortune doing good was not enough, so they became drug dealers. At the
same time, too many farmers were stealing the rhythm of their land and their stock for no motive other than economic gain.
It was fifty years into the last century before those who had lived through that fateful year of 2020 grasped that, despite their suffering, they were honoured to have experienced one of the most fateful years of human history. Without that year we would probably not be here to write this essay. More importantly, without the events of that cataclysmic year, we would not now be optimistic about our ongoing battle against climate degradation. 2020 will always be remembered as the year of birth of our new Renaissance and of our new Enlightenment.