You know you’re living in a chaotic situation when (1) the mainstream media are constantly surprised by what is happening; (2) short-term predictions by various pundits go in radically different directions and are stated with many reserves; (3) the Establishment dares to say things or use words that were previously taboo; (4) ordinary people are frightened and angry but very unsure what to do. This is a good description of the past two years throughout the world, or at least in most parts of the world.
Consider the recent enormous "surprises" – the election of a Republican senator in Massachusetts; the financial collapse of Dubai; the near bankruptcy of various large states within the United States and four or five of the member states of the European Union; severe world currency fluctuations. These "surprises" are commented on each day in the world press and by leading politicians. They don’t agree at all about what is happening, and even less about what one should do to improve the situation. For example, I have seen only two intelligent statements about the election results in the United States. One was by Barack Obama himself: "The same thing that swept [Republican] Scott Brown into office [in Massachusetts] swept me into office. People are angry, and they’re frustrated." And the second was by African-American op-ed columnist in The New York Times, Charles M. Blow. He called his op-ed "Mobs rule." He said: "Welcome to the mob: an angry, wounded electorate, riled by recession, careening across the political spectrum, still craving change, nursing a bloodlust." First they elected Obama; now they’re rejecting him. Why? "The mob is fickle."
What are we seeing in California, in Greece, in most of the world’s governments? Government revenues are down, primarily because of reduced tax incomes, which are in turn caused by the fact that everywhere people are consuming less out of fear that their money is running out. At the same time, precisely because world unemployment is considerably greater, the demands on the states for expenditures have risen. So states have less money to meet greater demands. What can they do then? They can increase taxes. But taxpayers are seldom in favor of having their own taxes go up. And states are afraid of the flight of enterprises. Well, then, they can cut expenditures – present ones or future ones like pensions. And then they are faced with popular unrest, if not popular revolt.
Meanwhile, the "market" reacts. But what is this market that reacts – for example, by shifting its currency preferences? It is very large corporations and financial structures like hedge funds, which are working the world financial system for very short-term but significant gains. As a result, governments are faced with impossible choices, and individuals even more impossible choices. They cannot predict what is likely to happen. They become ever more frantic. They lash out by being protectionist or xenophobic or demagogic. But of course, this solves little. At this point enters that greatest of world pundits, Thomas I. Friedman, to write a column entitled "Never heard that before." What had he never heard before? He heard non-Americans talking at Davos about "political instability" in the United States. He says that in his past experience such a phrase had been used only about countries like Russia or Iran or Honduras. Imagine that. People actually think the United States is politically unpredictable. And Thomas Friedman never heard it before.
There have been some people who have been writing this, and explaining this, for some forty years at least, but Thomas Friedman never heard it before. That’s because he has been living in a self-constructed cocoon, that of the political Establishment in the United States and its acolytes elsewhere. Things must be really bad for them to recognize this basic reality. The United States is politically unstable – and likely to become more so, not less so, in the coming decade. Is Europe more stable? Only somewhat. Is Latin America more stable? Only somewhat. Is China more stable? Perhaps somewhat, but there are no guarantees. When the giant teeters, many things can come down with it.
So, this is what everyday chaos is like – a situation that is not predictable in the short run, even less in the middle run. It is therefore a situation in which the economic, political, and cultural fluctations are large and rapid. And that is frightening for most people.
[Copyright by Immanuel Wallerstein, distributed by Agence Global. For rights and permissions, including translations and posting to non-commercial sites, and contact: [email protected], 1.336.686.9002 or 1.336.286.6606. Permission is granted to download, forward electronically, or e-mail to others, provided the essay remains intact and the copyright note is displayed. To contact author, write: [email protected] These commentaries, published twice monthly, are intended to be reflections on the contemporary world scene, as seen from the perspective not of the immediate headlines but of the long term.]