This has been a year in which phys­i­cal and po­lit­i­cal wild­fires have raged across the world – and we be­gan to get used to them

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - Fin­tan O’Toole

On Au­gust 2nd, Ap­ple be­came the world’s first pub­lic com­pany to achieve a mar­ket cap­i­tal­i­sa­tion of $1 tril­lion. A month later, Ama­zon be­came the sec­ond. Their share prices re­ceded shortly af­ter­wards, but the high tide had left a new mark on the beach, a num­ber so high that it might as well have been a cal­cu­la­tion of the num­ber of grains of sand: $1,000,000,000,000; a mil­lion mil­lion dol­lars.

It spoke of the as­ton­ish­ing wealth that 21st cen­tury global cap­i­tal­ism can gen­er­ate, and of the stag­ger­ing power of the tech­no­log­i­cal revo­lu­tion that un­der­pins it. These are com­pa­nies that make us feel like gods, car­ry­ing the world in our pock­ets, sum­mon­ing the pro­duce of the earth to our doors with less strain than a click of the fin­gers.

On Au­gust 4th, two days af­ter this eu­phoric mo­ment in the history of cap­i­tal­ism, the part of the world with which this great revo­lu­tion is most associated – the US state of Cal­i­for­nia – re­ceived ap­proval from US pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump for what is for­mally known as a “pres­i­den­tial ma­jor dis­as­ter dec­la­ra­tion”. At that point, there were 17 huge wild­fires burn­ing out of con­trol across the state. In mak­ing the an­nounce­ment, Cal­i­for­nia gover­nor Jerry Brown noted that “This is part of a trend – a new nor­mal – that we’ve got to deal with.”

Ex­cept that it couldn’t re­ally be dealt with. Amid all the god­like power, there is also a hu­man help­less­ness in the face of the forces we are un­leash­ing on our planet. The fires were never fully con­trolled and blazed anew with even greater fe­roc­ity in Novem­ber. One of them, in and around the haunt­ingly named town of Par­adise, claimed 85 lives and de­stroyed 18,733 build­ings. Re­port­ing on one cou­ple who lost ev­ery­thing, the San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle found peo­ple echo­ing, con­sciously or oth­er­wise, Brown’s words: “‘You’re so strong’, their friends said. ‘You’ll find a new nor­mal’.”

Is 2018 the year of the new nor­mal? Trump him­self is a pres­i­den­tial ma­jor dis­as­ter warn­ing, but a warn­ing that we barely even hear any­more. No one was even vaguely sur­prised that Trump’s re­sponse to the wild­fires was to deny that they had any­thing to do with cli­mate change, to keep re­peat­ing some guff about leaves on the for­est floor and to mis­name Par­adise as Plea­sure. When you have a US pres­i­dent on Twit­ter call­ing a porn star “Horse­face”, the new nor­mal is a very strange place to be.

One side of this nor­malcy is the vast wealth and power en­coded in Ap­ple’s tril­lion dol­lars. The other is the wild­fires – not just the lit­eral ones that en­gulfed Cal­i­for­nia, Queens­land in Aus­tralia, Bri­tish Columbia in Canada, large parts of Por­tu­gal, Greece and Spain and even, af­ter freak­ishly hot weather in north­ern Swe­den, La­p­land – but the po­lit­i­cal wild­fires that con­tin­ued to rage across much of the demo­cratic world.

In Cal­i­for­nia, the fires had names like the Men­di­cino Com­plex Fire, the Carr Fire and the Camp Fire. In the po­lit­i­cal world, we have the still-burn­ing Trump Fire, Brexit Fire, Putin Fire, Or­bán Fire, Er­do­gan Fire and Duterte Fire, joined in 2018 by the Bol­sonaro Fire in Brazil, the Khashoggi Fire in Turkey and Saudi Ara­bia, the Gilets Jaunes Fire in France and so on.


But these are not un­re­lated phe­nom­ena. At the most ob­vi­ous level, the Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica scan­dal that fi­nally ex­ploded in March, when it emerged that Face­book had al­lowed Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica to har­vest the data from 87 mil­lion users and tar­get them with pro-Trump ads, showed the di­rect con­nec­tion be­tween the rise of re­ac­tionary pol­i­tics and the un­reg­u­lated power of the tech giants.

The con­tin­u­ing re­ver­ber­a­tions from the Mueller in­ves­ti­ga­tion into col­lu­sion be­tween Rus­sia and the Trump cam­paign added to sus­pi­cions of a very dark nexus. Trump’s as­ton­ish­ingly sub­servient press con­fer­ence with Vladimir Putin, in which he par­roted the Rus­sian pres­i­dent’s line on in­ter­fer­ence with US elec­tions – “I have [asked] Pres­i­dent Putin; he just said it’s not Rus­sia. I don’t see any rea­son why it would be” – gave us an­other kind of new nor­mal in the in­ter­na­tional peck­ing or­der.

There are, though, deeper con­nec­tions. The co­in­ci­dence of the ar­rival of the $1 tril­lion cor­po­ra­tion with the catas­troph- ic in­fer­nos re­minded us that the vast wealth that is be­ing cre­ated by the glob­alised, dig­i­tally con­nected econ­omy goes hand-in-hand with ter­ri­ble en­vi­ron­men­tal de­struc­tion and in­equal­i­ties that are in­com­pat­i­ble with po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity. We have a model of cap­i­tal­ism that is mak­ing both ex­treme weather events – ex­pe­ri­enced even in Ire­land in 2018 – and gross eco­nomic in­equal­ity the new nor­mal.

Since the Rea­gan-Thatcher project to undo the broadly so­cial demo­cratic post-war con­sen­sus got un­der way in 1980, in­come in­equal­ity has in­creased rapidly in North Amer­ica, China, In­dia, and Rus­sia and more mod­er­ately but none­the­less very markedly in Europe.

In the United States, the share of in­come go­ing to the bot­tom half of earn­ers de­creased from more than 20 per cent in 1980 to 13 per cent in 2016. The global top

1 per cent of earn­ers has cap­tured twice as much of all the eco­nomic growth since 1980 as the poor­est 50 per cent.

It is rather ironic that in Ire­land the first con­tro­versy of 2018 arose from an ac­cu­sa­tion (with­out stated ev­i­dence) by the head of the Hous­ing Agency, Conor Ske­han, that home­less peo­ple were “gam­ing the sys­tem”. Ironic be­cause the sys­tem cer­tainly is be­ing gamed and it is not by the poor.

Cor­po­rate tax avoid­ance

The global cor­po­rate tax avoid­ance in­dus­try (in which Ire­land plays a large part) is a gam­ing of the sys­tem on a mas­sive scale. So is the al­liance be­tween the su­per-rich and far-right fig­ures like Trump whose ex­cesses and vul­gar­i­ties are ac­cept­able so long as he de­liv­ers (as he has done) tax cuts over­whelm­ingly di­rected to­wards the top earn­ers.

This long-term abil­ity of the very rich to mo­nop­o­lise the vast new wealth be­ing cre­ated in the world is the ul­ti­mate fuel for the po­lit­i­cal wild­fires.

In­equal­ity on this scale is not com­pat­i­ble with the prom­ise im­plicit in democ­racy, that ev­ery­one counts the same.

But it has also cre­ated its own new nor­mal for ever-larger sec­tions of so­ci­ety: stag­nant wages, pre­car­i­ous work, poorer ac­cess to over­stretched pub­lic ser­vices and a sense that things that were once taken for granted are now slip­ping in­ex­orably away.

In Ire­land, as else­where, these things in­clude even hous­ing – Dublin, in par­tic­u­lar, is be­com­ing un­in­hab­it­able for the un­priv­i­leged young. As con­sumers of the daz­zling new tech­nol­ogy, we have never felt so pow­er­ful; as cit­i­zens we are acutely con­scious of our pow­er­less­ness.

The only com­pen­sa­tion on of­fer is the chance to feel su­pe­rior to some­one worse off than your­self. We are see­ing the growth of what Ti­mothy Snyder in one of 2018’s best po­lit­i­cal books, The Road to

Un­free­dom, calls a “sadopop­ulism” in which peo­ple are will­ing to in­flict pain on them­selves so long as they can be­lieve that, in the same mo­ment, they are mak­ing their imag­ined en­e­mies hurt more.


There is lit­tle sign of a less­en­ing of this urge: one of the world’s largest democ­ra­cies, Brazil, suc­cumbed to it in 2018 when Jair Bol­sonaro was elected pres­i­dent in Oc­to­ber. But so did one of the key­stone coun­tries of the Euro­pean Union: af­ter Italy’s gen­eral elec­tion in March, it has be­come ever more ob­vi­ous that the gov­ern­ing fig­ure is the far-right leader Mat­teo Salvini.

Salvini, like Trump, is a skilled nor­maliser of out­ra­geous cru­elty. He has test-mar­keted this year ideas like forc­ing all Roma peo­ple to reg­is­ter with the state or let­ting refugees die in the Mediter­ranean. Trump test-mar­keted the idea of drag­ging lit­tle chil­dren away from their par­ents on the Mex­i­can bor­der and keep­ing them in cages.

Bol­sonaro, even be­fore he takes of­fice in Jan­uary, has test-mar­keted the tor­ture and mur­der of op­po­nents.

Sadopop­ulism re­mains on trend: even Ire­land got a tiny taste of it dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial elec­tions when some in­co­her­ent re­marks about Trav­ellers pro­pelled Peter Casey from reg­is­ter­ing be­low the mar­gin of er­ror in polls to tak­ing al­most a quar­ter of the vote.

Broadly speak­ing, main­stream cen­trist democrats have gone out to fight these wild­fires with a gar­den hose. There is still a lin­ger­ing ten­dency to mis­take a con­fla­gra­tion for a flash in the pan. There is a hope that the old nor­mal can be re­stored by telling those at­tracted to the far right how de­plorable they are while stick­ing fin­gers in the dykes and pray­ing for the wa­ters to re­cede soon.

But the only real dykes are the pro­tec­tions that were put in place af­ter the scar­i­fy­ing ex­pe­ri­ence of the sec­ond World War and the Holo­caust: se­cure em­ploy­ment, ac­cess to health­care, ed­u­ca­tion and hous­ing, nar­row­ing in­equal­i­ties, and the rea­son­able be­lief that your chil­dren’s lives could be bet­ter than your own.

They have been un­der­mined by ne­olib­eral glob­al­i­sa­tion and they have to be re­built ur­gently.

Oddly enough, the un­rav­el­ling of the Brexit project through­out 2018 has di­min­ished that sense of ur­gency and fed into a dan­ger­ous com­pla­cency. In 2016, it was com­mon­place to talk of Brexit as merely the first domino to fall, the pre­lude to the col­lapse of the Euro­pean Union it­self.

In 2017, at least un­til Em­manuel Macron de­feated Marine Le Pen in the French pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, that still seemed a live pos­si­bil­ity. But in 2018, it be­gan to look dis­tinctly less likely.


A Euro­barom­e­ter sur­vey in Oc­to­ber showed a sig­nif­i­cant up­turn in pro-EU sen­ti­ment in most mem­ber states. One of the main rea­sons is that Brexit has shown peo­ple what with­drawal ac­tu­ally looks like, and it is not a pretty sight.

But re­ly­ing on the delu­sions and in­com­pe­tence of the Brex­i­teers to demon­strate the ben­e­fits of the sta­tus quo is not a con­vinc­ing long-term, or even medium-term strat­egy. With the end of the An­gela Merkel era be­ing sig­nalled in Oc­to­ber by her an­nounce­ment that she will not seek re-elec­tion in 2021, the woman who has em­bod­ied Europe’s old nor­mal since 2005 is a spent force.

Macron may be ter­mi­nally dam­aged by the Gilets Jaunes. Spain has a deep cri­sis of po­lit­i­cal au­thor­ity and Poland is in the grip of an au­thor­i­tar­ian right-wing Catholic na­tion­al­ism.

The idea of hun­ker­ing down and wait­ing out the storm raises the ob­vi­ous ques­tion – where is the shel­ter? There isn’t one.

But there is hope from the United States. Trump may have suc­ceeded in get­ting his nom­i­nee Brett Ka­vanaugh on to the supreme court, but the process re­vealed an­other and more hope­ful kind of new nor­mal – women find­ing a new voice and speak­ing a new kind of pub­lic lan­guage.

Christine Blasey Ford’s tes­ti­mony be­fore the Se­nate was a mo­ment when the dis­course of power seemed to shift. This im­pres­sion was con­firmed in the Novem­ber mid-term elec­tions in which women can­di­dates and women vot­ers were cru­cial to the de­liv­ery of an enor­mous re­buke to Trump. And most of this en­ergy came from the bot­tom up – anger and alarm turn­ing into or­gan­i­sa­tion and en­gage­ment.

The fight for Amer­ica’s soul is very far from be­ing won but it has de­ci­sively be­gun.


Europe is go­ing to need a sim­i­lar en­ergy. There is a need to fight fire with fire – against the wild­fires of en­raged re­ac­tion must be a con­trolled but fiery pas­sion for de­cency and sur­vival. The sus­tain­abil­ity of hu­man life is now in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked to the sus­tain­abil­ity of an open and egal­i­tar­ian democ­racy.

There is hope from the US and from Ire­land. The suc­cess­ful Re­peal the Eighth cam­paign here was pow­ered by a new gen­er­a­tion of clever and com­mit­ted ac­tivists.

The new nor­mal can’t be ban­ished by an ap­peal to the old nor­mal­ity of hy­per-glob­alised con­sump­tion and ever-grow­ing in­equal­ity. It can be de­feated only by mak­ing a live­able planet and a de­cent, dig­ni­fied ex­is­tence the fun­da­men­tal con­di­tions of nor­mal life.

The suc­cess­ful Re­peal the Eighth cam­paign here was pow­ered by a new gen­er­a­tion of clever, com­mit­ted ac­tivists


Clock­wise from main: The af­ter­math of a wild­fire in Cal­i­for­nia; US pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump; Gilets Jaunes pro­tes­tors in Saint-Eti­enne; Res­cued mi­grants at a naval base in Tripoli; Christine Blasey Ford tes­ti­fies be­fore the US Se­nate; Trump’s suc­cess­ful supreme court nom­i­nee Brett Ka­vanaugh; Ital­ian deputy prime min­is­ter Mat­teo Salvini and French mem­ber of par­lia­ment Marine Le Pen; Sup­port­ers of Jair Bol­sonaro, the new far-right pres­i­dent of Brazil.

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