In the US and Bri­tain, 2019 may see dis­en­chant­ment with the re­ac­tionary na­ture of 2016

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Fin­tan O’Toole

At some point in 2019, British troops will with­draw from Ger­many. This has noth­ing to do with Brexit. The British army an­nounced in 2015 that over the course of 2019, its re­main­ing field army units will re­turn home from their bases in Pader­born, Sen­nelager, Biele­feld and Güter­sloh.

The so- called British Forces Ger­many head­quar­ters will shut up shop, leav­ing only a small num­ber of spe­cial­ists to work with their Ger­man coun­ter­parts.

The mo­ment will be poignant: the se­cond World War will be over and the same, in one sense, will be true of the cold war. These bases were es­tab­lished in 1945 by the in­vad­ing British army of the Rhine and be­came semi-per­ma­nent dur­ing the long stand-off with the Soviet Union.

In it­self, this with­drawal may be of min­i­mal sig­nif­i­cance – cer­tainly when com­pared with the prospect of a much larger British with­drawal from Eu­rope. But it re­minds us of the very long af­ter­life of the cat­a­strophic wars of the first half of the 20th cen­tury.

In 1919, Eu­rope, the United States and the British Em­pire imag­ined they were en­ter­ing a post-war world. In 2019, we could all say the same, but not with any great joy. It is not just that we know from a cen­tury ago that “post- war” can turn into “in­ter- war”. It is that we ac­tu­ally need the me­mory of those wars to stay alive. They are still the best warn­ings we have about our col­lec­tive ca­pac­ity to man­u­fac­ture catas­tro­phe.

Po­lit­i­cally speak­ing, the two most pow­er­ful words in the English lan­guage in re­cent years have been “back” and “again”: Take Back Con­trol; Make Amer­ica Great Again. Yet the projects as­so­ci­ated with these words – Brexit and Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­dency – have been marked by a pro­found ig­no­rance of his­tory. They evoke the past as an idyll to which the peo­ple can re­turn.

Con­trolled des­tiny

There was, al­legedly a Bri­tain that once stood alone and con­trolled its own des­tiny. Not so, of course – at no point since Bri­tain was formed in 1707 has it ever not been part of a much larger po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic en­tity, Em­pire first, then the EU. There was, al­legedly, a past in which Amer­ica was “great” – a sim­ple con­cept that sup­presses the his­tory of slav­ery and racial op­pres­sion and of dis­as­trous neo-im­pe­rial ad­ven­tures like the Viet­nam War.

Yet “back” and “again” are not in them­selves the wrong words. Even as we look for­ward to 2019, we must sur­vey a po­lit­i­cal land­scape in which it is broadly true that if we do not go back to the sear­ing mem­o­ries of mod­ern his­tory, we may have to en­dure it all again.

The para­dox of our time is that be­cause we for­get the past, we are in some ways slip­ping back into it. We for­get that we have had gilded ages be­fore in which the su­per- rich were able to think of them­selves as a sep­a­rate species of hu­man­ity. We for­get that we have cre­ated en­vi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ters be­fore and that they have led civil­i­sa­tions to col­lapse.

We for­get that we have seen dem­a­gogues ride to power on the prom­ise of pro­tect­ing Us from Them and that they have led both Us and Them to dis­as­ter. We for­get that we have, in the first World War, for ex­am­ple, al­lowed our tech­nol­ogy to far out­run our moral ca­pac­ity to con­trol it. And so we are in the midst of all of these things again.

In 2019, as in ev­ery re­cent year, there will be a lot at stake. The Brexit project will have to take some kind of shape very early in the year. The ex­tra­or­di­nary in­dul­gence in time- wast­ing has run out of road, and both rel­a­tively be­nign ( a se­cond ref­eren- dum) and ut­terly ma­lign (no deal) sce­nar­ios re­main as live pos­si­bil­i­ties.

In the United States, the Mueller in­quiry will have to re­port its find­ings on the depth or oth­er­wise of col­lu­sion be­tween Trump’s cam­paign and Vladimir Putin’s Rus­sia. If Trump, in re­sponse, es­ca­lates his trade war with China, there could be se­vere global im­pli­ca­tions.

Re­cent ad­vances

In the EU, the elec­tions to the Eu­ro­pean Par­lia­ment in May will be ar­guably the most im­por­tant in the his­tory of the EU. If the far right con­tin­ues its re­cent ad­vances with an anti-EU, anti-im­mi­grant na­tion­al­ist agenda, the reper­cus­sions for the whole Eu­ro­pean project could be huge.

If the im­ple­men­ta­tion pro­gramme for ac­tion on cli­mate change agreed in De­cem­ber at Ka­tow­ice – it­self widely re­garded as in­suf­fi­cient – does not take rapid hold, the chances of en­vi­ron­men­tal catas­tro­phe will con­tinue to rise.

A lot will de­pend on “back” and “again”. What is the al­ter­na­tive to a re­ac­tionary

‘‘ Po­lit­i­cally speak­ing, the two most pow­er­ful words in the English lan­guage in re­cent years have been “back” and “again”: Take Back Con­trol; Make Amer­ica Great Again

‘‘ Many in Eu­rope and the US see the al­ter­na­tive as just go­ing back again to the way things were be­fore Brexit, be­fore Trump, be­fore the rise of the far right

and de­struc­tive use of these words? Many in Eu­rope and the US see the al­ter­na­tive as just go­ing back again to the way things were be­fore Brexit, be­fore Trump, be­fore the rise of the far right. Let’s pre­tend that none of it ever hap­pened. Let’s see these phe­nom­ena as es­sen­tially freak­ish aber­ra­tions, tem­po­rary flaws in the pat­tern of a ne­olib­eral global norm.

In the case of both Brexit and Trump, this ap­proach is su­per­fi­cially tempt­ing be­cause the chances are that in 2019 both of those projects will be un­der­mined by the flaws that were present at their mo­ments of tri­umph in 2016 – Brexit’s false prom­ises; Trump’s very real Pu­tin­ism.

At a stretch, the same case could be made even in the EU – the cor­rup­tion and in­com­pe­tence of the far right be­comes even more vis­i­ble as it gains more power, so per­haps it will de­stroy it­self.

Re­ac­tionary projects

But hop­ing that the re­ac­tionary projects blow them­selves up and that the peo­ple who sup­ported them come to their senses and go back to be­liev­ing in the old sta­tus quo is delu­sional. The old sta­tus quo, as it ex­isted roughly be­tween the end of the cold war and the great bank­ing col­lapse of 2008, was un­sus­tain­able. It cre­ated eco­nomic in­equal­i­ties in­com­pat­i­ble with democ­racy; it fed a feral form of casino cap­i­tal­ism that was in­her­ently un­sta­ble; and it could not deal with the great chal­lenge of cli­mate change.

So “back” and “again” has to mean in­stead a re­turn to the mem­o­ries of dis­as­ter and to the egal­i­tar­ian val­ues and se­ri­ous gov­er­nance that came from them.

There is a de­cent chance that 2019 may be the year in which we see, at least in the US and Bri­tain, de­ci­sive mo­ments of dis­en­chant­ment with the re­ac­tionary hopes of 2016. But it will then be all the more vi­tal that this dis­en­chant­ment is not al­lowed to cur­dle into some­thing even more toxic.

Dis­il­lu­sion­ment must be met, not with more il­lu­sions that there is a sus­tain­able re­al­ity to which we can sim­ply re­turn, but with the sober hope for a bet­ter fu­ture that is the only guar­an­tor that we do not re­peat the past.

1945: British and Amer­i­can sol­diers danc­ing with Ger­man girls in a Berlin street cafe only days af­ter the frater­ni­sa­tion ban was lifted at the end of the se­cond World War. PHO­TO­GRAPH: GETTY IM­AGES

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