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Can the Centre Hold?

Oscar Foulkes August 12, 2011 Uncategorized No comments

I’ve thought a lot about the spectre of vast youth unemployment all around the world, at a time when low/no economic growth means that they are unlikely to be absorbed into any economy soon. I wrote about the phenomenon here, and have been meaning to follow up with a look at wider implications for our political landscape.

The past week’s riots in the UK are a consequence of disaffection, much of it – admittedly – on the part of unemployed youths. However, the picture is not quite so clear, because many looters would more likely be found in shops as legitimate shoppers.

The political concept that was on my mind was this: social media and the internet in general have changed historical tribal boundaries or definitions. In the beginning, tribes would have had a largely geographical basis. Now, it is possible for people in every imaginable niche to connect, in real time, regardless of any other affiliations.

People can easily congregate around issues or interests, even if they live thousands of miles apart. They may even support sports teams from different countries, as we can see with Capetonians who support New Zealand rugby sides, or people all around the world having their favoured British football side. If not the end of nationalism what implications does this have for political participation?

Umair Haque has written an excellent piece (here) about a phenomenon he calls The Great Splintering. I’m not even going to attempt to paraphrase his views about “broken institutions and splintered social contracts”, but having read it I was wondering if the extraordinarily vast wealth of a surprisingly large – and certainly visible – elite does not perhaps suggest that the 2011 version of capitalism has reached a point of disequilibrium. Let’s say we are in agreement that the basic capitalist intent is better for society than the alternatives that have been tried. What happens when the rich – as they are now – are rich to a degree this unimaginable to ordinary folk, and at the same time there are swathes of the world’s population that are have-nots to the most miserable degree?

The past week has seen spectacular stock market gyrations as ‘the market’ attempts to make sense of truly imponderable government debt. Default stalks several European governments. The US would take 100 years of paying $16.5 million every hour to redeem its sovereign debt. But it still borrows 40% of what its government spends. Those 100 years could easily become 150.

One has to wonder what the UK riots portend. What lies in wait for us?

It is irresistible not to quote Yeats’ Second Coming:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

My view is less dark than his, but we certainly live in interesting times. We have no idea how this is all going to play out, other than the likelihood that the socio-political and economic landscapes could become very different.

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