From the late 1990s, when western society embraced gay rights, human rights and formal anti-racism, I’ve had the nagging fear it would all end like the Weimar Republic did: in a fit of authoritarianism and remorse.
A suspicion that, like Joel Grey’s MC character in Cabaret, we were all performers in a flamboyant show that would one day be cancelled on grounds of taste and decency by the theatre’s owners.
What gave me hope was the deep embeddedness of liberal social values in the lives of young people. They may know nothing of class solidarity or collective struggle, but they would go to great lengths to defend the liberated self.
Their innate tolerance of difference – of ethnicity, sexuality, lifestyle – I wrote in 2018 they would have to be “ripped out of their bodies by force” in any conservative counter-revolution.
With the overturn of Roe v Wade by America’s supreme court, that process has begun. So has the process of legalising election rigging, courtesy of the same court.
For 33 million women of reproductive age, across 28 American states, the Weimar era just ended. When it becomes criminal to offer a 10-year-old rape victim an abortion, as just happened in Ohio, it’s a signal that the cabaret is shutting down. And it’s not only in America. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is essentially a war to punish 40 million people for their audacious foray into democracy and human rights by pulverising their cities and torturing their bodies.
In India, the ruling BJP party is holding mass rallies to stigmatise the country’s 172 million Muslim population – the BJP MP Sadappa Muniswamy telling a crowd waving saffron flags: “Don’t test our patience, Muslims. This is my warning – if you want to live in this country you follow our religion.”
In Grenoble, where the city council made the grandiloquent gesture of allowing Muslim women to enter swimming pools wearing the “Burquini”, the French courts intervened to forbid the garment.
In the Philippines, after a long campaign of harassment against the news website Rappler, and its Nobel-winning editor Maria Ressa, the Duterte government last week finally decreed its shutdown.
All over the world, ultra-conservative groups of people are seizing the machinery of government and imposing their misogyny, their ethno-nationalism, their kleptocratic self-interest on a generation that thought all these things would pass.
In parallel, all pretence at global governance is breaking down. Sure, states still send ambassadors to the UN, and they vote on stuff, and consume mineral water (still and sparkling) in worthy press conferences. But the Charter system – the international rule of law backed by the UN as a legitimately coercive authority – is evaporating in practice.
From here on in it is possible to see how the post-1945 system ends. Putin and Xi Jinping have already declared the existence of “multiple modernities” – competing national conceptions of human rights, democracy, rule of law. The next strategic domino is US democracy itself.
Joe Biden knows that, if he makes the slightest move – against the filibuster, or to expand the supreme court, or to enact abortion rights in law – he could trigger a cold civil war between Washington and the rigged state legislatures of midwestern America. Hunched over their laptops, or vigorously cleaning their assault rifles, sit a cohort of reactionary white men whose daily fantasy is civil war for real.
The European Union, meanwhile, is entering the first real period of existential pressure since its foundation. If you think the eurozone crisis of 2011 was the worst that could happen, think again. If Putin shuts off the gas supply to Germany, and activates his proxies on the far left and right across Europe to demand the abandonment of Ukraine in return for gas, then we’ll see how durable the union really is.
One of the worst aspects of the current situation is the propensity of perfectly educated and engaged people to look away from the emergent danger. Or to see it as a series of fragmentary misfortunes that can be put right if people would only become “rational agents”.
It was the same in the 1930s. There’s an entry in Orwell’s diaries where the poet Stephen Spender asks him why the British cabinet can’t seem to anticipate things that perfectly ordinary people can. Orwell replied that foresight lies “not in any power to foretell specific events but in the power to grasp what kind of world we are living in”.
After the fall of Kabul, the invasion of Ukraine, the overturn of Roe v Wade, Hindu nationalism’s lurch to extreme Islamophobia, the kind of world we are living in is one of systemic fragility. And that’s before you even consider the impact of climate change, where the most knowledgeable scientists predict – and indeed observe – chaotic feedback loops.
Right now, the forces of chaos harness more energy than the forces of order, stability, tolerance and social liberalism.
If many of us in the Labour tradition are quietly screaming at the leadership: do something, say something, commit to something – it’s not because we are fetishists for programmatic detail, but because you cannot harness energy without a concrete project.
The narrative of the populist right, all over the globe, is not simply that human society must go backwards, so that along with abortion rights, the right to gay marriage disappears in America, or the fundamental commitment to racial equality. Their deeper argument is that chaos is good.
Amid chaos, transgressive people prosper. Look at the rapes and looting perpetrated by Russian soldiers in the areas conquered. Look at the BJP mobs beating Muslims and Dalits. Look at the unrepentant insurrectionists who surrounded Trump on January 6.
Orwell’s diary continued: “Since around 1931 I have known that the future must be catastrophic. I could not say what wars and revolutions could happen but they never surprised me when they came.”
The overturning of Roe v Wade, and the powerlessness of America’s liberal majority in the face of it, and the fragility of American democracy it betokens are each auguries of potential catastrophe. I’m sick of hearing from politicians and pundits who can’t see what’s unfolding – and even sicker of the right wing culture warriors who are stoking the chaos.
That’s the kind of world we are living in. Expect the worst and prepare to resist.