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Loser teens

Dec 29,2019 - Last updated at Dec 29,2019

PRINCETON — We are at the end of a decade that has no name. The 2010s cannot really talk about itself, and this confusion is only partly born of semantics. While the term “noughties” was applied to the first decade of the twenty-first century, few would be comfortable calling this past decade the “teenies.” A century ago, there was no need to worry about such categorization: the 1910s were simply the era of the Great War.

But our semantic uncertainty also reflects a deeper problem about analysis and truth. As human civilisation seeks meaning in its decimally ordered notion of time, language offers labels to capture each generation’s mood. In retrospect, the “twenties”, “thirties”, “forties”, “fifties”, “sixties”, “seventies”, “eighties”, and “nineties” all evoke powerful associations. The “sixties” immediately calls to mind optimism, youth revolt, the promise of an incipient globalisation, and the idea of “one world”. One lesson, then, is that for a decade to have a distinct spirit, it must coincide with a reality that can be clearly and truthfully described.1

Oddly, the 1960s strongly paralleled the 1860s. From Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, each decade gave rise to transformational music. And the transoceanic steamship would prove to be as revolutionary as the passenger jet a century later. In the case of the United States, each period had a bloody conflict — the Civil War and Vietnam — that would redefine the national ideal. Even the mundane history of monetary politics contains striking parallels. Under Emperor Napoleon III and again under President Charles de Gaulle, France was pushing for the creation of a European currency to reorder monetary relations globally.

By contrast, a half-century departure from the sixties tends to be dismal. The 1810s and the 1910s were both eras of shattered hope and lost illusions. Grand transformative visions, whether of Napoleon I in France, Czar Alexander in Russia, or President Woodrow Wilson in the US, collided with the realities of national projects, social animosities and economic shock, not least the post-war period of deflation.

Napoleon, Alexander and Wilson each imagined a world governed and pacified by rational law. And each quickly became a figure of mockery and derision. While Napoleon was vilified as a bogeyman, and Alexander as a vicious reactionary, Wilson was ridiculed as a Presbyterian preacher who had been taken for a ride by sophisticated European practitioners of Realpolitik.

The 2010s also began with grand rhetorical promises and heroic political figures offering hope. On June 4, 2009, US President Barack Obama delivered the finest of his many distinguished oratorical performances. In his “New Beginning” speech in Cairo, he insisted “that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles, principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings”.

That argument led nowhere. Obama masterfully conjured the appearance of hope, but not its actualisation. The Arab Spring ended in bitter disillusionment, via repression, civil war, misery and death.

As is often the case, political disenchantment has had an economic counterpart. But the stubborn disinflation of the 2010s was unlike the major deflationary episodes that followed the Napoleonic wars and World War I. The macroeconomic conditions of the 2010s were not the result of a deliberate attempt to replace wartime finance with fiscal stability. Rather, disinflationary pressure was driven by a combination of globalisation and technological change. Moreover, in the eyes of the public, economic underperformance was interpreted as a symptom of policy mistakes and mismanagement during and after the 2008 financial crisis.

Historically, periods of steady inflation have tended to augur a realisation of promises, whereas disinflation and deflation make everything look simultaneously cheaper and unobtainable. When inflation comes to an end, society is left like Tantalus, grasping desperately at something that is just out of reach, for central banks, that “something” has been inflation itself.

Nonetheless, in a 2013 commencement speech, Obama clung to hope: “the cynics may be the loudest voices, but I promise you they will accomplish the least”. Sadly, he was wrong again. Cynicism is the inevitable response to a period of over-promising and under-realising. As it takes hold, it creates the conditions for “post-truth” politics. Simply because they did not have Twitter or anything like it, no nineteenth-century US politician could match President Donald Trump’s litany of lies. By the Washington Post’s count, Obama’s successor has issued more than 15,000 “false or misleading claims” since taking office.

America’s promise is that it is a land of equal opportunity. But it now lags behind most other advanced economies in terms of socio-economic mobility. Europe’s promise is that it is a domain of toleration and shared values. But those sentiments have been overwhelmed by waves of migration and other forces of globalisation.

More to the point, in the 2010s, the promise of a global rules-based order was broken. The post-1945 settlement is now the subject of a tug of war between countries that see themselves as old-fashioned great powers. Each is equipped with not only military might, but also a specific set of ideas.

For centuries, the “teens” have been the antithesis of the “sixties”. They have been times when the audacity of hope is replaced with despair, disillusionment and falsehood. As such, they have been profoundly disruptive and destructive. It will take a long time to recover, and only some of us will have the privilege of witnessing the 2060s.

 

Harold James is professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton University and a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation. A specialist on German economic history and on globalisation, he is a co-author of the new book “The Euro and The Battle of Ideas”, and the author of “The Creation and Destruction of Value: The Globalisation Cycle”, “Krupp: A History of the Legendary German Firm”, and “Making the European Monetary Union”. ©Project Syndicate, 2019. 
www.project-syndicate.org

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