Sitting on a Powder Keg

One of the defining characteristics of globalization is its tendency to produce winners and losers by polarizing, economically, socially and politically, within and between nations.

Globalization’s benefits have been privatized, while its costs have been socialized.  The appearance of severe inequalities – in incomes, opportunities, and future prospects – after decades of generally narrowing gaps, has been one of the most worrisome consequences. With the triumph of neoliberalism,  social democracy on the run most everywhere, and not least in Canada. However much this may please special interests such as business groups and the wealthy, a smaller state almost inevitably translates into program and service reductions for the disadvantaged and those least able to defend their interests.

For the past several years I have spent  about a month a year teaching at the London Academy of Diplomacy. During those very pleasant interludes, it has struck me that London has become a world city primus inter pares, a cosmopolitan global crossroads and network node for business, finance, culture and education.

If you are lucky enough to find yourself in a position to benefit from it’s status as a world city,  London presents vast possibilities and is a wonderful place to live and work. There is really no place quite like it.

For those stuck on the bottom, however,  with little to lose and less to look forward to,  none of these features are enough to generate an interest in the status quo.  Amont disenfranchised and alienated, desperate measures hold considerable appeal.

On the surface the disturbances which rocked urban Britain may appear as thuggery and criminality. But those were not merchant bankers or international financiers in the streets. It was mainly the underclass, and at a more profound level, the violence may be interpreted as a response to growing distributive injustice and a failure of political vision. While the parallel is not exact, the rioters bore many similarities to those who torched schools and cars in the Paris suburbs in the fall of 2005.

Meanwhile, most of the culprits behind the financial crisis of 2008 which triggered the Great Recession got off without penalty, and the institutions in which they worked were bailed out at enormous public expense. Many are now back up to their same old tricks. It is not too difficult to understand that cutting social support for the poor while shovelling out public money to the rich  is a recipe for unrest.

With the combination of last week’s global market  market meltdown, the near complete political dysfunction in the USA which led to the sovereign debt rating downgrade, and the extreme vulnerability of the highly centralized systems upon which globalization depends,  we are entering uncharted territory.

Think Fukushima, or the occasional collapse, in recent years, of large sections of the North American power and communications infrastructures.

Resilience is receding as our reliance upon technology increases.

Think as well of the larger context. Climate change, the increasing frequency of  extreme weather incidents, rising food and water insecurity, the approach of “peak oil”, and diminishing biodiversity have in combination created conditions of acute volatility and insecurity.

On top of all this are the still uncertain implications of power shift to the Asia-Pacific, and the huge issue of whether or not the emergence of that that new order can be peacefully accommodated.

Taken together, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that  we may be sitting on a powderkeg, with the urban violence in the UK symptomatic perhaps only of the fuse igniting.

If that observation is even close to the mark, then things may actually get worse, and possibly very much so if the world reaches some still indeterminate tipping point.

Something has to give.

A radical course correction seems essential… if it is not already too late.