Opinion

Neither tragedy nor farce imminent in crazy world

By Gwynne Dyer, Special to Postmedia Network

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, centre, delivers his victory speech at the election party of the governing FIDESZ party in Budapest on May 25, 2015, during the night of European Parliamental elections. (FERENC ISZA/AFP/Getty Images)

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, centre, delivers his victory speech at the election party of the governing FIDESZ party in Budapest on May 25, 2015, during the night of European Parliamental elections. (FERENC ISZA/AFP/Getty Images)

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

Karl Marx, 1852

We would all prefer a farce to a tragedy, so let us hope that Marx was right. But he has been wrong a few times in the past, so we must entertain the possibility that what awaits us is tragedy.

The "first time," in this instance, was the 1930s, when the painfully slow recovery from a global financial crash led to political polarization, beggar-my-neighbour trade wars, and the rise to power of anti-democratic, ultra-nationalist leaders. The consequences included the Second World War, death camps, the first and only use of nuclear weapons, and 40 years of Cold War.

Well, we had our global financial crash in 2008, and the recovery has been slow. Average incomes in many Western countries still have not recovered to pre-2008 levels, and the growth of nationalist and racist sentiment is evident in countries such as Britain (the Brexit vote), France (the rise of the National Front), and the United States (Donald Trump).

The wave of non-violent democratic revolutions that transformed so many developing countries at the end of the Cold War ended with the failure of the "Arab Spring", leaving a new dictatorship in Egypt and civil wars across the Middle East. In parts of Asia the process has even gone into reverse (military rule in Thailand, death squads run by populist elected governments in the Philippines and Indonesia).

Authoritarian, ultra-nationalist governments hostile to the European Union have come to power in post-Communist Eastern Europe (Fidesz in Hungary, the Law and Justice government in Poland). And a trade war is brewing between the United States and China no matter who wins the U.S. election in November.

You could add to the list of worries a new ruler in China (Xi Jinping) who is more autocratic than any other Chinese leader since Mao, and a Japanese prime minister (Shinzo Abe) who promises to remove the anti-war clause from the constitution.

Does it really mean we are back in 1936 (fascists in power in Germany, Italy and Japan, civil war in Spain, the Great Purge in the Soviet Union), with the catastrophe of global war three years away? Or is it a grab-bag of local problems bound to exist in a world of almost 200 independent countries? Probably the latter.

Times are hard in most developed countries for the old working class, who have been left behind by globalization, and that is from where most of the support for right-wing extremism comes. But there really aren't enough of them to take over: Trump will not win in November, the National Front will not win next year's French election, and the Brexiteers in Britain? That remains to be seen.

The Middle East is a disaster area, but it is a pretty isolated disaster area. To live in fear of a worldwide Islamic caliphate is as delusional as to hope for it.

Democracy is not in retreat in Africa or Latin America, and the pluses and the minuses more or less balance out in Asia (more democracy in Burma and Sri Lanka). Nor should we see the triumph of a couple of ultra-nationalist parties in traditionally nationalist Eastern European countries as a sign of things to come in the rest of Europe.

It is possible the United States and China might stumble into a military confrontation; that risk is implicit in the kind of power shift underway. But we are not on the brink of any great calamity in the world. It is not 1936.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.