If 2018 Was a Rollercoaster then 2019 Will be a Bouncy Castle

A year of instability will breed another year of the same — it’s going to be a bumpy ride…

2018 was another year of chaos — in politics, economics, culture, the climate and in most other areas of life worth talking about. Here I explore why 2019 is likely to be more of the same, given the lack of any serious attempts to address the causes and confront reality.

1. Brexit

Perhaps the simplest illustration of increasingly instability is Brexit — the Sisyphus who just won’t quit.

After lengthy negotiations the British government has come back with a compromise deal on Britain’s exit from the EU. It looks unlikely that the minority Tory government will be able to gain enough support for the deal to get it through parliament, opening up the question of what will happen if (or most likely when) the deal is rejected. Does Britain simply leave the EU without a deal? Will there be another referendum? Will there be a general election? Will Corbyn ever explicitly state his beliefs on membership of the EU? Will Theresa May quit in shame, having already promised she won’t lead the Tories into another election? Are we all just figments of Donald Trump’s imagination?

The truth is, nobody knows. Not even GCHQ.

Another truth is that while Brexit has been blamed for the instability in the government and the economy, it is more a symptom of a widespread, long-term loss of trust in the system than it is a cause. The EU does not enjoy any kind of popular consensus in its member nations — almost all have a relatively populist party that is steadfastly opposed to the EU. Many of these parties have grown in size and influence due to being able to get elected to the European parliament via proportional representation, rather than by getting elected as domestic MPs in their own countries. The EU contains the seeds of its own downfall.

This lack of consensus is not merely an EU problem. In our sub-3-second-pageload society every claim and statement is subject to contradiction and speculation almost as soon as it is uttered. There are no clear visions of the future, from anywhere on the political spectrum. There is no consensus on what is true, what is real, or what should be done.

The liberal opposition to Brexit alternates between shrieking and hyperventilating, which is the political equivalent of howling at the moon. They offer no argument for why Britain should stay in the EU, and placate themselves by talking (almost exclusively in social media-induced echo chambers) about how shocked they still are at the referendum result 2 1/2 years ago. They have made no attempt to organise, to speak with one voice about either why the EU is a good thing or what kind of Brexit we should have. Psychologically speaking, many of them are still in a state of denial.

Meanwhile the nationalist support for Brexit vaccilates between self-victimising predictions about being sold out by the government and overreacting to the overreactions of the liberal opposition. No one is clearly articulating a political point of view, and the whole situation has descended into a childish scrap for media attention and emotional validation.

As such any deal that involved compromise (which is to say, any deal at all) would fail to satisfy either camp. By presenting the choice as a binary one, the government helped generate a situation whereby the public are so divided that there is no possibility of a popular outcome. Whatever the result, most people will be opposed to it because it isn’t what they voted for.

If, somehow, the government does manage to push the Noel Edmonds red box inside the red box deal through parliament, the instability will simply continue. Because the deal, in essence, says that the transition period will last for an undetermined length of time, during which the UK will continue paying for EU membership but have no voting rights when it comes to EU policy. It answers none of the questions that businesses and government agencies have been asking as to what the post-Brexit world will look like.

Indeed, we’re stuck in an ethereal limbo, neither in nor out of the EU, living in neither a pre- nor post-Brexit state. Businesses, investors, EU citizens in the UK, UK citizens in the EU — none of them have been given any reassurances or certainties. And there is no deadline for the end of this transitional period, we could remain in this cryptic state of transition permanently.

2. Syria

Meanwhile, in the Levant, the war continues with little sign of stopping. Trump’s recent decision to withdraw US troops from Syria is the equivalent of calling back your arsonists after they’ve set fire to half of the city. The Syrian Civil War has turned the country into a boxing ring where major powers — the US, UK, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iran and others — work out their differences in a futile nip and tuck battle for territory. One of those powers slowly withdrawing their boots-on-the-ground presence in the country is unlikely to substantially shift the balance of power or hasten an end to the violence.

Despite this, Trump has already faced criticism from both conservative and liberal quarters who have accused Trump of everything from wilfully increasing the chaos in Syria to handing the country over to Russia. Retired General Stan McChrystal said:

If you pull American influence out, you’re likely to have greater instability, and of course it’ll be much more difficult for the United States to try to push events in any direction. There is an argument that says we just pull up our stuff, go home, let the region run itself. That has not done well for the last 50 or 60 years.

The fact that McChrystal is either stunningly oblivious to or wilfully ignorant of is that the US hasn’t, in any way, backed off from the Middle East and just ‘let the region run itself’. It has staged coups, started wars, allied itself with rebel movements and terrorists gangs only to then ally themselves with the states claiming to control the insurgents. Before then teaming up with the insurgents again in a ludicrous merry-go-round of interventionism.

Simultaneously, the Left wing site WhoWhatWhy, once a bastion of anti-war sentiment and arguments, accused Trump of ‘abandoning US allies in Syria’ before citing an ‘ increase [in] US leverage vis-a-vis enemies such as Iran’ as a positive outcome of the decision. The call for more intervention, more war, more influence-peddling, more violence — is coming from both the Left and the Right.

Domestically in the US this decision resulted in the resignation of James Mathis as Secretary of Defense, merely the latest in a long line of Trump appointees who have been fired or resigned after a conflict with the Tangerine Tyrant. As the laws of entropy dictate, instability breeds more instability, further weakening an already disinterested narcissist of a president.

For Syria it will likely make little difference, and certainly this withdrawal will not be looked back on as the beginning of the end of this war. It does nothing to resolve the underlying conflict between an Assad government backed by the Russian military-industrial complex, and a multiform rebel militia that ranges from local mafiosos to jihadi cannibals. There is no consensus among the rebellion, and while there is some kind of consensus in favour of Assad remaining in power this is largely due to a distinct lack of options.

Indeed, there was a peaceful, democratic opposition to Assad which was destroyed in favour of a violent civil war, in part as a result of US and other Western intervention in the country. A document discovered by Nafeez Ahmed in the Wikileaks Global Intelligence files sums this up:

Syria and Lebanon: The Syrian Alawite-Baathist regime led by Syrian President Bashar al Assad will weaken significantly over the next three years, but its break point is unlikely to be imminent. Fractured opposition forces in Syria are unlikely to overcome the logistical constraints preventing them from cohering into a meaningful threat against the regime within this time frame. In the long term, however, Syria’s geopolitical trajectory is pointing toward a weakening of Alawite power and the reemergence of Sunni power in the state with the backing of major regional Sunni powers — most notably Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. There are a number of factors that indicate any political transition in Syria away from the al Assad clan will likely entail a violent, protracted civil conflict, one that will enflame sectarian unrest in Lebanon, where civil war is a defining characteristic of the state.

That was in 2013, from Marine Corps intelligence, but five years later and we’re no closer to the end of the war. Much like with Brexit, I wonder at the exact nature of the UK’s involvement in Syria. We are in a spectral state, neither at war with Syria nor at peace. We’ve dropped bombs, assassinated people via drone, sent in intelligence operatives and special forces to direct the insurgency and provided arms, money and equipment to the rebels. Are we at war or not?

And if we are, why? It seems unlikely that Assad will fall, which was the first stated reason for involving ourselves in the conflict. ISIS have largely been destroyed, with the help of the Russian Air Force, so who are we fighting against, and to what end?

Back to the US — given that the Democrats are relentlessly pro-war, and as such fail to distinguish themselves from the Republican party (if not the president), how do they expect to gather a consensus to support them in 2020? It is only by being a consistent opposition, on the basis of principles and by offering something different, that they can hope to defeat the postmodern student art project that is Donald Trump. And unless they do become a consistent opposition, on the basis of principles who offer something different, I hope Trump wins a second term.

3. The global economic system

While it is not often a hot topic amongst commentators and politicians, the global economic system has also faced a difficult and complex year. The underlying chaos and corruption exposed by the crash of 2008 has not been fixed — there is no sign of a new Glass-Steagal act, no attempt to isolate high finance from the real world economy. If anything, while real-terms economies in the West are slowly but steadily contracting, the financial centres are as profitable as ever, and account for much of the dubious growth statistics spouted by governments.

At the same time, protectionism is rearing its head and the international economic consensus of the post-Cold War period is being shredded. The US-China trade war is an attempt by both sides to rationalise an absurd system whereby China buys US debt, thus propping up the US economy so it can buy vast quantities of consumable products. For all the Trumpist rhetoric about ‘bringing back American jobs’ this has more to do with trying to slow Chinese growth and stave off the point at which it becomes the world’s biggest economy and no longer needs the US market to sell to.

The cold, hard truth is that there is no growth left in the industrial capitalist system, at least not for Western nations with higher labour costs and other regulatory limitations. Most of those economies are now in the first phase of post-industrial capitalism, which focuses on supply rather than production. Factory jobs have been replaced by service industry jobs (at least to some extent), and finance focuses less on investment than on betting on the future value of commodities and their derivatives. In a word, the infinite growth model is fucked.

It is not clear which element will go first, but when the world’s largest economy (as well as most of its immediate disciples) operates on a model of borrowing money on the assumption that future growth will service the debt this can only last so long before reality bites. There are only so many resources, and with a constantly-increasing population there is ever more competition for resources. But it might not be reality that slaps the economic system in the face, it might be the high finance game on which Western economies increasingly depend.

If there were another crash similar in scale to the one in 2008, there is little anyone could do to arrest the decline. Through a combination of bail-outs, zero-interest loans, quantitative easing and reducing interest rates to rock-bottom the Western financial system managed to stave off total disaster, but the resulting inflation, unemployment and increased public debt has shrunk the real-terms economies, a recession from which many have still not recovered.

As such, there is very little room for maneuver compared to the 2008 economy which was awash with ready cash. The ‘squeezed middle’ could be squeezed some more, but not much more before all the friends of bourgeois journalists started griping about it and it ends up on every front page in the hemisphere. The banking system is pretending that everything is OK, but no preventive measures have been put in place to stop this from happening again.

If anything, the system is becoming even more desperate as it tries to wring out a few more decimal percentage points of growth before we run the whole thing off a cliff. It may not be 2019 or 2020 when the SHTF, but it will happen.

4. The Climate

Which brings us to the other story of our imminent demise that most are politely ignoring — our destruction of the natural environment. Again, it is not clear whether climate change, pollution or ecological collapse will be the decisive factor, but it is clear that the infinite growth model is fundamentally incompatible with a finite planet.

However, aside from a lot of hand-wringing over the White House removing some information from government websites that no-one reads, and the endless string of hyperbolic predictions to try to ‘raise awareness’ of the issue, governments and scientists are doing little to alleviate the problem. After all, doing so would mean abandoning the infinite growth model that has made the establishment rich.

If nothing else, 2018 was a very expensive year for those seeking to take on Mother Nature in a fight to the death. ‘Extreme weather’ is a somewhat subjective term and logic dictates that every year, somewhere will get its worst storms for 30 years. Nonetheless it is clear that major weather events and a less stable and predictable climate are in part the result of never-ending consumption and the by-products of economic growth.

Perhaps the most telling news story is that during Hurricane Michael, 22 F-22 Raptors had to be abandoned at Tyndall Air Force Base. At $330 million each that’s $7.26 billion dollars worth of military hardware left exposed to the elements. But apparently the money for large-scale carbon capture technologies and long-term sustainable energy production can’t be found.

Closer to home, one story illustrates how many of these factors behind global instability can come to a head. In October, as the US was fending off hurricanes, Lancashire suffered a fresh round of earthquakes. As someone who was born and bred in Lancashire I know that the region is not known for its geological activity.

At least until the frackers came along.

Because the UK is so hostile towards Russia, we are one of the few Western European economies who refuse to import gas from Russia. To try to compensate for this, the Tory government gave the go-ahead to the fracking industry to do whatever the hell they like.

That’s right, in order to pander to racist paranoiacs we are literally destabilising the ground under our feet on which we depend to survive. I cannot think of a more perfect illustration of how instability breeds more instability.

If 2018 Was a Rollercoaster then 2019 Will be a Bouncy Castle

None of these problems are going to be solved in 2019. After all, we don’t solve problems any more. We make statements, send messages, raise awareness, speak out, hurl accusations and spit out blame. And then report on the social media reactions to all of the above. But solving problems?

My only prediction for 2019 is that in terms of the big things, very little will change. The grinding entropy of the globalised system will continue to erode everything from beaches to human rights. Our politicians will continue to be unwilling or incapable of articulating an argument, let alone winning one. Emotional overreaction combined with species-wide attention deficit disorder will continue to be the order of the day.

But that ball, it keeps on bouncing.

And we will continue to bounce with it, up and down, up and down. At moments it’ll feel like we’re winning, at other times losing. Some will enjoy a a fleeting sense of success before reality intervenes and lays waste to naive dreams.

One day, probably not soon, we will rediscover the ability to solve problems by questioning the fundamentals of our system. We will abandon the infinite growth fantasy and regain our connections to the people and the world around us. We will rebuild on both large and small scales, salvaging our humanity, and our societies in the process.

But it won’t be in 2019.


Tom is a British-based writer, researcher, author, podcaster and filmmaker. His specialities include the security services, Hollywood, propaganda, censorship and the history of terrorism. Tom’s research has appeared in The Mirror, The Express, Russia Today, Salon, The Atlantic, The Independent, Harpers, Insurge Intelligence, TechDirt and elsewhere.