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A decade of problems, and a possible way out of them

20 December 2019

Nick Spencer looks back at the past ten years. Was it as bad as we might recall?

 REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

Migrants and refugees during a registration procedure at the national stadium of the Greek island of Kos, in August 2015. UNHCR described the situation on the Mediterranean islands as “total chaos”. At that point in the year, 124,000 had escaped to Greece, largely from Syria

Migrants and refugees during a registration procedure at the national stadium of the Greek island of Kos, in August 2015. UNHCR described the situatio...

IN THE autumn of 2001, the Review of General Psychology published an article, “Bad Is Stronger than Good”. In it, the four authors argued that negative events and experiences exerted a greater power in people’s lives than positive ones.

Bad emotions, bad parents, and bad feedback had more impact than good. Bad information was processed more thoroughly than good. Bad impressions were quicker to form than good ones, and were more resistant to correction. People who said negative things were generally seen as smarter than those who were positive.

This might explain why, when I asked around for people’s recollections of the past decade, I got the list I did. Pause now for 15 seconds and think what the 2010s will be remembered for. See?

In all fairness, there are reasons other than the “strength of the bad” for this. In the 1970s, psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman identified a phenomenon, that they called the “availability heuristic”, whereby people estimate the likelihood of an event according to the ease with which it comes to mind. Given the preponderance in the news of the negative, it’s hardly surprising that we remember the negative better, and have greater expectations that something bad will happen.

Moreover, there is also something that pollsters have christened “the optimism gap”, which shows a significant disconnect between people’s personal experience of something and their perception of that thing at a societal level.

The general public reckon the state of the NHS to be far worse than their own experience of it. They view the nation’s economic prospects as worse than their own. We grossly overestimate levels of immigration, asylum-seekers, teenage pregnancy, litter, unemployment, crime, vandalism, and drugs because these things worry us, even if we don’t often experience them ourselves.

There’s no cultural capital in being a Pollyanna, certainly not today.

SO, the strength of the bad, the availability heuristic, the optimism gap — we need to be on our guard when we think back. And yet, such important caveats duly noted, surely my friends, my colleagues, and I — and you? — are not entirely wrong in thinking that the decade just passing has not, broadly speaking, been a good one.

Ten years ago, we were working our way through the implications of the Great Crash. The economy began to shrink, unemployment rose, government spending was cut, austerity was starting to bite.

It was worse in Continental Europe, as Southern European countries lost a generation to the longest and deepest recession in decades. The EU fretted about Greek default, repeatedly restructured its debts, but, none the less, seemed to teeter forever on the brink of fragmentation.

Centre-Left or -Right governments were replaced by EU-sanctioned technocrats, or left-wing populists, or far-rRght nationalists. The continent was further pressured from the East, by a resurgent, nationalistic, illiberal, kleptocratic Putinised Russia, characterised by a contempt for the processes of democracy and not above the odd targeted assassination using radioactive or nerve agents.

Moving south and east, things were worse still. Starting in December 2010, and rapidly spreading across North Africa and the Middle East, the so-called Arab Spring fought for political and economic reform, wresting power from the clutches of dictators in favour of some form of democratic transparency and accountability.

Sometimes, protests were successful: Tunisia, where the uprising began, is now a functioning parliamentary democracy. More often, they weren’t. In Syria, the situation collapsed into a protracted civil war of excruciating barbarity, where Russia and the West squared off, chemical weapons were used on civilians, millions of people were displaced, and Islamic terrorist groups emerged to establish a caliphate, in which they tortured hostages and trained jihadis for further atrocities abroad.

The decade swarmed with terrorists, claiming about 21,000 lives a year, although featuring rather more prominently in our collective conscious than that (still depressingly high) number might indicate.

INSULATED from this West Eurasian carnage, the United States elected an incompetent, morally bankrupt narcissist in the most toxic presidential election on record. Globalisation, a seemingly inexorable force of nature — at least according to a famous speech by Tony Blair a few years earlier — stalled, as Western populations, particularly in poorer areas, pondered quite how beneficial it was to their lives.

PAThe Duchess of Cornwall in October with the 2019 Booker prize-winners Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo. The judges decided to award the prize jointly

China, meanwhile, continued to grow, tilting the global balance of power ever further away from the North Atlantic region, which, after the Iraq débâcle, the previous decade, was now somewhat more reluctant to police the world. Oh yes, and that’s all without mentioning the three-year will-they-won’t-they embarrassment of Brexit, and the noxiousness of our own political culture. Or fake news. Or the rise of surveillance capitalism. Oh, or climate change.

REPEAT: “the strength of the bad”, “the availability heuristic”, “the optimism gap”. The landmarks that we remember are not the landscape that we lived through. The 2010s may have had many a dark moment, but they have not been the dark valley of the 1930s.

Global economic growth has held up comparably well, partly thanks to rapid and massive government intervention in the wake of the Great Crash, but mainly thanks to continued development in China and India. China did not have the landing, hard or otherwise, that some people feared ten years ago. Perhaps a billion people are considerably less poor today than they were in 2009.

The #MeToo movement began to expose the rank misogyny that existed in (parts of) the film (and other) industries. Social media, for all their faults, enabled millions of people to remain closer in touch with one another. The continued global spread of religious faith, not least in rapidly industrialising China, hammered yet another nail into the secularisation coffin, which is more metal than wood these days.

Wikileaks, for all its contentiousness, helped maintain the “free and unrestrained press” that, in the words of the US Supreme Court, is the only thing that “can effectively expose deception in government”. Artificial Intelligence (AI), for all our fears about the coming age of joblessness, continued to make impressive progress. And President Donald Trump may be without obvious intellectual or ethical merit but he’s not Mussolini or Hitler, however much excitable liberals like to shout otherwise.

Overall, therefore, the 2010s won’t go down in history as the 1950s, but nor are they likely to be remembered as like the 1930s. Which invites the question: How will these years be remembered? In which direction has the past decade sent us?

IN AUTUMN 2001, US and UK forces invaded Afghanistan. Given the outrage of 9/11, most commentators saw this invasion as inevitable. No one, however, thought that of the ensuing invasion of Iraq.

In the wake of 9/11, pundits endlessly pontificated about the consequences of the attack. The swerve from Afghanistan to Iraq underlined what some of the more thoughtful ones said, namely that few consequences are inevitable. Physics may be straightforwardly causal (the quantum world notwithstanding). Politics isn’t. The consequences of a public action lie primarily in how people choose to respond to it, rather than in the action itself.

The Wall Street Crash of 1929 was undoubtedly momentous, but it led only to the dark valley of the 1930s because governments singularly failed to attenuate its impact, a lesson that had clearly been learned by Brown, George W. Bush, and others 80 years later.

The fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago was no less historic, but it became the event that it did because, the following year, the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party willingly acquiesced to independence movements in its constituent republics, and did not try to suppress them through violence. Time and again, the meaning of a political movement or crisis lies in how authorities and crowds subsequently responded. In other words, the meaning of the decade just gone lies in the one to come.

In our case, the question before us is whether we choose to respond as if we live in a zero-sum or a non-zero-sum game. The former of these — broadly speaking: we’ll come to a caveat shortly — is characterised by the idea that if I win, then you lose, or vice versa.

PAThe four artists shortlisted for the 2019 Turner Prize, Tai Shani, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Helen Cammock and Oscar Murillo, persuaded the judges to award the prize to them jointly earlier this month    

Google’s DeepMind AlphaGo beat Ke Jie, the world’s number-one human player of Go in 2017 (in what may, in retrospect be the most important event of the decade). Zero-sum game: the computer wins, we lose — and, as Ke Jie announced he was doing at the end of last month, we retire from the field.

A non-zero-sum game is, predictably, the opposite. The prisoner’s dilemma, when two individuals can collaborate to reduce their sentences, is a classic example of this. Trade and conversation are real-life examples. My “winning” does not depend on your losing.

In reality, the world does not divide neatly into zero-sum and non-zero-sum games. Indeed, you could argue, at least from the Christian theological viewpoint, that creation habitually stands on the edge of the two games. Classic zero-sum situations, even the most serious like war, can be turned into non-zero ones if, for example, there is a concerted effort to rebuild states and rehabilitate relationships after a defeat (as happened after the Second World War), as opposed to punish and humiliate the defeated (as happened after the First World War).

Conversely, inherently non-zero situations, like a conversation, can be turned into zero-sum games if you are using me for some other ends or I am determined to talk at rather than with you, unwilling to hear or heed anything you say. In such a case, a conversation degenerates into little more than a competition for air-time, as is so often the case in contemporary political debate.

Ultimately, we can choose to engage with reality as if it were a zero-sum game, or a non-zero one. The consequences of our choice are momentous.

THAT choice feels especially acute today. It is quite possible to envisage the next decade spinning out of control if we treat resources, identities, and power as a zero-sum game.

Imagine it: climate change shrinks our shared stage, catalysing a wave of global eco-migration, which is viewed as a straightforward threat by richer nations, which precipitates a new era of economic protectionism, cyber-warfare, and a violent populist and neo-nationalist response stimulated by unscrupulous demagogues.

You need not cite the apocalypse or a nuclear holocaust to be able to envisage impending disaster. All you need to have is millions of people simultaneously convinced that they are locked into a zero-sum game with millions of others, determined not to be the ones who lose.

There is an alternative. Climate change is taken seriously enough for governments to (be able to) implement tough policies that don’t simply hairshirt electorates into modern eco-asceticism, but build on a shared recognition that we all benefit from fewer cars on the road, less meat on our plate, better insulated houses, more green spaces, etc.

Managed immigration and secure borders are seen as complementary constructive features of a modern nation. AI is an augmentation of human abilities rather than a replacement for them. Politics is recognised as a sharing of power through negotiation and compromise rather than an assertion of it. You don’t need to imagine the utopia of yesteryear’s Socialists to see the coming decade as a corrective to the previous one. All you need is a conviction that a non-zero-sum game is possible.

POSSIBLE — but hard. Moving from a zero-sum situation to a non-zero-sum one is difficult. It demands — to adopt a phrase from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land — “the awful daring of a moment’s surrender”. When we’re all caught in the former game, the pressure to grab ever more resources and assert our will with ever greater determination and finality is overwhelming — because if I don’t win, you will.

The transition to a non-zero-sum game demands a moment’s sacrifice, the choice to surrender rather than assert myself. It is the moment when I apologise first, without knowing whether you will follow; when I consciously forgo what I think is rightfully mine, in the hope that you will do the same.

It is when I offer to make reparation, or to tread less heavily on the earth, or to welcome the other at my cost, in the faith and hope that you will not simply take advantage of what you might see as my weakness or naïvety, but follow suit.

The decade now passing may not have been the 1930s, but it has often felt a bit like the “low dishonest decade” of Auden’s poem, borne out now by “waves of anger and fear”. Such waves are not final; nor is it inevitable that they swell into destructive storm, as Auden’s did. But to prevent their doing so requires us to see our shared life as a non-zero-sum game, in which it is possible for both parties to win.

Nick Spencer is Senior Fellow at Theos.

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