This decade will be decisive for democracy, capitalism
Do you remember the moments when this century was about to begin? There was a buzz everywhere about the 21st century — that it would set the stage for humanity’s decisive battle against violence, hunger and poverty. After 20 years, these dreams have given way to crippling fears. All the indications, which raised our hopes, have now crumbled. This next decade is going to prove decisive for democracy and capitalism.
If we look into the period from 1900 to 2020, we will find that a change of established values takes place every second decade. Let us fast forward to 2001. It was a period of big hopes and dreams. The Cold War between the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the United States (US) that had become almost a permanent feature after World War II was over, strengthening the hold of capitalism. In the early 1990s, the world had accepted that capitalism was the main key to progress. At the same time, programmes for poverty alleviation in Asian and African countries gained momentum. Never in the history of mankind had such a large number of people risen above the poverty line. Along with this, all credit was given to democracy and globalisation for an increase in basic amenities across societies. So, the beginning of the 21st century was a hopeful one. But in 2001, two incidents led to a new turn all around.
That year, China became a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO). This was the formal arrival of the Dragon on the world stage of the free market. Then came the fateful events of September 11. Osama bin Laden’s jihadists crashed air planes into the iconic World Trade Center’s skyscrapers in the greatest act of terror that the US had ever seen. These two events led to a decisive change in the world order. On the one hand, the US got caught up in protracted and unproductive wars, on the other, China quietly increased its strength. An economic crisis followed and then came the Covid-19 pandemic. The suffering and unemployment were there for all to see at the dawn of 2021.
The economic slowdown can be seen in the textile industry in India and Bangladesh. It was a lucrative multinational industry with raw material for the finished product coming in from all over the world. Due to the coronavirus, raw material could not reach either country and exports were stalled.
A large number of people lost their jobs in several industries. From ordinary workers to professionals, so many suffered. Many faced salary cuts. There were many who not only lost their jobs but also their homes. A large number of those who had risen above the poverty line over the last 30 years were forced to return to the same state again.
With the arrival of new “strains” of the coronavirus, a number of restrictions are coming back. But we now see a new trend. It is “economic nationalism”. Most countries have started insisting on products being made locally, to provide employment opportunities to locals. Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi has also been advocating a “vocal for local” movement. However, it is not possible at the moment to predict how much improvement this will bring in economic conditions.
It is no surprise that all kinds of protests are being seen in many parts of the world at the moment. Farmers have been camping around Delhi in extreme weather conditions for over a month now. This is the first year since 1961 when the cold wave has wreaked havoc for more than eight consecutive days. On the first day of the New Year, the mercury dropped to one degree, but even this biting cold has not deterred the farmers from continuing their protest. But this kind of anger is not unique to India. Neighbouring Pakistan and Nepal are also witnessing struggles for various reasons. China, which is creating turmoil on our borders, is also struggling to maintain peace in Hong Kong. This anger is no longer the preserve of Asian and African countries. A while ago, a protest, dubbed Black Lives Matter in the US, took a violent form. There was also a Delhi-like farmers’ protest in Berlin, Europe’s biggest city in the continent’s richest country Germany in 2019. Farmers blocked the roads of the city with more than 20,000 tractors. They went back home after the pandemic but their resistance is still on.
There is cause for fear in these developments. There are many examples in history which tell us that in such situations, rulers start insisting on immediate measures, most of which have adverse impacts. This is happening at the moment. During this period, 91 countries imposed various restrictions on the mainstream or social media. In September 2020, a Freedom House survey showed grave human rights violations by the State and a severe assault on the democratic system in many nations. If this trend holds in this decade, then many values established in the post-World War II era may become things of the past. This will prove fatal for democracy. There is another fact which needs attention. Human civilisation has always discovered new light in the darkest days of crisis. With this hope, let us welcome this new decade.
Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan
The views expressed are personal