Disrupting disruptions: Retrievals from the edge

Imtiaz A. Hussain | Thursday, 27 October 2016

Dealing with "disruption" has become the "defining challenge" of our time. So was Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's appraisal of Singaporeans to economic conditions in August 2016. He might have hit the head of the most appropriate noun, adjective, and condition befitting the entire planet, and not just on the economic front at this juncture.
Though his economic disruption was local and in one of the most stable countries recently, across the planet we see more serious disruptive forces: interest rates not just collapsing into negative territory, but also just staying there; oil-price plunges becoming more the norm than an aberration, thus shaking both producing and consuming countries significantly; Brexit pushing both investors and traders back to the drawing board than to galloping globally for new business windows; China's growth rate being overtaken by India's, thus slightly reconstituting the global political economy; commodities markets racing to the bottom after a  long upwardly-spiralling surge; and the effects of some, or all, of the above on a string of countries as diverse as Australia, Brazil, Japan, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela, among others.
Add to that the political disruptions underway to more fully capture what is at stake. These command a wide range, from the apprehensive vibes behind Donald J. Trump's presidential candidacy in the world's largest economy, on the one hand, and the repercussions of the failed coup in Turkey, on the other, to the vigilante crusade against drug dealers by Rodrigo Duerte, the new Filipino president, in addition to the terrorist attacks in equally diverse locations, as in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iraq, Thailand, Turkey, and Yemen, among other countries, just in this summer.
How can we miss out on the enormous impacts of social disruptions? They stretch from the anti-China groups winning the Hong Kong election this September and the world's largest trade union strike historically, in India, against Narendra Modi's market-friendly reforms, to Brazilians confronting each other over Dilma Rousseff's impeachment, Venezuelans releasing their angst over a spiralling food crisis triggered by President Nicolás Maduro, and Albertans recovering from a costly, consuming fire hugging the shale-oil excavation sites.
Of course, the environmental disruptions should not be neglected. The list could go on forever, but the heat wave across the Indian heartland, Louisiana floods, which the Red Cross describes as the "worst natural disaster to strike the United States," Vietnam's mass fish-kill, Australia's deadly combination of forest fires and storm-lashed downpours, and, of course, earthquakes in Ecuador, Japan, Myanmar, and so on.
It is not hard to notice from this litany the convergence of three of the most destabilising forces one can imagine, perhaps for the first time: climate-change consequences, economic retraction, and a widespread crisis in political leadership.
Beginning with political leadership, democratic practices took a very hard hit this year. It is not just the Trump revolution pitting Mexicans as rapists, Muslims as terrorists, and the Atlantic Alliance as free riders, but its simultaneity and cross-fertilisation with Vladimir Putin's Russian brinkmanship in Syria and Ukraine that also breeds a different "Axis of Evil." Among others on that inauspicious list would be a North Korea energised under Kim Jong-un, whose nuclear arsenal keeps getting demonstrably larger, a post-coup Recep Tayyip Erdogan charging into Syria, that too, after clamping upon strands of  his own people as possible perpetrators or sympathisers of the coup; Iran's Hassan Rouhani permitting air space for Russia to fire cruise missiles; Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman "damning the torpedoes" in his Yemeni assault; China dismissing the Hague panel ruling on China's South China Sea claims; and Russia beginning joint military exercises with Pakistan, a country that had lined up against Soviet expansion and, to India, still the springboard of terrorist activities across Kashmir.
Just as democracy opens the door to market liberalisation more fully than any other form of government, so too does any democracy retreat leaves the economy exposed to predators, pirates, and tough-talking, economically illiterate politicians. The Dow Jones Industrial Index might have hit a new peak this summer, but remembering how, when the year started, it, along with all other stock markets the world over, were in dire straits, exposes how fragile the global economy is: that fragility was only pushed towards breakage with events such as Brexit and China's sputtering economic performances. Just one more shock, and the system could splinter: the bond-market collapse puts indebted countries, of which the United States is the largest, on notice that they have to cough up the cash faster than previously calculated. That would make the 1930s depression look small by comparison.
Politically the 1930s was toxic. It produced the kind of leaders we see either on today's firmaments, or having been there for some time, consolidating their reins: Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, General Franco, Joseph Stalin, Kemal Ataturk among the more prominent previous names, along with ultra-nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose in India, Hassan al-Banna's Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Mao-Zedong in China, the war-monger Hideki Tojo in Japan, and so forth. Tectonic changes taken in their wake, or the seeds sown (ultra-nationalism, Islamic fundamentalism), still leave us on guard.
Fortunately, for the 1930s in this comparison, there were no catastrophic environmental disasters, real or latent, then. That is our inheritance, not from the events and developments of the 1930s, but simply from those two very forces just discussed: economically, our search for immediate profit has literally "screwed" the terrain we depend upon; and politically, our niggardliness and passive permissiveness have produced the very breed that is dedicated to scavenging civil society.
Fortunately, a second time for us today: unlike in the 1930s, we have the history, knowledge, mindset, instruments, and ample determination to make sure this decade does not end the way the 1930s did. Mainstream citizens must heed these calls of duty to institutionalise environmental safeguards, drive political scavengers back into the cracks they came from, constantly adjust to the many new forms of society is undergoing, and resume their economic pursuits knowing that deviations and distractions can best be controlled by hugging the general trend. Ultimately, it is with this very tussle between the central tendency and the extremists that comparisons come to a halt: each community knows its own predilections and credentials better than any others, and by eschewing external models, it may find its own outlets from disruptive occasions better, faster, and more enduringly than if it latches on to external experiences. Only when the disruption evaporates will countries be on an even keel to compare, contrast, and indeed, consummate the rewards.
What is constantly preached about environmental protection, practised in politics, and prioritised in economics may actually be the way to go on all fronts: act locally, but think globally.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.
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