Eighty years ago, at the beginning of World War II, W.H. Auden famously condemned the 1930s as a “low dishonest decade”. In some ways that description fits the 2010s, yet it feels inadequate. While the past 10 years have provided numerous occasions for despair, they were peppered throughout with signs of hope. Inevitably, much of the good, the bad and the ugly will carry over into the 2020s.
Large parts of the world erupted in protests in the early years of the last decade, following the shock of the global financial crisis and the subsequent use of public funds by all too many Western governments to rescue private enterprises. The Occupy Wall Street movement inspired copycat protests in several countries.
The US was also the breeding ground for various other manifestations of rage against the established order, from Black Lives Matter to the pussyhat protests, #MeToo and the articulate anger of the Parkland students, who challenged the right to bear arms after a devastating mass shooting at their school. But the US also threw up the Tea Party. And Donald Trump.
Halfway across the world, mass youth unemployment and WikiLeaks revelations about corruption combined with a self-immolation of a desperate Tunisian street vendor sparked an Arab Spring that was largely nipped in the bud. A few tyrants fell, only to be replaced in short order by others — or by anarchy. The occupation of Iraq earlier in the century and then the unrestrained brutality of the Syrian regime led to the terrorist Islamic State’s “caliphate”.
More recently, a half-hearted reshuffle on the top deck has failed to placate Lebanese protesters. A desperate, brutal response to protests in Iraq and Iran has sowed the seeds of future rebellions. The war in Yemen drags on, with the Saudi-led coalition facilitated by the US and Britain.
The previous decade began with broadly left-wing revolts against the established order in various parts of the world, and a few instances of popularly propelled regime change, but ended with the widest panoply in living memory of far right or authoritarian (and often both) regimes. The counterpoints are not irrelevant. Ethiopia may yet succeed in establishing a model of reconciliation in strife-torn Africa. New Zealand under Jacinda Ardern puts Australia to shame. In Britain, had the vote been restricted to under-40s, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party would have won a landslide. Likewise in the US, Bernie Sanders’ popularity is highest among the youth. Young women, in particular, have been sparkling repositories of hope in recent years — from Malala Yousafzai and Ahed Tamimi to Emma Gonzalez, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Greta Thunberg, among so many others. Thunberg’s cause is overwhelmingly significant in the decade ahead; unless man-made climate change is ameliorated in the next 10 years, most other nightmares (and dreams) are pretty much academic.
The 2010s are likely to be remembered as the decade of smartphones and dumb regimes, the proliferation of social media alongside anti-social attitudes, seismic rebellions and ruthless repression, working-class indignados and ruling-class insouciance, monumental technological advances and their misanthropic misuse, profoundly damaging austerity combined with a disregard for posterity, insidious inequality and erroneous ethno-nationalism, a resurgence in religious fanaticism and racist fantasies, rude awakenings and sleepwalking into catastrophe.
Thunberg recently summed up in five words the times we live: “Our house is on fire”. It’s particularly easy to appreciate that sentiment in Sydney, where the sun seldom blazes yellow but instead casts a red glow. That, in turn, serves as a reminder of the choice Rosa Luxemburg pinpointed a century ago between a regression into barbarism and a transition to socialism. A better world remains implausible but not impossible. There is, as Leonard Cohen put it, a crack in everything — that’s how the light gets in. Here’s wishing all readers, and everyone else, a cracking new year.
By arrangement with Dawn