Year-end round up 2017: What on Earth is happening?

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Protest in France, January 2017 (Image CC 2.0 via

Dr Lee Duffield makes an end of year appraisal of the Globe and finds some odd linkages.

The end-of-year reviews and projections for what’s-next as usual have a focus on news events of the season, like the North Korean nuclear bomb, and United States President Donald Trump.

For example, didn’t ICAN, the Australian-inaugurated International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, advise this month when they won the Nobel Peace Prize: armageddon is just “one impulsive tantrum away”?


Yet the annual survey of the globe this time shows us something more complicated to follow than two wrong-headed men dangerously coming together.

That new scenario takes the form of a shaky overall geopolitical set-up marked by reactionary activity which could be seen building up over the short span of around 30 years — since the end-of-year event of 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Then, especially under Ronald Reagan in America and Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom, market fundamentalism was revving up — the doctrine of a wild-west capitalism with “small” governments, no regulation, no raising revenue, pulling back on services.

Unleashing that ideology contributed to investment and growth, and after 20 years, the Global Financial Crisis, and now ten years further on the full-scale emergence of two economies — one for billionaires and one for everybody else.

In the second of those, citizens get a share, but also insecure "gig" employment, flat wages, excessive household debt, much more trouble getting a place to live — a very tough state of freedom.


Is this not generating a psychological malaise around the planet?

That would match in with the constant news stories of terror attacks on innocents, or hapless “plain folks” spooked by a migration crisis and radical Islam, signing up for “nationalist” political movements.

The Indian writer Arundhati Roy this year, promoting her new novel, the Ministry of Utmost Happiness, linked it to that other great recklessness — destruction of the environment.

When an animal starts soiling its nest it is dying, she pointed out.

“We are getting into a psychotic situation as a species," she said.

Three end-of-year news stories, not startling events, have some weird linkages and might be indicative of how the 2017 world took shape:

  • President Donald Trump signed legislation cutting corporate tax from 35% to 21% and gifting massive reductions in favour of the higher-end incomes.
  • The European Union moved to suspend the voting rights of a member country, Poland, in EU decision-making, for breaking with policy on the independence of judges.
  • The separatist parties in Catalonia won regional elections that were forced on by the central Government of Spain as a test of strength for the “free Catalan” cause.

The Trump election in 2016 had capitalised on reactionary sentiment after eight years of moderate policy under President Barack Obama did not make it all better for those feeling stress — and Trump focused hard against migrants.

At a grass roots level, the election campaign was marked by a new phenomenon: outside intervention, from Russia, plaguing the internet; a high level investigation will continue into 2018 as to whether the Trump campaign was complicit in it. 

The tax change is a logical next move, which says: the jig might be up, but we will see how far this market fundamentalism can still be pushed.


Back 30 years, in Russia, the fall of the Berlin Wall would signal the end for the Communist Party and the Soviet system, then the rise of a scrambling free-for-all capitalism, lawlessness, a decade of anxious poverty, desperation, election of a crude nationalist movement to government, with a former security operative, Vladimir Putin, at the head of it.

Russia today, subject to sanctions from other states (for the warlike seizure of the Crimea off Ukraine causing fears of revived armed conflict in Europe) has got a flirtation going with the new nationalists in the West — for example, providing undercover support for the French Front National in the presidential elections last May.


Back 30 years, the then European Community (now the EU) was just 12 countries of Western Europe, mostly prosperous and democratic, committing all member states to liberal social policies (such as no death penalty), the rule of law, regulated market economics and no more wars.

Senior leaders of the EC were shocked when the former Communist “satellite” states of Eastern Europe, Poland in the lead, got free of the Soviet Union and enthusiastically demanded to join up — and also to join the US-backed NATO military alliance facing off against Russia.

Spooling forward to end of 2017, politicians in these states are now finding it politically opportune to back-peddle on that zeal for being in a European Union. The money side of it and the economic security of European participation generally stays much valued (it helped them get through the GFC), but the democratic practice, rule of law and liberal principles of government — not so much.

A strongly conservative government in Poland, like Trump, is going for broke while in office, still pushing the market economy, while winding back on post-Communism democratic reforms, such as appointment of judges independent of the government.

The Law and Justice Party of the radical right-wing premier Mateusz Morawiecki has defied the EU move, threatening a long battle for “sovereignty” against obligations under European law.

Once again, that Party set out to generate nationalistic fervour, as last year when it opposed the EU program to disperse and absorb waves of Middle East war refugees.

The EU is a fourth level of government, after local provincial and national, where, through Treaties, each country gets a say, and then, subject to negotiation must comply -- something like the Australian Commonwealth with its states and territories.

Informed opinion so far goes in different directions on this Polish trouble that could spread to other wayward states. The respected British journal, The Independent, saw the EU move as trying to prevent a “drift to authoritarianism”. An article for the also reliable Brussels-based Politico news service considered the Warsaw Government could get support to make the EU back off, after unrealistically thinking it was 'tightening the rope around Poland’s neck'.

It is being said the current Polish regime would be more at ease doing business with Vladimir Putin in Moscow than with Brussels — a great turnaround from the days of Warsaw being locked in the bear-like embrace of Soviet Russia.

Likewise the seceding British government, impelled to leave Europe through the votes of its own nationalist legions (a political wing of the “Barmy Army”?), has been exchanging friendly visits with the Poles — a possible Euro outsiders’ club in the making?


More headaches also for the EU, with the election last week of a separatist parliament in Catalonia.

Observers in Spain have been documenting interference in the Catalonia poll from outside sources, evidently out to sow division and destabilise the democratic processes. The newspaper El Pais investigated millions of messages generated online by “bots” and other items, attributing them to – who else? – an active Russian presence.

A separate Catalan state, if ever it could happen, might want to stay in the EU, but would most likely face blocking by Spain and other governments worried about separatist movements, and would have to negotiate a long entry process.


Which brings us to a situation summary at the end of a 30-year journey very complicated for poor old private citizens, “real people” to try and cope with as 2018 begins.

That period saw the assertion of a reactionary system now breaking down, but watch for more attempts to keep it going and more reactionary nationalism, especially directed against migration and Moslems.

The Chinese economic miracle should push on – no signs of major faltering there – but, as everywhere, with a world hampered and threatened by ecological crisis. Remain careful about breathing in China for a while. Follow the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) for level-headed information on what is happening to the planet.

Reaction gets attention: Donald Trump promoting economic nostrums with very unpredictable future impact on the world, in some sort of sympathy with the rattled but definitely seceding Government of Britain, in some sort of sympathy with hate politicians of different stripes in Eastern Europe, Poland leading right now, and again in some sort of sympathy with Putin’s Russia.

Not so much an axis of evil as an arc of absurdity?

Quieter forces get less attention, but may be approaching their time in 2018, like the Nobel Peace Prize committee that selected ICAN, or the IPCC, or EU leaders deploying their considerable power to regulate the mega-corporations and enforce the rule of law.

Also like the great silent majority of citizens in many countries who voted for moderate political parties and kept all sorts of reactionaries and racialist ratbags out of power across the globe.

Intricate prediction is impossible; 2018, for now, has to be left to the likes of that incurious don’t-give-a-damn observer — like Boris Yeltsin, a mercurial not too sensible Russian President of the 1990s.

“It is certain that the coming times will bring developments," he once said.

Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic. 

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