Writing about the passing year, a friend of mine recently lamented the state of the world, expressing a very bleak view of the future. It was doom and gloom everywhere he wrote and ended by claiming the futility of writing anything, anymore at all!
His drastic sentiment is one perhaps shared by millions around the world. Witnessing the horrific, ongoing genocide in Gaza, other conflicts in Ukraine, Sudan, Ethiopia or the relentless rise of racists and megalomaniacs to power globally, it is difficult not to fall into despair.
Nothing seems to be right anymore because the entire world has shifted to the Right! And there is not much hope either because not much of the Left is left anywhere!
Well, writing on New Year’s Eve, I too am unable to offer much consolation to anyone in deep depression. There is no miracle about to happen that will bring peace, prosperity or carbon neutrality back to the planet in a magical instant.
However, some historical perspective is due here. Though the period we are living through is indeed dismal, it is not the worst the world has gone through in modern history. Imagine if you were alive, anywhere in the period between 1937 and 1947.
You would have lived in a globe where large parts of Asia and Africa were still under the jackboots of European colonialism. You would have seen the rise of Hitler to absolute power in Germany and the senseless slaughter of over 60 million people during World War II.
You would have learned with great shock about the Holocaust and melted in sheer horror when the US dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. If you were Indian or Pakistani, you would have witnessed or survived the killing of 2 million and displacement of 14 million fellow men, women and children during the Partition of the two nations.
It was the self-destructive shooting war between European colonialists started by Hitler together with the rise of a powerful Soviet Union that resulted in a paradigm shift once World War 2 ended. The new world that emerged saw a wave of positive developments, from decolonization of Asia and Africa to the establishment of institutions to uphold global norms and rule of law.
Efforts were made to redistribute wealth from the North to the South and implement universal standards of human rights and democracy everywhere. While things were never perfect, the post-war world was still one of hope for global justice, economic progress and expanding individual rights and opportunities. The existence of a bipolar world, in terms of the Soviet and US camps, helped maintain a global balance that was advantageous to weaker, developing countries globally.
At the end of 2023 though all that seemed solid is melting into air and it seems the lessons of the Second World War have been completely forgotten or are being deliberately erased. In my view, this descent into darkness did not start yesterday but over three decades ago with the end of the Cold War.
When the Soviet Union abruptly disappeared, it left behind not just a litter of new born nations but also a unipolar world order dominated by the United States and its rump of former colonial powers in Europe. Today’s fragile world order is clearly the result of this global imbalance between the left and the right.
Drunk on unchallenged power, the forces of the right everywhere are taking us back to the pre-war era of colonialism and resurgent fascism. Apart from the collapse of the left worldwide the right also builds upon colonialist power structures that never disappeared completely in the post-war period.
For example, while most former colonies gained independence in the post-war period, their political and economic self-determination remained limited in practice by global institutions and norms established by Western powers.
Western-dominated financial organizations, like the World Bank and IMF, advocated restrictive austerity for troubled economies in the developing world, while turning a blind eye to profligate spending in economies like that of the United States and the UK. Trade policies initiated by groups like the G7 were skewed heavily to benefit Western economies first and foremost.
While lacking old-school colonial administrations directly running non-Western territories, the post-war world order was always still one where global hierarchies paralleled those from the colonial era. The very national boundaries between modern nations across Africa and the Middle East reflected colonial interests and arbitrary divisions rather than local historical or cultural context.
An obvious example of this has been the existence of Israel all these years on land stolen from the Palestinians – a stark symbol of old-style colonialism. In fact, the carnage carried out by Israel in Gaza, with US and Western support over the last few months, is a classic indicator of how European-style colonialism never really left our planet at all and is now making a bold comeback.
Alongside revival of colonial approaches, the fascist ideology that menaced the 1930s has also experienced a resurgence through patterns both familiar and new. Modern far-right white supremacist groups are openly spreading Nazi slogans, valorising Hitler’s image, and preaching xenophobic conspiracies that demonize immigrants and minorities.
In the developing world, fascist footprints have emerged everywhere in zones of instability, crisis, and failed development or wherever public faith in governance and progress have broken down. The volatility created by economic inequality, demographic change, and cultural shifts have been eagerly exploited by demagogues to establish authoritarian platforms frighteningly reminiscent of Europe in the 1930s.
‘Elected’ dictators like Viktor Orban, Narendra Modi, Benjamin Netanyahu, Javier Milei or Donald Trump drape their hostility toward democratic accountability and pluralism with street-thug bravado or polished propaganda. These ‘strongmen’ promise national restoration through destruction of various ‘others’ such as foreigners, religious minorities and dissenters – just as Hitler and his men did.
With no real heroes anywhere in sight the only sign of challenge to US domination of the world now comes from the rise of wannabe superpowers like China, Russia and to a lesser extent Iran. Their attempt to create a more multipolar world is certainly welcome, however unsavoury each of them or their motives may be on their own.
The great danger though is that such decentralization of power is not going to happen without a global shooting war that will make all previous ones from history look like a genial tea party. The venal arrogance of the West, unwilling to give even a millimetre of space to any rival on the global stage, is likely to produce catastrophic results in the days ahead.
I don’t have any clear answers as to how exactly anyone is supposed to fight against these large political, economic or military forces bent upon destroying the only planet we all have.
However, if we look at who are the biggest winners and losers of current global trends we can also begin to understand where the resistance could come from.
At the level of countries there is no doubt that it is the developing nations of Asia, Africa, Latin America who stand to lose the most due to return of colonialism through US and Western unilateralism. Growing conflict will not just divert valuable resources needed to pull their populations out of poverty but the breakdown of international order and rule of law will also take away their hard won rights as independent nations.
Segments of the global population that are the main losers are likely to be workers, farmers, women, religious and ethnic minorities, immigrants and refugees of all kinds. It is their rights that are being systematically rolled back by fascist resurgence in the service of global corporations which bankroll political parties everywhere around the world.
At a systemic level a striking feature of our current world is the great inequity of wealth between and within countries, not seen since the time of powerful monarchs. It is clear that under the cover of extreme ideologies and violent conflict there is an economic orthodoxy at work, which helps the rich get richer while throwing the poor to the wolves.
So that is the biggest challenge of all that needs to be taken up – the reversal of concentration of wealth in the hands of the few and redistribution of resources to those who need it the most.
It is evident that fighting colonialism and fascism in the 21st century is possible only by rebuilding a powerful global left once again. The how, when, who and what of this historical task will evolve, learning from past mistakes and coming up with fresh ideas and innovation as we go along.
But at the start of 2024, the slogan “Workers of the World Unite!’ looks as refreshingly new as it did a century and half ago when it was first coined.
Satya Sagar is a journalist and public health worker who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org