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Let us hope that the world can steer clear of the conflicts that the major crises of 2021 seem to have made inevitable.

The modern world has been animated by two important impulses. The first is a drive to a mastery over nature, where we can remake and engineer the natural world, this planet and even our bodies, to serve human desire and imagination. Nature, in this view, is not a binding constraint but an obstacle to be overcome. The second impulse is the remaking of our social world so that it is justified to all those who inhabit it. There is nothing providential about our social institutions, and the power and hierarchies they embody. These have to be rearranged to acknowledge a degree of earthly moral equality. They need to appear legitimate to the citizens who inhabit them. One of the paradoxes of our political life is that we have thought it easier to remake nature than to remake the social institutions that are constructed by us. When it comes to nature, we overcome the empire of necessity by more and more technological progress. There is a temptation, after each human calamity, whether a pandemic or climate change, to talk of the humbling of human conceit, our vulnerability to nature. But adversity does not change this drive to mastery; it does not alter our relationship to nature. Instead, we will look for an engineering solution. If we destroy earth, there is space to be conquered.



But in our social arrangements, we have, curiously, submitted more to the empire of necessity. Broadly speaking, the triad of some form of competitive economic extraction (capitalism), representative democracy and the nation-state form have defined our social horizons.




Combined with technological innovation, this triad has produced enormous gains on some measures of progress such as material well-being and social inclusion. But this triad is also subject to internal crises and disequilibrium: Capitalism does not work for all and produces distributive conflicts; democracy is often not inclusive enough, and the nation-state form can unleash war and xenophobic passions. But these still appear to us the inescapable horizons within which we must think and act. There is a kind of fatality to them.



But as 2021 draws to a close, it could be argued that we are at a critical point in five crises that are intimately tied to these two impulses. The first two are in relation to our drive to mastery. The pandemic is not yet over. The vaccines and developing treatment protocols have mitigated the first fall in global life expectancy for decades. But whether Omicron turns out to be the natural vaccine that takes the disease to tolerable levels of endemicity, or simply a portent that the tussle between variants and vaccine is not yet over is an open question. 2021 was also a year where we more visibly acknowledged the enormous disruptions climate change is beginning to cause to our lives; it could transform our climate and landscapes beyond recognition. Yet in both of these cases, there is a kind of fatalism setting in. We just hope there is some solution that emerges from our will to mastery: Just as a vaccine is our new morning prayer, some magical engineering solution will turn out to help with climate change. So, we will look for individual innovation. But the alternative future humanity might imagine for itself after these crises is unlikely to spill over into a radically new relationship between human beings and the planet they inhabit. We hope science relieves us of the burden of radical social and political change, especially in our relationship to nature.



In part we hope that because the triad of social institutions that define our collective existence are probably facing their deepest legitimacy crisis since the fall of the Berlin Wall. There are some exceptions, but the general worry that liberal representative democracy is failing is now widespread. The ardour for a reasoned freedom is diminishing: Liberal democracies are proving to be too divided to confront the enormous challenges they face, and there is general institutional sclerosis. Even the pandemic became a source of division rather than solidarity. India and the United States will see their crises deepen in different ways. This does not mean that the authoritarian model automatically succeeds — after all, China is having to resort to more repression as well. It may be that our ability to produce an effective government that can pass the legitimacy test is being overestimated at the moment. Despite the enormous growth in state capacity and state powers, the fate of free, effective and legitimate government hangs in the balance.



Capitalism undergoes its periodic crises, and we have learnt to manage them, up to a point. But, again globally, essentially our technique of management has been one that relieves us of the burden of seriously restructuring our collective arrangements. Most governments across the world have decided to do the easy part — provide cheap money and spend their way out of a crisis. Some of this might have been necessary. But the question remains — will our economies redeem their promise of providing meaningful jobs with a modicum of justice? In some sense, the crypto mania has become a metaphor for how we think of the economy: Another prayer that a piece of financial engineering that conjures something out of nothing can be our answer to fundamental problems.



Post 1989, there was some optimism that while the nation-state form will endure, its three pathologies could be contained. Internally, nationalisms would become more inclusive and be able to accommodate diversity. To some extent this happened. But at the same time, the anxiety over national identity, benchmarking it in ways that will likely produce conflict, has returned in all nations. Second, as the pandemic made crystal clear, there is very little appetite for serious global cooperation. Most of our challenges, global public health, climate change, or even economic prosperity cannot be solved if we think only within the nation-state form. Very little global collective action is possible if the world is “America First”, “China First” or “India First”. Third, we had hoped that the structures of global economic interdependence would diminish the prospects of major war between the great powers. But the nature of great power competition also now has a sense of fatality. Great powers, like partisans in domestic politics, are so adamant about their own virtue, interests, entitlement that the prospects of war have gone up considerably. As Jean Renoir once said, “the truly terrible thing is that everybody has their reasons.” We are living in a world where we all have our reasons. But the hope in 2022 is that these reasons add up to cooperation, not the intractable conflicts we currently seem to be heading towards.


(Courtesy: Indian Express)





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