Fintan O’Toole: 2018, year of the dark new normal

Physical and political wildfires raged across the world – and we began to get used to them

On August 2nd, Apple became the world's first public company to achieve a market capitalisation of $1 trillion. A month later, Amazon became the second. Their share prices receded shortly afterwards, but the high tide had left a new mark on the beach, a number so high that it might as well have been a calculation of the number of grains of sand: 1,000,000,000,000; a million million dollars.

It spoke of the astonishing wealth that 21st century global capitalism can generate, and of the staggering power of the technological revolution that underpins it. These are companies that make us feel like gods, carrying the world in our pockets, summoning the produce of the earth to our doors with less strain than a click of the fingers.

Amid all the godlike power, there is also a human helplessness in the face of the forces we are unleashing on our planet

On August 4th, two days after this euphoric moment in the history of capitalism, the part of the world with which this great revolution is most associated – the US state of California – got approval from US president Donald Trump for what is formally known as a "presidential major disaster declaration". At that point, there were 17 huge wildfires burning out of control across the state. In making the announcement, California governor Jerry Brown noted that "This is part of a trend – a new normal – that we've got to deal with."

Except that it couldn't really be dealt with. Amid all the godlike power, there is also a human helplessness in the face of the forces we are unleashing on our planet. The fires were never fully controlled and blazed anew with even greater ferocity in November. One of them, in and around the hauntingly named town of Paradise, claimed 85 lives and destroyed 18,733 buildings. Reporting on one couple who lost everything, the San Francisco Chronicle found people echoing, consciously or otherwise, Brown's words: "'You're so strong', their friends said. 'You'll find a new normal'."


A strange place

Is 2018 the year of the new normal? Trump himself is a presidential major disaster warning, but a warning that we barely even hear anymore. No one was even vaguely surprised that Trump’s response to the wildfires was to deny that they had anything to do with climate change, to keep repeating some guff about leaves on the forest floor and to misname Paradise as Pleasure. When you have a US president on Twitter calling a porn star “Horseface”, the new normal is a very strange place to be.

One side of this normalcy is the vast wealth and power encoded in Apple’s trillion dollars. The other is the wildfires – not just the literal ones that engulfed California, Queensland in Australia, British Columbia in Canada, large parts of Portugal, Greece and Spain and even, after freakishly hot weather in northern Sweden, Lapland – but the political wildfires that continued to rage across much of the democratic world.

In California, the fires had names like the Mendicino Complex Fire, the Carr Fire and the Camp Fire. In the political world, we have the still-burning Trump Fire, Brexit Fire, Putin Fire, Orbán Fire, Erdogan Fire and Duterte Fire, joined in 2018 by the Bolsonaro Fire in Brazil, the Khashoggi Fire in Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the Gilets Jaunes Fire in France and so on.

But these are not unrelated phenomena. At the most obvious level, the Cambridge Analytica scandal that finally exploded in March when it emerged that Facebook had allowed Cambridge Analytica to harvest the data from 87 million users and target them with pro-Trump ads, showed the direct connection between the rise of reactionary politics and the unregulated power of the tech giants.

The continuing reverberations from the Mueller investigation into collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign added to suspicions of a very dark nexus. Trump’s astonishingly subservient press conference with Vladimir Putin, in which he parroted the Russian president’s line on interference with US elections – “I have [asked] President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be” – gave us another kind of new normal in the international pecking order.

The vast wealth created by the globalised economy goes hand in hand with terrible environmental destruction and inequalities incompatible with political stability

There are, though, deeper connections. The coincidence of the arrival of the $1 trillion corporation with the catastrophic infernos reminded us that the vast wealth that is being created by the globalised, digitally connected economy goes hand in hand with terrible environmental destruction and inequalities that are incompatible with political stability. We have a model of capitalism that is making both extreme weather events – experienced even in Ireland in 2018 – and gross economic inequality the new normal.

Since the Reagan-Thatcher project to undo the broadly social democratic post-war consensus got under way in 1980, income inequality has increased rapidly in North America, China, India, and Russia and more moderately but nonetheless very markedly in Europe.

In the United States, the share of income going to the bottom half of earners decreased from more than 20 per cent in 1980 to 13 per cent in 2016. The global top 1 per cent of earners has captured twice as much of all the economic growth since 1980 as the poorest 50 per cent.

Gaming the system

It is rather ironic that in Ireland the first controversy of 2018 arose from an accusation (without stated evidence) by the head of the Housing Agency, Conor Skehan, that homeless people were "gaming the system". Ironic because the system certainly is being gamed and it is not by the poor.

The global corporate tax avoidance industry (in which Ireland plays a large part) is a gaming of the system on a massive scale. So is the alliance between the super-rich and far-right figures like Trump whose excesses and vulgarities are acceptable so long as he delivers (as he has done) tax cuts overwhelmingly directed towards the top earners.

This long-term ability of the very rich to monopolise the vast new wealth being created in the world is the ultimate fuel for the political wildfires.

Inequality on this scale is not compatible with the promise implicit in democracy, that everyone counts the same. But it has also created its own new normal for ever larger sections of society: stagnant wages, precarious work, poorer access to overstretched public services and a sense that things that were once taken for granted are now slipping inexorably away.

In Ireland, as elsewhere, these things include even housing – Dublin, in particular, is becoming uninhabitable for the unprivileged young. As consumers of the dazzling new technology, we have never felt so powerful; as citizens we are acutely conscious of our powerlessness.

The only compensation on offer is the chance to feel superior to someone worse off than yourself. We are seeing the growth of what Timothy Snyder in one of 2018's best political books, The Road to Unfreedom, calls a "sadopopulism" in which people are willing to inflict pain on themselves so long as they can believe that, in the same moment, they are making their imagined enemies hurt more.

There is little sign of a lessening of this urge: one of the world's largest democracies, Brazil, succumbed to it in 2018 when Jair Bolsonaro was elected president in October. But so did one of the keystone countries of the European Union: after Italy's general election in March, it has become ever more obvious that the governing figure is the far-right leader Matteo Salvini.

Salvini, like Trump, is a skilled normaliser of outrageous cruelty. He has test-marketed this year ideas like forcing all Roma people to register with the state or letting refugees die in the Mediterranean. Trump test-marketed the idea of dragging little children away from their parents on the Mexican border and keeping them in cages.

Bolsonaro, even before he takes office in January, has test-marketed the torture and murder of opponents. Sadopopulism remains on trend: even Ireland got a tiny taste of it during the presidential elections when some incoherent remarks about Travellers propelled Peter Casey from registering below the margin of error in polls to taking almost a quarter of the vote.

Fingers in dykes

Broadly speaking, mainstream centrist democrats have gone out to fight these wildfires with a garden hose. There is still a lingering tendency to mistake a conflagration for a flash in the pan. There is a hope that the old normal can be restored by telling those attracted to the far right how deplorable they are while sticking fingers in the dykes and praying for the waters to recede soon.

But the only real dykes are the protections that were put in place after the scarifying experience of the second World War and the Holocaust: secure employment, access to healthcare, education and housing, narrowing inequalities, and the reasonable belief that your children’s lives could be better than your own.

They have been undermined by neoliberal globalisation and they have to be rebuilt urgently.

Oddly enough, the unravelling of the Brexit project throughout 2018 has diminished that sense of urgency and fed into a dangerous complacency. In 2016, it was commonplace to talk of Brexit as merely the first domino to fall, the prelude to the collapse of the European Union itself.

In 2017, at least until Emmanuel Macron defeated Marine Le Pen in the French presidential election, that still seemed a live possibility. But in 2018, it began to look distinctly less likely.

A Eurobarometer survey in October showed a significant upturn in pro-EU sentiment in most member states. One of the main reasons is that Brexit has shown people what withdrawal actually looks like, and it is not a pretty sight.

But relying on the delusions and incompetence of the Brexiteers to demonstrate the benefits of the status quo is not a convincing long-term, or even medium-term strategy. With the end of the Angela Merkel era being signalled in October by her announcement that she will not seek re-election in 2021, the woman who has embodied Europe’s old normal since 2005 is a spent force.

Macron may be terminally damaged by the Gilets Jaunes. Spain has a deep crisis of political authority and Poland is in the grip of an authoritarian right-wing Catholic nationalism.

The idea of hunkering down and waiting out the storm raises the obvious question – where is the shelter? There isn’t one.

But there is hope from the United States. Trump may have succeeded in getting his nominee Brett Kavanaugh on to the supreme court but the process revealed another and more hopeful kind of new normal – women finding a new voice and speaking a new kind of public language.

Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony before the Senate was a moment when the discourse of power seemed to shift. This impression was confirmed in the November mid-term elections in which women candidates and women voters were crucial to the delivery of an enormous rebuke to Trump. And most of this energy came from the bottom up – anger and alarm turning into organisation and engagement.

The fight for America’s soul is very far from being won but it has decisively begun.

Europe is going to need a similar energy. There is a need to fight fire with fire – against the wildfires of enraged reaction must be a controlled but fiery passion for decency and survival. The sustainability of human life is now inextricably linked to the sustainability of an open and egalitarian democracy.

There is hope from the US and from Ireland. The successful Repeal the 8th campaign here was powered by a new generation of clever and committed activists.

The new normal can’t be banished by an appeal to the old normality of hyper-globalised consumption and ever-growing inequality. It can be defeated only by making a liveable planet and a decent, dignified existence the fundamental conditions of normal life.

Fintan O'Toole

Fintan O'Toole

Fintan O'Toole, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes a weekly opinion column