Prophets Or Clowns?
issue 203 - January 1990
Imagine this is New Year's Day in the year 2000. The ageing NI team
is looking back on the key events of the last decade of the millennium.
THE END OF APARTHEID
South Africa now has a black-led but mixed-race government. The effective unbanning of the African National Congress at the beginning of the decade gathered momentum very fast and the white minority was eventually forced to accept a negotiated setttement not dissimilar to that arrived at in Zimbabwe. The new country rejected the new name Azania on the grounds that it had slave origins - and preferring the sense that it was a vital part of the continent as a whole. There are already signs that its great wealth and influence are beginning to regenerate the whole southern third of Africa, particularly the previously beleaguered states of Mozambique, Angola and Zambia. With luck this benign influence and economic motor could extend its benefits even deeper into the continent over the next decade.
Prophets or clowns?
Wisdom: We were right (and jubilantly so) that revolution in the Philippines would see off dictator Ferdinand Marcos. And our prediction that the USSR would be the most troubled nation of the 1980s was quite prescient - we said specifically in those pre-Gorbachev days that Poland would be the thin end of the wedge and that the resurgence of ethnic identity would cause a flashpoint, especially among Muslims.
Our prediction that multinationals would begin media campaigns to buy social and cultural acceptability seems accurate: in recent years the television screens have been full of corporations boasting about their bigness instead of concealing it, as they used to, behind their brand names. And our ideas about the energy crisis also seem to have been borne out - with enough new oil reserves discovered to allay fears of imminent exhaustion and with the nuclear energy debate becoming more and more an ideological issue.
But for our last point we had to rely on being half-right about two issues: we rightly predicted a Common Market between the US and Canada - but wrongly thought it would also include Mexico and Venezuela; and we predicted that unemployment would rise sharply in the West, causing more flexible working patterns - but were over-optimistic about the implications, seeing masses of people returning to school in middle life and then starting a new career.
Egg on face: We were wrong about there being a Canberra Watergate, with Australian politicians found to be corruptly involved with mining companies - still, it was a nice try. And we were also way off beam about unemployment being the greatest political force of the 1980s in the Third World - we predicted riots among the urban unemployed all over the world which simply haven't happened.
We were too pessimistic about manufacturing companies withdrawing from the Third World as automation in the West took over - in fact there is much more manufacturing in developing countries now than in 1980, as our next issue will make plain. And we were plain wrong that anarchism would be the most studied and talked-about movement of the 1980s - though maybe not so mistaken if you think that much Green philosophy is really anarchism by another name.
CHINA FINDS ITS VOICE
China discovered its own road towards a more democratic version of socialism in the course of the 1990s. The democracy movement had been brutally suppressed in 1989 but idealism and popular opposition bubbled up again and found allies in the younger generation of Communist leaders that followed the death of Deng Xiaoping. Whereas in the 1980s the reforming emphasis was on market economics without political openness (perestroika without glasnost), the China of the mid-to-late 1990s was driven by a concern for political openness for the first time in its history. The Dalai Lama returned to Tibet as China conceded significant autonomy - though Tibet remained a part of the People's Republic.
REVOLUTION IN EL SALVADOR
The 1990s was the decade which saw the victory of the FMLN guerillas in El Salvador. They finally ousted the vicious Arena regime, which had long been backed by the US, ending a three-decade battle for social justice. The initial signs were that the new government would follow the lead of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in pursuing a mixed economy. President Jesse Jackson's reforming US administration offered encouragement rather than sending in the marines. Thus the Monroe Doctrine (according to which the US maintained Latin America as its legitimate 'sphere of influence') was as completely overturned as was Soviet control over Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Stop press: this was written before the FMLN attacked San Salvador
LOVE AND PEACE REVISITED
The 1990s was the decade of idealism and optimism in the West. After the inflation and eventual recession of the 1970s and the greedy pursuit of money in the 1980s, people (especially the young) rediscovered some of the faith in the future and the enthusiasm for change which had characterized the 1960s. Longer hair made a comeback. But the renewed social concern benefited from the lessons of the preceding decades by being more realistic - and so arguably achieving more. The across-the-board respect for green thinking had a lot to do with this change in atmosphere - so too did the disappearance of the 'Soviet threat'.
RISE OF THE PACIFIC
The 1990s saw Japan take over from the US as the world's dominant power. This was driven by economics and the yen, closely followed by the ecu or European Currency Unit, displaced the dollar as the world's most important currency. But Japan also began to play a major foreign policy role, gaining a great influence in the UN, the World Bank - and in the Third World, by virtue of its being the largest aid-giver. The Pacific Basin became the world's key trading arena - and as a result the world was forced to take much more notice of Pacific Island groupings such as Micronesia that had barely made the global news since World War Two.
THE UN BOUNCES BACK
The worldwide acceptance of the need for supranational controls on the environment - given that the holes in the ozone layer, the greenhouse effect and tropical deforestation affect the whole planet rather than individual countries - has lent new respect and strength to the United Nations. And the greater integration of individual countries into trading blocs (Europe, North America, Southern Africa, Latin America) has made gentle progress towards some form of global administration (rather than government) seem more natural and inevitable.
The spread of the HIV virus has continued on a massive scale throughout the decade, to the point where a global depopulation of Black Death proportions seems more plausible. There is still no vaccine to immunize people against the virus. But at least drugs stopping the development of full-blown AIDS have kept down the death toll in the West. In the Third World, where these drugs are too costly, the tragedy has continued unabated. Is it any coincidence that pharmaceutical companies have found medicines (which we have to keep taking and paying for) rather than a vaccine (which we would only have to take once)?
THE EUROPEAN THIRD WORLD
Europe started the decade in a mood of great self-confidence as the barriers between East and West came down. But the economic implications of the change soon came home to roost. Outmoded smokestack industries in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary were shattered by competition from the affluent West. Huge unemployment resulted and East Europeans began to wonder if they had not been better off in economic isolation - though there was no going back on political reform. The West began to see aid to Eastern Europe as more important than aid to the Third World - 'charity begins at home'. Yet again Africa proved to be the major loser.
TWO THIRD WORLDS
The term 'Third World' came to seem rather outmoded as developing countries divided into many different characters and degrees of prosperity. More of them got in on the industrial act - Sri Lanka was the latest brave new industrializing country, while India finally took off as a major supplier of iron and steel on the global stage. And those countries already in on the act surged ahead - notably South Korea, which moved into the top ten richest countries in the world. Meanwhile the poorest nations of all were left even further behind as an effective 'fourth world'.
· There was a major scandal in a French-speaking West African nation, involving the dumping of toxic waste by a Western waste-disposal company. The illegal payment was traced to the President's Swiss bank account. He has since gone into retirement in Martinique.
· Islamic fundamentalism continued to grow as a response to Western coca-colarization of their cultures - and led to governments which fiercely discriminated against non-Muslims. It became a major influence not only in Iran, Egypt and Pakistan but also in Malaysia and Indonesia.
· The rise and rise of the automobile in the West was finally checked as governments of all political colours were forced to take action against traffic standstill and pollution. City centres became public-transportation-only zones while car taxes and road tolls rose sharply. Trains and trams made a big comeback.