1972 was a fascinating year for several reasons: Nixon was in the White House and ‘Watergate’ was underway, Fischer and Spaasky played each other at Chess, the Vietnam War was still on and there also occurred an extremely momentous occasion, namely the birth of this author. Having reached a landmark birthday, he is encumbered to review some of the astonishing political, economic and social changes since the year of his birth. To him, a lot of it seems like only yesterday but forty years in the past is a long time ago…
One of the main differences for anyone growing up in the 1970s, 80s and now, is the threat of nuclear annihilation and how it’s no longer a predominant concern. Throughout the Cold War there was always a background fear of the balloon going up. As kids, we used to speculate whether we’d like to be directly under ‘the bomb’ when it went off or if we’d wish to survive the aftermath. It must be impossible for anyone born after the mid Eighties to imagine how blasé many of us were about the threat of the coming global nuclear holocaust; ‘MAD’ was a fact of life, just one of those things and a bi-polar World seemed to be the natural order of things. That was to change utterly too…
The speed with which the Soviet Union fell apart would have shocked even the most hawkish spooks in the Western Intelligence agencies. The collapse of the USSR and re-birth of Russia into the Yeltsin then Putin Oligarchies has seen the emergence of the US as the planet’s Hyper-power and the growth of China (free markets, no democracy) has led to the World being a less predictable place; more chaotic than the relative ‘stability’ of the Cold War (a highly contentious phrase considering the millions injured and killed in ‘proxy wars’ between 1945 and 1989). If you’re old enough to remember the epic ‘Summits’ from 30 years ago or even the term ‘Superpower’, then you’re old enough to know how much the map of Europe has changed in the last 20 years alone. German re-unification on its own would have been an enormous event but this was just one of many ‘new’ states to appear on the map.
US military hegemony can be divided up into Cold War, post Cold War to 2001 and then post 9-11. If you’d have told this author in 1980 that thirty years from then, the USA not the USSR would be in Afghanistan fighting a ‘blow-back’ created Taliban, he would, in his innocence, have thought you were spinning a web of fiction from the future. In International Relations between 1972 and 2012, the big story has been the failure of the UN to take united action in the upholding of its charter – the author may reflect on the naivety of the younger self who thought that States would cease operating (for the most part) only in their perceived self-interests.
Another huge transformation in the last 40 years has been the smashing of the Post War Economic Consensus, a process that really started log-rolling in the 70s as the ‘Chicago Boys’ became ascendant. It’s bizarre, but true, that a small group of economists under the tutelage of Milton Friedman set about dismantling welfare safety nets, consumer protections and economic freedoms, in the name of ‘economic freedom’. The political compass needle has moved pretty much inexorably to the Right in Europe and the US since 1979 and maybe just now, in the new Great Depression/Recession, we might see a turning back to the Left. Again, if a time traveller was to travel back even to the mid-1990s and was to say that a single European currency will be built with no contingency for a member state to leave and that leaving could cause a global economic meltdown, they’d be greeted with a ‘you can not be serious?’.
The information revolution in the last forty years has been remarkable. Governments can snoop as protestors mobilise, policies can be formulated and retracted all in the space of a few hours. Time has ‘sped up’. The same technology tools that allow for revolution in the Maghreb provides for repression in Syria. We have information overload i.e. we know all we need to know to protest for human, economic and democratic rights but power struggles still pervade much of many people’s lives.
On the pessimistic side, there has been a drift way from the notion of the individual being really able to change anything. Combining seems, for many, to be ineffective too. If that same time traveller had come back to say that democratic participation in the West is decreasing, you’d be really disappointed at how little things change and how they can get worse.
However, there is cause for optimism too. There are still internationalists out there, still egalitarians looking to change the World for the better, still alternatives to the mentality of survival of the fittest and still dreamers and artists helping to make this short time we have on the planet worthy for passing on to the successor generation. Here’s to the next forty years, may we live in somewhat interesting times.