At the peak of post-Soviet triumphalism in the west, amid all the hype about a New World Order and the end of history, historian Eric Hobsbawm rained on the parade somewhat by suggesting that we were in a pre-war, rather than post-(Cold) war period.
Hobsbawm was a Marxist, deeply concerned by what he saw even then, more than two decades ago, as the rise of nationalism and religious extremism.
The ideological vacuum left by the demise of the USSR and the broader decline of socialism was in danger of being filled by tribalism, sectarianism and ethnic conflict. Long dormant hatreds of “the Other” founded on reactionary creeds of racial and religious supremacy would now have room to breathe, he believed.
He didn’t live to see that prediction fulfilled, but as we leave 2016 behind and the world prepares for a Trump presidency built on white rage, it is clear that we are there.
The Long Peace which has lasted since 1945 – no wars between major powers, no world wars after the two that defined the 20th century, and despite the horrors of civil war such as we see in Syria today, no human casualties on the scale of 1939-45 or 1914-18 – is coming to an end.
Russia hacks US elections, and invades sovereign nations in Eastern Europe. China steals US drones in international waters, and builds military bases on artificial islands. The soon-to-be commander-in-chief of America writes this is “unpresidented” (sic), while endorsing the behaviour of the murderous president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte. And all this before Donald Trump even gets his greedy fingers on the nuclear button.
All it will take for this bizarre mix of post-factual ignorance, nationalism and religiously fuelled aggression to become full-on war is one provocative move too far, by one side or another.
It might happen in the illegal Israeli settlements next week, or around Taiwan in June. Maybe Trump will take a shot at North Korea. Who knows?
We do know that we have a tax-avoiding, pussy-grabbing reality TV star for president of the United States, who communicates his foreign policy on social media while proclaiming he has no need for such trivia as CIA national security briefings.
And if we manage to avoid that apocalyptic scenario, we will still have to deal with nationalism tearing apart the UK, the EU, and all the gains of internationalism, globalisation and multiculturalism we have painstakingly made since the cataclysm of the second world war.
The English artists Gilbert & George produced a prescient 2014 piece seen by this writer at MONA in Hobart. It declares:
Well, now they’re voting for them again – in Austria, the UK, Australia, the US, even Germany, where neo-nazism is on the verge of again becoming respectable.
We are in an historical moment never experienced by anyone born after 1945. A moment unforeseen and unprepared for.
In that respect I am guilty.
Yes, like most observers I understood that Brexit was a possibility, given the polls showing a slight majority for Remain right up to the end of the campaign. But the wishful thinker in me chose to believe that no rational person would wish to tear up the complex web of relationships between Britain and the EU, formed over 45 years, and which had contributed so much to peace and prosperity on the continent.
Sure, the EU had its problems and challenges, but nothing a determined UK government could not have resolved through firm negotiation of the type pursued by Conservative and Labour administrations for decades. To destroy the entire edifice of economic, cultural and political union between 28 countries was masochistic and self-destructive, surely?
The Scots had rejected separation from the UK just two years before, after all, a very similar issue to that pushed by the English nationalists in the EU referendum.
What we see now with the chaos and uncertainty of Brexit would have been visited on the UK in 2014, if the separatists had won the referendum – ironically, the Scottish nationalists now cite Brexit as their reason for overturning the democratic vote for Union.
My Scottish countrymen and women made the right call there, and maybe that encouraged me to think the Brits would do so in relation to the EU, and then the Americans would elect a principled and experienced public servant such as Hillary Clinton over the mean-minded man who will soon be sitting in the Oval Office.
In the US election, again, the data showed that a Trump victory was possible, if not likely. No-one, not even Nate Silver and those at FiveThirtyEight, wanted to believe the data could all be wrong, even if we knew on recent evidence that they might be.
But we were wrong, very wrong, and now we face the most serious threat to all of our livelihoods and lives – wherever in the word we call home – most of us have known. Unless you are a rich billionaire such as Trump and his super-rich cronies, it’s time to dig in and prepare for a future of chaos and austerity.
Our grandparents DID shoot fascists, and they did win the war. We 21st-century anti-fascists can prevail too, but only if we understand the enormity of what we face.
This is a culture war, first.
As I observed in Porno? Chic! three years ago there is a global reaction underway to the historic gains of feminism and gay rights, spearheaded by radical Islam and now hijacked by the white supremacist alt-right. In what remains of the liberal capitalist world we must defend and promote progressive sexual politics as never before.
We must defend multiculturalism and the values of tolerance, against not just the white nationalists but the Islamists and haters of every type.
If our leaders had been more honest about and resistant to Islam’s assault on our progressive social values we might not be where we are today, in the UK, the US, France, Germany, Australia (where One Nation is preparing to seize its historic opportunity).
We must declare zero tolerance for religious, nationalist, and ethnic intolerance, from whichever direction it comes.
We must learn to fight the alt-right with the same ferocity and fearlessness they apply to their enemies in the media, academia, everywhere.
Forget politeness, or all known rules of online etiquette. Forget turning the other cheek, or trying to be reasonable with those who ignore the facts in the hope they will be persuaded to your point of view. Challenge them now, because the deplorables will be coming for you next.
The internet is now a target, so we must relearn how to live without the digital, and how to survive when the network gets hacked or knocked out by Russia or China (or indeed Trump).
As we have just seen in the starkest possible manner, our liberal democracies have become extremely vulnerable not just to demagogues spouting populist bile on social media, but to foreign state hacking.
It’s clear that when the Long Peace does end, the internet will be taken out first. We should all be prepared to survive the abrupt withdrawal of online services which we have become reliant on.
But look on the bright side.
Buy a turntable and some vinyl records; a nice pen that you can write with, and some notepads. Start reading hard copy books again. Reduce your dependence on the digital. Rediscover the pleasures of the analogue.
Such survival tactics won’t stop what’s coming after January 20, but they might make it just that bit easier to cope. Meantime, as we approach the new year and say farewell to Barack Obama, let’s echo his sentiments of this week:
God bless us all.