Countless ink will, and indeed has already been spilled on this topic, much of it by far greater beings than myself. Regardless, it is a subject worth blunting a pen or wearing out the keys of a laptop over. As I reflect back on this year, I feel that it will not be one which is simply glanced over in the textbooks of the future. Perhaps 2016 will be one of those years – 1945, 1968, 1989, 2001 – that will be remembered by the history books as a defining element of the post-war era. A revolutionary year? I doubt it. A year of reaction? Possibly, though as I reflect back upon it I’m not so sure. Nevertheless, I feel that 2016 was one of those years, a year of events that everyone will remember long after they are past.
It does not appear to have been a very happy year, if any year could be called “happy”. Even the events that usually bring us all together have been overshadowed by negative news. The Rio Olympics is a case in point – I don’t know about everyone else, but I will admit that I forgot about it completely until I started reviewing the year’s events for this piece. I’m sure this is not true for Brazilians, but I feel that for the rest of the world the Olympics was forgotten quite quickly – if it is remembered at all, it is for the Zika virus epidemic which hung over it like a dark cloud. Similarly, festivities at Easter and Christmas have been plagued by terrorist attacks and news of disasters around the world.
This has been compounded by the unusual number of high-profile, or (forgive me for using this irritating word) ‘celebrity’, deaths. I have already penned a few thoughts on the media’s treatment of these deaths; nevertheless, the number has been unusually high, and has shown no signs of stopping even as 2017 approaches. With every pop star, actor or author who dies, the cultural presence of the Cold War generations fade. Everybody seems to be reflecting on their own mortality far more this year as a result, which is not conducive to positive thoughts.
2016 has certainly been, to put it mildly, ‘interesting’ in the political sphere. Indeed, this year I have been almost forced, from my previous extreme apathy, to take an active interest in politics again. How could I not? So many momentous events have occurred in the political arena this year. Those that struck me the most include the Italian referendum, which led to the resignation of Italian PM Matteo Renzi, a man I recall was nicknamed the ‘Tony Blair of Italy’ when he came to power; the election and subsequent actions of President Duterte in the Philippines; and the Turkish coup and its subsequent fallout of repression and violence.
Most of all, however, it has been the political events of the Anglosphere which have most impacted upon me. In my homeland of the U.K, we have voted to leave the European Union, against most predictions; this was not my preferred result, but it has happened, and we will live with the consequences. I am still not convinced that it was the right decision, but only time will tell, and I honestly hope I am wrong – if not, the UK has a hard few years ahead. In the United States, again against widespread predictions, Mr. Trump is now President-Elect of the most powerful nation upon Earth. This was the event that kickstarted me into starting this blog, and to writing my first piece on my thoughts in the electoral aftermath. Have my views changed since that fateful day in November? I’m not sure. Trump’s moderating statements since his elections have helped quell some fears, though some of his other actions have helped stoke others.
Nevertheless, my problem with both the Brexit Referendum and the U.S Election was not the fine details of either, in truth. My problem was the way in which both were carried out. Negativity, bias, and hate characterise both political events, fuelled by an unhelpful dose of dubious and often plainly false information. It is worrying that the Oxford English Dictionary word of the year was “Post-Truth”. The actions of the politicians and the electorate worried me even more. Throughout both campaigns, it became clear that often the electorate did not care what the politicians said, or did. It didn’t matter that the Out Campaign in Britain essentially lied about the UK’s contributions to the EU, or that Mr. Trump was caught on tape boasting of sexually harassing women. This has been extremely upsetting, and it is one element of 2016 that I hope – faintly – that will not be repeated to the same extent in the future. As a result, it is critical to analyse why this method of politics has become so effective. This year, people were so angry at what they saw as an uncaring political establishment that they were willing to vote for anything – or anyone – seen as a protest against that elite.
The ‘liberal elite’ as this political establishment is often characterised, is on the retreat, after decades of essentially-unchallenged power. I feel this is especially true in the UK, where the ‘liberal elite’ has essentially controlled all the major parties. For years, I have heard people giving the identical reason for their extreme political apathy – all the parties are “the same”. It has been hard not to agree, as we look at Parliament’s ranks of seemingly-identikit politicians. The consensus has been broken, however. Those who the elite have ignored for much of the last two decades have finally been given the chance to protest, and protest they have, led by the populists. Change is in the air – and I have come to the conclusion that this is a good thing.
Please do not take me for some populist, or anti-establishment figure. I am a younger member of that strata of society that provide the majority of the ‘liberal elite’. I go to a prestigious university, and will probably work in one of the traditional professions of that class. The continuation of the liberal elite’s control over politics would almost certainly be to my benefit. Nevertheless, this year has shown that change is needed. I wish it was not the almost-reactionary change that our current populists are proposing, but nevertheless, change is required.
Indeed, I have been coming to the view that a radical change in our political systems will be required. Our current systems are – as several eminent intellectuals have pointed out – those of the 19th Century. This is no longer workable in the 21st Century, a century that is heralding so much incredible technological and social change that those systems may simply crumble under the strain. I will not now go into detail on my thoughts upon this topic – they deserve their own dedicated piece, and in any case are still formulating. However, the main point at this stage is that if nothing else, this year has shown that the idea that we reached the pinnacle of western civilisation in liberal-democratic capitalism is a myth. It is a myth that I believed until very recently, but nevertheless 2016 has shown me that our post-1991 consensus was just another phase in western civilisation.
In the history books of the western world, I think that 2016 will mark the beginning of the end in this era of the liberal-democratic consensus. Will the next phase be dominated by right-wing populism? I doubt it in the long run. This current spate of shock elections will continue, I’m sure, into the next year, and perhaps the year after that. Eventually however, they will subside. Some might hope that then the liberal-democratic consensus will come back, and everything will be as before. I do not, actually. I am hoping that the elite – for they will certainly not disappear – will forge a new consensus, dominated by inclusivity and long-term planning for the future of our species.
I’m sure a lot of my friends and peers will look back upon this year with misery, and gaze towards 2017 with growing dread. My views were similar until very recently, when they have become more moderated. 2016 was indeed a rough year in many ways, but as in every year, so much good work has been done in the last twelve months. Great pieces of art and literature have been created; people have loved and laughed; science and technological development marches on. The political events have been tumultuous, but hopefully they are the bitter medicine that is required to heal our civilisation of its problems, mend its divisions, and lead us all together towards a brighter future.