The power elites in Western countries resort to self- delusion, distortion, evasion, lies and hypocrisy to justify and defend policies and actions they believe or pretend are in the national interest
‘The Best of Times, The Worst of Times: A History of Now’ by Michael Burleigh
Pan, July 2018, 432 pages, paperback. Available here from Amazon Books $9.99
ADELAIDE - I have just finished Michael Burleigh’s acclaimed book, The Best of Times, The Worst of Times: A History of Now’ (Macmillan, 2017).
Burleigh is a distinguished academic specialising in the Nazi era, and he has held teaching positions, including professorial roles, at New College, Oxford, the London School of Economics and the universities of Cardiff and Stanford.
He also writes for various newspapers and magazines and has produced several successful documentary films.
The Best of Times, The Worst of Times is a comprehensive review of the state of the world today and its broad scope and many insights reflect Burleigh’s deep understanding of modern history.
The book is divided into chapters each of which deals with a specific region or country.
While there is an inevitable degree of overlap between these chapters, they largely focus upon the complex forces at work within and around the region or country under examination.
In the case of the Middle East, which remains perhaps the world’s most persistent source of conflict and strife, he brings a forensic approach to understanding the complex interplay between sectarianism, tribalism, ethnicity, vast wealth and the personal ambition and hatred that effectively preclude any chance of peace and prosperity in that region.
If the last 30 years have taught us nothing else about the Middle East, it is that the intervention of external powers - ostensibly to bring stability, democracy, peace and justice - have invariably been not only futile but counterproductive.
In Burleigh’s view there will never be peace in the Middle East and its pursuit by the great powers is always destined to be disastrous.
His commentaries on Russia, the USA, China and the European Union unflinchingly tear away the veneer of rationality, civility and respectability their rulers strive to create. The unpleasant realities that lie beneath are mercilessly exposed.
It is striking how frequently and persistently the power elites in these countries resort to self- delusion, distortion, evasion, lies and hypocrisy to justify and defend policies and actions they believe or pretend are in the national interest.
Equally remarkable is the number of citizens who either genuinely believe the lies they are told or choose to believe them in preference to facing up to the often ugly truths that they are designed to obscure.
It will be apparent from these comments that this is not a book likely to encourage optimism about what the future may hold for us all.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the world has passed through a period of exceptional economic growth.
In what is called ‘the West’ (which doesn’t actually exist according to Burleigh) this has been driven primarily by the erroneous belief that liberal democracy was the inevitable choice for the governance of nations.
Burleigh also states that liberal democracy’s also believed that their neo-liberal economic orthodoxies would lead to endless growth to the benefit of all due to the massive globalisation of the production and distribution of goods and services.
For many years until quite recently it looked like this belief might even be true.
Then in 2008 the first signs emerged that the whole vast edifice of what some call late stage capitalism (more accurately, ‘casino capitalism’) was actually a house of cards, underpinned by nothing but endless speculation, exploitation, rent seeking and profiteering.
As it transpires, probably the main beneficiaries of this process have been the world’s two largest autocracies, China and Russia, neither of which show any sign of miraculously turning into a liberal democracy.
As Burleigh vividly and convincingly demonstrates, these two powers are not benign but they’re also, not the superpowers they have led themselves and many of us to believe.
The evidence about the true state of Russia as both a military and economic power is being revealed in the ongoing Ukraine War.
As I write, the Ukrainians are gaining the upper hand in that war. The Russian war machine is struggling to match the training, motivation and sheer determination of the Ukrainian military which is increasingly wielding advanced and lethal western weaponry with agility and skill and good intelligence.
Meanwhile, as Burleigh demonstrates, China presents an image of social stability and great economic and military power.
While this is true to some degree, he writes, China also struggles with internal problems of a scale that reflect its enormous size and the weight of its long and tortuous history.
China is a mighty power, but its problems are also gargantuan.
The same can be said of the USA, which is riven with socio-economic problems that its ruling elites have conspicuously failed to adequately address.
Burleigh provides an eloquent and convincing explanation for the rise of Donald Trump which, crudely speaking, may be understood as a reaction against the neo-liberal economic system which the country has so vigorously promoted.
For example, he notes that over five million American jobs have been effectively ‘exported’ to China during globalisation, mostly from the so-called rust belt states in the mid-west of the USA.
Unsurprisingly, those thrown on the employment scrap heap bitterly resent their fate and their anger and despair were tapped into by Trump when he promised (falsely) to ‘make America great again’.
But, in truth, it is the impact of modern technology that is casting increasing numbers of people on the employment scrap heap.
Those who lack high level educational qualifications or desirable trade skills or have no access to employment through family connections are destined to struggle for survival.
Computerisation and mechanisation are destroying jobs once held by human beings.
This is the ‘creative destruction’, much beloved by apologists for the current form of capitalism, that dominates the world and which is producing increasing levels of inequality, inequity and social injustice.
Burleigh’s conclusion is that the world is about to become a much more unstable and dangerous place for us all.
Many things we have regarded as enduring and certain will disappear or fail and the threat of industrial scale warfare, which we all hoped and believed had receded into the distant past, will loom over us all once again.
This is the strategic context within which many newly independent countries will be obliged to deal with in the years to come.
Their leaders will, through lack of knowledge, experience or insight, risk making serious errors of judgement.
Some leaders, such as the Solomon Islands’ prime minister, appear to conceive of themselves as capable of deftly manoeuvring around or exploiting great power rivalries to their individual or national advantage. This is a dangerous error.
In the new world order it will be the careful, the watchful and the cautious who survive and, perhaps, even thrive.
Alliances will be very important for small and medium powers, which individually lack the economic or military capacity to withstand even an indirect assault by the great powers.
Of course, choosing to ally with a great power always brings with it obligations and vulnerabilities. So too does not choosing to join an alliance.
This is why game playing such as suddenly banning naval ships from docking is a risky tactic for the Solomon Islands. Such actions are sometimes forgiven but never forgotten.
I recommend Burleigh’s book to readers who wish to understand why, seemingly so quickly, the world is in such a mess.
The bewildering array of problems he identifies has mostly been hidden in plain sight.
A combination of wishful thinking and irrational optimism has allowed most of us to persuade ourselves that these problems would either disappear or somehow be solved.
The Ukraine War is perhaps the starkest contemporary example of how old ambitions, ideas and prejudices can arise from the apparently cold ashes of history to cause untold harm and grief.
Burleigh’s provides a grim warning and an accurate picture of our collective future.