ADELAIDE - Across many parts of the world people are enjoying - or enduring - the Christmas season.
This Christian celebration has long been stripped of its religious meaning in most of the capitalist Western world.
At best, it is a time for people to get together and enjoy the company of their family and friends.
But mostly it is a time too often devoted to over indulgence and conspicuous consumption.
Huge efforts are made to encourage people to spend as if there will be no tomorrow.
Inevitably, tomorrow is when the bills become due.
The media breathlessly reports new record retail sales over Christmas and the New Year as if this meant something significant or was an inherently good thing.
The fact that it is very frequently a bad thing for many people as they get deeper in debt is usually ignored, at least for a while.
Soon enough, the same media will again be breathlessly reporting the dire personal consequences of overspending: the same spending it previously so enthusiastically reported if not actively endorsed.
Readers will gather that I am no fan of what Christmas has now become.
I perceive it as a gigantic festival of licensed excess and indulgence very similar to the Roman Festival of Saturnalia upon which the Christian ritual is based.
It is nevertheless a time of reflection for many people and most of us have a much to reflect upon as we struggle to understand how the world has quite suddenly gone to hell in a host of ways.
Illustration by Scott Stantis (US News)
Of course, the obvious immediate cause of the sudden deterioration in circumstances for so many people is the Covid 19 pandemic.
This continues to rage across the globe largely unabated, even though large scale public vaccination campaigns ameliorated its worst effects in most cases.
At last report the World Health Organisation calculated that 6.7 million people had died from Covid, although many credible authorities think this is a gross underestimate because the process of counting has been flawed or, very commonly, governments haven’t bothered to count.
Amongst epidemiologists there is a broad consensus that at least 15 million have died so far and that this number is going to continue the increase in 2023 and probably beyond.
Right now, China is experiencing what appears to be the worst outbreak of Covid ever witnessed.
This is the end result of several years of determined but futile efforts to suppress the disease, sometimes applying draconian restrictions on personal freedom.
In the face of increasingly angry public protests these restrictions have been removed and the disease is reportedly running rampant.
I have seen reports that China is experiencing 37 million cases each day.
The official position is that there have been only a handful of deaths but the pictures of bodies piling up in funeral homes tell another story.
Meanwhile, in Europe the worst industrial scale war since the end of World War II continues to rage in Ukraine.
Russia’s coyly named ‘Special Military Operation’ has morphed into a grinding war of attrition.
Ukraine’s valiant people have so far withstood daily attacks on civilian targets as they have defeated Russia in the Battles of Kyiv, Kharkiv and Kherson and are currently holding their own in the Battle of Bakhmut.
This latest battle is shaping up to be a modern version of the Battle of Stalingrad, except that this time it is the Russians who seem to be fighting a futile and staggeringly costly action for no obviously useful strategic purpose.
No one knows how this war will proceed in 2023 except that it seems clear that it will continue.
For Russia at least there is no plausible exit strategy that does not leave it gravely and irremediably weakened and diminished.
The geo-political consequences of Vladimir Putin’s war will be profound and enduring long after his death (hopefully soon).
The positive side effects of the war, if they may be named as such, include the revival and expansion of the NATO alliance, the irrevocable reorientation of Ukraine to Western Europe and the clear evidence for other adventurist authoritarian powers that the democratic world is willing and able to devote huge resources in defence of the values of personal freedom, the rule of law and the right to national self determination.
Despite this, it seems the Chinese leadership has failed to fully grasp the strategic implications of Putin’s war or, at the very least, unwisely chosen to assume that they could not suffer the same fate in relation to any military action against Taiwan.
Only last week China staged a provocative series of naval manoeuvres 250 kilometres off the coast of Japan.
No action could be more calculated to arouse anxiety and anger in Japan which, according to national mythology, has twice been preserved from Chinese invasion by the intervention of the cyclonic Divine Wind, Kamikaze.
The result of China’s provocations is that Japan decided to hugely increase its defence spending, including arming itself with a host of high technology weapons systems including stealth aircraft, submarines and large numbers of long range missiles.
It is hard to understand why the Chinese did not foresee this reaction. Their protests about Japan’s arms build-up ring rather hollow.
Meanwhile in Europe, the UK and the USA, the economic and social pressures now being generated by the strategic situation, together with cost of living problems associated with the profoundly inequitable and unfair neo-liberal capitalist system, continue to create varying degrees of political instability.
There seems to be no country in Europe that is unaffected in some way and the political class is struggling to cope with surging anger and resentment that is expressing itself as increasing support for both the extreme left and right of the political spectrum.
For example, Italy has recently seen the election of a neo-fascist or, perhaps more accurately, ultra-nationalist government, while Hungary is being ruled by an authoritarian, right wing government that is distinctly illiberal.
The problems in the US have been described comprehensively in this and other media and do not require repeating here.
Suffice to say that these appear no closer to resolution, with the policy chasm between Democrats and Republicans still seeming unbridgeable.
As with Europe, the extremists of left and right seem to be able to dominate the political discourse, especially through social media.
Meanwhile, the situation in the Middle East remains febrile and apparently hopeless. It continues to be a proverbial viper’s nest of intrigues, plots, sectarian hatreds, personal feuds and violence.
By comparison to the rest of the world, Oceania seems to be a haven of calm, although the political situation remains volatile in Solomon Islands, Fiji and some parts of Papua New Guinea.
As for Australia, the Albanese government appears to have ushered in a return to some sort of normality, where government ministers seem to properly understand their roles and behave and sound at least sensible most of the time.
This is a huge relief after nearly 10 years of conservative misrule which reached its apex in the dysfunctional and corrupt Morrison government.
So what are our collective prospects for 2023?
It is hard to imagine that things are destined to improve a great deal.
The pandemic seems likely to rage on, with China experiencing previously unimaginable levels of illness and death as a consequence.
This is likely to have unpredictable economic and social effects for China and the wider world.
The war in Ukraine may become much worse before serious talk about a peace settlement is possible.
Russia’s military has been grievously weakened but is still capable of inflicting great violence.
Ukraine’s military is better trained, better led, better armed, better equipped and tactically more adept.
That said, it is not yet powerful enough to comprehensively defeat Russia and stalemate seems probable for the foreseeable future.
The various political, economic and social problems besetting Europe, UK and US are destined to continue unless a consensus emerges about the structure and leadership of a post-globalisation world – and the role of the various actors in that world.
And I will not discuss how things will work out in the Middle East. What would be the point?
In South East Asia and Oceania, nations seem to be mostly getting along, keeping a weather eye upon the manoeuvres and machinations of the great powers as they jockey for influence and control of events.
Papua New Guinea must try to deal with an increasingly lawless population, notably in the Highlands, and the perennial problem of what to do about Bougainville and other regions that may seek greater autonomy.
This already difficult task is compounded by the continuation of what I have previously described as the ‘rotating elected kleptocracy’ which is its parliament.
Not all of its members are entirely self-interested or corrupt but far too many are to have much confidence in effective governance.
So the best advice seems to be treading warily in the world, hoping for the best and planning for the worst.
What other choice is there?
May your God go with you as we venture into the unknowns of 2023.