'Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century' by Helen Thompson (published by Oxford University Press, 2022)
So many discussions of geopolitics these days focus, often emotively, on threats to nationhood. Traditional political and cultural identity is seen to be put at risk by amorphous economic and financial collectives. Globalisation impacts on economic well-being, denudes national and local policy initiatives of independence, strips traditional workplaces of purpose and challenges them with overwhelming trade barriers and energy-dependent obsolescence.
Much of the post-truth political and cultural narrative since Trump has been caught up in the dialectic between two interpretations of 'where we are now' and 'how we got here': technological innovation and investment will be our salvation on the one hand, and, in a world of giants (international corporate finance, the rival strategies of the US and China, the decline of the West and rise of Eurasia, institutional consolidation like the EU) individual national identity can only be submerged if it is to survive as we know it. For many, the response has been populism – such as 'America First' – and nostalgia – such as 'America First Again'. Link paranoia into this and you have the perfect formula for introverted populism.
Helen Thompson, in her book Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century
, suggests that to 'careen between the ideas of a technologically-driven salvation and an inescapable Gőtterdȁmmerung
is a hopeless response'. For her, the key challenge is to look hard at the impact and future prospects of the energy revolution. This will be unavoidable geopolitical conflict, and involve Western democracies in real sacrifices (we can see that already with energy price hikes and environmental choices). This, she argues, could precipitate political disorder, and already has done if we think of populist conspiracy theorising, the rise of rightist coalitions, and climate denial and terrorism.
If we add to the agenda that we should worry about and face up to the many ways in which reliable, authoritative and objective information (the basis for all reasonable decisions) is now widely regarded as contestable, and that opinion substitutes for factuality, the topic of books like Sophia Rosenfeld's Democracy and Truth: A Short History
(2019), then it seems difficult to imagine constructive consensus for policy-making and national welfare, the very thing democracy most depends on. The very denial of losers at the ballot box in the US and Brazil strikes at its very heart.
In the midst of all these cross-currents for Thompson lies the availability of energy resources, above all oil. All three of the main resources – oil, gas, electricity – are in danger of depletion, for a long time have been fought over, and as such deserve to come to the centre of popular debate. However diluted and simplified for a lay-person, economic and financial issues remain complicated (because they really are
complex). Studies like Thompson's own Oil and the Western Economic Crisis
(2017), along with similar works by writers like Vaclav Smil and James Barr, are not everyday reading, for all their importance.
They often remain stay in the Olympian realm of the experts, tricky to interpret at the level of local policy-makers and the many businesses juggling tax and tariff, employment patterns, demographic change and devolved decision-making. An instance might be the widespread media debate as to whether investment and employment prospects for wind power is 'mere hot air'. The drill-down of expert knowledge, already controversial, becomes more so at the pragmatic social level.
Thompson's own argument in Disorder
is that we should firmly factor in energy, and the climate change/green revolution themselves, into any realistic understanding of why we are here and where are we going. It is not accidental that her sub-title 'hard times' echoes the famous novel Hard Times
, written by Charles Dickens and published in 1854, an indictment of the then tyrannous coal industry, and enough to provoke Macaulay to condemn the book as 'sullen socialism'. Yet Thompson's is no whingeing 'oh dearie me!' (after all, she rejects the end of the world). Rather, she tries to encourage us to be informed realists about the intimate connect between energy, geopolitics and democracy.
An important strand of the last section of the book (on democratic politics, the last of three, the others being geopolitics and economy) is the tendency, as the result of national dynamics and international pressures, for traditional democratic ideals and structures to be destabilised.
New paradigms of power evolve and reshape economic and financial priorities – the rise of Eurasian geopolitical influence, for instance, the instability of arrangements like NATO and the EU, and, for Britain, aspirations of being a new Singapore and a global Britain sitting alongside deeply-held divisions about the manageability of Brexit. Thompson herself is sceptical about the EU, not because of petty nationalist sentiment, but because she (and we, she suggests) really should recognise how energy management, never ever a matter of agreement, will shape the main decisions we make in the future.
Disputes like Russian gas, Iranian oil, Chinese military might and US introversion are both symptoms and triggers for future 'disorder', just as they have been in the past (the history of the Middle East is a glory-hole of such issues). Trump's approach to Iran drove it and its energy resources into the arms of China. Thompson elects to take a historical perspective to all this, tracing the geopolitics and economic conflicts back through to Bretton Woods and the mixed effects US Fed actions have had on world credit markets (as self-appointed and seemingly-inevitable lender of last resort), the contest for power and energy in the Middle East, the debt vulnerability of poor nations, the crash of 2007-8, earlier oil conflicts like Suez and what they tell us about things now, the ambivalent impact of the ECB in European nations and the viability of the Eurozone itself.
Historians often like to reassure us by saying that we've seen it all before, and of course, unlike Pangloss, we don't really live in the best of all possible worlds. There is constant deconstruction and reconstruction. Let's call it 'disorder' and examine the causes and effects of what's taking place in the world. Thompson does this in a clear and comprehensive way – the book is for both the specialist and the general reader, even though it operates at quite an abstract level once we reflect on 'what we can actually do about it ourselves'.
Knowing clever Soviet/Russian energy initiatives in the past won't help us deal with modern tyranny. No surprise to learn that Italy is divided north and south, and that its ephemeral coalitions speedily shift from technocrats to populists, nor that monetary sovereignty will shift from the all-powerful dollar to China's renminbi and yuan by 2030, urged on by new geopolitical and economic alliances like Xi's Belt and Road initiative, China's new economic (and cultural?) hinterland. You can see how such tours d'horizon as Disorder
can induce a helpless despair in any small nation, let alone one persuaded to believe that small is beautiful if only it is feisty and efficient as well. Hard times indeed, with Darwinian overtones. Dystopias always make us think hard.
Dr Stuart Hannabuss is a writer and reviewer based in Scotland