My friend Alfred was an American diplomat in East Berlin 30 years ago, but he was in a different hemisphere when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. He had gone on vacation because almost no one saw it coming, like the internet, the 2008 financial crisis, and this year’s Eagles Super Bowl championship.
Within weeks, the Communists were swept away from Europe like little castles made of sand (in China they prevailed after the brutal suppression in Tiananmen Square, only to abandon most of actual communism). I found myself a foreign correspondent in liberated Romania, and political scientist Francis Fukuyama declared the end of history. But history rolled on just the same, whipping up devastating wars, outlandish terrorism, technological upheaval, class hatreds, resurgent nationalism and strange democratic choices all over the place.
Now comes 2019, which will be known in China, reasonably enough, as the Year of the Pig. While it might not equal its epic cousin 1989, it has potential to be pivotal in interesting ways. Perhaps a few of them will prevent a further market decline.
Here are some things to watch for:
Snobs vs. yobs
All over the world the chattering classes are increasingly at odds with the salt of the earth. This is because the global order, the liberal ethos and scientific progress have combined to yield outrageous inequality while blurring the national borders that most people rather like. Tech disruption and free trade have increased overall wealth but it has mostly gone to the already rich, whose share of assets and income has soared. It has made a transnational tribe out of the “elites,” who, whether in Britain, Israel or Russia, feel closer to each other than to their bumpkin brethren.
The backlash to this is why we have Trump, Brexit, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Hungary’s Viktor Orban and in a way even Vladimir Putin, whose popularity comes from anger at both the scheming oligarchs and the effete intelligentsia. It is part of the resilience of Benjamin Netanyahu as well. But the plot is now thickening: class warfare is also why upheavals like the recent Italian election and the “Yellow Vests” protests in France draw the unhappy and the radical from both ends of the spectrum, horrifying establishments of the classic right and left both. 2019 may find the elites fighting back. Halting Brexit, if they manage it, would be a sign. A message at once more nationalistic and more socialistic might be their strategy. Expect some smartass to notice the word mix and invoke the Nazis.
Year of the Luddite?
Polite society has long accepted that man proposes but technology disposes: we must stoically accept its inevitable advance. This rested on a number of fine ideas: progress as a natural imperative; improvements in human quality of life (perhaps not that of other animals); the comfort of balance (nuclear energy versus nuclear weapons); the elasticity of labor (farmers may vanish, but services will compensate); and the ingrained disdain for “Luddites” (19th century English textile workers who distrusted machinery, and their equivalents today).
That’s great: life expectancy has soared and even the poorest roam around with powerful communication devices in their pockets that give them access to massive knowledge, microfinancing, crop forecasts and more. But it’s also now getting to the point where automation will eliminate most jobs that average workers can perform — and wipe out not only travel agents and reporters but industries people love. Can humanity tolerate CGI replacing actors, AI replacing writing, algorithms replacing whoever organizes the songs for Beyonce and drivers being banned? Will progress be accepted as inevitable when it enables the rich to buy superintelligence? Will people tolerate surveillance technologies that will wipe out all privacy and make a mockery of freedom as governments roll them out? People leaving Facebook in droves, the growing distrust (and tumbling stocks) of Big Tech, and the election of Donald Trump are all signs of Luddite pushback. If it slows down progress, it will be a first since the Dark Ages.
With the departures of John Kelly and James Mattis, the world now depends on John Bolton (!) to be the one to keep things sane, which may explain the nervousness of markets. But 2019 is also the year the fog will start to lift in the United States. Democrats must decide whether to risk fielding a minority or female candidate, firing up their base while displeasing racists and misogynists, and whether to nominate a progressive socialist whose clear message (and support for gender fluidity, perhaps) will fire up the young but put off Middle America. We should also know soon if Trump will get impeached or even replaced by Mike Pence. It’s not so farfetched if Robert Mueller’s report is damning enough or if real criminal activity is discovered, and it would change the global game (so would a departure of Vladimir Putin or Chinese President Xi Jinping, perhaps more unlikely but still possible). Then again we could end up with Trump himself once more in 2020, which by the way will be the Year of the Rat.
Bye bye Bibi?
Netanyahu is pushing David Ben-Gurion’s record of about 13 years as Israel’s prime minister and he may break it if he prevails on April 9. But it may not go on much longer than that. Given the reported position of the police and prosecution almost everyone expects the attorney general, crony though he may be, to recommend indictment on breach of trust or bribery in several tragicomic cases. If this occurs before the election Bibi may not even reach the finish line. If it happens after he will probably be ditched by his coalition and perhaps also by Likud. And Netanyahu may not win in these circumstances, despite the fine economy. If Benny Gantz emerges as equally articulate but possessed of some class, recruits Likudniks and runs a smart campaign, and certainly if Gaby Ashkenazi joins the opposition as well, then all bets are off, whatever the polls may say right now.
The wider region could also see some change. It looks like 2019 may be the year that the horrific war in Syria peters out and the world joylessly accepts that Bashar Assad will stay on; it will get very ugly, though, when he moves with Russian air support to take Idlib, the last big rebel town standing (and also for the Kurds, disgracefully abandoned in recent days by the US). In Yemen, Saudi Arabia may finally end the war in a face-saving deal with the incredibly resilient Houthis, even though they’re backed by the demonized Iran. After the assassination in Turkey of journalist/activist Jamal Khashoggi, whose Western associations made for PR disaster, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman needs to make it less awkward for the West to embrace him once again. The price tag might include making nice with Israel as well, which would keep journalists in business just a little while longer.
Content is bling
But even great stories might not be quite enough. The publishers of the world made a huge miscalculation in the late 1990s by throwing everything online for free, as a storefront window for print. That mistake proved hard to walk back, and the internet has ripped apart their business, ravaging newsrooms and causing many to shut down. This is because advertising alone has not covered costs, especially with most of it migrating from establishment content providers to Google and Facebook. 2019 is shaping up as the year of fighting back — with metered paywalls, fundraising schemes, newfangled collaborations and creative sponsorships. I’ve always been a fan of micropayments (charges for specific content) but I seem to be the only one. Whichever way it goes, something has to give. Writer Stewart Brand earned internet era fame by arguing that information wants to be free because it’s getting cheaper to produce. In 2019 consumers will be reminded of the inconveniently forgotten remainder of his theory: “Information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable.” We shall see if enough of them can be convinced.
Meanwhile, feel free to send me a check!