“To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.”
– George Santayana
If I had asked you, in December of 2010, what Ben Ali of Tunisia, Muammar Gadaffi of Libya, Laurent Gbagbo of the Cote d’Ivoire, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Kim Jong Il of North Korea might have had on their agendas for 2011, I doubt you would have guessed exile, assassination, The Hague, jail and death, respectively. You might have had an easier time guessing that Greece would default on it’s debt repayments and send the Euro into free-fall or that Julius Malema would go from the summer of his sweet content to o’ercast winter in less than twelve months. Dictators, debt and discipline. At the end of another tumultuous year, we can pause in the evening to decide if the day has been splendid or not.
Seasonal change brings rising temperatures and rising human tempers; the storms of political and economic disruption and the pressures of a world inhabited by (as of 31 October 2011, we’re led to believe) by 7-billion souls. We have borne witness to not only the genesis of these pivotal moments, but also to their second-stage development – and in the case of the Arab Spring, an unseasonably early autumn. I don’t know why we’re surprised, there are always four seasons in a year:
Spring. The people of the Arab world, rudely fast-tracked from what Europe went through more gradually in about 300 years over a period of just weeks, found their voice. The hard fight, especially in Libya, accessible modern technology and communication platforms, and the martyrdom of at least a few brave men and women thrust them into a chaotic new world. For the first time in their cultural history, Arabs in North Africa were able to cast off a mantle of near-feudal autocracy. The real change still looms. Will autocracy be replaced by democracy, as promised – or nefarious, insidious theocracy? Perhaps places like Egypt and Libya will remain anarchic, with military, religious, secular and foreign business interests maintaining an unstable limbo – while the people throw their hands up in frustration. Don’t go buying any green tomatoes in Syria or Yemen just yet either.
Summer. China, in the heat of it’s self-confidence, must feel as if the balmy weather might last forever, but thanks to the stagnant conditions in the world’s economy, clouds are predicted. Growth has fallen sharply, production must follow, and the relentless greed for raw materials must also reach a kind of ceiling. If the Chinese economy stops growing, there will be international wailing and gnashing of teeth. A niggling problem for the Chinese remains the contrast between the burgeoning, sprawling urban society and the rudiment of the rural peasant. They’re like the poor and embarrassing relatives you pretend don’t exist. Either way, change will come even to those nations on the ascendant.
Autumn. The flame of once-hegemonic Western civilisation burns only in America now. Since that flame has begun to flicker in Europe, the precariousness of the continent has become starkly apparent: Seemingly limitless liberal socialism; an ageing population; explosive immigration; petty bureaucratic squabbling in Brussels and societies living on entitlements and beyond their means in countries like Greece, Portugal, Italy, Spain and Ireland – have meant austerity and uncertainty across Europe. The countries that invented democracy now beg for money from Chinese banks and for energy from Russian oligarchs. I don’t mean just to sound dramatic here. It is dramatic. It is a Greek tragedy written in the prose of the economists.
Winter. The famine of North Korea has been a creeping and gradual thing, but more suddenly the globe’s most miserable, lonely and bizarre nation-state has lost it’s Dear Leader. So weakened from within and so devoid of allies without, the hungry people of this once-mysterious and irrationally feared, incompetent Kolkhoz-farm already find themselves in perpetual, dark winter. By the end of 2012, Kim Il Sung’s great totalitarian social experiment will be in tatters. Ideology will have needlessly sent another whole population into the ground. If you thought they cried when they buried Kim Jong Il, just wait…
Our own micro-climate has been less affected by the thundering words of COP-17 and more gently weathered by intra-party posturing: Jacob Zuma’s faction in an increasingly factionalized ruling ANC seems hell-bent on victory at their elective conference in Mangaung next year. They have already quashed the rebellious Youth League, shown determination that weak ministers and police chiefs will be fired and suspended, and pushed through onerous and authoritarian legislation. A more serious, assertive and disciplined order will mark the ANC’s centenary year. Not all of this will be in the country’s best interest. The struggle between the executive and judiciary seems poised to erupt either into open hostility or fizzle into the domination of one (probably the executive) over the other. The latter would be less eventful, but far more dangerous.
Only a prophet or a fool could make predictions for 2012, and those honorifics are not mutually exclusive. May 2012 prove not to be the beginning of the end, as the Mayans might have forecast it, but the end of the beginning. Happy New Year.
“We know the past but cannot control it. We control the future but cannot know it.” – Claude Shannon