Saturday, 8 October 2011

Will the real 21st Century stand up please?


Lots of things can blow a person’s mind: pistols, hand grenades, being a character in the film Scanners. Few realise that History should be added to that list. For it is not - as some ministers of education are inclined to believe - merely a list of dates of big events (usually battles) conveniently edited to tell the national story. This would tend to turn history into a large scale version of that scene in Damien: Omen 2, where the Son of Satan reels off a list of battle dates to the sweaty consternation of his teacher.

The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was to learn every single battle date of the Peninsula War

Thus, historians can make extraordinary claims. Whereas most people suggest that the 20th Century started in 1900 or 1901, I remember reading in history class that some set the start point as 1914. Equally, the starting point for examining 19th Century political history was 1815. For a person as sheltered as me, these were the most shocking claims I encountered until I found out (look away now if you have a weak constitution) that Kelly's Heroes wasn't factually accurate (apparently they didn't actually take down the Tiger tanks with Shermans but with samurai swords).

Now that I am an old grizzard, I can appreciate the rhetorical power of these claims - the point of the claims is to draw attention to potent moments in history. That is, to political and social 'game changers' that have impact for decades and perhaps even define a 'century' (which we all know is an arbitrary, culturally defined concept anyway).

Talent is an arbitrary, culturally-defined concept, right? RIGHT?!?

Much as one might dispute flashy rhetorical claims about 'proper starting points' for studying historical 'eras', what if the 21st Century hasn’t quite started yet? That is to say, what if we are yet to experience the defining moments of this century?

Many folk will want to dispute such speculation – on any number of grounds. Some will want to say that we have already experienced a defining moment of this century – 9/11. 9/11 is seen by many as definitive because it de facto signalled the end of the American Century. Clearly, this event was significant for demonstrating the limits of a particular expression of American power. Equally, the movement of economic power away from the West towards the East may prove to be a definitive shift in what may become China and India’s Century.

However, there is another deeper emerging economic dimension that may yet prove to be a defining moment: the crisis of money. It may be that we are living through a series of events which prove definitive for the feel of the next thirty, fifty, even one hundred years.

There is simply no doubt that the globe is in the midst of a crisis of credit and money that is affecting all nations – rich and poor – and which has led governments and economic blocs to pump mind-boggling amounts of money into economies and markets. Thirty years of faith in uncontrolled market economics – which has essentially been faith in the techniques of the hardened gambler and a love of having things on tick – has led to a situation where nations are throwing ‘money’ into a system in the hope that the system can be saved; in the hope that this money won’t simply disappear and suck the whole economy down with it. 


Complex financial devices are my speciality, baby!

Clearly the hope of most nations and economists is that the current crisis in credit and money will all just settle down and we can all go back to our old ways of going on – living on credit, markets awash with complex monetary devices to keep the rich rich and the poor grateful. And perhaps this will be the case. But my sense is that the world is not going to easily get this financial problem back in the box – or if it does, the world will never quite be the same again. The age of cheap money, cheap credit and liberal economics may be coming to an end.

It is intriguing that we in the West have lived in a money economy for nigh on a thousand years now. But it is worth remembering that, after the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe existed on a different model for several hundreds of years – a gift based economy. This was not merely a barter economy – far from it – but one in which an item's value was as much dependent upon the quality of human relationships as anything else; this was a world in which something trivial might become significant simply because it was offered as a token of trust or as a gift. In a money economy, everything can be assigned a precise value. Money becomes effectively the measure of all things.

Oh goody, the future currency of the world.

We have lived in a culture that for nigh on 1000 years has allowed money – and recently credit – to become the measure of all things. In which all things can be assigned a value for exchange. Money will not be going away any time soon. But we may be living through a revolutionary time. The trust that, for countless generations, we have all placed in money’s power may be coming to an end. For there is only so much anyone can do with money and credit. It may be that we are on the verge of a return to the world of the gift - a world where other forms of value and exchange become viable again.

In short , we may yet be to enter a new world - a new world which may define the 21st century.

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