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YYY: “Crises, wars and breakdowns – it’s all normal”

“Crises, wars and breakdowns – it’s all normal”

 The Big Issue in Scotland 04 June 2019

Philosopher John Gray believes our idealism has been battered by Iraq, Afghanistan and recession. According to Gray we are entering an age in which the leading powers will fight over the planet’s remaining resources, signalling the return of the great colonial game. The Big Issue Scotland’s Adam Forrest speaks to one of the world’s foremost political thinkers.  - By Adam Forrest

A decade ago - in your book False Dawn - you predicted the collapse of the laissez-faire, free-market economics and financial bubbles. Why did we assume the good times would never end?

In the nineties there was an enormous, seemingly unshakable confidence in the kind of globalization that was spreading rapidly. When I suggested that the foundations were fragile, that there were contradictions and conflicts that could well lead to a breakdown, everyone, especially economists, were incredulous. I was saying that history hadn't ended, it would go on - crises, wars, breakdowns - that's all normal. Enormous booms have always crashed. The fact everyone said I was apocalyptic shows the extreme unreality that was prevalent at the time.

Has the attempt to spread free-market capitalism proved damaging?

There isn't the same kind of missionary zeal about it these days. But some free-marketeers still say: "Well, our project wasn't fully implemented - there was still too much government in the way." That kind of ideological thinking is always self-defeating. In Russia, the shock capitalism introduced in the early nineties - in a place where there was no underlying law of property after 70 years of communism - was doomed to failure. Some of us predicted instability and authoritarianism.

Similarly, with the project in Iraq, when you break up Saddam Hussein's despotism, it was overwhelmingly likely you would have sectarian conflict and bloodshed. It's very rare that it doesn't happen. Attempting to apply an absolute free market blue-print everywhere - it's a utopia. You can know in advance they will fail. It's like watching a bad movie.

So our greatest problem is unrealism?

This deep-seated unreality about what's possible, it seems almost incurable. People think if you attempt the impossible you can make the world a better place. It's not true. You often make it worse. It seems to me, the post-war generation were more realistic - they planned for downturns. The bubble-like peace period has made the population and political elites very resistant to recognising dangers until they've materialized. Even the fall of communism didn't seem to have any upheaval our lives in the west, so there is a kind of hangover of unreality about what's normal and what isn't. Geopolitical conflict and instability in capitalism is normal.

What's next? Are we deluded in thinking the recession will be over soon?

The idea that global dislocation is now on the mend is completely fantastic. It's far from over - in fact, it's just beginning. I'm certain there are big shocks to come. The scale of the debts; the unintended consequences of electronically printing enormous amounts of money - none of these things will return to the kind of growth that existed before, because the growth that existed before was not sustainable.

So we're moving to a more dislocated world, where there are competing spheres of economic influence?

Until the financial crash two years ago, people weren't willing to question a system that's inherently unstable. If you make the financial world as integrated at that - dependent on one way of doing things - it may in one sense be more efficient, but it's also more unstable. A less integrated, more fragmented world is actually more stable. People never want to hear that.

China and the Gulf states are buying up great chunks of Africa's farmland. Are we returning to the colonial days of the Great Game - the carving up of the world?

In many important ways we're returning to the 19th Century. There are a number of geopolitical powers competing for resources and strategic advantages. One difference is that the countries then colonially subjugated - India, China - are now full scale players. And it's happening against a background of climate change. I remembered writing 10 years ago about the Great Game returning and it's being repeated now on a bigger scale.

The Chinese are lucid thinkers. They are looking ahead, and see that the world's population is going to increase by about 50% in the next 40 years. Climate change is likely to erode the amount of available arable land. The food question is on their agenda. They are taking early action by buying up land. If anyone is sceptical about the idea of resource wars, then they should question what'll happen when the oil and minerals left become more available as the ice retreats.

At what stage do the US and the UK jump into the battle for resources?

What we're seeing will lead to geopolitical competition of all kinds - for oil and fresh water sources as well as farmland. But America is a big food producer, and Britain also is capable of producing most of its own food. So we might see an increased tendency toward self-reliance. That's not an option for the Gulf states of course. And it's not an option without its own problems. Tendencies toward self-sufficiency can lead to further global warming. Bio-fuels have generally been very bad for instance, clearing too much important forest and wilderness.

There is a presumption the law of supply and demand will lead to the development of renewable energy as the world's oil supply runs out. Do you share this faith?

I'm not saying all renewable energy sources are useless, but the idea they can move a rapidly growing population to a fossil fuel-free world is fantasy. Can nine billion people (global population expected by 2040) be sustained without nuclear and fossil fuels? I don't think it's feasible. It won't be a smooth transition. Some greens say: "Well, if what you say is true, then it's hopeless." I say it's better to grapple with the underlying difficulties, even if they're rather intractable. You can still do valuable and important things. One example I find inspiring is the Netherlands, where they've anticipated a rise in sea levels, they are creating wetlands, building on stilts and creating wildlife pathways so species can adapt better to climate change. It's based on realism. There's no point in saying "let's prevent climate change from happening". It is happening. It's in the works.

Are we ready for any of this? Have our lives become too comfortable to adapt successfully?

In the way we think about the world, we aren't ready. People say I'm pessimistic. Not much is learned in politics, not much is learned from history - so in that sense I'm pessimistic. One option is the return of the really nasty, poisonous politics of the 1930s. What happens when unemployment rises and there's lots of economic insecurity? When things are difficult to understand, the classical pathology is to blame minority groups.

But humans are very resilient animals! We're tough creatures. People will adapt. Human beings will come up with new technologies, superior forms of food production - new solutions. If we can anticipate things more clearly, without delusion, we can do something about them.

A note of optimism?

Yes, but not delusional optimism I hope!

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