For most of the fourteen years I’ve been blogging, it’s been a habit of mine on the last post of the old year (or, now and then, the first post of the new one) to offer predictions for the year ahead. I won’t be doing that this year. I think it’s quite possible to predict some of what we can expect next year. Just now, though, it seems more important to me to focus on the things we can’t know yet, because some of them will play a crucial role in the future taking shape before us.
It’s an unsettling thing, this journey we make into an unknown future. Scientists craft equations, politicians demand answers from supposedly qualified experts, advertisers convene focus groups, mystics seek visions, astrologers chart the heavens, conspiracy theorists convince themselves that the world really is under somebody’s control: these are all attempts to extract the future from the grip of the unknown and unknowable. That grip becomes particularly uncomfortable when some of the things that are unknowable ended up that way because of human action of one kind or another—and of course that’s very much the case just now.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of these riddles as we brace ourselves for tomorrow night’s plunge into the unknown territory of 2021.
The first one that comes to mind is the gaggle of vaccines against the Covid-19 coronavirus now being injected into long lines of recipients in countries around the world. The corporate media here in the US, at least, has been insisting at the top of its electronic lungs that “the vaccine” (there are of course several of them) is safe and effective. The stark truth is that nobody knows. It takes one to two years of repeated tests and long-term assessments to figure out if a vaccine is safe and effective, and the Pfizer vaccine—the first one approved in the US and Britain—got a total of eight weeks of hurried testing before it was approved for sale. It’s quite common for problems with pharmaceuticals—even horrific problems—to take months or years to surface, and the Pfizer and Moderna products belong to a type of vaccine—mRNA vaccines—that have never before been successfully used on human subjects, so no one anywhere knows what will happen when millions of people take them.
One thing that interests me is the shrill tone of the claims being made by the media about the supposed safety and efficacy of the vaccines. For some years now, the comfortable classes in today’s America have lost track of the fact that control over the public narrative does not equal control over the facts underlying the narrative. For what it’s worth, I suspect that the positive-thinking pandemic Barbara Ehrenreich chronicled ably in her book Bright-Sided plays a large role in setting the stage for this situation. Convince yourself that something is true, and the universe has to play along: that’s the mentality of a frighteningly large share of the privileged in America these days.
As the song has it, though, it ain’t necessarily so. Tens of thousands of people who plunged into flipping houses in the runup to the 2008 crash, convinced that the Law of Attraction guaranteed them wealth they didn’t earn, had to declare bankruptcy when their dreams ran face first into the laws of economics. Quite a few of them got shrill, too, when the housing crash pointed out the problems in their ideology, and the strident tone of media pronoucements about the vaccines reminds me rather forcefully of that earlier collision with reality.
We don’t know yet if a similar fate awaits the pundits and politicians who are loudly insisting that coronavirus vaccines must be safe, when neither they nor anyone else knows if this is true or not. The vaccines might all be safe; in that case, well and good. One or more of them might have the kind of nasty side effects that have caused hundreds of pharmaceuticals that were approved by the authorities to be pulled from the market in a hurry. One or more of them might be one of the great pharmaceutical disasters of our time, up there with thalidomide and Fen-Phen. We simply don’t know, and since the social-media barons have made it clear that they plan on censoring any discussion of the vaccines that doesn’t toe the pharmaceutical industry party line, we may not know for months or years.
The political implications of all this deserve attention, however. The corporate media and the scientific establishment in general have nailed what little remains of their fraying credibility to these vaccines. A great many people no longer believe anything that the authorities say about health care, and they have good reason for their disbelief—do I really have to remind anyone of the way that Barack Obama insisted that the ACA would make health insurance prices go down, and of course you’ll be able to keep your doctor and your existing plan? If one of the current crop of coronavirus vaccines turns out to have harmful or fatal side effects, the massive crisis of confidence in establishment science and medicine that has been building for decades now may just go kinetic—metaphorically or otherwise. But we simply don’t know.
Let’s move on. Another thing we don’t know about 2021 is exactly what policies the incoming Biden administration will pursue once Biden takes office in January. I assumed during the election campaign that if Biden won, he would lead a headlong flight back to the disastrous mix of neoliberal economics and neoconservative foreign policy that the younger Bush set in motion and Obama copied with such clueless enthusiasm: that is to say, the policies that made Donald Trump inevitable. It’s quite possible that Biden (or rather, his handlers) will still do this, but there are several curious details that suggest an alternative view.
One of the signature elements of his environmental platform, for example, is a program to fund energy-conservation retrofits on American buildings, providing a great many working-class jobs in the process. I admit I was rather startled to see that on Biden’s platform, as it’s something I pushed fairly hard back when I was writing extensively on energy issues. It seems improbable that anyone on Biden’s team would stray far enough from the airtight bubble of approved thinking to reach the fringes where archdruids lurk, so I’m assuming that this is a coincidence. At the same time, the fact that Biden’s flacks have even noticed that working class Americans might be concerned about jobs suggests a degree of attention to the hard realities of life in today’s America that’s become vanishingly rare among our clueless elites.
One of the lessons that the Democratic Party spent the last four years desperately trying not to learn is that what working class Americans want is plenty of full time jobs at decent pay. That’s all they want, and it’s the only thing they’ll accept; give them that and they’re happy, don’t give them that and it doesn’t matter what else you offer them. It’s because the bipartisan consensus welded into place before Trump ignored that enduring reality of American politics that so many people in the upper midwest who voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 decided to take a chance on Trump in 2016.
Biden, it bears remembering, will face a tremendously difficult situation when he starts his term in a little less than a month. He won election with paper-thin majorities in the battleground states, with even more than the usual evidence of election irregularities; his party lost more than half its majority in the House; he doesn’t have the faintest ghost of a mandate, and he’s facing heat from both sides—on the one hand, the ranting ideologues on the leftward end of his party, who hate him nearly as much as they hate Trump; on the other, a furious Republican Party that considers his presidency illegitimate and has a long list of grudges from the last four years of Democratic antics, which they will take out on him at the first opportunity. (You know as well as I do, for example, that the moment the GOP regains control of the House, Biden will face impeachment—unless they do the smart thing, that is, and target Harris first.)
Very nearly the only thing Biden and his handlers can do that might get him through this mess is to move toward the center the moment the inauguration ceremony is over. That will require him to throw the left wing of his party to the wolves and make common cause with moderates on both sides of the aisle—basically, the same thing Bill Clinton did, and Barack Obama did too, once the 2010 midterms taught him that catering to the far left was a recipe for political disaster. One thing that could strengthen Biden’s position in a big way is doing something to address the needs of working Americans—not, please note, telling them what they ought to want and then trying to browbeat them into accepting it (the usual behavior of the privileged left), but listening to them and then giving them at least some of what they ask for.
If he does that, he might be able to build enough of a coalition of moderates from both parties to fix some of the serious issues that beset this country just now, find common ground among the issues that so many ordinary Americans want to see addressed, and end up with a successful presidency despite the odds. I have no idea whether that will happen, and neither does anyone else outside the inner circle of Biden’s handlers. I’m open to the possibility that Biden will exceed my expectations—it’s quite literally impossible for him to fall below them—but we’ll simply have to wait and see.
Let’s move on. Another unknown, an important one, surfaced the other day on that charmless soapbox of the Anglo-American elite, the BBC news website. I’m not easily surprised by the babblings of the mass media these days, but this article had me staring open-mouthed, because the BBC—and even more to the point, the collection of UN environmental flacks their reporter was quoting—actually admitted in public that if the world is going to do anything significant to curb anthropogenic climate change, the well-to-do are going to have to change their lifestyles so that they produce only a fraction of the carbon dioxide pollution they currently emit.
You have to be aware of the recent history of climate change activism to understand just how astounding this utterance is. For the last few decades, celebrity activists have been busy giving new relevance to the word “hypocrite” by loudly insisting that we all have to do something about climate change, while continuing to lead the kind of personal lifestyle that dumps more CO2 into the atmosphere each year than the entire population of a midsized African city. The hypocrisy reached fever pitch as celebrity environmentalists flew in their private jets to high-profile meetings on climate change, where they waxed rhetorical about how the world had to use less carbon, while demonstrating their utter unwillingness to use less carbon themselves.
Where celebrities led, inevitably, the comfortable classes followed. Back when I was a speaker on the peak oil circuit, I noted with wry amusement how many of the upper middle class people who loved to talk about how awful climate change would be if we all didn’t pitch in and change their ways would backpedal frantically if you suggested that maybe they should lead the way by decreasing their own bigger-than-average carbon footprints. Their idea of changing the world always amounted to pushing off as many costs as possible on the working classes and the global poor, while treating their own lifestyles as sacrosanct. Notice, as one example out of many, how often climate change activists fixated on banning coal mining, which provides jobs for millions of working class people worldwide, while never mentioning the equally gargantuan pollution generated by nonessential air travel. It was fine to make coal miners lose their jobs, but heaven help you if you suggested that the well-to-do give up vacationing in Mazatlan or Bali!
Once the raw hypocrisy became so blatant that it started attracting critical attention, I predicted here and elsewhere that the comfortable classes would doubtless dump climate change as a fashionable issue and find some other issue that they could use to play virtue-signaling games and load more costs onto working people. (That duly happened—have you noticed that office fauna have been able to work from home during the current epidemic, thus continuing to draw their salaries, while people who work in factories, shops, and other lower-class venues have been laid off instead? Once again, the middle classes get coddled and the working classes get screwed.) Yet here we are, and the BBC is busy announcing that the well-to-do are going to have to do the unthinkable and rein in their absurdly extravagant lifestyles for the sake of the planet.
I suppose it’s just possible that after years of hard work analyzing the ecology of our planet and the sources of the carbon pollution that’s messing up its climate, it suddenly occurred to the experts consulted by the United Nations that it’s going to be hard to cut carbon emissions unless the people who produce a disproportionate share of those emissions do something to change that. I confess, though, that I find this hard to believe. My guess is that the political blowback against the pet policies of the clueless well-to-do has reached a high enough pitch that the organs of the establishment have been forced to notice it, and have realied that it will no longer work to insist that “shared sacrifice” means that the working poor are loaded with all the costs and the middle and upper classes get all the benefits.
That’s an issue, of course, because it’s not just environmental policy that’s been twisted out of shape along those lines. For decades now, across the board, nearly every policy that’s been pushed by the establishment here in the US and in most other industrial nations has benefited the middle classes at the expense of the working classes. That’s why we’ve gone from the situation in 1960, when one working class income could support a family comfortably, to the situation in 2020, when one working class income won’t keep a family off the street. Those changes weren’t accidental, nor were they inevitable; they were the results of readily identifiable policies pushed by a bipartisan consensus, and defended by government, corporate, and media flacks with a disingenuousness that borders on the pathological.
The difficulty we’re in now, of course, is that a very large number of people are aware of this, and they’re far from happy about it. Here in the United States, a vast number of citizens—quite probably a majority—believe that they live under a senile kleptocracy propped up by rigged elections and breathtakingly dishonest media, in which their votes do not count and their needs will not be addressed by those in power. What’s more, they have more than a little evidence to support these beliefs, and strange to say, another round of patronizing putdowns by the mouthpieces of the well-to-do is unlikely to change their minds. The resulting crisis of legitimacy has become a political fact of immense importance.
A few years back, my fellow blogger and more than occasional debating partner Dmitry Orlov wrote a series of essays (later collected into his book Reinventing Collapse) pointing out that the United States is vulnerable to the same sort of sudden political implosion that overtook the Warsaw Pact nations of eastern Europe in 1989 and the Soviet Union in 1991. His point has lost none of its sharpness since then. When political theorists of an earlier generation noted that governments exist by the consent of the governed, they were stating a simple fact, not proposing an ideal; a government, any government, survives solely because most of the people it rules play along, obeying its laws and edicts no matter how absurd those happen to be. If they withdraw that consent, the existing order of things comes tumbling down.
As we saw some thirty years ago, the most effective way to get people to withdraw their consent from the government that claims to rule them is to show them, over and over again, that their needs and concerns are of no interest to a self-aggrandizing elite, and that they have nothing to hope for from the continuation of the present system and nothing to lose if it falls. A very substantial share of Americans, and a significant number of people in other Western industrial countries, have already had that experience and come to those conclusions—and the enthusiasm displayed by the comfortable classes for shoving off the costs of change on the impoverished majority while seizing the benefits for themselves has played a huge role in that state of affairs.
As a result, it’s entirely possible that at some point in the near future, when next the United States faces a serious crisis, most Americans will shrug and let it fall, as most Soviet citizens did when the Soviet Union hit its final crisis in 1991. Keep in mind that the vast majority of active duty US police and military personnel—the final bulwark of any regime in crisis—voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020, and might not be in any hurry to come to the rescue of a system that treats them with the same casual contempt it turns on everyone outside the circles of privilege. It’s entirely possible, in other words, that ten years from now people will talk about the former United States the way they talk about the former Soviet Union.
Will that happen in 2021? It’s impossible to say, and one of the reasons it’s impossible to say is that it depends, among other things, on the other unknowns discussed already in this essay. If the Covid-19 vaccines turn out to be safe and effective; if the Biden administration moves to occupy the abandoned center of American politics and gives working Americans some reason to think that their concerns have some chance of being addressed by those who claim the right to rule them; if the privileged classes in the United States and elsewhere finally notice that policies like those they favor reliably end with some equivalent of tumbrils and guillotines, or at least the irrevocable collapse of the system that provides them with their comfortable lifestyles—why, then, things could swerve in a different direction entirely.
On the other hand, if one of those inadequately tested vaccines turns out to have bad outcomes for a significant share of the millions of people lining up to receive them, or if Biden’s talk about providing jobs for working Americans turns out to be just as dishonest as Obama’s promises about his health care legislation, or if the clueless elites keep on believing that they can pursue their pet policies at the expense of everyone whose labor keeps the system going—or, gods help us, all of these at once—then we may just find ourselves plunging into a chaotic future for which very few of us are prepared. For the moment, though, we just don’t know.
With that in mind, I’d like to encourage my readers to stay watchful, stay nimble, keep your pantries well stocked with necessities, and remember that all those yammering faces on glass screens are there to sell you something you don’t want to buy. I’ll be taking January off blogging, as usual, so we’ll resume this conversation on the first Wednesday in February. Until then, be safe, and may the powers that guide your destiny bring you good things.