Over most of the last decade now, I’ve watched celebrations of the New Year become more and more muted, and I think it’s far more likely than not that this trend will continue when 2018 gets hauled off to the glue factory a little less than a week from now. No doubt plenty of people will be glad to see it go, but any enthusiasm engendered by that departure will be mixed with, if not swamped by, uncomfortable thoughts about what 2019 will bring in its place.
Those worries are by no means pointless. Despite the claims still retailed by the increasingly ragged chorus of believers in perpetual progress, industrial civilization is no longer progressing. Rather, it’s slipping bit by bit down the trajectory I’ve titled the Long Descent—the process, averaging one to three centuries in length, by which every previous human civilization has ended in a dark age. That’s not something that can be stopped or reversed; it unfolds from conflicts hardwired into the basic ecological and economic structures of civilization; several familiar milestones are already past, others are coming into sight on the road ahead, and one implication of that reality is that the rest of your life, dear reader, will be spent in a civilization in decline.
That doesn’t mean we face a future of unrelieved gloom. Decline is a chaotic process; losses in one place or decade are routinely balanced by partial recoveries in a different place or a different decade, and it’s also quite common for conditions to improve significantly for the poor and the working classes while they decline drastically for those who are used to living higher on the hog—the rich, yes, but also the middle and upper middle classes, which flourish mightily on the extreme complexity of a civilization at zenith and then end up twisting in the wind as economic and social simplification render their skills unnecessary.
Social historians have been pointing out for years that as Rome fell, those of the working poor who were able to stay out of the way when barbarian armies came through saw significant improvement in their standards of living, while the senatorial and equestrian classes found themselves plunged into poverty. The same process is arguably under way now, as real estate prices and other vehicles for the wealth of the well-to-do plunge in value while employment booms at the bottom of the job pyramid. There are plenty of factors feeding into that dramatic shift; the Trump administration’s tariff and immigration policies have given a hefty push to changes already being driven by the twilight of US global hegemony and the insidious decline in net energy from fossil fuels.
Will it continue in something like a linear fashion? Almost certainly not—but I suspect that one way or another, things are going to move that way just a little more often than not over the years and decades and centuries to come. In the decades immediately ahead, for example, those young people who let themselves be talked into seeking a university education are far more often than not going to end up much less economically comfortable than those who ignore the conventional wisdom and go for trade schools and apprenticeships instead; those who focus on trying to get rich by speculation are going to do worse than those who focus on trying to make a living by producing goods and services themselves, and so on.
That is to say, many of the comfortable assumptions on which our chattering classes base their notions of the future passed their pull dates quite some time ago, and are beginning to smell decidedly overripe. With that in mind, it’s time to revisit a venerable tradition on my blogs, review my predictions from a year ago, and offer predictions about the year about to begin.
You can find last year’s predictions here. For some reason I didn’t do as I’ve habitually done in past years, and finish up the post with a paragraph summarizing my predictions. Thus I’ll take them one at a time.
“My first prediction for the new year, therefore, is that one of the biggest stories of the year will be an event that nobody has predicted.” That was a direct hit. The black swan in question? North Korea’s dramatic reversal of decades of military confrontation, and the opening up of prospects for an enduring peace in that end of east Asia. Nobody, but nobody, predicted that. It’s a huge shift, not least because Russian railway engineers are now busy making plans to extend the Trans-Siberian Railroad south through the Korean peninsula to South Korea’s booming ports, opening up the Pacific basin to year-round trade with Russia and its central Asian allies.
“The Democratic dream of a sweeping midterm victory that will leave Trump paralyzed in 2019 and 2020 will almost certainly go whistling down the wind.” The Democrats did better than I expected, but not well enough to matter. While they took the House, Trump tightened his control on the Senate, giving him much more leeway in appointing cabinet officials and Federal judges, and impeachment doesn’t mean a thing unless 2/3 of the Senate votes to convict, so he’s safe for the next two years. (Claims by Democrats to the contrary show an astonishing ignorance of the basic principles of US constitutional law.) His dismissal of Attorney General Sessions and his sharp U-turn on the Syrian war aren’t the acts of a president without options—quite the contrary, he’s clearly been emboldened by the change in the Senate.
“The US is trying to carry out that most difficult of military operations, a staged retreat through hostile territory… expect the US to bluster and threaten in an attempt to win breathing room for its retreat from empire.” There’s been plenty of that over the last year, with saber rattling and occasional petulant bursts of missiles aimed at nations too poorly defended to shoot back. The troop withdrawals took longer to start than I expected, but they’re under way, so that one was another hit.
“Expect the rise and fall of speculative bubbles to be a constant feature of the business pages all year.” Check. That one really was shooting fish in a barrel.
“Meanwhile, outside the narrowing circle of the official economy, the United States is rapidly becoming a Third World nation in which off-book employment and subsistence economics are becoming increasingly the norm. I don’t expect any significant change in that picture this year, just a continuation of vapid cheerleading from the media and increasingly grim conditions in the real world.” That one I missed completely. My assumption was that it would take a couple of years of sensible tariffs and enforcement of the immigration laws to cause a significant upturn in the working class end of the job market, and I was quite wrong. The expansion of working class jobs is still geographically patchy and fragile, but it’s significant, and if it continues, a great many imbalances in our economic life may be able to right themselves.
“We’re going to see more big storms, more big floods, more big fires, and the streets of Miami Beach and a hundred other low-lying coastal communities will fill a little deeper with salt water every time they get a high tide and an onshore wind, but nothing’s going to be done about it.” That was another easy call, and of course it was quite correct.
There were a few other stray predictions in there, but those were the important ones. By and large, despite one partial miss and one major miss, I think I did fairly well.
So what can we expect over the twelve months that will begin shortly? One thing, I think, we can be sure of. You know the great changes that so many people are hoping for—political, economic, cultural, ecological, spiritual, and so on? They’re not going to happen in 2019.
A year from now, we’re not going to look back on 2019 as the year when Trump was driven from office and everything became either wonderful or horrible, depending on your political prejudices. It won’t have been the year that the economy rolled over and died, or the year when either the political correctness of the Left or the patriotic correctness of the Right finally swept all before it. It won’t have been the year when we finally started to solve the problem of climate change, nor will it have been the year when Gaia put on her hobnailed boots and gave our species the stomping we arguably deserve. As for the leap to a new level of consciousness that’s been pulling a no-show since long before December 21, 2012 became just another day—well, let’s just say that if you hold your breath waiting for that, you’re going to turn very blue indeed.
As 2019 winds up a year from now, furthermore, the dollar and the Euro will still have value, there will still be products on the shelves of your local grocery, gasoline-powered automobiles will still be lurching wastefully down the streets, airliners will still be rumbling even more wastefully through the skies, and more Americans will be concerned with the outcome of the upcoming Super Bowl game than with the subjects this blog discusses. I can say that with perfect confidence, and not just because I’ve been right every other time I’ve predicted it.
The thing that people most often miss when they climb aboard the bandwagon of pop-culture futurology is the pace of historic change. One of the really serious downsides of the way that history is taught in today’s schools, especially but not only in the United States, is that the bite-sized overviews of entire eras that get passed on to students make history seem a lot faster than it is, and the habit of imposing judgments in hindsight hides the sheer obscurity of historical change. Were I to have the task of designing a history curriculum for schoolchildren, I’d take the number of weeks in a school year, subtract one at the beginning and one at the end, and select one year in history to study in each of the others—and not the big important years, either.
This week, let’s say, the year we’re studying is 1763; since this is an American history class, we’re going to immerse ourselves in what people were talking about, what they were reading, what they thought was important, what daily life was like for them, in the American colonies that year. The students would learn to recite a lesson from a hornbook, lunch on hasty pudding and succotash, take in articles extracted from the newspapers of the day, and in a couple of dozen other ways get a sense of what life was actually like in the colonies just over a decade before the Revolution broke out—and it would waste the entire experience to highlight everything that led to the Revolution, or to whatever other big issue we in 2019 consider important.
In 1763 people weren’t bracing themselves for the Revolution—the thought of rebelling against King George was on no one’s mind yet. Other issues, most of them completely forgotten today, occupied the minds of the colonists just then, and the thought that they were living in the run-up to one of the few really world-shaking eras of social change in modern history would not have occurred to them at all. That’s an awareness worth cultivating. One of the core points of the study of history is to help us realize that the past really is a foreign country, and it exists in its own right, not just as a prelude to here and now.
In exactly the same way, if a school somewhere in North America in the year 2234 happens to use the kind of curriculum I’ve just sketched out, and 2018 is one of the years that’s chosen for a week’s intensive study, the teacher will have to make sure to present 2018 as it was, without slanting the presentation so that it highlights the issues that would shake North America and the world in the great convulsions of the mid-2020s. We don’t know what those issues are yet, and so the hypothetical students in 2234 would listen instead to the political posturings of utterly forgotten figures named Trump and Pelosi, giggle at the quaintness of programs on a simulated television screen, try to figure out why people liked fast-food hamburgers, and try to get as close as they could to our experience of 2018—an experience that includes, as a central feature, the fact that the world doesn’t change as fast as we like to think it does, and we don’t actually know which way it’s going.
So the first thing we know about 2019 is that it’s going to look a lot like 2018. It’s possible to draw some straightforward conclusions from that. The ecological news from 2019, for example, is going to be consistently bad. We can expect more big storms, more big fires, more big floods. The economic burden from weather-related disasters is going to keep ratcheting up, and Federal disaster relief funds and insurance payouts are going to cover less of it. Whatever areas take the brunt of the coming year’s climate disasters can count on the same mix of short-term obsessive attention from the media, followed by long-term neglect and partial abandonment, that’s become standard in the wake of climate disasters in the US for more than a decade.
If the area where you live draws the short straw, and you happen to be among the survivors, you’ll get to see some eye-opening sights. If you don’t, don’t expect the media to cover it at all. Meanwhile the Left will continue to insist in ringing tones that someone else, somewhere else, ought to stop burning carbon so they can keep living their current lifestyles, and the Right will keep on scrunching its eyes shut, plugging its ears with its fingers, and insisting that climate change will go away if they just disbelieve in it hard enough. That is to say, nothing will be done.
In the same way, the great divide between Left and Right will continue to form a chasm across the heart of American society, across which not even the simplest message can be communicated without distortion. The mainstream Left will continue to demand the policies of free trade and open borders that, not coincidentally, provide the privileged among them with ultracheap consumer goods and inexpensive nannies. The insurgent populist Right will continue to demand the policies of trade barriers and strictly enforced immigration laws that, also not coincidentally, are driving the current boom in US manufacturing, with its attendant profits for the rich and jobs for the flyover-state working classes.
In a functioning democracy, the two sides would hammer out some kind of compromise that allows them both to get the things they most want. Unfortunately, we don’t happen to have a functioning democracy right now. Both sides act as though the only acceptable outcome is that they get everything they want and the other side gets nothing, and try to wrap the realities of naked self-interest in the unconvincing garb of moral posturing. Until both sides grow up a little and shed the toddler-habit of throwing tantrums when they don’t get what they want, politics in the US will remain hopelessly dysfunctional.
Another thing that will continue in 2019 is the ongoing decline in US global hegemony. As the US dollar loses its status as the world’s reserve currency, and more and more nations arrange to handle mutual trade in their own currencies, the arrangements that have allowed the US to print money at will to cover its soaring debts will become increasingly problematic. I don’t expect the US to be forced to choose between default and hyperinflation next year, or any time in the next few years; that’s coming, but we have a way to go before it comes knocking on the door. At the same time, I expect issues surrounding the US national debt to heat up in 2019, and the US and global economy will be in for some rough sledding for that reason among others.
Trump’s decision to bring US troops home from Syria and begin a serious drawdown from Afghanistan was as overdue as it was necessary. As US hegemony slips away, one of the essential tasks of American statecraft involves walking back unsustainable commitments around the world, leaving Eurasia and Africa to manage their own affairs, and establishing more sustainable relationships with the nations in the US “near abroad.” An end to US military adventurism in the Middle East and improved relations with Mexico are crucial steps along that path, and it’s to the Trump administration’s credit that several movements toward both these goals have been taken in 2018, but much more needs to be done. Whether that will happen in 2019 is impossible to say at this point. The sooner it happens, the less traumatic the transition to a post-imperial America will be.
The economy? A very mixed bag. As I write this, stock markets worldwide have had a very bad month or so, real estate prices in a great many overpriced markets have hit the skids, and a range of other measures that show how much excess cash has piled up in the speculative end of the economy are looking decidedly thin and weak just now. To borrow a bit of jargon, economic shifts are usually overdetermined—that means they have more causes driving them than are actually necessary to get the effect—but one neglected factor that I think is feeding into the current slumps is a rebalancing of wealth back to the productive sectors of the US economy.
For decades now, soaring stock prices and equally rosy valuations for other speculative assets have happened in tandem with serious economic distress for the majority of Americans. That was anything but accidental: a galaxy of government policies, free-trade agreements and the tacit acceptance of unlimited illegal immigration among them, forced down working-class wages in the US to near-starvation levels while channeling increased profits to the investing classes. Now that a number of those policies have been reversed, wealth is beginning to flow back into the productive economy, and the speculative economy is losing air as a result.
I expect to hear from a great many pundits, and plenty of people with investments as well, that this means a new Great Depression, if not the end of the world. Popular though that claim will no doubt be, my best guess is that it’s quite wrong. Just as the stock market soared to unimaginable levels while millions of working class Americans struggled to get by, stock market prices and other asset values can lurch and stumble back down to something like their historic range, while millions of working class Americans cash their paychecks every Friday afternoon and wonder what all the fuss is about. I’m not certain this is going to happen—the investment classes have a lot of clout, and will doubtless try everything they can think of to shove the pain off onto somebody else—but at this point I think it’s far and away the most likely outcome.
Will unexpected events grab a share of the headlines in 2019? No doubt some will. The future has plenty of dark places where not even the outlines of events to come can be seen. Those of my readers who want to insist that those dark places contain whatever drastic reversal of current trends they most want to hope for, though, are going to face the same disappointment this year that they’ve faced year after weary year in the past. The world doesn’t change as fast as we like to think it does, and we don’t actually know which way it’s going: keep those things in mind, and you’re a good deal less likely to be blindsided by the year ahead.
Two brief announcements before we close. First of all, I’m delighted to announce that the first two volumes of The Weird of Hali, my epic fantasy with tentacles, are now available in paperback as well as ebook formats. A fantasy series that stands H.P. Lovecraft on his head, with the tentacled Great Old Ones revealed as the old gods of Nature and those supposedly sinister multiethnic cultists as the good guys after all, may seem worlds away from the issues discussed in this blog, but sometimes fiction’s the best way to talk about certain far from fictional issues. Interested? You can order copies of The Weird of Hali: Innsmouth and its sequel, The Weird of Hali: Kingsport, by slithering over here and here.
Second, it’s been over a year and a half since I last took a break from blogging, and it’s time to put my feet up for a month and catch my breath. There will be no posts on this blog in the month of January 2019; expect the first post of the new year on February 6th. See you then!