A time of troubles

In the last days of 2005, leading thinkers and scholars from around the world share their fears, hopes and expectations of 2006. Forty-nine of openDemocracy’s distinguished contributors, from Mariano Aguirre to Slavoj Zizek, Neal Ascherson to Jonathan Zittrain – offer their predictions for the coming year. Since this is openDemocracy, we did not expect them to agree. We were not disappointed. (Part Two).
Tony Judt
22 December 2005


These days it seems prudent to believe, on the whole, that next year will be worse than this year. But that need not always be true. It is possible, even likely, that Silvio Berlusconi has outstayed his welcome in Italian public life and that he, his party and his coalition will be dislodged from power in the Italian general elections. For anyone who has followed the steady degradation and moral corruption of Italian public life in recent years, this is good news whatever comes after.

Elsewhere in Europe, however, there is little to hope for: the current political class, from Poland to Britain via Germany and France, is universally mediocre. ‘Europe’ is at its lowest point since the early seventies – bad news for Europeans but far, far worse for those (Macedonians, Serbs, Moldovans, Turks) whose present improvement and future hope rest almost entirely upon the promise of eventual inclusion. Meanwhile, in so far as the terms “right” and “left” preserve any meaning, the right has power but few ideas. The left, except in parts of Scandinavia, has neither.

The prospects for the middle east are grim: a timeless proposition, true, but nonetheless one that requires re-stating. If anything, they are grimmer – at least for Palestinians – than for some time. Israelis, like their American backers but with less excuse, are promising and expecting miracles from the recycled Ariel Sharon (“the new De Gaulle”), or dreaming of a revived Labour Party under Amir Peretz.

But the harsh truth is that the withdrawal from Gaza has confirmed Sharon’s strategy of focusing on the West Bank and forging “facts on the ground” that must forever preclude a viable Palestinian state. This is undermining the credibility of Palestinian moderates and boosting support for Hamas, even as Jerusalem and Washington raise the rhetorical volume against Palestinian “extremists”. Sharon, if he recovers from his illness, may call and win an election, which will liberate him from the few constraints the US has gingerly placed upon him. More trouble lies ahead.

In the US, the worst presidency of the 20th century has three years to run. A handful of Republicans may lose their House seats in November – gerrymandered districts notwithstanding – but nothing more (the American left is in even worse shape than its European counterpart). As Iraq slips beyond its grip, the US will become ever more hated by its foes and resented by its friends. The Supreme Court will have shifted significantly to the right. This will not result in the “overturning” of Roe vs Wade (and if it did many state assemblies would substitute permissive legislation); but it will see the start of a rolling back of the federal legislative reach inaugurated by the early 20th-century reformers and accelerated through the New Deal and Johnson eras.

Taken with the increasing polarisation of rich and poor and the country’s steady turning in upon itself – becoming a “gated community” whose only widely-shared characteristic is a renewed suspicion of (and unconcern for) the opinions of outsiders – this marks the beginning of the end of the American Century and the “American Way of Life” as lived during the halcyon decades since 1950. One hundred years after Upton Sinclair published The Jungle (1906) and precipitated the first era of federal reforms, the US is about to enter a time of troubles.


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