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25 January 2017

The Parallel Worlds of Citizens

Nowadays it has become exceedingly difficult to interpret and predict global processes. A recent case in point is the Brexit referendum, which produced an entirely unexpected outcome despite having been studied by a host of political analysts in advance. Likewise, the expert consensus was proven wrong by the end result of the American presidential elections: even though the Democratic candidate prevailed in the popular vote by a small margin, the real-estate tycoon running on behalf of the Republican Party managed to clinch victory by carrying the swing states, ultimately winning an overwhelming majority of votes in the Electoral College.

If voter behaviour is so inherently impulsive and fickle, what can we say about the economy? For years, the global market price of crude oil had been unrealistically high, until it abruptly dropped to nearly one third of its former level in 2014. From the price of gold to the US dollar/Swiss franc exchange rate, life is full of wild swings and extremities. From mature industries such as car manufacturing to banking services and other state-regulated businesses, the fate of entire sectors can be radically transformed practically overnight. We can no longer rest assured that, in ten years’ time, our personal transportation will satisfy our current definition of “car”, or that the space where we conduct our financial transactions will be called a bank as we know it today.

Theoretically, social processes should be slower to change than economic trends. Our present-day experience, however, has more than once refuted this axiom. All of a sudden, major movements unfold on a social scale, and not only in the destabilised Arab world or North Africa, where the demographic explosion alone would have sufficed to disrupt the regimes that had formed over several decades. There have been astonishing changes in the most advanced regions as well, despite their reputation for establishment and stability. Yet it was only a quarter century ago that it seemed we were really nearing the “end of history”. Of course, the title of Fukuyama’s book sounded as provocative back then as it does today, although it was certainly apt in the sense that, by then, global capitalism had remained the only system standing. The demise of Socialism-Communism as an alternative that could be taken seriously settled a paramount debate and seemed to usher in a global order that, back then at least, could be regarded as permanent. These days one is not so sure anymore, although it is now apparent that Communist- led China and Vietnam continued not so much to topple as to exploit the global market economy and the free movement of goods and capital it enabled. The remaining few Communist regimes now clearly had other things to worry about than how to export their ideology.

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