At heart, I am an optimist, but the past few months have forced me to consider the possibility of a world gone awry.
Humanity’s last major, paradigm-changing upheaval — the two World Wars — played out over four decades — the 1910s to the 1940’s — with the echoes of the disruption lasting well into the 50s and the 60s. The 50s also saw the beginnings of a new world order emerging culminating in a world of rising prosperity and globalization lasting well into the first decade of the 21st century.
At the core of the conflagration of the two World Wars was the emergence of the concept of a nation defined by geography and ethnic groups. This socio-political and socio-cultural phenomenon combined with the socio-economic power of the first phase of the Industrial Age. A power that enabled nations to unleash mass destruction on one another culminating with Hiroshima and the atomic bomb.
The two World Wars were driven by the mistaken assumption that one nation-state could conquer and annex another nation-state through an attack lasting a few years. This was a hangover from the previous era of “war as an event” concept of two armies facing each other on an open field and the vanquished accepting the victor as the new master. This belief when married to the destructive power of the weapons unleashed by the Industrial Age resulted in the paradigm-shifting follies that were the two World Wars. Thankfully the atomic age put an end to the notion.
As a result, wars like the Vietnam, Korean, Indo-Pak and the Egypt-Israel wars remained limited in scope. This also ensured that the Cold War between the USSR and the Western Alliance remained cold.
However, what if the worm had begun to turn once in the second decade of the 21st century?
Globalization and the Information Age has produced tremendous economic prosperity across the globe as well as shared knowledge of the inter-connectedness of the world among individuals, societies and cultures.
On the flip side, it has also produced great inequality among the economic classes as also given profoundly different cult-like viewpoints powerful platforms to coalesce and gain power.
Great income equality has always existed, but modern technology has meant that income inequality in modern times has translated to a significant disparity at the very core of life. In the Middle Ages and even in the first phase of the Industrial Age, higher incomes essentially translated to higher social status through pomp and circumstance and a somewhat better quality of life through larger houses, more servants, better food, better carriages, horses and so. The quality of life of a KKiing in the Middle Ages or an early Industrial Age Baron would around 20 on a scale of 1 o 100. The King’s courtiers and the tradesmen and managers of the Industrial Age at say 15 and the serf or the sweatshop worker at say 7.
The modern age had changed what income inequality means. The rich can reach any part of the world in a matter of hours travelling in unbelievable luxury. While the middle classes are mostly stuck to the drudgery of the daily commute. Riches can today mean not just much higher life expectancy but much better fitness and vitality to enjoy the “la dolce vita” of a rich man’s life. While the middle classes live dogged by illness-causing stress and pollution.
There has, of course, been progress. Technology and higher productivity have ensured that.
Today’s blue or white-collar drudge has moved to 25 from the 7 of the serf or the sweatshop worker of the earlier ages. The lower and middle class on essence have better quality than the kings of yore or the robber barons of the early Industrial Age. At the same time the leap in the quality of life index of the affluent — the bureaucrats, the technocrats and the professional classes — and the rich — the captains of industry, the tech entrepreneurs, the celebrity sports and entertainment stars — has leapt way beyond. Would it be wrong to say that if one is affluent or wealthy today and mindful of one’s health, one can enjoy a quality of life near the top end of the scale? Perhaps near 60 for the affluents and say near the 80s for the rich. Advances in medicine — slowing the depredations of age, implants that augment the senses, genetics combined with the magic of AI and commercial space travel will push the quality of life of the truly rich closer to 100. At the same time, the middle class will be stuck in the early 30s.
The situation becomes combustible if you mix in the proliferation of 24x7 media that hypes the lifestyles of the rich and the famous down the throat of the middle classes endlessly.
As a result, the Gini index — the measure of inequality — is magnified several times when transformed into an index of resentment and suppressed rage.
This suppressed rage and resentment finds expression within cultures, societies and individuals in different ways. They set up unique hate figures, rationale, conspiracy theories and ultimate solutions. Before the age of social media dawned, individuals, expressed these ideas to a small group in their circle who they found were similar to them in status and way of thinking.
With the dawn of social media, this changed dramatically.
Billions are now avid consumers of social media not because they have a deep desire to know what their friends or relatives are doing or gawk at photographs and memes. Instead, their addiction is to the reinforcement of their view-of-the-world day-in-and-day out. They find that many share their views and not just strengthen them but add more virulent dimensions to them. And very often, this group affinity moves from online interaction to offline action. A tribe is formed that is ready to defend its turf not just online but on the streets and in the politics of power.
This social-media-driven tribalization is not an accidental result. It is an outcome of painstakingly designed algorithms the Facebooks and Instagrams of this world that deepen engagement with the platform. This is done purely in commercial interest. The Zuckerbergs of this world, in truth, do not care about anything else despite their hoodie-wearing new age spiel.
To this simmering cauldron of rising inequalities and tribalism, the Gods added Covid19. Each passing day, it emerges that Covid19 is of the same order of dangerousness to the 2020s as the Spanish Flu was to the 1910s.
The Spanish Flu ended World War I as it competed with it in killing millions. But it sowed the seeds of the Great Depression and World War II.
Could it be that this pandemic will lead the world into a different kind of war? Exacerbating the inequities of the times as well as the greed and incompetence of the establishment at large. The rich and the well-to-do gorge on the money spigots opened by panicking central banks while the rest — the working class, including the essential workers — confront death and deprivation.
In the early days of this pandemic, I was hopeful that this shock might wake up the world and in time make it a better place. In the same way that the Black Plague of the Middle Ages hurried the dawning of the Renaissance. I expressed this view in a post titled “The Coming Age of Ambiversion?” published on June 7th, 2020. The question mark in title was prescient.
The situation had gone downhill after that. As Governments and the health infrastructure across the world continue to lose the battle. And the rich and the well-to-do gorge on stock market gains and easy money. While the complaint of the privileged is about the imagined tribulations of WFH, online learning and boredom(!), the many either work in dangerous conditions or suffer hunger and deprivation without work.
Will the coming of an effective vaccine return the world to some sort of normalcy? Perhaps, if a truly effective vaccine is developed and universally distributed. But much before that will come the Vaccine Wars. A handful of rich countries with 13% of the world population have cornered 50%of the production capacity of the leading vaccines. Imagine the mayhem that will follow as soon as a vaccine or two is cleared by the authorities. Besides, it is quite clear that the so-called leaders are clearly compromised by political expediency and ever-present greed and corruption.
Imagine the misery if an approved vaccine or vaccines do not just prove to be ineffective but cause damage and death.
That will only hasten the arrival of a full-blown era of worldwide conflict I like to think of as the “Viral Wars”.
Even if the world did find an effective vaccine and distributed it equitably, the Covid19 crisis might have created a rift in human civilization that makes the Viral War inevitable.
What will the Viral Wars be like? It will be very different from the World Wars but equally destructive and paradigm-shifting. Unlike the World Wars, it will not be between countries but among tribes. Tribes that are each driven by an explosive mix of ideology, faith, conspiracy theories forming a world view that each will be willing to die for.
I call them The Viral Wars because they will be infectious and spread across the world. Unchecked, gathering momentum every day, bringing death and deprivation in their wake. Until after decades the world develops herd immunity or someone or some force finds a vaccine.
Imagine scores of multinational Al Quedas, Qnons, White Supremacists, neo-Nazis, Antifas at each other’s throats within and across national borders. Equipped with military-grade weapons and state-of-the-art cyber and AI skills. What about federal Governments and armies? Many of them will side with one tribe or the other. Or be too weak to be effective in quelling anything. The dystopian world of many a sci-fi movie — Mad Max, Blade Runner — will be at hand. The poets imagined such a world much before the screenwriters did.
Consider these famous lines by Yeats from his poem “The Second Coming”:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
You will notice the absence of a question mark in the title of this dark vision of the future in contrast to the more hopeful one posited as the Age of Ambiversion.
It is because history has taught me that the worst had to come to pass before the good dawns. Perhaps after The Viral Wars will come The Age of Ambiversion.