Into the Weirding -- Part 1

Part of the Great Weirding essay collection

This is Part 1 (~3200 words) of the first essay of my Great Weirding series. You can read Part 2 (~3500 words) here. It is a near-final draft that I expect to edit further, so comments are welcome.

Lenin once noted [1] that “there are decades when nothing happens, and weeks when decades happen.” For many, the four-year period between 2016 and 2020 has seemed like a relentless parade of decade-sized weeks. I call this period The Great Weirding, a phrase I first used in a 2016 essay reflecting on the significance of the Harambe meme, which emerged in the wake of the unsettling killing of Harambe, the gorilla, at the Cincinnati Zoo in May, 2016. It was an event which, for many of us, turned into the symbolic marker of the advent of the Great Weirding.

With the fourth anniversary of the death of Harambe a week away, the Great Weirding feels neither like a new normal, nor like an obviously transient aberrant period. But with the arrival of the Covid19 pandemic, the Great Weirding does appear to have passed through a natural climactic turn. It appears to have irreversibly dumped us, with no hope of return to old ways, into a persistently unsettling condition I call the Permaweird

In this essay series, I hope to take stock of the evolving state of the deep changes set in motion by the Great Weirding, and make a useful set of educated guesses about the contours of the Permaweird world that is taking shape around us.  

It is a world that many saw coming, but almost nobody saw coming quite this fast. Starting in 2016, the future I wrote about in 2015, and expected to arrive by perhaps 2030 (see The Future in the Rearview Mirror) arrived so rapidly that it has left much of the world shell-shocked and bewildered. Not only did it arrive more rapidly than any of us expected, it arrived in a form that confirmed many of the worst fears, rather than the best hopes, of 2015. Humanity as a whole appeared to collectively abandon its fragile faith in the mechanisms — liberal democracy, free markets, and a globalized economic order — to which the great global increases in prosperity over the previous thirty years had been provisionally attributed. And as faith in the mechanisms unraveled, so did the widespread consensus that prosperity did, in fact, increase over that period.

But though the significance of the story of the last thirty years is currently in dispute, the fact that it has arrived at some sort of ending is not. Happily or not, we are now in the ever-after, having been transformed by the Great Weirding in ways that we will be coming to terms with for the rest of our lives, even as we attempt to make sense of the new story we are in.

***

Through the weirding years, the shadows that had been looming over the neoliberal narrative of progress in the previous decade — reactionary forces, climate change, growing inequality, the rise of China, and the techlash— acquired embodied forms, and emerged, for better or for worse, as seeds of real alternatives to the neoliberal world order that had prevailed until 2015.

Simmering reactionary cultural sentiment transformed into a global ethnonationalist wave.  The abstract threat of climate change turned into a parade of extreme weather events, the unraveling of COP21, and the first stirrings of serious climate action by other means. Concern over inequality, which had first found expression in the #Occupy movement, finally found robust institutional expression through rise of a New Left around the world. And perhaps most importantly, with Covid19, China arrived on the world stage as a genuine superpower, able to significantly shape, to its own advantage, the global consequences of a crisis that emerged within its borders.

Of all the shadows that loomed over the world of 2015, surprisingly, it was the techlash that ultimately failed to find a strongly embodied institutional form. Though there was significant regulatory activity around the world — from investigations of Facebook’s role in the 2016 US presidential elections to the passing of the GDPR act in Europe — the cultural force of the techlash generally waned through the Great Weirding. And with 2020 establishing software-based infrastructure as a critical load-bearing element of the Covid19 response, much of the once formidable energy of the techlash appears to have dissipated.

As a result of these newly activated forces, the neoliberal consensus, once so strong and compelling that it attracted the descriptor There is No Alternative (TINA), now seems to represent the least believable future in a cacophony of loudly contending alternatives. While it is unclear which of the newly embodied forces will win the future, it seems certain that neoliberalism will lose it, and be transformed into a disembodied ghost of its former self.

The constituent forces of neoliberalism though, are far from dead. They remain, lurking in a new shadowland on the margins, looming over the new narratives contending over the arc of history, waiting to find a new institutional expression. Whether one of the new narratives will prevail, or whether neoliberalism in some form will be resurrected, as an empire striking back from the shadows, remains a deeply uncertain question.

But apparent winners and losers alike appear equally disoriented by their sudden changes in their respective situations, and equally frustrated in the pursuit of their respective goals. The Great Weirding, it is clear, has unleashed a wave of transformation that goes far beyond the wins and losses of players in any of the specific games embedded within it.

An inventory of wins and losses, however, is perhaps the most legible place to begin to make sense of what happened in the last four years.

***

Though there were rumblings elsewhere in the world leading up to the Harambe moment, the Great Weirding, arguably, began in the Americas in 2016. The United States, the most powerful nation in the world, lurched into an astounding election year, marked by a surreal mix of Nixon-era ethnonationalist politics and futuristic cyberwarfare, followed by the equally unprecedented first term of the Trump regime. 

Down south, in Latin America, Venezuela failed to prevent an unraveling triggered by collapsing oil prices and socialism, while neighboring Colombia voted to reject a peace treaty with FARC. But it was the giant of the continent, Brazil, which presented the most surreal spectacle of all: the impeachment of Dilma Roussef unfolding against the backdrop of the 2016 Rio Olympics. With the subsequent rise of Jair Bolsonaro, the two largest nations in the Americas had succumbed to the Great Weirding. 

Across the Atlantic, the United Kingdom inaugurated the European Weirding with the 2016 Brexit vote, and then proceeded to stumble and stagger through the next four years trying to figure out what the vote actually meant. The four disorienting years culminated in an election that finally delivered a decisive mandate, charging Boris Johnson with actually getting the ill-defined task done. The clarity, however, proved short-lived, as Covid19 hit, muddying the picture yet again. 

Across the English Channel, Syrian refugees steadily streamed into Europe through the weirding years, triggering waves of problems, both real and imaginary, and a rising tide of xenophobia. The European Weirding continued through 2017, with the Catalan bid for freedom; at once a continuation of the story of an old socialist struggle, and something new. France succumbed to the Weirding in 2018, with the Yellow Jackets movement, while Germany under Angela Merkel, after navigating a rough, extended governance crisis, managed to restore a semblance of fragile stability.

While the contours of the European Weirding were more complex than those of the American Weirding, the broad drift towards accommodation of a resurgent ethnonationalist right was evident across the continent. The trajectory of Hungary, where the consolidation of power by Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, culminating in 2020 legislation granting him indefinitely extended emergency authority to rule by by decree, has perhaps been the sine qua non of the European Weirding. By the time Covid19 hit, Orbán had emerged as the European standard-bearer of the Western ethnonationalist wave, alongside Donald Trump in the United States, Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom, and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. 

Straddling East and West, Russia and Turkey each entered the Great Weirding in their own unique ways. For Russia, the conflict in Ukraine emerged as the locus of both its traditional regional ambitions, and its newer ambitions as a global cyberwarfare superpower. Ukraine was the site of a relatively conventional military and diplomatic conflict through the weirding years, but it was also the source of perhaps the most significant event in the short history of global cyberwarfare — the NotPetya ransomware attack on the Maersk shipping corporation in 2017. NotPetya was, in some ways, a digital preview of the sorts of complex damage viruses, whether digital or biological, can inflict on the increasingly complex technological stack the world relies on to function.

But beyond the still-unfolding Ukraine affair, Russia’s apparent ascendancy was slowly revealed to be more the product of Western myth-making than any actual mastery of the forces of the Great Weirding being unleashed worldwide. Russia, it gradually became clear, was no more master of its own fates in the chaos than any of the nations targeted by its cyberwarriors. Vladimir Putin, who seemed to bending world history to his will in 2016, appears in 2020 as a shadow of his former self, as vulnerable to weirding forces as any of his peers around the world.

Down south, Turkey joined the Great Weirding via a foiled military coup in 2016, but celebration quickly turned into suspicion that Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was, in fact, the greater threat to the future of Turkish democracy. Over the next few years, Erdoğan’s increasingly autocratic behaviors turned suspicion into certainty, and Turkey too fell, as yet another domino in the Great Weirding.

In the Middle East, the Great Weirding began across the border from Turkey, in Syria. In its early years, the Syrian conflict added a horrifying new term to the modern vocabulary of armed conflict: barrel bombing — a crude counter-insurgency tactic relying on low-tech improvised munitions that are, in a sense, the opposite of the drone-launched missiles that had emerged as the motif of military actions in the aughts. The conflict evolved uneasily through the four years of the Great Weirding, culminating in a messy American withdrawal, followed by a predictable surge of Turkish adventurism.

The Weirding did not leave the two regional powers untouched. In Saudi Arabia, the Mohammad bin Salam story played out with surprising rapidity: yet another suave Arab leader mounting a global charm offensive, turning out to be yet another brutal authoritarian of the sort the region has sadly become known for. Between the conflict in Yemen, and the slaying of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the global reputation of “MbS” turned around 180 degrees in short order. Yet even he could not resist the Great Weirding — between drone attacks and negative oil prices, a consequence of its endless game of chicken over oil prices with Russia, the  Kingdom too began to succumb to the transformation sweeping across the world.

Across the Gulf, in Iran, on the cusp of the pandemic, a bizarre US-Iran conflict triggered by the execution-by-drone of the General Soleimani ended as abruptly as it began, with ceremonial Iranian missile strikes on American base in Iraq and the accidental downing of a civilian airliner. And with Covid19 decimating its leadership, Iran too stumbled into the Great Weirding, reeling under the combined effects of sanctions, crashing oil prices, and the pandemic. 

Farther east, Asia presented something of a landscape of multiple economic and cultural wars, largely playing out within national borders. The most important Asian weirding drama played out, naturally, in China.

The Great Weirding saw the nebulous idea of a Chinese alternative to the neoliberal world order acquiring a tangible narrative coherence around the world. This, thanks to the rising profile of the Belt-and-Road-Initiative (especially in Africa), the surprising global cultural success of Chinese works like Cixin Liu’s Three Body Problem, and the rise of a distinctly Chinese narrative of humanity’s future, dubbed sinofuturism. It was perhaps the last of these, based on a uniquely Chinese (and uniquely futuristic) relationship to digital technologies, that most captured the imagination of the world.

But on other fronts, China presented a much more familiar reactionary spectacle, with the political environment returning to a Mao-like era of charismatic politics. At the center of the spectacle, Xi Jinping consolidated his power, secured for himself the option of a lifetime leadership role, via removal of term limits, and acquired the title of “People’s Leader,” previously held only by Mao. Even as initiatives abroad, under the aegis of the Belt-and-Road Initiative, began to establish a strong Chinese note in global affairs, domestically, surveillance-based repression in the Xinjiang province, and the reining in of Hong Kong’s autonomy on an accelerated schedule, marked the beginning of a new chapter in the internal governance of China.

But the Covid19 pandemic proved to be too strong a force for even China to fully accommodate into its new narrative, even though the consequences so far have proved amenable to China-favoring shaping. But as Xi’s authority wobbles in the wake of the impact, and the world reconsiders its relationship to China, the Great Weirding is poised to claim China as well. The only question is whether it will unfold there with or without uniquely Chinese characteristics.

Across the Himalayas, the Indian Weirding began with a radical demonetization initiative, marking a kind of consolidation of power and charismatic authority by Narendra Modi not seen since Indira Gandhi. That first move in 2016, marking the debut of the Great Weirding in the subcontinent, was followed by a steady stream of others, in areas ranging from citizenship rights and military posture, to digital identity and surveillance. Quietly, but decisively, through the Great Weirding, the entire tenor of life and governance in India changed. Not all the changes were driven top-down by the BJP government, however. A virulent new mode of public life, rooted in an anarchy of ungoverned messaging behaviors on WhatsApp, created a whole new political canvas that politics had to contend with. 

As the final final stop in our whistle-stop global tour of the Great Weirding, consider the Korean peninsula, which presented perhaps the weirdest spectacles of all.

In South Korea the Great Weirding made its debut via the unraveling of the Presidency of Park Geun-hye, as a bizarre tale of influence wielded over the state by Choi-Soon-sil, daughter of a shamanistic cult leader, became public. Not to be outdone, across the 34th parallel, Kim Jong Un embarked on a course of nuclear brinkmanship, leading to the bizarre spectacle of nuclear diplomacy conducted in the form of a public trash-talking contest with Donald Trump. This was followed by a surreal summit in Singapore that was more kayfabe than statecraft.

This tour of the political ground of the Great Weirding is, of course, no more than a very incomplete partial inventory of everything that happened in these strange weirding years. But even if some regions were affected more than others, no region remained untouched. While the African, Australian, and Southeast Asian chapters of the Great Weirding were perhaps less dramatic in political terms, those regions did not escape unscathed either.

What even this casual inventory reveals though, is that by the time Covid19 hit in December 2019, the world had already been heavily primed for rapid, deep, transformation over the previous four years.

It was clear all along to anyone paying attention that given the unbridled nature of the forces being unleashed against the prevailing global order, something had to give. One way or the other, the forces accumulating pressure through the Great Weirding would have to find a dramatic outlet commensurate with their magnitude.

That the outlet took the form of a pandemic sweeping the world was, in a sense, no more than the final detail to be revealed, albeit a very big and important one.

***

If 2016-19 felt like a surreal nightmare to many, 2020 has turned into a parade of reminders that we were not in fact, asleep; that there is much more than a mere “democratic recession” underway; that the arc of history has in fact bent irreversibly. The only question that remains unanswered is, towards what?  The null hypothesis for many is towards a Dark Age. Establishing a case for any more optimistic alternative hypothesis, a relatively easy matter in 2015, is an uphill struggle in 2020.

The Great Weirding will be remembered in history as the period during which the world at large woke up to the accelerating collapse of industrial normalcy. Unlike other memorably tumultuous years in living memory, such as 2001 (the year of the 9/11 attacks) and 1989 (the year of the fall of Berlin Wall), the changes triggered during the Great Weirding will shape more than the psyches of those living through them. The emergent consciousness of an entire landscape of institutions has been undergoing rapid evolution through the past four years, and this evolution has come to a head with Covid19.

Not since the decade after World War II has the world seen such an era of rapid institutional evolution. Not since the Industrial Revolution have we seen a more tumultuous environment reshaping the technological foundations of society. Not since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 have we seen a deeper reimagining of the global political order. Not since the Black Death have we seen our natural environment reassert itself with such quiet violence. Not since the Bronze Age collapse have we seen climate change so radically reshape the human condition.

And not since the Neolithic Revolution have we seen a more fundamental shift in the basic psychology and sociology of being human. 

The tumult we are living through is not just at the surface level of software eating the world, with shallow political consequences. It goes all the way down, playing out as a deep, synchronized shock to the entire civilizational stack. It is perhaps this remarkable conjunction of trends coming to a head, ranging from ones whose origins are within living memory, to ones whose root causes are buried in the mists of our Paleolithic past, that has made the Great Weirding so disorienting. This is perhaps why the Permaweird feels like so alien a condition, it might as well be a different planet. 

To begin to re-establish our lost sense of the world as a familiar place, a home for our species, we have no choice but to begin with where we are, here in 2020, looking back at four years of noise and fury, wondering what, if anything, they signify. And to do so, we have to look past the political drama at the surface, to the deeper stories unfolding below.

Continue to Part 2

Footnotes

[1] The provenance of this quote is unclear, but Lenin certainly expressed a thought alone these lines, if not in quite as pithy a form as the English version.