Tech Titans, Trump and Thucydides: A Calamitous Cocktail?

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‘History is one long repetition, each century plagiarising the next’, theorised the fictional character Grantaire in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. When observing what happened roughly one hundred years ago, I am sure that I am not alone in hoping Grantiare’s theory does not pass into our contemporary times. At first glance, we seem to be doing quite well at avoiding some of the perils which plagued the previous century, after all it was only last year that we celebrated the centenary of World War One. However, I sometimes wonder if we are sleepwalking into an unjustified sense of security and that if we look deeper, we should actually be alert to some developing and ominous similarities between the twentieth and twenty-first century.

Given America has powered much of what has happened in the last two hundred years, it seems logical to refer to it as a case study. At the beginning of the 1900s, America was characterised by its inherent belief in Social Darwinism and laissez-faire, both of which had contributed to the rise of the notorious ‘robber barons’ who mercilessly increased their profits at the expense of the ‘little man’. Many at the time, including Theodore Roosevelt, were disturbed by the notion that twenty men alone could control American industry and, consequentially, a large proportion of the 76 million inhabitants of America. Between the turn of the century and the mid-1930s, the richest 0.1%, bar a few years, had more wealth than the bottom 90% combined. Fortunately, for the sake of social equality, this disturbing statistic became an ever more distant past – until recently that is.

Recent studies have shown that the bottom 90% and top 0.1% in American society now have parity in their share of US wealth. Whilst the real average wealth of a bottom 90% family has not increased since 1986, the average wealth of the top 0.1% has tripled between 1980 and 2012. Instead of the robber barons, we now have the tech titans. Worryingly, this trend is not just confined to America and can be seen in other nations including the UK. A cursory review of both the 1900s and the 2000s also shows that increasing disparities in wealth inequality goes hand in hand with the rise of nationalism. This accelerating fragmentation of societies through wealth inequality led to an elite out of touch with ordinary people which in turn stoked the isolationism and nationalism which simmered for many decades and erupted so spectacularly in World War One and World War Two.

Although nationalism on its own might not be a negative phenomenon, when this nationalism morphs into jingoism it becomes undoubtedly negative. The clearest example of jingoism in the 1900s would probably be Nazi Germany, but this is one example among many including the Balkans and some African states. Thankfully, for the main part, the twenty-first century has avoided venturing into the worst aspects of jingoism so far, but we are teetering on the edge of falling into this chasm with Trump’s brinkmanship seemingly pushing the world to ever more dangerous areas, particularly surrounding the trade war with China.

Incidentally, this past year has seen an increased discussion of Thucydides’s trap, the thesis coined by Professor Graham Allison, which states that the rivalries of established and rising powers will end in conflict. This thesis has been proved correct on 12/16 times and Allison himself has said ‘China and the US are currently on a collision course for war’, with the ignition point likely to be the South China Sea, although tensions will not be eased by Trump’s directives in trade.

Throughout the 1900s, we were notoriously bad at escaping Thucydides’s trap with there being two world wars and a cold war, the last of which brought the world to the brink of Armageddon on multiple occasions. In the origins of both World War One and World War Two, Germany was one of the rising powers whilst Britain and America were the current incumbents as the world’s hegemons. In both of these examples, neither side gave ground to the other, resulting in war and the greatest destruction humanity has known so far.

One of the few examples where conflict has been avoided following entry into Thucydides’s Trap is in the dismantling of the British Empire. At the conclusion of the 1800s and the opening of the 1900s, it was clear that America would be the new superpower and Britain, realising this, voluntarily ceded its top position. What ensued was a strong and mutually beneficial alliance which has remained until this present day.

It is clear that the world risks falling into a Thucydides’s trap where we have an incumbent superpower being challenged by an upcoming superpower. In addition, we also have the uneven wealth disparity within many societies which is leading to tension and an outbreak of nationalism which could easily morph into jingoism. Put these two major geopolitical trends together and it is clear a potent and potentially dangerous cocktail is beginning to be shaken.

So, back to where we started: perhaps we are at risk of repeating the same mistakes and plagiarising the catastrophes of the twentieth century all over again; perhaps world leaders and politicians should take a moment to reflect and ensure we don’t sleepwalk into a crisis which will simmer for a few more decades but then spectacularly erupt; perhaps we should pay greater attention to wealth disparity and Thucydides Trap and act now to avert future tragedy.