Whatever Will Be, Will Be

All human progress seems to be aimed at making our lives easier, writes Valdai Club Chairman Andrey Bystritskiy. Of course, we managed to achieve certain successes in this area. But how stable are they? What are the most important, most dangerous challenges for all of us on this globe?

The world is changing drastically. A new world hierarchy is emerging; relations between some countries are deteriorating, and those between others are improving. Striking technological breakthroughs have arrived alongside equally striking breakthroughs in barbarism. The pandemic, alas, has no end or edge in sight. But it looks like new challenges may await us, and the degree of danger is simply unknown to us yet.

All in all, we live in interesting times. As the poet Nikolai Glazkov wrote:

“I gaze at the world from under the table,

The twentieth century — the century of the extraordinary.

A century of interest to the historian,

For the same reason it is sorrowful for anyone living in it!”

If we replace the twentieth century with the twenty-first one, and a historian, for example, with a political scientist (historians would also suit, but they may not have been born yet), then the words penned by Glazkov eighty years ago are absolutely applicable to our time.

Indeed, any significant changes lead primarily to upheavals in the lives of ordinary people. Of course, the elites also suffer: not only soldiers die in wars, while coups and revolutions often fail to take mercy on the leaders. But still, the suffering predominantly falls on the so-called “masses”. However, the majority of the population also has colossal power: in general, practically nothing can be done without their consent, even in the most severe regimes. Incidentally, the rapid fall of the old regime in Kabul is a vivid illustration of the will of ordinary people: the Taliban, soldiers of the regular army of Afghanistan, the country’s population, policemen and many, many others. Often, at critical moments, a kind of spontaneous referendum takes place, in which people vote with their actions. In Russia, this, by the way, has happened more than once (and I wish it would never happen again).

In general, it should be noted that major exacerbations (the Covid pandemic certainly counts), force all people to make a kind of existential, essential choice: to vaccinate or not to vaccinate, to support the occasionally harsh measures of the authorities or not, to agree to a reduction in income and restriction of freedom for the safety of others or not. These and many other “agreements” or “disagreements” in times of crisis actually mean rewriting a kind of “social contract” between the government and society, rethinking the position of the individual, the social groups that the individual belongs to, and of the whole society. Moreover, what’s important is that given the new information and communication environment in which we have been living in recent years, the boundaries of the society in which the personality is determined have expanded to the entire planet.

In the full sense of the term, this expansion has scaled up all the conflicts in which everyone is involved. The right to freedom of movement, the right to control one’s body, the right to unrestricted communication, the right to free business and freedom of trade, and many more rights were limited, to one degree or another. A huge number of people were forced to make a decision — how should we react to this?

Accordingly, the authorities in all countries were forced to organise these restrictions in one way or another, to talk about their inevitability, convince citizens of the ultimate benefits of these measures, to find compromises with society, and to regulate international cooperation: from border crossings to healthcare, and much more. As a result, the authorities came into closer contact with the population.

It has been said many times that Covid itself did not bring anything new. Rather, it turned out to be a catalyst for the processes that had already begun and were underway. Even before Covid, it was clear that a model of globalisation with the United States and the West playing a leading role did not materialise, if only because the United States and the West in general felt that they could not cope with leadership. They switched to an “anti-globalisation” role in their own way, trying not to unite, but to divide the world into “good” and “bad”. Moreover, ironically, they are shifting towards large-scale defence in order to protect themselves from ‘the other’, the developing ‘new world’. So, Covid has hastened and radicalised this process.

Covid further accelerated the influence of public sentiment on world politics. It is precisely because of the radicalisation of ties between society and the authorities that the governments of many countries are forced to emphasise in every possible way the dependence of foreign policy on public opinion. Often, for example, in the USA it  resembles a parody of itself. It turns out that the internal political struggle is much stronger than national interests. The society has become so split, the rage of political opponents so strong, that nothing remains that has anything to do with rational national interests. In essence, this threatens to bring about an indescribable catastrophe: for example, the global destruction of the values of modern humanistic civilisation.

I repeat, this process was not launched by Covid; the pandemic simply neurotised the world society (not only the people of the West), exacerbating the problem. Partly, the point is that in recent years, and for many reasons, a process has taken place whereby more and more people have gained rights, this process can be called the global emancipation of mankind. Like any global process, it has carried enormous risks associated with the very possibility of human survival. Russia, by the way, barely survived this problem a hundred years ago. The seemingly free revolutions of 1917 first led to a brutal civil war, and then it took decades to create a more or less humane society. Another question is, at what stage the process is now.

Something similar, but even more ambitious is happening all over the world. The results of modern processes, judging by the real state of affairs in Western countries, are far from obvious.

Of course, one should not exaggerate the horror of the current problems. It probably happened before, and maybe in the future it will be even worse. But we live here and now, in the current reality, in which we have to determine things ourselves and make decisions regarding the growth of conflicts around the world, very serious climatic problems, and (to say the very least) mutual, global misunderstanding. All this in happening despite a level of free communications which is historically unprecedented.

Of course, all human progress seems to be aimed at making our lives easier, so that everyone could live their not-so-long lives happily, doing good things for themselves and others. Of course, we managed to achieve certain successes in this area. But how stable are they? What are the most important, most dangerous challenges for all of us on this globe?

So, there are a lot of questions, maybe at least some of them will get answers at the upcoming Annual meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club, titled “Global Shake-Up in the 21st Century: The Individual, Values, and the State”, which will take place on October 18-21 in Sochi.