Preventing disorder: hard work in the 21st century

FEPS YAN European Progressive Geopolitics, Vice President PES-Rainbow Rose
07/07/2023

Helen Thompson: Disorder – Hard Times in the 21st Century

Oxford University Press, 2022

I have always had an appreciation for a good citation from a historical text, literature or poetry at the start of a speech or new book. Fortunately, Helen Thompson knows how to pick a few lines well. “We see, the Laws of other Common-weals to alter with occasions, and even those that pretended their originall from some Divinity, to have vanished without trace or memory”, a warning by Thomas Browne (1605-1682), is also the message Thompson produces. The world changes, and problems you refuse to deal with will deal with you. 

Thompson is a professor of political economy at Cambridge University. Writing not only academically, but also as a columnist for a wider readership about the eurozone and Brexit, she has made her mark on thinking about questions of instability. To put it briefly, she analyses political short-sightedness as being due to the failure of politicians to do their necessary homework, and as being something that leads, again and again, to opportunities being missed to limit the planting of seeds of future disorder.

Her important theme has now found its way into her well-received book Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century – a dense historical analysis, which aims to be extensive, but which can also get lost in detail. Thompson’s book appeals to readers who are primarily interested in energy as a geopolitical disruptor and it gives them a substantiated vision of how this will shape the near future. On this topic, Thompson delivers thoroughly. 

She starts her introduction with a list of disruptive events in the years 2019 and 2020 – Brexit, Trump’s behaviour and Europe’s de-escalating dealings with him, oil prices and the pandemic crisis, which “also acted as a window on the decade of disruption that preceded it”. Indeed, according to Carnegie-Europe director Rosa Balfour, the preceding decade was one in which Europe just “muddled through” instead of addressing its underlying crises. Thompson chooses an in-depth analysis before even mentioning such a judgment, but for this decade both Thompson and Balfour point to a trinity of wobbly security politics, divergent financial choices and their connection to a poor quality of democracy. Furthermore, Thompson points out that one thing has received too little attention in explaining the many disruptions in the 2010s: energy. Her ‘energy lens’ shows us the widely encompassing influence of our dependency on oil, gas or other resources from which the need for the current energy transition arises. At the end of the book, this leads to an almost existential turn on how we handle the use of energy itself.

Thompson reiterates that economic development equals the use of more energy. The choices of the types of energy we use indicate whether the world in which we live and on which we depend will be destroyed or not – or, phrased differently, whether the current civilisations will continue to exist in the future, or if they will be depleted of their military sustenance and their possibilities to carry out the energy transition in the first place. The paradox lies in the fact that oil is also necessary for the production of plastics, which are key to manufacturing solar panels and high-capacity batteries, which in turn are needed for the ecological transition. 

Thompson’s prime focus on resources, namely on oil and rare earths needed for renewable techniques, gives the impression that she might adopt a rather conservative stance in the geopolitical discourse. The starting point of America’s use mainly of force to protect its energy interests is considered to be the 1970s and the collapse of the Bretton Woods system. And for me, the connection between energy use and economic development cannot be stressed enough. As is now well known, climate change is the reason for scarcity wars (the often so-called ‘new wars’, mainly since the 1990s) and, subsequently, for the increase in internally displaced persons, refugees and migrants.

Economically, low-income countries have made it clear at several of the international COPs climate conferences that they need energy to reach the point of development which these formerly colonised countries evidently deserve. Gaining an equal place at trade – and other – negotiation tables is what they want and indeed should have. Progressives are therefore searching for a transformative foreign policy to rebalance these power relations. Thompson gives a warning as well as some substantiation for their wish, underlining that establishing and maintaining (a new) political order produces the seeds of future disorder. Although she gives no clear solutions in the book, on her Inside Politics podcast she mentions the possibility of an “economy of politics of sacrifice instead of politics of chasing economic growth all the time”, which sounds largely like a concise definition of degrowth. In her book Thompson does, however, gives an in-depth description of diplomatic history around the enlargement of the EU and NATO in connection with energy routes needed for pipelines. Unsurprisingly, her history of the Russia-Ukraine dynamics provides important background information about the current war.

Thompson’s argument on economics is mainly a history around the complexities of currencies, which left me puzzled and wondering if all her arguments would actually hold water. She gives a great deal of room to Trump and Brexit, and she views the role of Christine Lagarde at the helm of the European Central Bank negatively. Despite her overtly Anglo-Saxon views, Thompson’s Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century is an impressive book that is packed full of information. It is essential reading for everyday politics-junkies and is certainly to be praised for making sense of a great complexity of facts. 

Thompson further interweaves her argument in a most intelligent way with a third part on democratic politics. She states that it is not the return of nationalism that is threatening open society democracies because, historically, nationalism goes hand in hand with the pursuit of sharing power amongst the members of a given society that consider themselves to be connected in the first place. Still, it is also representative democracy that can have the coercive power not only to have inclusive advantages like those of the welfare state, but, in extreme situations, to be exclusive and even genocidal. 

Thompson’s main point, however, is the importance and breakdown of the principle of losers’ consent because, in a representative democracy, this is necessary for the change of power without people resorting to violence. Citing Polybius, Thompson explains how the decay of a political system is inevitable over the course of time and can bring a regime to an end. The question is whether the regime moves towards democratic or aristocratic excess because both cause a system’s instability and risk eluding losers’ consent. According to Thompson, the 1990s showed a plutocratic tendency that was characterised by unresponsiveness to economic reforms and the weakening of traditional political parties. To create some long-term economic grip, an increase in international treaties moved multiparty democracies towards an alleged but deceptive economic stability. This decline in healthy democratic dynamics has proven a disruptor on both sides of the Atlantic. The EU has painfully had to confront the consequences of its dependency on an outside power for external security. The EU must therefore ask itself if the number of its representatives is too small, how many of its executive authorities are appointed instead of elected, and to what extent one’s chances of being elected depend on having a campaign fully financed? These are questions we know we need to ask, but Thompson poignantly explains their urgency. 

My main question about Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century is whether in the long run, it can resist the test of academic time, or whether it will prove more of a window into early 21st-century thinking about energy geopolitics. The book’s value lies in its main argument for logic, and in its appeal to the inevitability of acknowledging the importance of geopolitical thinking on the energy transition. Indirectly, it calls for people to be more seriously involved with historical facts because the question of energy dependency lies at the basis of our civilisation, and of our very existence. Taking stock of this important realisation, we can be sure that more work like Thompson’s needs to find its way into everyday policymaking. 

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