A Historical Moment – The Future is Altered
[A personal column, based on the tag line above: A Future Look at Today. Hopefully you can take the time to watch and listen to the songs]
A futurist has to be an historian to have any clarity about the future. A futurist has to be in the moment because that is when the future is born.
We are in a moment of change and redirection.
In the decade of the 2020s there is no going back, there is only advancing forward… differently.
Legacy Thinking = Magical Thinking
One of the four overarching dynamics of the 2020s, as I have written here and in my new book, is the reinvention of Democracy and Capitalism. We are seeing the beginnings of that now.
In early April conversations were about how big an historical event COVID-19 truly is. Upon reflection, I realized that it is the single biggest transformative event of my life. In second place is the year 1968.
Viewing the news coverage over the last two weeks, since the murder of George Floyd, it dawned on me that what I was watching was, in some ways, a replay of 1968. I had a Boomer 60s flashback on May 30 when coverage of the demonstrations was interrupted by a space launch; the exhilarating manned launch by Space X and NASA. That hadn’t happened since the 1960s.
Echoes of 1968 came up when the President named himself the “Law and Order President”. This reiterated the line that Nixon used to get elected in 1968. And it demonstrates a total lack of understanding of history. Nixon was the challenger and won due in part to the riots after Dr. King was assassinated… and the riots in Chicago during the Democratic convention while Johnson was President. Duh! You can’t run on law and order when you are the incumbent.
This leads back to the necessity for a futurist to have a clear view of history. The references of 1968 in the media are largely related to the riots and demonstrations. Those are not the history altering events of 1968. The two critical events that altered history occurred in a two-month period from early April through early June. Dr. King was assassinated on April 4th, and Bobby Kennedy was assassinated on June 6th.
If Dr. King had not been assassinated, there would have been no riots in April. If Bobby Kennedy had not been assassinated, there would have been no riots in Chicago at the convention. If Kennedy had been alive, he would have won the Democratic presidential nomination and most likely the presidency. We would have had Kennedy instead of Nixon as President. The civil rights movement would have had an ally in the White House. The trajectory of U.S. history since 1968 would have been entirely different had these two men not been murdered.
Back to the present moment…
We have entered the first depression of the 21st century. We have the greatest number people out of work in our history. We are looking at the largest decrease in GDP since the Great Depression. It is estimated that COVID-19 will be the third greatest cause of death in the US this year after heart disease and cancer.
We are experiencing an unprecedented breadth and length of peaceful demonstrations in the U.S. There have been demonstrations in over 100 cities and towns across the country. For two weeks straight! And the demonstrations aren’t just in the U.S. People are demonstrating in every major city in Australia, all across Europe, the Middle East, India, Japan, Korea and elsewhere. The sun never sets on the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Both a total surprise and an indication that something big is afoot globally. I see this as a defining moment for 2020 and its effect on the future.
What does the world see when it looks at America now? It sees a White House transformed into a bunker protected by police and military. A bunker to protect a President from the citizens that he has attacked. It sees America revealing its wounds, scars and injustices. It sees that America, a longtime leader of freedom and democracy, struggling to maintain that identity. The world knows that America is at a critical juncture.
Back to the reinvention of Capitalism and Democracy – I see it as catalyzed by COVID-19 and the demonstrations triggered by the murder of George Floyd. It is clear that the demonstrations will continue. In the U.S. alone there are 40 million unemployed people with time on their hands. That is one reason that we have had two straight weeks of demonstrations, and can expect them to continue. In addition, while the majority of demonstrators are wearing masks, their close proximity to each other will add to the number of COVID-19 cases in the weeks and months ahead.
Back to the comparison with 1968. That year the GDP of the U.S. grew almost 5%. In 2020 my forecast is a 10% contraction in GDP compared to 2019. In 1968 the unemployment rate was 3.4%, a number economists refer to as full employment. In 2020, depending on how one measures, the unemployment rate now and for the rest of the year will be between 15% and 35%. What this clearly shows is that 2020 will be far more influential in shaping the future than was 1968. The reason is simple. In 1968 i was about riots, demonstrations and assassinations, but the economy was healthy and not in a depression and we have now entered one. Tens of millions out of work and able to demonstrate and ever more emerging reality of the inequality that hard economic times reveals.
As a participant in civil rights and anti-war demonstrations in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I remember that most of them occurred on weekends, usually in just a few cities, or were a single event like the March on the Pentagon in October 1967. These daily, country-wide, media-covered demonstrations that are unique, certainly in my lifetime. Until recently with social media and ubiquity of cell phones there was no instantaneous coverage viral to the world.
One need only look at the media coverage to see that the Millennial Generation is disproportionately represented. This is the generation, along with the Digital Natives, that has grown up with abundant evidence that institutions cannot be trusted. They see institutional failure across the board and that is difficult to refute.
24-hour television coverage, including non-stop smart phone videos of the demonstrations, protests, looting and police brutality is overwhelming. This makes me think of a song by Gil Scott Heron that has become a global meme: “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”. He meant that when it happens it will be live. However, in this new media environment what is happening IS being televised… captured as it happens and disseminated over broadcast, print and social media.
We see millions of demonstrators around the world who are of all ages, ethnicities and races. Many of the signs say, “Black Lives Matter”. I have also seen a number of signs that quote the Public Enemy song “Fight the Power”.
There will not be a violent revolution unless the military industrial complex presses its metaphorical knee on the neck of Americans. It’s not likely to happen since the U.S. military leadership, in an occurrence unique in my lifetime, has spoken out in opposition to the use of force by active military against peaceful demonstrators. I cannot recall a prior time when the most powerful voices in the military have condemned the sitting president for having authorized such force. I watched live as peaceful protestors were driven away by the military using force and was both struck dumb and outraged at what I was witnessing. Then even more so when the President and Attorney General lied about it. Politicians have always lied, but in this age of cell phone ubiquity combined with social media, their lies will be quickly documented as such.
2020 is the first year of the most disruptive decade in history. It has started that way and it will continue. Not necessarily at this overwhelming level, but it will continue. There is no going back in the 2020s, only forward… differently.
How far forward will be up to us. John Lennon’s “Imagine” is worth another listen as it might show us the way.