I’ve witnessed history being made four times in my half-century of life: the end of the Cold War, 9-11, the Financial Crisis of 2007-08, and now the Coronavirus pandemic. Those events—spaced roughly by 10 years—play outsized roles in public dialogue and analysis. They are omnipresent in people’s imaginations as they wrestle with current affairs. However, this is just a point of view of formed in 2020 and, even more suspect, the opinion of a Flyover Bourgeois GenX Man writing a post in a website. 100 years from now there is good chance those four historical events may be all but forgotten.
But here we are. As a Flyover Bourgeois GenX Man, I worry I conflate the good times of my youth with the decade they took place in: the ’90’s. This was a happier time in my life, one I daydream about returning to. My first experience with history was the end of the Cold War, which took place over three years starting with the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 to the end of the USSR in 1991-92. The sudden and unexpected cessation of the Cold War brought about Western and, especially, US triumphalism. The resulting neoliberal order coincided with remarkable economic expansion, especially in the developing world, as the global economy expanded and escaped the constraints of the Cold War. Meanwhile, innovations in information technology and communications were primarily brought about by private enterprise and markets, setting the stage for further economic transformation of developed economies. Arguably, the cultural impact of these forces infused Westerners with materialism, fondness for markets, and greater belief in the benefits of individual liberty. As people watched the Berlin Wall being destroyed, their Western values were reified. The economic expansion of the ’90’s briefly opened a window into an individualistic future. There was a triumph of liberalism, and a movement toward a center-right governing consensus.
The overreaction to 9-11 saw the state return to its starring role in everyone’s lives. US militarism returned to Cold War levels, peeking under President Obama and still not really subsiding as drones and special forces have replaced military occupations (euphemistically referred to as “state building”).
Massive policy and administrative failures during the Bush presidency culminated in the Financial Crisis of 2007-08 and a great doubling-down on the same reckless Federal Reserve easy money policies alongside US fiscal suicide-by-debt—policies mirrored in other Western industrialized states like the countries of the European Union and Japan. While the faux US expansions of the “oughts” and the “teens” never felt as optimistic as the ’90’s, there was continued real expansion in the global economy, increasing (but flattening) productivity gains from technology, and further financialization of developed economies.
Flyover Bourgeois GenX Man is many things, but he’s not unrealistic. I may have hoped for a world like the one in Snow Crash, but the ’90’s germinated the seeds of that would grow to cause societal fault lines, institutional degradation, and nationalistic competition. The neoliberal order was built upon state capitalism with trade deals and cronyism billed as free market policies, only furthering state entanglement in the economy. Political polarization played out with the ideologues hijacking the major US parties, while nationalism and nativism developed in Europe in response to loose immigration policies. While income inequality is largely an overstated issue, deindustrialization brought about a societal epidemic of desperation—lack of purpose, hedonism, extreme politics. Future innovations like automation and A.I. strongly suggest we may have too many people, which underscores the need for more individual liberty to steepen the upward curve of innovation to spur growth. Finally, the emergence of China, India, and Iran as assertive, powerful states questioning the US-centric neoliberal order has opened the door to new forms of insane Cold War-like thinking. The overreaction to Russia by the foreign policy establishment and so-called “intelligence community” strongly suggests looking for a new enemy to replace “radical Islamic terrorism.”
With the Coronavirus outbreak, what could the Flyover Bourgeois GenX Man think of these last four months?
It’s very depressing.
- For starters, state the obvious: the dream of the ’90’s appears dead. In the US, the state seems to be picking-up where the New Deal and the Great Society left off. In retrospect, the Tea Party’s reaction to President Obama’s reign seems laughable. You ain’t seen nothin’ yet! President Trump, the statist one party Congress, and the Federal Reserve have continued to merge the public with the private.
- In the face of a huge economic collapse, stock markets have miraculously recovered, which should tell everyone the state’s policies drive market values more than outmoded concepts like earnings per share, sales growth, intellectual property, and brandname.
- In addition, states largely stopped their economies with little resistance, which was not as outrageous to me because, quite frankly, I hate my “day job” and suspect many others feel the same way. That’s not to say shut down was a wise policy choice. The state circumvented private action, innovation, or spontaneous order that could have fought the epidemic, favoring ham-fisted and top-down policies. Wrecking the economy, destroying businesses, and causing individual financial distress was supposedly mitigated by government intervention, but we may see the horror that comes with a recession despite the state further degrading fiat currencies and increasing indebtedness.
- We should be concerned that the goal of the policy response seems to be a moving target. Many commenters have pointed out that the state policy of “flattening the curve” seems to have transmuted itself to “virus elimination” in a few short months.
Chicago Fog sprung from ’90s’ dreams of a Flyover Bourgeois GenX Man. There was naïveté: it felt important to add a voice for liberty and individualism, defying and escaping state rule, superstition, and tribalism. As time has gone by, popular political culture has come to disfavor the point of view of a Flyover Bourgeois GenX Man—not only for his ideas, but for his so-called “identity” (as if I needed anything else to remind me about my insignificance, my smallness). It’s a trick of the mind when we conduct our days as if we are starring in our own movie. It only takes a little reflection to dispel that illusion. Of course, this doesn’t exactly square with the egomaniacal act of writing posts in a website. As time has passed I’ve come to the belief that the contribution I can make isn’t the career I built for my “day job” nor in making a living as a man of words and ideas. I think this website merely creates primary historical records for the future–records made in my own flawed and opinionated way, expressed as polemics, essays, historical analyses, and fiction.