After the Flat World

 The world was flat. Then, it wasn't.

We - those who benefitted from the flattening - think Donald Trump is an aberration, Brexit is a mistake and Putin is behind all this, stirring things up. We also believe that this would all go away, soon. We wish Trump will be out of office next year and Boris, with his fragile health, will be gone soon thereafter. And everything will be normal again.

We are hoping the world will be flat again.

In summary, we know that there is nothing wrong with our vision of flat world: It was the best thing that could have happened to humanity. That 'sound of business', the global rustle of money, is the coolest thing ever.

But, then, come to think of it,  even within the metaphor, the world was never really flat: Rather, it was like a chain made of little hierarchies everywhere. It was not about everyone having the same opportunity - the equality of conditions, as Michael Sandel would call it - but rather the opposite, little worlds of inequality joined together in a big and complex global chain. 

We fail to see that this beautiful dream is frayed around the edges - with people condemned to starvation, destitution and indignity - and hollow at its core. 

Tom Friedman went to Bangalore to see the Flat World. But if he wanted to see the Flat World in action, he could have equally taken a ride from Dover to London. As he started the journey, he would have caught a glimpse of desperate refugees risking everything to cross the Channel with tiny boats to the most serene, most magnificient United Kingdom. Besieged by the stream of refugees, the British Home Secretary, a woman born in an East African family with Indian heritage, called in the Royal Navy to blockade the boats. 

But there would be no time for ironies if he drove through the hollowed out towns of Kent, 'the garden of England', dotted with former shipbuilding communities. The towns voted for Brexit, not least because every army ever invading England always turned up in Thanet, but because the towns are hollowed out, diseased and depopulated. The only thriving business on the high streets there seem to be the Pawn shops, with the 'three-balls' sign, a Medici legacy, visible everywhere. They have no hope left.

But soon, he would reach London, its opposite: A glistening, confident global metropolis, where the world's rich comes to stay and play. But London is everything at once: If anything, none of its rich and famous seem to be doing anything other than wining and dining, going around in clubs and pubs. The 'three-balls' signs are hidden in plain view, everyone there seem to be engaged in some sort of broking activity: Millions of middlemen, speculators and gamblers, speaking of disruption, futures and options, are trading away everything else - everybody else - in the world.

Now, is this flat world or not? One could argue that it is - if one looks out from the center of London - and it's not at the same - if you are one of those those desperate refugees blocked and sunk by the ships and the waves. In London, everything seems possible, everything seems connected. From London, one could see the possibility - isn't the Home Secretary the daughter of an East African refugee herself - but from the war zones of Dover and ghost towns of Kent, London may seem an unreachable city on the hill. This is one perspective to understand the phenomena of Trump and Brexit: The narrative of a liberal world being broken apart by lunatic deplorables is completely off the mark. Rather, it's a shift of perspective - from that of gamblers inside to the ramblers outside - and suddenly we see red.

So, would there be great reset moving forward? Of what, one may ask: Unless we accept that something has changed, there is nothing to change back to. Are we going to see a world fragmented, between the spheres of America, EU and China, where some would be leveller countries - marked by freedom of people - and others leviathan, marked by strong states? That's a hopeful view, but what - in the absence of surpluses that accrue to the rich countries from the poorer ones - would sustain the levelling? Without being deterministic, shouldn't we deduce - from lessons of recent history - that freedom may be a  function of prosperity? Who would want democracy unless they are sure that they can bribe the masses into compliance? If trade is really fair, is it even worth engaging in? 

Of course, the very fact that these questions are being asked is a good sign; that we don't know the answers shows that we haven't been paying attention. We accepted conference circuit speeches uncritically - and we are still doing so. The dream of the flat world is falling apart now, and that could be a good thing: We can only get to build something when we fully wake up.


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