A haunting refrain echoes around the globe. The world, many emphatically say, has gone to pot what with Trump, Brexit, terrorism, ISIS, the march of the far right, fake news, alternative facts and more.
This miserablist take on modern times has a familiar refrain in Britain. It states that the country has gone in entirely the wrong direction these last 30 to 40 years. 'Margaret Thatcher/poll tax/Tony Blair/Iraq war' has become a spellbinding, intoxicating description of recent British history for many.
These appear dark times. There are numerous threats and challenges. When the British public were asked in 2015 if the world was getting better or worse, 71% answered worse, a mere 5% better, with 18% saying it hasn't changed. Similar findings can be found in the US and most Western countries. Then there is the Trump phenomenon that isn't going well.
However, it isn’t clear how much of a political black swan he is, compared to a potential harbinger of a dystopian future. But even in the week after the ascendancy of Trump to the US presidency, everything isn't falling apart whether globally or in the UK.
Take the big picture of the last 40 years: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of Soviet tyranny, the re-unification of Europe, the end of apartheid, the collapse of authoritarian and dictatorial regimes across Latin America, and the spread of democracy across the world. Across numerous indicators the human race is improving the lot of billions of people. Absolute global poverty crashed from 53% of the world’s population in 1981 to 17% in 2011. Child global labour has fallen by more than half. Infant mortality rates have massively declined. Access to, and the number of years in, education has risen – particularly for young women, and global literacy is at an all-time high.
In the UK the last 20 years have witnessed the setting up of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, along with the breakthrough of the Northern Irish peace process (whatever its current short-term difficulties). The national minimum wage has been established and even been maintained by a Tory government, most forms of crime are falling (if sadly, not incarceration), and lesbian and gay equality has been recognised in law.
Take Scotland’s long view. At the beginning of the last century, 1900-02, life expectancy for men was 45.9 years and for women 49; it rose to 64.1 and 67.8 respectively in 1948-50 when the NHS was established. This figure has now risen to 77.1 for men and 81.1 for women born in 2014. Behind these overall figures are some shocking health inequality figures, while Scotland's overall figures still lag behind the rest of the UK and best of Europe. But this is a story of transformation and liberation: and one predicted to continue into the foreseeable future.
Teenage pregnancies rose in the 1980s and hit a high of 77.8 per 1,000 females aged 16-19 in 1991, before declining to 68.2 in 1995, and have continued to fall. Dundee, once infamous as the teenage pregnancy capital of Scotland, is now known for more positive achievements.
Take the quality of housing most Scots live in. A 1935 survey of Glasgow dwellings found that 31% of the city’s homes were seriously overcrowded. Behind that figure lay appalling densities of population in poor parts of the city such as the Gorbals and Govanhill, shocking standards of housing, and lack of basic amenities such as inside toilets. There are many problems of housing and still pockets of slum private landlord housing in places such as Govanhill to this day, but overall, the experience of the Scottish home has been changed into something recognisably better for the vast majority of the population.
This is a forgotten Scotland of our past which is barely now known about or recognised, but instead buried deep inside our collective psyches. The historian T C Smout in 'A Century of the Scottish People' – published in 1986 – asked about this lost world: Who knows now what it was like to be fed only on three meals of potatoes a day? Or to experience as a child the rigours of the Scottish Sabbath, where the highlight was a visit to the cemetery?
Why given the above is there an overbearing aura of pessimism and bleakness around much of modern life? For one, much of this is about how the West has become disorientated and unsure of its place in the world. There is a widespread unsettling feeling across much of the West, found in elites, institutions and public opinion, that the way in which the West has understood and dominated the world is coming to an end. The decline of Europe economically is cited, globalisation and interdependence, and the rise of China and the Far East. The world feels more messy and disordered. This isn't only about the rise of Islamic terrorism, climate change and the emergence of extreme weather, but the way that authority, expertise and government are now routinely challenged or, worse, have scorn poured upon them. The Cold War world of the US and the West versus the Soviet Union was a bipolar, ordered one of fear. Now we inhabit a world of a unipolar declining imperium: the US, and anxiety and doubt about what comes next.
There is an evident nostalgia in Britain and across large parts of the West for the world before Thatcher and Reagan. This is anchored in the belief that the world was getting fairer and better until the early 1980s, and that the future could and was being collectively shaped by enlightened forces.
This connects to the left-wing palpable feeling of loss and displacement. Once left-wingers not only felt they were shaping much of the world, but felt that they could understand and analyse the forces of economic and social change, and how to marshal them to widen opportunities and aid greater equality. No longer does the left anywhere in the developed world have such a belief in its own interpretation of the world.
In recent times, one superficial explanation for why things feel so bad has been the role of the mainstream media, added to, in other accounts, by the rise of social media. They have supposedly aided a world where 'bad news' is prioritised, and so much is conjecture and noise rather than analysis. There are concerns about news, but they tap much deeper sensitivities about how we understand progress and economic and social advancement. Max Roser, a social scientist at Oxford University, said:
Things that happen in an instant are mostly bad. It's this earthquake or that horrible murder. You’re never going to have an article on the BBC or CNN that begins by saying: 'There’s no famine in south London today' or: 'Child mortality again decreased by 0.0005% in Botswana'.
This predicament isn’t just about the failure of the media or the perils of 24/7 broadcast news, but the complexities of modern life and decline of public communicators from politics to science, along with the fragmentation of society, public opinion, and even what passes for consensus on any given society.
I am not downplaying the many problems in the world or undoubted injustices such as the power of the 1% or the well-known fact that eight men now own as much of the earth’s wealth as half the planet. Instead, only emphasising the negative and the downside paints a partial and distorting story. It ignores all the gains that are continuing to be made, portrays those making this case as doomsayers, and has over the last couple of decades given right-wing free marketeers a free pass claiming the moral high ground of hope and positivity which used to be the left’s.
Often pieces such as this conclude with a rallying call for a new kind of politics and left politics, but the world and the predicament described demands something much bolder than that. Namely, as we stand on the foothills of the fourth technological revolution and the onset of AI, driverless cars and drones, it necessitates a fundamental rethinking of what it means to be human.
Silicon Glen capitalist geeks are as we speak engaging in endless innovation to first-world problems but not addressing amidst all our wealth and achievements how to spread the progress we have undoubtedly made and how to underpin as basic universals the right to education, health, clean water and sanitation. These aren't just problems in the developing world, but in parts of the West, with millions in the USA not having access to clean water and sanitation.
The psychologist Steven Pinker believes humans are hardwired to prioritise bad news as an evolutionary survival technique, but also that we have a built-in tendency to engage in nostalgia. What we can see in today’s information overload society is that one way to make sense of everything is to believe it was somehow better in a more ordered past: whether the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s (and according to University of Warwick research this week, 1957 was the happiest year), but often related to when the individual grew up and experienced their childhood.
Today we even have 'retromania', as Steven Jefferies calls it, for eras and fads which just seemed last week. Hence, we already have a fully-fledged nostalgia fest underway for the 1990s in the UK, led by reminiscing about the Britpop music and art scene, and which will be given impetus by the coming 20th anniversary of Tony Blair’s New Labour winning power. Revisiting 'Cool Britannia' will be for some a suitable tonic to the depressive day-to-day reality of Brexit. It maybe isn't coincidental that Danny Boyle's 'T2Trainspotting' has appeared at this point, but whereas the original was not just funny but shocking and subversive, the sequel cannot aspire to these qualities, no matter how good it is.
Some nostalgia is good for us and goes with the territory of being human. As is some dose of miserablism. But we also have to recognise the advances that the human race has made and is continuing to make, and dedicate ourselves to a collective future in which progress, knowledge and technology are about all of us, not just the most pampered parts of the West. And while we should rightly worry about Trump, that doesn’t mean we should retreat into our own comfort zones. The times demand a much more nuanced and engaged response.
Gerry Hassan is author of 'Scotland the Bold: How Our Nation Changed and Why There is No Way Back' (Freight Books)