A World Reversed

The world is racked with convulsions that shatter paradigms and certainties similar only to those that occur at transformational moments such as those produced by the World Wars: all of the traditional referents have been set on their heads. It is virtually as if the world were reversed, as if Goytisolo’s famous poem were truth and not mere satire: “Once upon a time there was a good little wolf that was abused by all the lambs. And there was also a bad prince and a beautiful witch and an honest pirate. All these things existed once when I dreamed of an upside-down world”.

The rich countries are in crisis and the poor ones spawn like mushrooms; the yen is strengthened and the dollar weakened; the Chinese travel to Europe and indignant Spanish youth protest in the streets; engineers in Bangalore keep the French financial system functioning while Japan’s debt doubles its GDP; China has been experiencing growth rates of over 9% for three decades while Japan practically doesn’t grow at all; Arabs rebel and Russians vote.

Something very big must be going on, but probably less so than what appears: the great change is the velocity of the communications that globalization produces, which generates immoderate expectations in all corners of the world. However, as numerous observers have argued in the past months, the sole difference with the Revolutions of 1848 was the speed of the contagion, not the fact itself.

As the saying says, “When it rains, it pours”. Each of these processes and happenings has a logical explanation but that doesn’t mean that the entirety is less impacting. If one reads the daily international newspapers, speculation on the consequences of these convulsions is more than galloping: whether China will be the new superpower or whether the government in Washington is going to collapse; whether democracy will overcome the Middle East or whether India will dominate the world of the future; whether Brazil will be Latin America’s nouveau riche, leaving us no more than the crumbs; whether Europe will become Muslim-majority territory. Anything goes and there’s no lack of reasons for imagining a distinct world. But imagination is no substitute for analysis.

The problems of Europe and the U.S. are very distinct but they converge at a fundamental point, the one that that afflicts Japan the most: their societies are aging and pension and health programs conceived under the paradigm of many young people sustaining relatively few old people is wreaking havoc. Insomuch as the aging population grows (and lives longer) and the proportion  of economically active population decreases, the result can be none other than the collapse of the state of well-being that for many is the epitome of civilization and perhaps the most attractive characteristic of many European nations.

In Europe there is well nigh no questioning on the “model” that they desire to preserve, but that does not diminish the financial challenge that their societies confront. Although the Americans age at a much slower rate, their challenge is similar in concept but the political dynamic is very distinct: there the “Blues” want to be more like the Europeans while the “Reds” prefer a model more akin to one of pioneers and adventurers who depend more on themselves than on governmentalTLC (tender loving care). The latter guarantees more fireworks but also probably, in the end analysis, the pragmatic solutions that typify them. In contrast, the Japanese have been stuck for more than a decade in good measure due to the paralysis of their political system that has impeded them from recognizing the nature of their financial problems and, no less important, because of a population that, content or not, lives so well that it prefers not to carry out changes in the status quo.

Rebellion in Arab streets responds to a combination of factors that reminds me a great deal ofPorfirioDíaz in 1910 and of 1968 student movement. Egypt is paradigmatic from the first simile:an unresolved succession, anageing dictator, incapable of understanding the way his society evolves and how novel forms of communications undermine the sources of political control. It may be that Saudi Arabia illustrates the second simile: success in creating a vigorous middle class brings about the seed of the demand for political participation and access to the decisions that will define their fate. It is no coincidence that it is the young people who are demonstrating.

The outcome of all this remains to be seen: the weaknesses of the “emerging” countries (like China, India, and Brazil) are very large and the strengths of the developed nations much larger. It is not obvious that one can extrapolate from the past few years, just as it isn’t evident that Mexico will remain permanently thwarted. But the implications for Mexicans are evident: we are neither growing like the emerging countries nor are we basking in a political structure capable of advancing reforms that are likely to be achieved. In a certain manner, we behave ourselves like the Japanese (paralyzed but not wanting to change) but without enjoying their quality of life. Thanks to the crises of the past decades, and to some recent reforms, our fiscal situation and pension financing structure are infinitely healthier than those in developed countries. In addition, although it’s hard for many to accept this, the political system, which was never as repressive as in other latitudes, has been opening breathing spaces for decades, and in contrast with the Middle East, the population is very conscious of the dilemmas that the country faces. We Mexicans might not be satisfied with the status quo but there certainly is no broad social base, one disposed to opt for violent or revolutionary solutions.

What is intolerable in Mexico, and what without doubt makes it resemble many other nations with which it isimplicitly compared, is the inaction. The security situation entails costs and indubitably dissuades many potential entrepreneurs and investors but is not sufficient explanation for the pessimism and paralysis that has overcome politicians and the population in general.

Each of us has their hypothesis of why Mexico findsitself in this state of mind but what is clear is that the country is in wait for someone else to resolve its problems. The demand for leadership is evident but also fraught with danger because, however much I am convinced that effective leadership is required, a society cannot be permanently put on hold. Mexico’s circumstances do not justify a street rebellion à la Tunis or Cairo, but it’s pretty much time for, beyond political, party, or ideological fancies, society as a whole to call forthe political class to get itself together and respond.