21st March: 5.00pm
Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century
In this conversation with Alan Meban, Professor Helen Thompson discusses the political shocks of the last decade and shows how Covid-19 blew apart fault lines that had been accumulating for decades with the overlapping geopolitical, economic, and political crises faced by Western democratic societies in the 2020s.
The 21st century has brought a powerful tide of geopolitical, economic, and democratic shocks. Their fallout has led central banks to create over $25 trillion of new money, brought about a new age of geopolitical competition, destabilised the Middle East, ruptured the European Union, and exposed old political fault lines in the United States.
In her highly praised new book, Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century, Helen Thompson describes the long history of this present political moment. It recounts three histories – one about geopolitics, one about the world economy, and one about western democracies – and explains how in the years of political disorder prior to the pandemic the disruption in each became one big story. It shows how much of this turbulence originated in problems generated by fossil-fuel energies, and it explains why as the green transition takes place the long-standing predicaments energy invariably shapes will remain in place.
The geopolitical story centres around energy. It begins with the rise of the oil- and capital-rich United States as a geopolitical power during the period when oil began to replace coal as the energy base of military power. It culminates in the American turn-away from China, in a world in which the US is simultaneously a declining military power and a resurgent energy and financial power.
The economic story begins in the 1970s and explains how the rise of the Eurodollar system and the decade’s energy crises remade the monetary world. It also explains how the Federal Reserve and China’s response to the 2007-8 crash – which prevented economic collapse – let loose a succession of economic and energy problems that cannot now be resolved.
Lastly, there is the political story, which situates the present instability in the need for democracies to maintain ‘losers’ consent’, and to be repaired when they become unbalanced. It also shows why such repair is so difficult under present geopolitical and economic conditions.
Together, these three stories combine into one, showing how much of this turbulence originated in problems generated by fossil-fuel energies. Ultimately, Disorder explains why, as the green transition takes place, the long-standing predicaments that energy invariably shapes will continue.
Helen Thompson is Professor of Political Economy at Cambridge University. She is the author of Oil and the Western Economic Crisis (2017), China and the Mortgaging of America (2010), and Might, Right, Prosperity and Consent: Representative Democracy and the International Economy (2008). Since 2015, Helen has been a regular panellist on the podcast Talking Politics. She is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and has written articles for the London Review of Books, the New York Times and the Financial Times.
Alan Meban is leading commentator who blogs on politics, culture and technology issues.
In association with Oxford University Press.