Extreme Events are the New Normal…and Not Just in the Weather

Photograph Source: Sakeeb Sabakka – CC BY 2.0

September 21 is the day that dictator Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in the Philippines. For 49 years, it had been a day of mourning for Filipinos. This year, the fiftieth anniversary of martial law took place under the regime of his son, Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., who was elected president by a landslide last May.

Many are asking if this is history’s idea of a joke. Unfortunately, it’s not. The son of the dictator addressed the UN General Assembly on September 20. His presence there should serve as a reminder to the world that the dark past is not really past and is often just waiting for the right circumstances to strike back.

So, extreme events are taking place not only in the physical climate. They take place as well in the political climate. January 6, 2021, the storming of the Capitol in the United States, was another such event. The return of the Marcoses, Trump’s incitement to rebellion, Narendra Modi’s ethnonationalist regime in India, Jair Bolsonaro’s fascistoid government in Brazil, and just in the last few days, the electoral triumphs of the far right in traditionally Social Democratic Sweden and, horror of horrors, in the birthplace of fascism itself, Italy—all of these are extreme events, and they are, in turn, symptoms of a much larger extreme event:  the deepening crisis of liberal democracy.

Extreme events also mark the economic climate, and the current coincidence of galloping inflation and stagnation is one such event. Another is the emergence of extreme inequality. Another is the breakdown of global supply chains, threatening not just delays and derailments in manufacturing but also food insecurity and hunger, especially in the global South. All these three extreme events—stagflation, extreme inequality, supply-chain breakdown–stem from a bigger extreme event: the unravelling of the triad of financialization, globalization, and neoliberal ideology that have served as the pillars of the global capitalist economy over the last 40 years.

What are the Causes of Extreme Events?

How could all this have come to pass?

With climate change, there is no excuse. The science was there since the late 1980s and 1990s, but corporate power and compliant governments in the North ensured there would be no effective response, despite 26 United Nations Conference of Parties to deal with it over nearly three decades!

When it comes to the crisis of the triad of financialization, globalization, and neoliberalism, the 2008-2009 financial crisis should have served to push the world to embark on a different path, especially since it had been preceded by Japan’s financial crisis in the 1990s and the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997. But despite the drastic loss of confidence in it, neoliberalism continued post-2008 as the default mode of government technocrats who knew of no other way of steering the economy, and proponents of alternatives lacked the stature of a John Maynard Keynes. Governments were finally forced to act during the height of COVID-19, but the measures to protect people’s welfare were half-hearted, inadequate, and sometimes harmful. Where governments of the global North should have acted, like suspending trade-related intellectual property rights when it came to vaccines, they didn’t, choosing instead to protect Big Pharma. Now, fighting inflation has become the mantra to justify a return to discredited neoliberal approaches.

Many have been genuinely surprised at the mortal threats faced by liberal democracy. Until 2014, there had been no full-blown authoritarian populist regime in sight except for Viktor Orban’s government in Hungary. Then Modi in India, Duterte in the Philippines, Trump in the United States, and Bolsonaro in Brazil followed in quick succession. As it turned out, elites, including the intellectual elite, had been rendered complacent, believing that the affirmation of liberal democracy by the collapse of centralized socialist regimes of Europe and the Soviet Union in the early 1990s represented the end of history, as political analyst Francis Fukuyama famously put it.

As it turned out, anti-liberal democratic impulses had been percolating, stirred by the failure of liberal democracy to deliver on its promises of radically reducing inequality and poverty in global South countries like the Philippines, Brazil, and India, abetted in the case of India by unresolved ethnic and religious conflicts that had been barely submerged by an egalitarian secular state ideology.

In the global North, anti-liberal democratic feelings were stoked by immigration and the gains of the movements for racial justice and women’s rights. In the United States and Europe, for many middle- and working-class men, the 2008 financial and economic collapse was the tipping point. Already feeling psychologically threatened with the loss of white-skin and male privilege by the gains of the movements for racial and gender justice, their descent into economic insecurity was the final step in their rightward radicalization. As Paul Mason points out in his must-read How to Stop Fascism, having exchanged their class identity for that of consumers in the market, their loss of even the latter owing to the 2008-2009 crisis left them vulnerable to seduction by ersatz solidarities and beliefs being spread on the Internet, foremost of which was White Supremacy.

White Supremacy is the cornerstone of the anti-liberal democratic movement sweeping the United States, and this should come as no surprise since the original sin of the founding of that country was the slavery of African Americans and the genocide of Native Americans. What Trump did was simply to make legitimate if not respectable a deeply held anti-democratic core belief transmitted generationally and communally that could previously be expressed brazenly only in secretive Internet chat rooms. The angry buzz in chat rooms these days is the “Great Replacement Theory,” wherein whites are said to be the victims of an ongoing conspiracy hatched by blacks, feminists, LGBTQIA’s, migrants, and Democrats to make them a minority and eventually destroy them in a race war.

The big problem for all of us is when the climate, economic, and political and ideological crises intersect, which they are doing right now, for they feed into each other, like moist humid air and warm ocean water do in the formation of a hurricane, and create a combined power that can smash everything in its path. That is what we face today, the genesis of a global social hurricane.

There are, to be sure, counter-trends. In Latin America today, we have progressive or left-leaning governments in Chile, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela, Cuba, and Mexico, and Lula is about to make a comeback in Brazil. This trend is significant, but so far it is limited to Latin America. Moreover, the right and its ideological influence continue to be powerful in that part of the world, as shown by the recent overwhelming rejection of a progressive new constitution in Chile.

The Battle for Global Hegemony

Then there is the challenge to classic neoliberalism and western hegemony posed by China.  China has become the center of global capital accumulation or, in the popular image, the “locomotive of the world economy,” accounting for 28 percent of all growth worldwide in the five years from 2013 to 2018, more than twice the share of the United States. Though China has in the past tried not to project itself as an alternative path of development to the United States, it is now cautiously doing so, to counter the increasingly shrill U.S. attacks on it. Increasingly, many countries in the global South are identifying with China and hooking up to its global projects like the Belt and Road Initiative. Its political capitalist system, to use the term of economist Branko Milanovic, continues to elicit questions and doubts, but increasingly many are buying into the idea that restriction of political rights might be the price to pay for development.

The Chinese model, indeed, has a number of problems, not least it’s being a variant of capitalism, with its inexorable thirst for profit and its unstoppable draw on resources. Overall, however, at this point in time, China’s presence is positive as a counterpoint to U.S. hegemony. The U.S.-China rivalry provides the space for the global South to gain more autonomy vis-à-vis the two superpowers. But it is also here that the problem lies, for as the United States falls behind in economic terms, the more Washington will be tempted to contain China by drawing on its resources in that area where it enjoys absolute superiority: the military dimension. That U.S. provocation is not to be underestimated is underlined by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, which was calculated to emphasize China’s inability to counter U.S. power right on its doorstep.

The dangers of military escalation with a global impact are also evident in the Russia-Ukraine War. Most countries in the global South have condemned Russia’s invasion, but they have refused to be drawn into the western alliance against Putin, with many looking at the Russian invasion as having been provoked by the West’s effort to get Ukraine into NATO. Nevertheless, most have an interest in a negotiated settlement since their food security is being affected by the precipitous, war-induced drop in the export of Ukrainian and Russian grain to them.

In other words, the war is an extreme event not just for Europe but for the whole world. And it could become more of an extreme event if Russia were to resort to tactical nuclear weapons to make up for its big losses in the recent Ukrainian offensive. Were this to develop, the U.S. and NATO’s involvement in the war in support of Ukraine would most likely also escalate, and one cannot preclude the possibility that this would be to the nuclear level.

In sum, we are now living at a time when extreme events have become the new normal in the areas of climate, politics, economics, and geopolitics. The intersecting of these trends might mean that the new normal will not be a plateau but a downward spiral propelled by more and even worse extreme events: in other words, an accelerating fall from the precipice.

Ideological Competition and the War of Maneuver

More than ever, we are confronted with the urgency of having an alternative, a comprehensive progressive alternative that responds to the intersecting extreme crises. The question is, can progressives and their allies mobilize across crises and across borders to come up and promote such an alternative to the precipice? Proverbs 29 had it right: “Without vision, the people perish.” And we must have a vision of a truly democratic future that not only makes sense in rational terms but sweeps people off their feet in these extreme times, for what we are up against are paranoid paradigms that do not appeal to reason or reality but seek to mobilize subliminal fears, like the Great Replacement Theory or the “Love Jihad” allegedly directed at Hindu women by Muslims in order to demographically displace Hindus in India.

Related to this matter of ideological competition is the question of political combat in these extreme times. In such periods, politics becomes very fluid. It becomes, to use Gramsci’s terms, a war of maneuver. But it seems to be the right that has absorbed this lesson, and whether on the Internet, on the street, or in institutional politics, they appear to be far ahead of the left. The response of progressives and liberals, in contrast, still appears to be largely in the confines of the old liberal democracy, relying on institutions that have worked in the past but may be inadequate for a war of maneuver under extreme conditions.

Are we ready to move beyond the politics of the old normal, as we engage in combat with the far right on the net, on the street, in institutional politics? This is, to borrow the title of Eric Hobsbawm’s classic work, an “age of extremes,” and unless we release ourselves from the politics of the old normal and engage in the war of maneuver demanded by the new normal, we will lose.


Walden Bello, a columnist for Foreign Policy in Focus,  is the author or co-author of 19 books, the latest of which are Capitalism’s Last Stand? (London: Zed, 2013) and State of Fragmentation: the Philippines in Transition (Quezon City: Focus on the Global South and FES, 2014).