We spend quite a lot of time in these pages marveling at the extent to which the current political (and geopolitical) landscape is characterized by something that approximates sheer absurdity.
It’s everywhere you look. It’s like something out of a comic book. Or maybe a fusion of a James Bond film and an Austin Powers sequel. There’s real danger but at the same time, the central figures are so laughable that it’s difficult to accept it as reality.
Donald Trump’s administration is a circus. And almost in the literal sense of the word “circus.” He treats critical government appointments (and staffing decisions in general) like a high stakes versions of The Apprentice. He engineers high profile feuds with entertainers, athletes, and other celebrities that serve to distract America from the policy train wreck unfolding behind the scenes. He wears burnt-orange face paint to the U.N. General Assembly. And his attitude towards foreign policy is so cavalier that it would seem irresponsible even if he were playing a video game.
Meanwhile, other global actors have become caricatures of themselves.
In Turkey, Erdogan has descended into something akin to dictatorial madness and sounds increasingly genocidal when it comes to the Kurds both in his own country and in Syria and Iraq.
The Saudis have decided to let women drive, a step in the right direction, but as a reminder, the ideology espoused by the likes of ISIS and al-Qaeda is institutionalized in the monarchy. In short, America’s Sunni allies are supporting the very same Sunni extremist groups that are attacking Western capitals. The hypocrisy there reached peak absurdity earlier this year when Donald Trump, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi all stood around in the dark grasping a giant glowing orb in a gesture of unity to celebrate the opening of the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology in Riyadh. And yes, you read that correctly, they opened a “Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology” in Riyadh or, in other words, they are opening a global center for combating extremist ideology in the global center for promoting extremist ideology.
Just to cement the Saudi stereotype, last week found King Salman confused about what to do when the golden escalator that descends from his plane broke:
Saudi Arabia king's golden escalator stairs got stuck coming out of his airplane into Moscow in Russia yesterday. https://t.co/xGKYtSvEUs
— Anna Massoglia (@annalecta) October 5, 2017
In the UK, Theresa May has become a victim of the Brexit farce – her speech earlier this week, complete as it was with publicity stunts, coughing fits, choking, and letters falling off the wall, was in many ways emblematic of the plight of her people 15 months on from the referendum.
Marine Le Pen’s swastika-shaped shadow still hangs over French politics despite her election loss and her ideological counterpart in the Netherlands is a living, breathing cartoon.
There’s Putin, in Russia, but more amusing are his underlings – the deadpan Sergei Lavrov and the ridiculous Maria Zakharova, who looks like a picture you would see next to a dictionary entry for “stereotypical female Russian villain.”
Even Kim Jong-Un, the poster child for comedic heads of state, has become a caricature of a caricature of a caricature (the Trump spat has made him a more ridiculous version of himself and he was already a more ridiculous version of his father).
Less ridiculous, but still cartoonish in their own way are Macron in France and Trudeau in Canada. Macron, for instance, recently had himself winced down from a helicopter onto a nuclear submarine where he spent four hours underwater to “show his support for the country’s naval fleet.”
Meanwhile, Trudeau takes pictures of himself laughing with pandas and just two weeks ago showed up at a Bloomberg Global Business Forum wearing Chewbacca socks.
Against this backdrop, Angela Merkel appears increasingly isolated as the last remaining bastion of stability, sanity, and/or normalcy in a world gone mad. Indeed, there’s a strong argument to be made that the only reason she ran again for chancellor was because she was afraid that if she didn’t, the entire world might fall apart.
Immanuel Wallerstein recently described the current state of the world as “chaotic uncertainty.” To wit:
Are you confused about what is going on in the world? So am I. So is everyone. This is the underlying and continuing reality of a chaotic world-system.
What we mean by chaos is a situation in which there are constant wild swings in the priorities of all the actors. One day, from the point of view of a given actor, things seem to be going in a way favorable to that actor. The next day the outlook looks very unfavorable.
Furthermore, there seems to be no way in which we can predict what position given actors will take on the next day. We are repeatedly surprised when actors behave in ways that we thought impossible, or at the very least unlikely. But the actors are simply trying to maximize their advantage by changing their stance on an important issue and thereby changing the alliances they will make in order to achieve that advantage.
The world-system has not always been in chaos. Quite the contrary! The modern world-system, like any system, has its rules of operation. These rules enable both outsiders and participants to assess the likely behavior of different actors. We think of this adherence to the rules of behavior as the “normal” operation of the system.
It is only when the system reaches a point in which it cannot return to a (moving) equilibrium that renews its normal operations that it enters into a structural crisis. A central feature of such a structural crisis is chaotic uncertainty.
Fair enough. But it would certainly appear that part and parcel of the chaos is the presence of rampant irrationality and excessive eccentricity.
Allow us to leave you with this instant classic snapshot from Trump’s meeting with Abe earlier this year. How confident do you feel?…