The Renaissance mindset and golbalization’s future

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Rapid change has rendered invalid many of our expectations, so that today ’s reality often contradicts them. Their uselessness is evidenced by the big shocks that few foresaw: Brexit, the global financial crisis, the rise of ISIS or the collapse of oil and other commodity prices. This discomforting state of affairs is reflected in the utter failure of political pundits worldwide to predict the election of the reality TV demagogue Donald Trump as a United States President. Like the election of Donald Trump, few foresaw the rise of the far-left Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the British Labour Party, or of “The Punisher,” Rodrigo Duterte, as president of the Philippines.
As a result, uncertainty reigns supreme, so much so that the boardrooms of many Fortune 500 companies have decided to punt. Ian Goldin, Director of the Oxford Martin School and Professor of globalization and development at the University of Oxford stated that instead of investing, which they are supposed to do in order to grow their businesses, they are collectively holding onto a record wad of cash. They simply lack the confidence to make bold investments.
Ian Goldin noted that whether as citizens, policy makers or business leaders, going about our life in a tumultuous time without a reliable way to make sense of surprises is downright dangerous. Why? First, because rapid change usually demands rapid responses, and, as the cash accounts of big companies show, when we lose all confidence in our judgments, we hesitate when instead we need to act.
Second, because, as present-day surges of anti-immigrant sentiment in Britain, anti-trade agendas in the United States and ultra-nationalism in India suggest, it’s when ugly surprises leave us grasping for the big picture that we are most likely to adopt the wrong picture for the wrong reasons.
Here, a crucial question worth due attention is that how to deal with uncertainty? Chris Kutarna, a Commonwealth Scholar and a Fellow of the Oxford Martin School stressed that we urgently need a fresh frame of reference. That frame needs to help us cultivate the confidence to advance critical agendas and enable us to step back from surprises when they happen. We need to be able to place those surprises in a trusted context and gain more leverage over their meaning and our response. We can’t prevent surprises. But we should aspire to do a better job of shaping their consequences than we have done in the past few years.
Understanding Machiavelli’s relevance for the world today is indeed important. To that end, almost 500 years ago Niccolo Machiavelli wrote: “Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events…have been, and ever will be, animated by the same passions. The result is that the same problems always exist in every era”.
Chris Kutarna noted that at the time, Machiavelli was schooling the leaders of Italy, who were struggling to navigate a similar time of unrelenting surprise. First, Copernicus upended their God-given notions of heaven and earth. Then, voyages of discovery by Columbus, da Gama and Magellan tore up millennia-old maps of the “known” world, which, as it turned out, hadn’t depicted even half of the whole.
Chris Kutarna further noted that immense riches were generated from trade for some, the happy few, while also intensifying the spreading of conflict, economic collapse and pandemics, the prices that the countless others had to endure. Gutenberg’s printing press flipped knowledge production and exchange from tight scarcity to radical abundance. It also put most scribes out of business and enabled a single disillusioned friar, Martin Luther, to ignite a century of religious wars. New communication technologies allowed individuals to challenge mighty authorities.
According to Chris Kutarna, the present moment is our age of discovery, our Renaissance, akin to Machiavelli’s own in both the crescendo of change taking place across the full range of human endeavor, and in the interdependence, instability and fear that accompany it. Contemporary historians may point out that it is impossible to predict future events by looking backwards. After all, details matter, and usually differ by enough to frustrate time travel. But that’s missing Machiavelli’s point. Learning from history isn’t about divining precise predictions; it’s about regaining perspective. Technologies change, but human nature is more stable.
Machiavelli and his fellow citizens knew this crisis well. Ian Goldin argued that Machiavelli’s city of Florence suffered a shocking popular power-taking when Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498), a mid-level friar from Ferrara, exploded from obscurity in the 1490s to enthrall Florentines who felt left behind economically or culturally with sermons that lay blame upon the misguided policies and moral corruption of their leaders.
He and his zealous supporters, though a minority by far, swept away the Medici establishment and seized control of the city’s councils. From there, Savonarola launched an ugly campaign of public purification. He radicalized laws against sin, prostitution and homosexuality, and highlighted them by an act of intimidation that history still remembers as the Bonfire of the Vanities. Similar, parallel uprisings played out across Western Europe.
Political analysts today are rushing to lay the same analysis upon our contemporary experience. Ian Goldin argued that a Renaissance lens could have brought this risk into focus much sooner. Now, it sharpens the lessons. Most urgent among them is that the very real and dramatic gains humanity as a whole has made over the past 25 years of opening and connecting up, as a species, we have never been healthier, wealthier, nor better-educated than we are today, will be lost if we don’t help those who, so far, have been excluded.
The hollowed-out middle needs to find its collective voice, roll up its sleeves and reshape society’s distribution of unwarranted gains and blameless losses. Or wait for the times to shape it for them. As Chris Kutarna noted, renaissance Florence was famously liberal-minded until a loud demagogue filled in the majority’s silence with rage and bombast.