Do you remember the Millennium? A lot has happened since then, but how much has really changed? The Millennium Dome is still standing, Robbie Williams is still on our TV screens and we’re still obsessed with our mobile phones. Then again, I was young back then and now I’m middle-aged. Those who were middle-aged are now retired. And those who were retired, well, if they’re still with us, I hope they’ve got their affairs in order.
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So, if you could snap your fingers and wish those years away, would you? I’m placing the decision entirely in your hands. There is a catch however. If you do decide to turn back time, you don’t get any younger. Nor do the people in your life. The dearly departed don’t come back, but on the other hand any children you might have aren’t erased. Rather, it’s the state of the world that goes back by two whole decades: politics, society, culture, technology — that sort of thing.
By the way, if you’re currently doing a job that didn’t exist at the Millennium, this is magicked into the nearest equivalent. Thus if you’re an Uber driver then you’d be working for a regular taxi firm instead. If you’re a journalist at a current affairs website, then you’d be working for the dead tree press. You get the idea. That said, I’m not sure what a social media ‘influencer’ would be doing in my scenario — but let’s pretend it’s something useful.
Anyway, for the purposes of this thought experiment, assume that your personal circumstances are more or less as they are now, it’s just the bigger picture that’s been reset to the 1st January, 2000.
With all that understood, do you still snap your fingers? I’d imagine those of an optimistic disposition definitely wouldn’t. Why wish away 20 years of progress? But the pessimists might ask: what progress?
At the start of the 21st century, 9/11 hadn’t happened yet. We hadn’t ploughed into Afghanistan and Iraq. Indeed, George W Bush had yet to be elected President. And even if the hanging chads were still to swing the same way, we shouldn’t forget that Dubya was elected on a foreign policy platform of non-interventionism. In re-setting history, there’s a chance that the hijacking plot would be foiled. Failing that, the response of the US (and UK) governments might not be to invade a country that had nothing to with 9/11.
Obviously, the Middle East featured a pretty horrible set of governments in 2000, but they’re still pretty horrible now. Certain groups — such as the Iraqi Kurds and Shiites — are less downtrodden, but other populations have been devastated by civil war and brutal persecution. Would things have been as bad had the Second Gulf War never happened?
However, I’m getting into the realms of alt-history here and my purpose is much simpler: to ask whether we’re better off now than in 2000.
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For most of the developing world, the answer is definitely yes. Across a range of issues, including poverty, malnutrition, disease and illiteracy, there’s been real progress. It’s not all good, obviously — the blessings of development must be weighed against the curses, for instance traffic deaths and industrial pollution. But, on the whole, humanity (if not the natural world) is better off than it was 20 years ago. This is the strongest argument — indeed, an overwhelming one — for not hitting the reset button.
Okay, but what if the question was limited to the developed world? Just how good has the 21st century been for us in the UK and the West more generally.
Well, it’s certainly not all bad. Cancer survival rates have improved, for instance. Since the mid-1990s there’s been a long-term decline in crime, including violent crime. Indeed, young people in the 21st century are generally more sensible than previous generations at the same age, with lower levels of drug use and teenage pregnancy. The Post-Millennial generation appears to be especially cautious — almost to a fault. However, patterns do vary from country-to-country — with America’s multi-generational opioid epidemic and the rise in ‘deaths-of-despair’ casting a shadow over the last decade.
In many ways, western societies have become more tolerant over the last 20 years, with big shifts in social attitudes on issues like same sex marriage and associated changes in the law. But, again, there’s a countervailing tendency — support for populist political movements is now at a level that would have shocked us 20 years ago.
At the start of the 21st century, liberal internationalism was all but unchallenged. Bill Clinton was still President in the US, Tony Blair Prime Minister in the UK and Gerhard Schröder Chancellor in Germany. The Euro had been launched the previous year, but Greece wasn’t a member yet. In both Russia and China, those in charge were assumed to be reformist and well-disposed to us. The ex-Communist countries of central and eastern Europe were in the process of integrating with the West, and in the world as a whole globalisation was the order of the day. Francis Fukuyama’s End of History, published in 1992, looked like a pretty good guide to the future.
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But there were early signs of trouble: on 31 December 1999, Boris Yeltsin resigned to be replaced by Vladimir Putin. Earlier that year, an obscure political party called UKIP won its first MEPs in the European Parliament, including a chap called Nigel Farage. The US presidential election of 2000 was unusually divisive, culminating in a bitterly polarising battle over the Florida result. 2000 also saw the dot-com crash — an advanced warning of the bubble-prone weakness of 21st-century capitalism.
However, the cracks in the system went unnoticed — not least due to the external shock of 9/11. And yet the warnings kept coming. In 2002, there was a major upset in the first round of the French Presidential election — when Jean-Marie Le Pen knocked-out the Socialist candidate to make it through to the run-off. He was then trounced by Jacques Chirac, but the result prefigured a new pattern for western politics — the rise of the populist Right and the decline of the centre-Left.
Pre-occupied with the Middle East and an economic boom back home, political establishments across the West didn’t see themselves as under threat. The Le Pen thing was written off as a French aberration. But then came disaster after disaster: The Iraq insurgency. The Afghan quagmire. The credit crunch. The banking crisis. The Great Recession. The Eurozone crisis. The Syrian civil war. The rise of ISIS. The refugee crisis. Brexit. Trump. Populist revolts in western Europe. Populist governments in the east.
This wasn’t just bad luck, but the result of errors of judgement and lapses in responsibility on the part of the rich and powerful. Furthermore, people can feel this failure in their daily lives: the weakness of wage growth, the unaffordability of home ownership, the escalating cost of higher education. Despite the deepest recession in living memory, most economies have grown since 2000. But for a lot of us — especially the young and those left behind by the geographical concentration of economic opportunity, things haven’t got better — and certainly not 20-years’-worth of better.
What if we were to lose the last ten years of technological progress?
Oh, but what about technology? Would you really want to swap your iPhone 11 for a BlackBerry 850? Your Samsung Galaxy A50 for an original Nokia 3310? Would you want the squat mass of CRT monitor sitting on your desk again? Do you miss the weird sounds made by a dial-up internet connection? Or download speeds that would make a tortoise blush?
Digital is one area where progress is unmistakable — and everyday life is different as a result. And yet, in 2000, the internet was still a hopeful place — we genuinely believed that tech would enable a great decentralisation of power. But that, of course was before Facebook and Amazon conquered the world; before the nastiness of online debate poisoned politics; before China began building its techno-totalitarian state.
In 2000, we had the convenience of mobile communication — minus the downsides we’ve come to discover since. There being no smartphones, we’d yet to be zombified by them. But what about the upsides of unlimited access to the global store of human knowledge? Well that, perhaps, is the most depressing thing about the 21st century so far. Previous breakthroughs in communication have triggered breakthroughs in science, industry, culture and philosophy. But what does the West have to show for the Internet? Science is slowing down and productivity is faltering. As for a 21st-century Renaissance or Enlightenment, where is it? (And, no, the Great Awokening doesn’t count).
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I don’t want to be too much of a grump here. Taking a global view, I wouldn’t want to go back to the year 2000. Thanks to trends set in train decades previously, the last 20 years have improved conditions for most of humanity. As for the developed world, we shouldn’t deny the progress made this century — let’s count our blessings and be grateful for them.
And yet we could have, should have, achieved more. We’ve every right to be disappointed — both in our leaders and ourselves.