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1.

social history

Will the twenties roar?

by Joshua Zeitz

For insight into the 2020s, it’s worth looking back 100 years to the ‘Roaring Twenties’, the era from which so many of our modern fixations emerged.

Writing in the immediate aftermath of the famous Scopes “monkey trial”, in which a US school teacher stood accused of violating a statute barring the teaching of evolution, Mark Sullivan, a popular journalist of the day, heralded, “the end of the age of Amen and the beginning of the age of Oh Yeah!” The year was 1925, the high-water mark of the “Roaring Twenties” – the age of Ford, flappers and Fitzgerald – and Sullivan’s pronouncement captured the spirit of a seemingly progressive age marked by a new ethos of sexual liberation, mass consumerism and new media, as well as radical developments in art and fashion. Emerging from years of wartime slaughter that felled kings and emperors – and from a flu pandemic that killed about 50 million worldwide – ordinary people in Europe and the US embraced a spirit of modernity that still stands out for its lasting impact on historical consciousness a century later.

The prosperity of the age touched the US in particular, a country that had economically benefitted from the First World War. Because of the US’s vast natural and agricultural resources, Americans spent between 34 per cent and 44 per cent of their wages on food; the figure in France and the UK was far higher. This meant that the average US worker had more money left over at the end of the week for non-essentials: entrance to amusement parks and dance halls, tickets to the new motion pictures, cheap homewares and furnishings, and, of course, clothing.

For women, whose entry into the workplace and public sphere marked a new era of economic and social freedom, the age of restrictive corsets and crinolines gave way to “flapper” attire that, alongside automobiles and modernist art, remains the most popular visual marker of the age. In Paris two designers, Paul Poiret and Coco Chanel, revolutionised popular fashion. In place of dark Victorian shades and Edwardian pastels was a bold palette of red, gold and yellow that revealed the influence of Eastern art and textiles.

Chanel – an orphan turned milliner, sometime courtesan to wealthy men and a woman who, some say, lied compulsively about her life – crafted dresses from jersey, a heavy material that no dress-maker had ever dared enlist in the cause of haute couture. It eliminated the frills and excesses of women’s fashion in favour of styles that offered comfort and manoeuvrability. It made sense. The First World War had accelerated the social trends that made Chanel’s style so appealing. As women entered the workforce to help sustain war production, they needed more practical clothes. The androgyny in Chanel’s designs suggested that men’s and women’s roles were blurring. A Parisian law student underscored this point when he asked, “Can one define la jeune fille moderne? [These] beings without breasts, without hips, without underwear, who smoke, work, argue and fight exactly like boys. These aren’t young girls! [No] more women either!”

In keeping with this liberated spirit, the 1920s were marked by a shocking frankness about sex. As early as 1913, social commentators observed that the bell had tolled “Sex’o’clock in America”, signalling a “repeal of reticence”. The new ethos was unstoppable and woven throughout the decade’s most popular art form: film. Audiences on both sides of the Atlantic lapped up silent movies such as Flaming Youth, in which a group of silhouetted nude young men and women jump into a swimming pool.

The androgyny in Chanel’s designs suggested that men’s and women’s roles were blurring

It was also an age of celebrity. The growth of movies, spectator sports and the onset of tabloid newspaper wars in the 1920s created an environment in which colourful personalities could command new attention. In the US, the decade saw sensational murder trials, such as that of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two wealthy Chicago teenagers who killed a young boy just to see whether they could get away with it, and Fatty Arbuckle, a Hollywood impresario who was tried twice – and finally acquitted – for the brutal rape and murder of a young actress. It was a decade of sports legends, such as baseball player Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey, a heavyweight boxer who by the mid-1920s appeared in almost as many films as he did title fights.

But was it real? The crash of world markets and economies after 1929 exposed the decade as something of a sugar high. For all its glitz and glamour, income and wealth remained unevenly distributed in Europe and the US, leaving the consumer economy vulnerable to a mass contraction during the Depression. A number of democratic governments, particularly in Germany and France, teetered on the verge of collapse. And aspirations for a century of peace and tranquillity quickly gave way to a second war that proved even more devastating than the first.

On the centennial of its start, the 1920s remain emblazoned in our consciousness not only because the decade firmly closed the door on the 19th century but because – for good and bad – it was the first era that was so sharply similar to our own.

About the writer: Historian Zeitz is the author of several books including Flapper, Building the Great Society and Lincoln’s Boys.

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2.

humour

Comedy in the age of covid

by Negin Farsad

Is the pandemic funny? The months of lockdown can be measured in the stages of shared jokes but we’re steering clear of the fresh wounds of this era.

The great US comedian Steve Allen once said that “comedy is tragedy plus time”. He said it in 1957. Now, here we are, in the middle of the most tumultuous era in public health – and the lowest point in history for trousers that don’t have an elastic waist. So we have to wonder when is it appropriate to make jokes, especially about the pandemic?

Coronavirus has already seen its own phases of comedy. At the beginning, the jokes were all about “catching the yeast” and the bread-making phase of quarantine. There were jokes about hygiene, the “commute” from the kitchen to the living room and “resting Zoom face”. We made jokes about “finishing Netflix” and we all tried to figure out which big-cat gamekeeper we identified with most in the streaming giant’s compulsive trash-viewing docuseries, Tiger King. Yes, remember Tiger King? That was this year. Of course, the rules around the actual disease are pretty clear. Death isn’t funny; it so rarely is. But a patient with a mild loss of smell and unfortunate bowel movements? Sure, those things can be funny for the adolescent boy that lurks within all of us. But it’s a slippery slope. Maybe there’s a point in the future where we can look back at the million small businesses that closed here in the US and have a laugh. I mean, that gemstone shop was barely hanging on in the first place. But we really haven’t got there yet. For now, all we’re left with is content such as: “Covid-19, more like Covid-extra-19-pounds, am-I-right?” Cue the rimshot.

About the writer: New York-based Farsad is a comedian, host of the podcast Fake the Nation and author of How to Make White People Laugh.

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3.

government

If Denmark ruled the world

by Michael Booth

Our Copenhagen correspondent casts his mind forward to 2024 and an imagined future where Denmark rules the world. Who’s for handball?

Following the 2020 US presidential election and subsequent global descent into chaos, economic collapse and war, many were surprised when the UN decreed that Denmark take over the running of the planet, with the country’s prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, as inaugural president of Earth. But the extraordinary vote of the General Assembly was virtually unanimous; only Sweden abstained. The only people who weren’t surprised were the Danes. “What Took You So Long?” ran the headline in Danish newspaper Berlingske

Four years have now passed – a suitable time for a retrospective of the Danes’ first term as global governors. When they took the reins, top of the agenda was de-polarising our toxic political landscape. Danish politics is characterised by consensus, which means that  everyone is merely mildly annoyed about everything, without ever doing anything about it. Because freedom of speech is more important to the Danes than breathing, the bonkers fringe is allowed plenty of oxygen on a “give them enough rope” principle. 

Freedom of speech is more important to the Danes than breathing

It took the Anglo-Saxon world a while to cotton on but it got there in the end and, once the French understood that they were still allowed to argue about everything, they too accepted the new order. Perhaps the most radical change has come in the global education system, which is now free. Spending increased to Danish levels of 7.6 per cent of gdp (from a global average of 4.5 per cent; 5.5 per cent in the UK). Educational opportunity has been equalised. Fee-paying schools went bankrupt due to decreased demand and thus the British class system crumbled. With their colleges now free, Americans suddenly had greater expendable income to boost the global economy. Talent was unleashed and we are already seeing the benefits in new technologies, medical innovation and massive job vacancies in the service industry as students are now paid to study instead of having to wait tables. Children are now happy to go to school; team-building, project work and co-operation are emphasised; competition and ambition is generally frowned upon. Low achievers are raised at the expense of high achievers but the psychotherapy industry has expanded to cope.

Which brings us to Jantelov. The Law of Jante was a 1930s satire on provincial Scandinavia, a kind of Tall Poppy Ten Commandments. But in 2023 the Danes enacted it into actual law and thus diktats such as “You shall not think you are anything special” and “You’re not to think you are more important than we are” became global mantras. The prize money on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was capped at dkk1m (€135,000) which, these days in 2024, we all agree, seems like quite enough. The rollout of the new Hygge Universities helped persuade most sceptics and in line with Danish custom, we are all now members of at least two social or sporting clubs (attempts to make handball the planet’s official sport continue to be resisted).

Danish-EU politician Margrethe Vestager’s successful nationalisation (or, I suppose, “globalisation”) of Google and Facebook has led to less social-media noise, fewer conspiracy theories, more truth. Vestager’s dismantling of technology monopolies, such as Apple, Huawei, Foxconn and Amazon, has benefitted innovation, competition and the wellbeing of employees.

Climate change has slowed dramatically. Ambitious co2 reduction targets haven’t quite been met – but the Danes are, above all, a pragmatic people. That last 10 per cent was always going to be tough. Following the prompt annexing of the Norwegian’s oil fields (“They were ours anyway,” Frederiksen reminded them at the time), the Danes are now able to supply the world’s demand for crude all by themselves. The established oil states’ enforced pivot to solar energy was expedited with limited collateral damage. Norway was at least allowed to keep some of its oil fund and, by all accounts, the Saudi royals are quite enjoying their exile in Greenland.

Urban bicycle infrastructure saw massive spending increases around the world. The average global two-wheeled commute is now 30km per person, per day. We are all fitter and Type 2 diabetes has halved to the Danish level of 3.9 per cent. Private cars are taxed at 150 per cent. Virtually all vehicle production is now electric. Pollution levels have plummeted, as has the pollution-related death toll.

Talking of taxes, looking back, it seems churlish that we complained when more than half of our income was appropriated to fund public spending because, along with the free universal healthcare and vast improvements to the quality of homes brought about by better interior lighting and functional Scandinavian furniture, quality of life and happiness levels have skyrocketed.

Women expressed some disappointment that things haven’t improved as much as they expected in terms of the gender pay gap. Indeed, the Danish approach to gender relations seemed, if anything, a little retrograde.

Some have struggled with all the spare time granted by our new work-life balance – and it was initially frustrating that no one answered their work phones after lunch on Fridays. But we have learned about weekends – there is always the handball and communal singing to fill the hours.

Finally, while it is true that the Japanese have been troubled by the decline in service standards in the wake of the New Egalitarianism, and not everyone is fully on board with the official diet of rye bread, baked celeriac and foraged weeds, and of course the quality of pop music has deteriorated to a lamentable stage, everyone can agree that things today are both very much better and very much more boring than they used to be. Til lykke!


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Five pros

1.
Green energy

2.
Economic equality solves pretty much everything

3.
Equality of educational opportunity takes care of the rest

4.
Free healthcare

5.
Better lighting and design standards

Five cons

1.
The drive to the middle is a tad dull

2.
Hygge’s head-in-the-sand approach

3.
Slightly too much booze?

4.
Stifling of ambition and competition

5.
It’s so peaceable that people miss arguments

About the writer: Booth is monocle’s Copenhagen correspondent and his latest book, Three Tigers, One Mountain is out now.

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4.

f&b

The future of eating

by Carolyn Steel

Through the lens of recent events, an architect looks at how what we eat shapes our human existence and how we can build a better world by rethinking our relationship with food.

How will we live in the future? Recent events have left us pondering this existential question and the future of our cities, economies and politics. The core assumptions upon which our very idea of a good life is based have been shaken. Back in the 18th century, UK economist and philosopher Adam Smith argued that real wealth was obtained from nature – and was therefore free. But the pandemic has reminded us that this isn’t the case; nature is an exhaustible resource. If we are to thrive in the future, we need to rebalance our lives with the natural world. Which in turn means rethinking how we eat.

Living in a city such as London, it can be hard to grasp quite how profoundly food shapes our lives. Our bodies, habits, homes, landscapes, economies, politics and climate have all been influenced by it. Our ancestors were well aware of this: food in the pre-industrial world was at the top of everyone’s agenda. The shared problem of how to eat is essentially what formed us as a species and the feeding of their people was every leader’s top priority. Yet two centuries of industrialisation have obscured food’s vital importance, hiding the crucial connections without which no city could survive: those that connect it to the countryside. Before the pandemic, most of us in the industrial world blithely filled our supermarket trolleys or ordered late-night food deliveries without a second thought as to where our meals were coming from. The ubiquitous availability of cheap grub was part of the modern bargain.

Today the picture looks very different. The pandemic is just one of a slew of “externalities” of cheap industrial food, along with climate change, deforestation, pollution, water scarcity, soil degradation and diet-related disease. To those who gave much thought to what they eat before 2020, none of this is news: experts have long warned that industrial food production was fatally weakening biodiversity and that our deep encroachment on wilderness would expose us to deadly disease. For most in the West, however, it was only when supermarket shelves were stripped bare that the threat became real. In that moment, the illusion of effortless plenty was shattered. The reality is that our food system is fragile – and with it our place on Earth.

In truth, there is no such thing as “cheap” food; indeed, were we to internalise the true costs of industrial production, it would instantly seem unaffordable – which begs the question: what would happen if we were to do precisely that? The answer is that there would be a revolution, not just in the way we eat but in how we live.

Imagine a world in which food was the most precious and expensive thing in our lives. Our habits, values, economies, policies, ways of sharing and using land and resources would all shift. Large-scale industrial feedlots and “Big Ag” monocultures would be replaced by more regional, seasonal food systems, fed by a variety of smaller-scale, mixed-use, regenerative farms and rewilded land. The relationship between city and country would be more balanced. Domestic life would revolve around kitchens, gardens and shared meals; markets and high streets would be abuzz; balconies and allotments would heave with homegrown produce.

The illusion of effortless plenty was shattered. The reality is that our food system is fragile

Such a place is a good “sitopia” (from the Greek words for food, sitos, and place, topos): a world with food at its heart. If it sounds somewhat utopian, that is because every utopia in history, from Plato and Aristotle through to the Victorian Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City, has had at its heart the question of how to feed society equitably. What such thinkers recognised was that, in order to flourish, people need access to land. Today, very few of us farm, yet our need for land remains. We still eat, after all – and food, for now at least, still comes mostly from land and sea. Smith’s insight – that all wealth comes from the land – hasn’t changed. The reason why making access to good food a basic human right is such a radical idea is that it exposes the deep inequalities inherent to most industrial societies. As Howard himself recognised, the “path to real reform” lies in common access to land, achieved through mechanisms such as the Land Value Tax, proposed by 19th-century US economist Henry George.

Sitopia is a radical vision – yet unlike its utopian counterparts, it already exists. Wherever people care about food, take time to cook, nurture their gardens or seek out the best producers and restaurants, it flourishes. We all know such places – we often choose to go there on holiday – but the question persists: could we afford to build such a world for everyone? The emphatic answer is: “yes”.

The greatest barrier in our way is the fact that our current idea of a good life is still predicated on the old Smithian vision of endless consumption and getting rich. Yet, as coronavirus has also demonstrated, a very different kind of life – based on a more meaningful, caring, less frenetic existence – could actually be more rewarding. During lockdown, millions discovered the simple pleasures of baking bread or cooking with their children, gardening, getting to know their neighbours or communing with nature. In one UK study, 42 per cent of respondents said they valued food more during lockdown and just 9 per cent said they wanted life to go back to the way it was before.

Food is both the most valuable thing in life and our greatest source of pleasure. By rebuilding our lives around it, we can not only create more liveable, resilient, low-carbon societies – but happier ones. By revaluing food, we can not only thrive but also share a common future. And it doesn’t have to cost the earth.

About the writer: London-based Steel is a trained architect and author of Sitopia: How Food Can Save the World and Hungry City.

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5.

politics

Popularity contest

by Richard Heydarian

The pandemic has particularly exposed the incompetence of populist leaders, who have overseen some of the worst public health and economic crises. So why are they still popular?

Largely thanks to president Rodrigo Duterte’s dithering and incoherent response to coronavirus, the Philippines has been suffering from the worst outbreak and the second-worst economic contraction in Southeast Asia. Yet a recent survey shows that as many as 92 per cent of Filipinos are satisfied with his performance, making Duterte the world’s most popular leader. However, on closer examination, there is less than meets the eye.

First of all, the Filipino president is a master of “performative governance”, a thespian with legions of online propagandists devoted to propping up Duterte’s image as a strong-willed, decisive and compassionate leader in a time of profound collective anxiety. In a country where social media has become the main platform for news and commentary, widespread disinformation has made any objective assessment of government performance close to impossible.

Even at the height of the crisis, Duterte hasn’t stop mesmerising his countrymen with his notorious “stream of subconsciousness” rants and ravings. He is a one-man show: pure entertainment, sometimes in its most twisted forms.

Duterte has engineered his political ascent based on a systematic exploitation of widespread resentment against the country’s liberal oligarchy, which has overseen Asia’s most unequal and lopsided economic development. In 2011, for instance, only 40 business families took home 76 per cent of newly created growth.

From his rape jokes to his populist posturing, Duterte has crossed one red line after another without ever suffering a significant dip in his approval ratings. But his rise to power should be understood in a broader global context. He is eerily similar to right-wing populists in other emerging-market democracies, from India’s Narendra Modi to Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, where an aggrieved middle class has proudly voted against liberal democracy.

Duterte’s international peers have also enjoyed a surge in their approval ratings at the height of the pandemic. What’s common in all these cases is the ability of these strongmen to present themselves as tough, reliable figures in the darkest hours.

There are also more prosaic factors in play. Duterte’s latest approval ratings, for instance, came on the back of multi-billion-dollar cash assistance and financial reprieves given to working and middle-class families in recent weeks. A survey taken prior to that showed the president’s approval ratings at a much lower level of 64 per cent.

From his rape jokes to his populist posturing, Duterte has crossed one red line after another

But perhaps the most important reason for Duterte’s sky-high approval is fear. The majority of survey respondents are working class or urban poor, a demographic that has disproportionately borne the brunt of thousands of extrajudicial killings under Duterte’s scorched-earth drug war. The latest surveys show that a large number of respondents said that they only “somewhat approve” of Duterte’s performance – too tentative to count as a ringing endorsement.

The true challenge for leaders such as Duterte will be economic recovery as cash assistance dries up. But for now, it seems that populists from India to Turkey and the Philippines have leveraged the ongoing malaise to consolidate power, isolate the opposition, expand surveillance regimes and win over besieged masses with a cocktail of dole outs, systematic propaganda and performative leadership. Adept at projecting themselves as tough and decisive, these strongmen have proven, as Game of Thrones’ Little Finger cynically put it, that “chaos is a ladder”.


Cult appeal

Duterte’s international peers have also enjoyed a surge in their approval ratings at the height of the pandemic. What’s common in all these cases is the ability of these strongmen to present themselves as tough, reliable figures in the darkest hours.

About the writer: Heydarian is the author of The Rise of Duterte and The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China and the New Struggle for Global Mastery.

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