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Inflection anniversaries

by Thomas Schellen

One has to assume that there are many reasons why somewhat articulate people tend to intellectualize social and economic moments of despair or change. Distancing ourselves in various ways from the direct emotions of shocks and despair, some talk of inflection points, some of tipping or turning points, and some perhaps of nadirs. All these terms differ in nuanced meanings – nadirs for example technically are points directly below the observer whereas an inflection point might denote a curve’s transition from convex to concave – but all these terms carry common connotations of danger, need for change and, in the case of climate tipping points, even irreversibility. 

Looking back at the first three months of 2020 after a year of continual struggles and crises, it is justified to speak of three and more inflection points which back then changed the Lebanese trajectory: the discovery of the coronavirus SARS-CoV2 in January and classification of the Covid-19 disease as a pandemic in March comprising the first, the assumption of government by a politically one-sided and overall ill-fated Council of Ministers in January and its February 2020 ministerial statement that was as pretentious as it was portentous constituting the second, and the country’s hasty and disorderly first-ever default on an external financial obligation, namely the Eurobonds default of March 9, 2020, representing the third extreme and consequential shock. 

Overlapping – but not logically underlying – these expectable but nonetheless traumatizing shocks are the longstanding deficiency of the Lebanese political system and social contract and the presence of that powerful disruptive “elephant in the Lebanese room,” Hezbollah. As factor of enormous weight that Lebanese politically correct assemblies would rarely discuss in all its magnitude and impacts, this pachyderm entity is brimming on one hand with military capacity and cultural identity which cannot be denied. But it also is a force that throughout its history has been capable of negative disruptions of the national integrity of Lebanon, and which has exerted such impacts never more so than in the past 12 months of the Lebanese system’s exploding dysfunctionality.  

Shocks and disruptions are scary in their short-term and long-term impacts. Undigested shocks often result in depression and even harm bodily well-being, whether of an individual or, as the recent experience of the Lebanese people suggests, of small collective and larger societal levels. 

Over the past 18 months, the people and opinion makers of Lebanon have talked about little but shocks and their escalating sufferings. If done right, that is with honesty and resolve, discussion of traumatic processes is therapeutic. It should be the first step on a long road of regaining mental health and restoring a pre-trauma state. 

If done the wrong way, however, with no other concern than one’s own complaints and with no regard for the bigger picture or the suffering of others, the drawn-out circular discussion of bad experiences and traumatic moments apparently can take forms where own failures are ignored and blame is deliberately deflected from the self to the convenient villain, the usual suspects, the ominous or concrete other. This one-dimensional blame-pushing, one fears, can be counterproductive to the point of losing sight of rescue opportunities and getting stuck in dead-end thinking and vicious loops.  

The rage and silence of the land

Lebanon has been trapped for months now in economic down-sliding and dead-end thinking. Solutions are theorized but not implemented, certainly not on the plane of political reforms or steps that are germane to democratic systems. Non-solutions are in oversupply and spreading in the fashion of ever-mutating viruses of destructive political verbiage. The absurdity of the present situation is of Alpine or even Himalayan proportions. A well-educated population with an abundance of university-trained talents and historically unprecedented access to – supposedly enlightening and empowering – knowledge resources, has become information-wise encased in fake news, occupationally trapped in unemployment, economy-wise faced with destruction of currency, and is in daily life increasingly threatened by persistent hyperinflation. On the level of basic necessities, the Lebanese people are beleaguered by losses of electricity, gasoline, water, money, food security, and, crucially, emotional self-esteem and mental security. 

As result, popular rage is constantly mounting against over political self-interest and lack of humanity presented by a few in the political class – and by all agents of the status quo of self-interested political-militaristic cults. The images of despair and protests are becoming our only diet and understandably so – but nonetheless these images are tormenting us. At the same time, the country has spent too many days and weeks in lockdowns, turning a territory once overflowing with outgoing and very socially interactive people into a place that evokes the depressed silence of a mass burial site. 

Besides witnessing more or less organized and so far impotent outcries against perceived political evils, the country for 12 months has thus been governed through lockdowns which as their only undisputable outcomes produced forced quiet and economic inactivity. The social climate reeks of depressed minds, only erupting in occasional shouting matches over nothing or interrupted by those who vent their mental pressures by racing their cars down narrow urban streets with no respect for either the feeble legal order or the other humans on the street. Lebanon at the gates of spring and on the ides or March 2021 has become at the same time the land of historic rage and a land of eerie silences. 

Evaluating the inflection points in the first quarter of 2020 from a year’s worth of hindsight, the undeniable lesson in Executive’s view is that hasty decisions at the one, financial, moment have been as detrimental as indecision at many other, monetary policy-setting, moments and that absence of true interactive leadership in an acute crisis is the worst absence of all. The ill-prepared decision of the financial default is milk that has been spilled and still waits to be mopped up with the implementation of smart reforms and negotiations, whereas solutions in terms of monetary policy come with zero guarantees but nonetheless have to be tried and proven right or wrong (see story on currency boards). 

Political activism in tackling the Covid-19 crisis has been a preoccupation of our political cadres, second only to the trumpeting of fluff analyses and vain declarations. But as in developed economies of Europe and North America, the battle against the coronavirus has been impeded by viral knowledge deficiencies, contrasting biases, and irrational human behaviors. To conquer the medical challenge of the pandemic, it may be time and vaccines that we have to trust in. In overcoming the virus’s societal challenge, however, the construction of sustainable social insurances and safety for Lebanese society, and societies everywhere, may require solutions that are more integrative of private, public, corporate, and expatriate good will than anything that existed in previous social practices (see ESSN story).  

As Lebanon has been faced with new, and even more dangerous political and economic inflection points in the first three months of 2021 than in the first quarter of 2020, there is another lesson to be drawn, a lesson of conventional foresight that does not rely on political prophecies of any sort. If Lebanon is to sustain itself, it cannot allow itself any further procrastination, indecision, political favoritism, or partisan bias. The polity has to insist on immediate but well considered economic and monetary decisions. Even the most longsuffering people will not wait for another quarter for the state to take remedial action to halt the lira destruction and the economic meltdown and social suffering across the entire country.  

Such action cannot be piecemeal or try to fix some symptoms of the existential crisis with legalistic shenanigans or political talk. With regard to the elephant in the room, the past 12 months were wasted on political games and silly dances with the pachyderm by those who could neither tame nor ride it in the past 15 years. 

This must not continue. We have to tackle solutions, own up on our responsibility, confront our demons of self-interests, our ghosts of old identities, and deal with our elephants in the room. Elephants that we cannot slaughter, because such is neither morally nor practically possible, and which it would be a dangerous illusion to think we can tame and turn into pets, can perhaps still be harnessed and put to work in the national interest. To find out how to control the elephant and implement a method of harnessing it will be key to surviving the next 12 months. 

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