In my neighborhood, the new year comes in with a bang – literally. It is as though my neighbors set out to fulfill every stereotype around about gun-wielding Americans. Amidst the volleys of semi-automatic weapons fire, fireworks mortars exploded close enough to our house that we could hear the fzzs that followed. Of course, from a half mile over you wouldn’t know the mortars were fireworks, and a friend-of-a-friend wondered on Facebook just what kind of explosions they were.

It all posed a… let’s say, particular… background for my new year’s reflections. In many ways, recent months have been increasingly tense, as though we all are on the verge of some dramatic event that will shape the coming era. Maybe I’m just noticing the changing millennium, or am picking up on my partner’s over-developed fears of the end of the Mayan calendar – and zombies. (Side note:  the Mayan calendar marked out a complete cycle – set to *renew* this December, as the Maya understood time cyclically. It makes learning the grammar awesome, too. I’ll reserve the rant about the “mystical Maya” for another day, though.) Living in a country where Evangelical Christianity inserts apocalyptic glee into every level of politics, especially the Republican presidential primary, only adds to the sense of impending doom. But at its core are key economic realities.

For some time now, students of history, economy, and politics have incorporated, to varying degrees, a Marxist-based understanding that capitalist society has followed a particular evolutionary path that incorporates specific social tensions and progressions. That understanding incorporates the idea that money – or the production of goods in industry – are the drivers of social structures. Hence, democracy and capitalism are linked, yet capitalism trumps democracy – which enabled US policy makers to promote one of the most perplexing paradoxes of US affairs by supporting the removal of democratically elected leaders around the world, even as the US trumpeted the benefits of democracy, because democracy hinged on capitalism – according to a Marxist-influenced paradigm that those same officials formally eschewed. Capitalism reigned victorious when the Soviet Union collapsed in the last decade of the 20th century. Much like the mysterious Mayan calendar, no one knew what, if any, cycle would follow – Marx never got past capitalism v. communism. Francis Fukuyama phrased the moment concisely in the title of his essay-come-book: The End of History? There was perhaps some vague hope for an golden era of capitalism-induced peace. But capitalist societies have not exactly shone in recent years, either. Neoliberalism perpetuates the skewed power structures of previous market relationships, while promotions of the free market in fact maintain restrictions in the form of subsidies and tax brakes that sustain big business and mega-corporations to the detriment of new or local enterprises.

The housing bust brings to question the value of allowing market actors to determine national economic realities. “Market actors” are the investment professionals who make their living investing (others’) money, and it is notable that they make more money on risky investments that they do on safe, predictable investments. Their motivation is thus contrary to, well, safety. Yet those same market actors are in charge of the great national banks. Capitalist economy depends on their investment to fuel industry, especially in the US where the Federal Reserve replaces a more typical central bank.

In other ways, the banking crisis reflects a deeper conflict in the US between proponents of centralized versus decentralized authority. It is easy to forget that only recently has the US moved towards a centralized federal government, and that we maintain a strong sense of the original, decentralized, federation-style government. While conservatives in the US are promoting family values and social values, in Europe conservatives promote austerity measures. The Euro Zone demands austerity measures that governments may be willing to enforce, but that people may not be willing to accept – raising questions about the democratic process of economic mandates from a centralized institution like the European Central Bank (that is, if you didn’t already have those questions because of World Bank/IMF policies over the last three decades). A New York Times article about debt incurred in Spain’s autonomous zones ends with a quote from a 17-year-old high school student: “…There are all kinds of cuts. This didn’t even happen under Franco.” That’s Franco, the Fascist dictator; the student compares the current austerity measures to policies under the one European Fascist dictator to outlast WWII, and suggests that current austerity measures are worse. Developing nations, meanwhile, have barely made headlines, but there are some indications that the rising BRICS nations – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa – are rising ever faster, even as the economic core wavers. It is also notable that the BRICS nations do not universally represent rising democracies, in yet another challenge to the presumption that the liberal, democratic nation-state will predominate in the future.

The problems of big banks, global development and democracy seem distant, if not looming. When contemplating the effects of these problems on my personal life, my initial impulse is to minimalize them. After all, we are not wealthy, and therefore would seem to have little to lose. Yet, I have recently begun to realize that we are, on the one hand, less poor than I imagine – my partner has full time work in a middle class job after all, even though I do not. At the same time, that status does less for us than I once would have imagined. Much of our current financial success, I think, comes from the fact that neither of us realized we were beginning to succeed – which we have only done with the assistance and good graces of my mother-in-law (and we are not yet able to declare total financial independence, either, much to what I can only assume to be her chagrin). In another time, it is possible that we would have been completely reasonable to expect financial stability or even mobility from one income, even with a house and two kids – in fact, I think that would have been standard. So perhaps times really are changing for those of my generation. Maybe I just assumed that student debt and financial pitfalls were nothing new, even while I thought my own struggles were the exception to an otherwise simple enough rule – make good decisions, and succeed (whereas I made some notably unsound decisions).

All of this brings up an additional question: what of my children’s generation? Can they succeed in an urban, public school? What kind of jobs will they have access to? Will they live in a free and open society? These reflections and pondering are ultimately questions about what the future will bring. The new year forebodes a new era, and what it will bring remains unclear.