April 2009

Arts & Letters


By Bill Bowtell

Recent books about the future

Chris Patten, Jacques Attali and George Friedman are past masters of the politics of prediction. They are wily, skilful and powerful servants and shapers of state and international policy. They have stood at the very apex of power in their respective countries - Britain, France and the United States - and have influenced the course of events on behalf of the wider Western alliance as well. They are not, therefore, in any sense disinterested observers. They are not retired from politics or from seeking to bring about the world of their dreams. They employ the quaint and polite forms of prediction literature - the assumption of oracular omniscience and the air of sagacious detachment from vulgar quotidian politics - but only to have us believe that they divine history's course better than we can.

Their age and experience confers upon them no more inherent right to have their visions of tomorrow's world come to pass than, for example, the new world that might be sought by Rubina Ali and Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, the Indian child actors in the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire. Tomorrow's world will not, in the final analysis, be shaped according to the vapourings of old men whose time has come and gone, but rather by Rubina and Azharuddin (and Wu and Kim). Yet, for all that, due respect must be paid to Friedman, Attali and Patten.

Chris Patten is a conservative English Catholic, the chancellor of Oxford University, the last governor of Hong Kong, an ex-European Commissioner, a former senior minister in the Thatcher and Major governments, and evidently destined to play a major role in the about-to-be-elected Cameron Conservative administration. Jacques Attali is the quintessential Parisian intellectual, philosopher and spectacularly accomplished mandarin. A graduate of the École Nationale d'Administration, Attali served for a decade as close confidant and adviser to the great political cynic President Mitterand. He was the first president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the prime engine of economic integration of the former states of the Soviet empire into the expanded European Union. George Friedman is a conservative Texas Republican and founder of STRATFOR, a private company providing intelligence of all kinds to paying customers. He and his company are at the heart of the American political, military and intelligence establishments.

Attali's and Friedman's books, A Brief History of the Future (Allen & Unwin, 336pp; $35) and The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century (Black Inc., 253pp; $29.95), are models of predictionism. Pausing only to make the faux disclaimer that the future is unpredictable and some of their detailed forecasts might be wrong, Attali and Friedman plunge enthusiastically into mapping out the decade-by-decade course of the next century. Not surprisingly, Friedman's world that emerges at the dawn of the twenty-second century looks a lot like Texas, while Attali's looks more like Paris. In both cases, the end of our hundred-year journey is Utopia Achieved: enemies and threats vanquished, and liberty and freedom for all who survive the trip. But getting there is going to be hard.

Friedman first raises up and then disposes of the early twenty-first-century threats to global governance and good order posed by the old American adversaries, China and Russia. Both decentralise, fragment and decay over the coming decades, and Russia collapses entirely by 2020. India, which barely rates a walk-on part in Friedman's history, is not the beneficiary of the collapse of its Eurasian neighbours and competitors. Rather, the three great resurgent powers of Turkey, Japan and Poland (Poland?) rise to greatness as China and Russia disappear.

In the 2030s and '40s, the always peacefully intentioned US seeks to impede the rise of the new Islamic and Oriental powers by forming an alliance with blue-eyed, Christian Poland. But to no avail. On 24 November 2050 (24 November being the birthday of William F Buckley, Jr, the patron saint of American Romantic Republicanism), the dastardly Muslims and shifty Orientals use lunar bases and hypersonic aircraft to destroy America's fleet of "battle stars". They are naturally defeated by the righteously aggrieved American-Polish Alliance, but only in time for the triumphant US to deal with the Latino enemy within its borders.

According to Friedman, the latter part of the twenty-first century will be consumed by the struggle between the US and Mexico for control of North America. Will the capital shift from Washington, DC to Mexico City? Will we be eating McDonald's or tacos? Does anyone outside STRATFOR care? Alas, a hegemon's work is never done, and the outcome of the Mexican-American war will only be revealed when George Friedman IV publishes his history of the twenty-second century, in about 2109. Friedman would have done better to populate his book with the stock characters of airport novels. It would have made turning the pages a lot easier.

In contrast, Attali's book is erudite, elegant and engrossing. His historical analysis of why and how our capitalist world came into being is masterful, and alone would be worth the cover price. Attali sketches the emergence of market capitalism as it developed over eight centuries in Bruges, Venice, Antwerp, Genoa, Amsterdam, London, Boston, New York and, ultimately, Los Angeles. His Cartesian analysis leads him to forecast the imminent end of the American empire (whose ascendancy Friedman believes is only just beginning) and the decline into irrelevance of Europe. In their places will emerge 11 political and economic powers: Japan, China, India, Russia, Indonesia, Korea, Canada, South Africa, Brazil, Mexico and - Mr Rudd, take note - Australia.

Attali therefore makes the crucial point that Friedman does not: one way or another, Asia-Pacific powers will dictate the politics of the coming century. India and China will be at the centre of a web of lesser powers - Vietnam, Indonesia, Korea, Thailand and no doubt some form of Australia-New Zealand trans-South-Pacific state - that will command most of the world's wealth and population.

In Attali's view, however, in the coming decades we will be pre-occupied by drastic shortages of energy, water and food. Technological innovation will stagnate as the physical limits of Moore's Law are reached (Moore's Law holds that the number of transistors - processing power - that can be put on a chip roughly doubles every two years. But as things get smaller, they run up against atomic and sub-atomic size limitations. Hence, we will run short of processing capacity, which may be as devastating as the shortages of oil and water.)

Attali believes that by about 2025 these multiple crises will lead to the emergence of a planetary and stateless super-empire that will swiftly undo the old nation-state system. A struggle for global supremacy will then ensue, between the unfettered market represented by the super-empire and the democratic values of the crumbling nation-states. Unbounded market capitalism will win this struggle. In the name of freedom, but committed to its opposite, surveillance, every minute and every aspect of human life will be exploited to produce, trade and consume mercantile goods and services.

A global, pervasive market without states and free of democratically imposed restraints will come into being. This market will suppress and destroy "nomadism", the desire of the mercantile and innovative class to move freely from one core city to another in the pursuit of novelty, innovation and fulfilment. As a consequence of this suppression, gangs, pirates and subversive mafias of all kinds will emerge to overthrow the global market. Crucially, new religious sects will form to imbue the struggle against the global market with moral righteousness and revolutionary zeal.

A just and necessary war will be fought and won to establish a global democracy, or "hyperdemocracy". At the heart of Attali's Utopia will be music, beauty and love. There could not be a more poignant fusion of Marx and the market than Attali's noble dénouement. He envisages a sort of planetary Paris, which is far to be preferred as the endpoint of the next century to Friedman's Texan triumphalism.

Chris Patten's What Next? Surviving the Twenty-First Century (Allen Lane, 512pp; $59.95) is an altogether calmer, London clubman's view of our future than either Attali's dialectical marketism or Friedman's book of revelations. Patten begins by citing Margaret Thatcher's "It's a funny old world," the leitmotif of his world view. He has the English mandarin's visceral horror of ideology, zealotry and passion for Utopia Now! Had Patten served Henry VIII, he would no doubt have been quietly pleased to see the end of Sir Thomas More, while lamenting his martyrdom. I suspect he feels the same way about Mrs Thatcher.

Patten speaks for the long and honourable line of administrators of large multicultural, polyglot and pluri-religious empires: Persia, Rome, Byzantium, Austria-Hungary, Imperial Russia and, above all, the British Empire. Empires in their various forms lasted far longer and were on the whole rather more stable than the nation-state system of the past few centuries. Imperial administration succeeded because it was not proscriptive; it was free of a centralising ideology, tolerant of wide diversity and largely unconcerned with the personal (as distinct from the political) lives of its subjects.

Patten supports a liberal internationalism, encompassing a strong belief in the rule of law, democratic government, open markets and free trade. Globalisation should not lead to a withering away of the nation-state. Rather, existing international institutions have to be improved to accommodate the legitimate aspirations of rising powers: notably India, China and Brazil. Although he does not quite say it, Patten therefore favours a world federation, or perhaps the restoration of a liberal empire with several capitals - a sort of global European Union.

In his thoughtful book, Patten surveys the standard stock of the world's most serious problems: the crisis in fossil-fuel energy, the rising cost and scarcity of food, the onset of severe climatic changes, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the rise of global crime syndicates (which he rightly identifies as a consequence of the misbegotten war on drugs) and the threat of pandemic diseases spreading in a borderless world. His unarguable central proposition is that, as difficult as these problems are, the policy answers to them are all reasonably clearly understood. The puzzle is not what is to be done, but who is to do it and how.

He summarises each of these challenges, and crams his chapters with useful and illuminating anecdotes and statistics. His approach is incremental and improving, not revolutionary. In Patten's twenty-first century, the world does not need any more utopian makeovers and armies of new evangelical warriors infused with transformational zeal. But things are not going so well that we can just muddle through and leave it all to well-intentioned meetings of the great and the good. This approach has also run its course.

I share Patten's view, and Mrs Thatcher's, that it is a funny old world, inhabited by funny old people who are not required to agree on much at all except the need to overcome common problems and challenges as they arise. The world is freer, healthier and wiser than ever before. Sensible and enlightened management of differences and interests will keep things moving in roughly the right direction. In the coming years, the world will make mistakes; people will still listen to charlatans, fools and false prophets. If such leaders and the movements they create ever pose a serious threat to good government, they should be confronted and defeated. After Bush, Obama.

Patten is right that the world of the twenty-second century is not going to be much different from the world of today, because the essential nature of human beings will remain the same. With any luck, however, monotheistic fundamentalist religion will mean less and less to more and more people. We must work hard to ensure that its political equivalents fade away as well. For the common good, some form of democratic global governance will need to emerge to deal with global threats. The interests and prerogatives of nation-states, which have been not a good idea, will have to be further subordinated to this new, and I hope democratic, order, which offers our best chance at expunging both lawless capitalism and monotheistic, monomaniacal fundamentalist religion.

The world is infinitely diverse, and the better and stronger for it. The greatest danger to our survival and happiness comes from those who would attempt to squeeze all the world's diversity into one grand, unified theory of everything, in a pointless, enervating quest for Utopia Now!

Bill Bowtell
Bill Bowtell is a strategic–policy analyst and consultant and the executive director of the Lowy Institute’s HIV-AIDS project. He was a political adviser to Paul Keating.

Cover: April 2009
View Edition

From the front page

Strange bedfellows

The battlelines are blurring as Melbourne’s lockdown protests heat up

Black Summer at Currowan

A community’s experience of Australia’s worst bushfires

Image of Charif Majdalani’s ‘Beirut 2020’

‘Beirut 2020’ by Charif Majdalani

The Lebanese writer’s elegiac journal captures the city’s devastating port explosion

Nuclear fallout

The waves from Australia’s cancelled submarine contract keep building

In This Issue

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

The third wave


Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Built to fail

Snow falling on vampires

Tomas Alfredson’s ‘Let the Right One In’

More in Arts & Letters

Detail from ‘Group IV, The Ten Largest, No. 2, Childhood’ by Hilma af Klint (1907)

A shock of renewal: ‘Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings’

The transcendent works of the modernist who regarded herself not an artist but a medium

Image of Amia Srinivasan

Desire’s conspiracies: ‘The Right to Sex’

Philosopher Amia Srinivasan’s essays consider incels, consent and sexual discrimination

Detail from cover of Sally Rooney’s ‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’

The meanings of production: ‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’

Novelist Sally Rooney returns to the dystopia of contemporary life while reflecting on her own fame

Still from Steven Soderbergh’s ‘No Sudden Move’

True to form: ‘No Sudden Move’

Steven Soderbergh’s Detroit crime movie is another formal experiment with commercial trappings

More in Books

Image of Amia Srinivasan

Desire’s conspiracies: ‘The Right to Sex’

Philosopher Amia Srinivasan’s essays consider incels, consent and sexual discrimination

Detail from cover of Sally Rooney’s ‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’

The meanings of production: ‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’

Novelist Sally Rooney returns to the dystopia of contemporary life while reflecting on her own fame

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, ‘Portrait of Irène Cahen d’Anvers’ (La petite Irène), 1880

Breathless spaces: ‘The House of Fragile Things’

James McAuley’s examination of four great art-collecting families and the French anti-Semitism that brought their downfall

Image of fish traps, Darling River, NSW, 1938

Transforming the national imagination: The ‘Dark Emu’ debate

Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe’s ‘Farmers or Hunter-gatherers?’ challenges ideas of progress championed by Bruce Pascoe

Read on

Black Summer at Currowan

A community’s experience of Australia’s worst bushfires

Image of Paul Kelly

Unfinished business

Every Paul Kelly song so far, from worst to best

Image of Laure Calamy as Julie in À plein temps (Full Time), directed by Eric Gravel

Venice International Film Festival 2021 highlights

Films by Eric Gravel, Bogdan George Apetri and Gábor Fabricius are among the stand-outs in a program of unusual abundance

Image of Covid-19 vaccines

Dissent horizon

Why do we object more to mandated vaccination than mandated lockdowns?