Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Brief History of the Future: A Brave and Controversial Look at the Twenty-First Century, by Jacques Attali

New York: Arcade Publishing, 2009, pp. 291.

True to its title (how often does a book refer to itself as "brave and controversial?"), Jacques Attali's A Brief History of the Future opens with an introduction that will strike most as self-confident to the point of arrogance. The author quite flatly tells us that he will "demonstrate . . . that history obeys laws that allow us to make predictions and channel its course" (x). To be fair, this is hardly an exceptional claim--just one made with less than the level of humility demanded by the anti-teleological bent of contemporary intellectual life.

Nor is Attali's claim regarding the nature of those laws particularly unusual. As Attali argues,
Viewed from an extremely long-range standpoint, history flows in a single, stubborn, and very particular direction . . . from century to century, humankind has asserted the primacy of individual freedom over all other values (xii-xiii).
In practical, tangible terms this has manifested itself in the "progressive rejection of all forms of servitude," the development of labor-saving technical advances, and the "liberalization of lifestyles, political systems, art, and ideologies" (xiii), increasingly empowering the individual to "plan and master his fate free of all constraints--except respect for the rights of his fellow man to the same freedoms" (xiii).

Related to this growth of freedom has been a pattern of shift in the balance between the three historically dominant social forces--religion (in a theologically-oriented "ritual order"), violence (in a territorially-oriented "imperial order") and money (in an individualistic "mercantile order")--or to put it another way, the priest, the soldier and the merchant--with the dominance of religion giving way to the dominance of violence, and the dominance of violence in turn giving way to the dominance of money. The ritual order predominated through pre-history, increasingly giving way to an imperial order in the third millennium B.C., when the first empires emerged. The advent of empires headed by princes was a crucial moment in the development of human freedom--the "concept of an individual . . . born with the ruling prince, and it is under his dictatorial sway that the dream of freedom begins" (p. 14). (Attali identifies China's Huang Di as the first such prince, though he appears to have come along later than Egypt's Menes, the first to unite Upper and Lower Egypt, whom Attali also mentions.)

The third order makes its first appearance as a dominant force some two millennia later, in the eastern Mediterranean during the first millennium B.C., among the Greeks, Phoenicians and Israelites. For these peoples, "human life comes before anything else"--which is to say that their outlook is a worldly one--and "every man is equal to his neighbor" (even if full humanity is accorded only a very narrow group), two ideas not held by the previous orders. Additionally, the acquisition of wealth is regarded as a worthy goal, and there are the first glimmerings of the idea of progress, going along with which is a valuing of the new. Attali calls this package of ideas the "Judeo-Greek ideal," and the social model growing out of it the "market democracy."

The mercantile order developed inside the successive Roman and Islamic empires that dominate the Mediterranean region. The "leading edge of the mercantile order," however, passed from Moorish Cordoba to the West in the twelfth century (p. 31), after which point the "core" shifted from place to place as a result of crisis or war.1 Still, the core was invariably, a port city with a substantial agricultural and industrial hinterland, the "hard power" to "exert . . . control over hostile minorities, lines of communications, and sources of raw materials" (p. 105), cutting-edge financial institutions and a comparative openness to outsiders. These enable it to attract and retain an "innovative class," which advances the industrialization and automation of economic life, and expands the definition of human freedom. Each core's ascendance is typically connected with the appearance of a central new technology, which did not necessarily originate there--contrary to the prevailing pieties about innovation--but which is implemented there more thoroughly than anywhere else.2

At the start of this period the cores generally appear in the Low Countries and northern Italy--Bruges, Venice, Antwerp, Genoa and Amsterdam successively being the locale from the twelfth to the eighteenth centuries--after which it passes to London and then crosses the Atlantic to Boston, New York and finally Los Angeles. The last is the core in the age of the microchip, which has seen the Pacific supplant the Atlantic as the hub of the world economy.

It is here that Attali turns from what has been essentially a history of capitalism (comprising the first third or so of the text, 86 of my edition's 278 pages), to the future of capitalism and everything else. Today L.A.'s tenure as a world core is three decades old, and the "American empire" of which L.A. is a part is, Attali notes, beleaguered by mounting debt, overfinancialization, deindustrialization and a widening gap between rich and poor. Attali predicts the continued extension of market democracy and rapid worldwide economic growth for two decades to come, but believes L.A. (and the American empire) will have seen their day by the 2030s. Attali contemplates the possibility of a tenth core (perhaps also to appear in California, just as the U.S. had two successive cores on the East Coast, Boston and New York), examining numerous possibilities, but in the end judges a shift to a polycentric world of regional leaders more likely, while the United States, after the end of empire, becomes either a North European-style social democracy, or a dictatorship.3 (Indeed, he raises the possibility of a broader, if only partial, reversal of market democracy's gains by the spread of market authoritarianism.)

That particular process will be reinforced by three waves, all of which are already sweeping the world, which will define the twenty-first century more than the accomplishments (or misdeeds) of any one state. The first, which Attali calls "planetary empire," is the continued expansion of the size and pervasiveness of the market to the point where the power of money unshackles itself from everything else, including the nation-states it will all but dismantle (the U.S. included), and even the family unit (as the atomization and proletarianization of human beings approaches its greatest imaginable extreme).

The ultimate conclusion is a super-capitalist "super-empire" with an internationalized, ultra-mobile elite at the top (hypernomads) moving as their interests suit them, as nations are reduced to "oases competing with one another to attract passing caravans" (183). The sedentary, who cannot or will not embrace a life of such mobility, are necessarily marginalized. Virtually all services will be supplied on a private basis only, an order conducing to the benefit of the richest hypernomads at the expense of everyone else. Meanwhile, the governance of business will be almost entirely private--both by the associations industry will be forced to set up for itself, and the increasingly powerful insurance business. (In the provision of insurance against ecological disturbances, as well as the rising cost of scarce energy, water and other resources, the market will even end up taking a measure of responsibility for the environment--though not enough to take care of the problem.) Related to this development will be the emergence of an unprecedented surveillance society, with business pursuing any and all information about "employees, clients, suppliers, competitors and risks" (173), while individuals take enormous pains to verify their continued acceptability to employers, insurers and the like through an adherence to the norms set for them. Ultimately, human beings will be commodified (209) as genetic engineering, cloning and the technology to transfer a human consciousness from one body to another make a posthuman existence feasible (an outcome Attali views with great revulsion).

The second wave, "planetary war," is the sub-state, intra-state and interstate violence which will emerge out of an unequal, aggrieved world struggling with sharpening resource scarcity and climate disruption, as well as the "super-empire's" assaults on traditional cultures and institutions (like religion). Far from emphasizing one type of conflict, just about every kind of conflict defense intellectuals have predicted makes an appearance in this part of the book, with some relatively outré possibilities included (like the prospect of new Volkerwanderungs by heavily armed refugees), and the array of weapons involved including exotic new possibilities (like nanite-based systems). This could well culminate in the intense, perhaps omnicidal, violence of "hyperconflict."

The third wave, "planetary democracy," is the growth of the "relational enterprises" of civil society (led by "transhumans," a fourth "sector" after the priests, soldiers and merchants), which he expects will not only salve the damage done by the first two waves, but tame the first wave and suppress the second, revitalizing democracy, and laying the foundations for meaningful global governance (through revived but more open states, and international organizations). The protection and extension of the "common good"--"the things that make life possible and worthwhile--climate, air, water, freedom, democracy, culture, languages, fields of knowledge" will be the priority for that new order, while a "universal intelligence" greater than the sum of its parts, and perhaps leading to a "hyperintelligence of the living" (implicitly transcending humanity technologically) will emerge. Everything essential to leading a full and rich human life and "participat[ing] in the common good" (274) will become available to all, including not just a more developed version of the rights of the classical liberal kind (like "freedom"), or more recent and even less often realized social and economic rights (information and a clean environment will be part of the package), to such things as "respect" and "compassion" in a more prosperous, more sustainable and freer world than has ever existed before. Attali terms this "hyperdemocracy," and is optimistic about the likelihood of the happy ending to the trajectory his book charts--but there is a range of possibility regarding how long it will take to get there, and how much worse things will get before they start to get better.

A Brief History is not a particularly dense read (those accustomed to this sort of futurology should be able to breeze through it), but there's no arguing the sweep of its narrative, or the range of its influences. Perhaps first and foremost, there's quite a bit of Hegel here: the idea of history as the story of freedom's growth, in which we can see a movement from one being free (in the despotic regimes of those first princes), to some being free (in the more or less aristocratic societies that emerged since), to all being free (at the "end of history"). It's evident too in the westward progression of the cutting edge from one "world-historical" people to another, China giving place to the eastern Mediterranean, after which Western Europe (and eventually the United States) picks up the torch; the characterization of East and West, and Asia and Europe he presents; and the dialectical movement of that history, with action and reaction compelling a higher synthesis (as the second wave pushes back against the first, and the third pushes back against both those preceding it).

There's also a good bit of Hegel-by-way-of-Marx, there being a fair amount of Marxism here, explicitly acknowledged. The Marxist critique of capitalism (which Attali regards as substantially validated by recent history) is key to the narrative, not least the market's tendency to create innumerable problems (cartels, disruptive speculation, wasted natural resources, etc.), failure to resolve other problems older than itself (poverty, joblessness, etc.), and dissolve all things in the cash nexus, while ultimately its thrust is unsustainable. He does not suggest the possibility of a revival of Marxism or even socialism as political forces (or propose any overarching secular alternatives which might occupy their former place), but he predicts that the failures of the market will become increasingly obvious as such, and feed the reaction against them he described above.

The inspirations and parallels, however, are not to be found exclusively in these classics of nineteenth century German philosophy. Even if the rise and fall of capitalism's cores is not precisely the same story as the rise and fall of the world-system's hegemonic great powers (a story told numerous times by historians like William McNeill, and Paul Kennedy, and Charles Kindleberger), the parallels between them are considerable, with the principal exceptions Attali's focus on key cities rather than key countries in his account of the core's progress, and the short shrift (perhaps too short) he gives to the Iberian powers more typically viewed as dominant in the sixteenth century, Portugal and Spain.

Finally, I got a sense that when he first wrote this book in 2003 (the French edition came out in 2006, and the English edition only three years later) he'd distilled the preceding decade or so of writing about the post-Cold War order. The book his three waves actually put me most in mind of is perhaps Benjamin Barber's Jihad vs. McWorld (1996)--corporate globalization (wave one) colliding with an often violent ethno-religious-traditionalist reaction (wave two), while a reinvigoration of civil society (wave three) offers our best hope for a way out of this mess. (I can point to Thomas Friedman's The Lexus and the Olive Tree (1999) as well, though in keeping with its far less critical approach, Friedman's later book offers Lexuses and olive trees as comparatively gentle variations on McWorld and Jihad, respectively.) A lot of other '90s-era ideas are evident here as well, like Francis Fukuyama's version of the "end of history" argument. (Indeed, Attali explicitly states that the "End of History . . . will certainly come about" as a result of economic growth, increasing transparency and the expansion of the middle classes (p. 165), though as demonstrated above, there are considerable differences between his reading of events, and Fukuyama's neoconservative triumphalism.) There are echoes of Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations," Robert Kaplan's "Coming Anarchy," and also Thomas Homer-Dixon and Michael Klare's writing on ecologically-driven conflict, in Attali's description of hyperconflict.4

To Attali's credit, the result is a sense of synthesis rather than the incoherence into which such an effort might easily have collapsed, and even if many of his own insights appeared in his previous books (his three-orders concept and his ideas about the industrialization of service, can be found in previous books by this author, like 1992's Millennium), they do contribute usefully to the whole. His treatment of ecological issues and the stagnation of technological progress in recent years (the latter an especially underappreciated matter) is on the whole quite persuasive. Attali also recognizes the challenges laying ahead of a Chinese or Indian path to world leadership, and his idea that the twenty-first century will see multiple, regional cores rather than a single global one is quite plausible. Some of Attali's predictions also seem to have already been validated, particularly those about a reversal of democracy in some quarters (as suggested in John Kampfner's 2009 book Freedom for Sale) and the increased scale of criminal activity (as in the intensity and ambition of piracy off the Horn of Africa in recent years).

As a discussion of the growth of democracy out of the market his book offers a rare degree of balance and nuance, certainly in comparison with the more triumphalist, sanitized versions American writers tackling the theme (like Walter Russell Mead in God and Gold) are prone to offer--these being far less likely to acknowledge the ways in which an increase in the freedom of a few has gone hand in hand with a decrease in the freedom of others. This is certainly the case with his analysis of contemporary globalization, in contrast with the many writers--like Thomas Friedman--prone to focus on "winners" and ignore or brush aside "losers" in the game.

Nonetheless, Attali's book has a number of significant weaknesses. One is that Attali's discussion of economics all too often reflects hype rather than substance--for instance, when he approaches the subject of how well the world economy did during the last three decades, the author of this book claiming that in the years since 1980 Gross World Product increased "by more than 4% per year, a rate never before achieved in history" (p. 94). (In actuality the world economy didn't even come close, the more generous measures putting it at 3 percent, and a good many more nuanced indicators putting it well below that. It might also be pointed out that the world did better during the late 1940s to the early 1970s, when it actually achieved and even exceeded the aforementioned 4 percent rate, as I show in my own article on the subject here.) He is equally prone to accept hype where it is negative, as with the claims for "Eurosclerosis," which he takes at face value. His discussion of the economics of energy production and use is particularly superficial--blithe about the prospects of extracting unconventional oil, dismissive of renewables, and overly precise about the intrinsically speculative matter of the commercial prospects of nuclear fusion, which he simply states "will certainly not be practicable before the end of the twenty-first century, at best" (p. 137). (I covered some of the deficiencies of such an outlook in an article I published in Survival two years ago, available here.)

Further, while there is much that is useful in the basic vision of three waves, there is much in the details that strikes me as doubtful. It seems to me that privatization cannot and will not go to the extremes Attali describes, not least because of the problems he describes. As Thomas Frank notes, the actuality of neoliberalism has been the capture and reorientation of states, rather than their outright suppression. I have a hard time picturing this actually changing, and I would expect that states will go on having their place, and indeed, remain large and powerful entities in their own right.

Where recent trends are concerned, again, my view has been that we saw anemic world economic growth and technological stagnation, and that barring some change unforeseen in this discussion, this will continue for the foreseeable future, especially as ecological shocks and financial instability worsen. (In particular one has to wonder if a posthumanity such as he imagines will become feasible within the time frame he describes--technological stagnation working against this outcome--and how it actually will be received. The kind of rebellion he describes does not seem necessarily assured.)

I have my doubts, too, that religion will play quite the role he imagines in hyperconflict, and certainly about its participation in an anti-capitalist backlash. By and large, the revival of fundamentalism has been socioeconomically as well as socioculturally conservative, and my guess would be its cooptation by the first wave, so that its prominence in an overt, explicit anti-capitalist movement would have little precedent (and Attali fails to make an argument adequate to explain why things will be different this time). I wonder also if religion will not prove a more hollow force during this century than is commonly suspected (especially if secular critiques of the status quo turn out to be less sterile than he imagines).5

I wonder, too, what effect the aging of the world's population Attali acknowledges will have on the propensity to resort to violence, if it will not produce an opposing tendency toward a less bellicose world.6

Finally, while I do not denigrate the accomplishments of the "fourth sector" which constitutes the main source of hope in his story (as it does in so many others written in recent decades), Attali offers little reason to think it will really have the wherewithal to come to the rescue in the face of super-empire and hyperconflict, especially given the resistance the first two waves will put up, and the lack of a clear, overarching vision to bring them together. (As a participant in wave three, Attali, the founder of the non-profit organization PlaNet Finance, may be prone to overstate their weight.)

If I had to make a guess it would be that the first wave will crest earlier than predicted here, and the second too, powerful as they will be. The third wave may prove even more limited than that. I certainly don't rule out catastrophe (indeed, it still seems quite plausible given that balance of forces), but I suspect the run-up to it is likely to be less dramatic than the portrait he paints, even if the result is just as bad. At the same time, it strikes me as all too likely that our happy ending might end up being not much more than our somehow muddling through, and that if a way out of our mess is to be found, it will almost certainly be along lines quite different from what he imagines.

1. As the reader may have noted, the narrative is an essentially Eurocentric one. Attali's explanation is that, roughly at the time of the advent of the mercantile order, Asia and Europe parted ways, the East setting "out to free man from his desires, while the West seeks to make him free to realize them" (24). Such an analysis is problematic: both drives clearly exist in both cultures. Additionally, there is considerable evidence for the dynamism of East and South Asian capitalism down to the end of the eighteenth century--much of it assembled in Andre Gunder Frank's study ReOrient (1998). (Indeed, as Frank notes, Adam Smith repeatedly referenced contemporary China as a model capitalist economy in his classic The Wealth of Nations.)
2. Where those technologies are concerned, a recurring theme is the "industrialization of services," which is to say the creation of goods that replace services earlier performed by people--for instance, frozen meals in place of cooking--in contrast with the prevailing thinking regarding a split between a declining manufacturing economy, and an ascendant service economy. 3. Where the decline of the U.S. is concerned, Attali predicts a massive financial crisis playing a key role, one which he predicts for the 2025-2030 period. In a footnote included in my addition, however, he suggests that the 2008 financial crisis may be the event (155), though he does not go beyond this to a broader updating of the prediction.
4. And of course, there is ample precedent for his conception in fiction, as with cyberpunk science fiction and its successors from the 1980s on. The title and theme also resemble a tradition originating with H.G. Wells (in novels like The World Set Free and The Shape of Things to Come) in which the excesses of capitalism and nationalism threaten to destroy the world, with salvation emerging in a humane new global order. The late Wells scholar W. Warren Wagar penned an updated version of the story (albeit a more explicitly Marxist one) in the similarly titled A Short History of the Future (first published in 1989, with a new edition coming out in 1993).
5. That Attali was writing in 2003, shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks, may in fact have made him overemphasize the centrality of religious conflict in international relations.
6. The prospect of hyperviolence, furthermore, would seem another argument in support of markets preserving states, if only because private actors would be unwilling or unable to foot the security bill.

The Next 100 Years: Another View
The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century, by George Friedman

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