Jacques Attali thinks he can. Attali, author of ‘A Brief History of the Future’, is an eminent French economist who was an advisor to President Mitterrand during the 1980s and has since become a big wheel in microfinance. On the cover of the book, Alvin Toffler is quoted as describing Attali as ‘one of the most brilliant, original minds in Europe’. That is one of the reasons why I bought the book.
As the title suggests, Attali has written the book as though he is writing the history of what is going to happen over the next century or so. And the book is written as though ‘history’ drives what happens in the future. For example, near the end the author suggests: ‘History will thus drive the integration of collective intelligences into a universal intelligence; it will also be endowed with a collective memory that will preserve and accumulate its knowledge. ... Universal intelligence will even be able to conceive of machines in its own service, defending the common good on its behalf. ... Universal intelligence may next bring about an intelligence peculiar to the species, a hyperintelligence that will act in its own interests ...’ (2009 edition, p. 273).
I strongly support attempts to consider the possible future implications of economic and other factors that are impacting our lives and the environment in which we live. At its best, this is what Attali’s book does. At its worst the book seems to me to read like a work of science fiction with inadequate plot development.
The first part of Attali’s book contains a history of capitalism as a story in which the economic core moved progressively from one city to another – beginning in Bruges around 1200 and moving in turn to Venice, Antwerp, Genoa, Amsterdam, London, Boston, New York and Los Angeles. I found this part of the book to be interesting and illuminating. I think the author makes the point fairly convincingly that new core cities often benefit as much from adversity affecting existing cores and potential rivals as from their own intrinsic advantages. Nevertheless, Attali has not convinced me that it makes sense to think of the current world economy as having a single city core in Los Angeles, despite all the technological advances that have occurred in California in recent decades.
The main phases of Attali’s history of the future are: the end of the American empire; the emergence of a stateless planetary empire (an oxymoron ?) characterized by global markets, individualist values and narcissistic ideals; then a series of wars and possibly hyperconflict; and finally, the emergence of planetary hyperdemocracy.
Why can America’s influence be expected to wane? Attali writes, unconvincingly in my view, of ‘irretrievable scarcities’ and ‘stagnating technology’, but he also suggests that like other major economic powers in the past America will ultimately be brought down by a financial crisis. According to Attali’s timetable, this is likely to occur around 2025 or 2030. That seems to be well within the realms of possibility if fiscal deficits and associated foreign borrowing are not brought under control. Unlike many other countries, however, the U.S. has a reasonable track record over more than a century of returning to responsible fiscal management when a major fiscal crisis threatens. While America seems likely to become more like Europe during the next few years, I think the odds are that fiscal responsibility will be restored in the U.S. before it reaches the stage where Greece, for example, now finds itself.
What happens after the end of the American empire? It begins promisingly enough with fulfillment of what might be called an anarcho-capitalist’s dream - big governments collapse, like piles of wet manure, as provision of services such as health care, education and security are handed over to the private firms.
Attali suggest that insurance companies would play a major role in this globally privatised society. They would gradually come to dictate planetary norms by penalizing smokers, drinkers, the obese etc. who represent high insurance risks. They would require clients to refrain from behavior that might increase insurance risks and introduce surveillance systems to ensure that contract conditions were met. That sounds like a healthy dose of reality to me. Why should people whose behavior makes them high insurance risks be subsidized by others? Those wanting to avoid surveillance would presumably have the options of paying higher premiums or carrying their own risks.
However, Attali’s vision of the globally privatised society is alarming. He suggests that while Africa vainly struggles to construct itself , the rest of the world will begin to deconstruct itself under the ‘hammer blows of globalization’. He writes: ‘Tomorrow’s Africa will therefore not resemble today’s West. Rather, it is tomorrow’s West that will resemble today’s Africa’ (p. 184). I don’t think readers are ever told why this will happen. Attali suggests that weakened states will no longer be able to afford to provide income support to the poor, but supporting the poor will not be a burden if globalization provides widespread economic opportunities. At one point (p. 255) he suggests that ‘market democracies have travelled a large part of the road predicted by the author of Das Kapital’. Perhaps he is implying that we should look for an explanation of his fantasy about the effects of globalization in the predictions of Karl Marx about the consequences of technological change and capital accumulation.
The next part of the story is about wars. To cut a boring story short, Attali tells us that there will be disaffection everywhere and it might all end in hyperconflict. After that, however, everyone will live happily ever after in a world characterized by microfinance and voluntary organizations run by nice people a lot like Mother Teresa and Melinda Gates. Attali’s version of utopia (thankfully he refrains from calling it hyperutopia) sounds OK to me. I do have concerns, though, that the hyperintelligence, ‘that will act in its own interests’, might actually be the ultimate Leviathan of big government. As in ‘Star Wars’, the empire strikes back!
Perhaps the most appropriate way for me to end this review is with a message for readers living in the next Century: May the Force be with you - and protect you from the hyperintelligence.