Marx and Engels bequeathed the progressive movement a healthy distrust of utopian socialism. In spite of their admiration for St Simon, Fourier and Robert Owen, the founders of historical materialism insisted that the motive force of human emancipation was class struggle, based on the existing material conditions of society and guided by a "scientific" analysis of the contradictions inherent in them. Utopia was not to be reached through ideal communities or the mere force of imagination disconnected from the realities in which we live.
No doubt they were right, but sometimes a flight of futuristic fancy can be instructive as well as entertaining. So it is with Jacques Attali's A short history of the future*, published last year in France with an English edition promised soon. Attali's career encompasses authoring a number of novels and plays, a stint as close advisor to (and later biographer of) François Mitterrand, a brief and controversial tenure as head of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and a report for the then secretary-general of the UN on the developing threat of nuclear trafficking and proliferation. In between he has written an influential work on the social significance of music!
The rise and fall of successive "centres" of world capitalism provides Attali with a framework for predicting some aspects of the future. Just as the core capitalist region - always associated with the transformation of what was a service into a commodity - has repeatedly shifted in the past, so it will continue to do so in the future. As advances in textiles were followed by printing, steam and electricity, so Bruges, then Venice rose and fell, then Antwerp, Genoa and Holland. Then came the turn of London, after which the centre crossed the Atlantic to Boston and from there to New York in the age of the motor car. With the computer chip it migrated again, this time to California.
But now the picture darkens as the US finally declines and new forms of market dominance emerge located only in cyberspace. This ultimate neo-liberal triumph reduces human actors to mere supports of economic competition. Inequality explodes, welfare states collapse, surveillance penetrates everywhere as criminality becomes organized on a global scale, and self-surveillance of health and thought becomes a condition of obtaining the insurance which is the only protection against all-pervasive insecurity. Then - floating into view in Attali's crystal ball - the weakened nation states recover their nerve and their will to defend themselves: a new age of global conflict appears.
Given the advances in weaponry, and particularly horribly in genetic manipulation and nanotechnology, we will be lucky to survive. But according to our author not only will we come through, the "third wave" of the future will see the installation of a super-democracy on a world scale. In this future the United Nations will have a privileged role: an expanded UN Charter will envisage new rights not included in the present one, and in particular -
"the essential and fundamental right to childhood, implying a duty of parenthood. Other rights and duties will require the protection of life, nature and diversity, and will lay down final boundaries to the market economy".
Utopian certainly; prophecy perhaps. But Attali's book encourages us to take a view of the challenges that face us on a scale longer than the next election.
*Une brève histoire de l'avenir (Fayard 2006)