Today's date:
Summer 2007

A Brief History of the Future

Paris —Though it has become unfashionable, the French social thinker Jacques Attali continues to insist that there are laws of history—an inexorable logic and a core dynamic decipherable from the evolution of past events. Attali, the most well-known futurist in France, and a top aide to François Mitterrand when he was president, is a best-selling author of novels and non-fiction works. He also was founding president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development after the Cold War, and now heads PlanetFinance, a mico-credit agency for the developing world.

There are three key elements to Attali's worldview. First, that the clear thrust of history, starting from what Attali calls the Judeo-Greek sensibility onward to the demise of the Soviet Union, is away from the collective and the community, from the ritualistic and imperial, toward the mercantile order of "market democracy" based on individual freedom and free markets. Second, a nucleus of the mercantile order forms wherever a creative class masters a key innovation from navigation to accounting or, in our time, where services are most efficiently mass produced, thus generating enormous wealth. Third, the world order organized around the wealth and armies of the nucleus ultimately falls into crisis due to overextension in debt or war, or both, leaving open a vacuum filled by the formation of a new nucleus and its own order.

In his new book, A Brief History of the Future (Fayard, 2006), Attali traces historically successive nuclei from Bruges to Venice, Antwerp, Genoa and Amsterdam. In our age, he argues, the nucleus has moved from London (the steam engine) to Boston (the automobile and oil) to New York (electricity) and on now to the seat of the information revolution on the US West coast from Los Angeles to Seattle. Here, the cultural demand for individual freedom and mobility has been satisfied by mass production of services that enhance the power and pleasure of that free individual in the form of "nomadic objects"—everything from personal computers to cell phones to iPods to YouTube and MySpace.

But even as America has become the sole reigning superpower it has at the same time fallen into massive debt and trade deficits and a weak currency; it is addicted to Middle Eastern oil and is locked in combat with radical Islamists, dragging it into war and distraction. In Attali's stark vision, over the next 50 years we will witness the total domination of American-style free market globalization with its vast wealth and inequality, a violent backlash which will spell the demise of American power and ultimately the establishment of global democracy which harnesses the wealth-creating turbo-engine of global capitalism for social and environmental goals.

For Attali, the laws of history are not laws of predestination, but of inevitable cyclical patterns in which the order of established powers tends to break down, supplanted by rising powers who reorganize a new order with a new core out of the chaos. To understand this historical logic, in Attali's vision, is to be able to bend it to democratic ends. Excerpts of Attali's book appear below.

—Nathan Gardels

The Mercantile Order: A Historical Perspective

Paris —In order to understand the unusual surprises that the future may hold for us, it is advisable to understand what lay behind surprises encountered in the past. They enable us to figure out what is possible, what is changing and what remains unchanged. They help above all to recognize the tremendous potentialities of history.

Twelve centuries before the beginning of the Christian era, the first markets and the first democracies appeared on the Mediterranean coast, in the narrow spaces between empires. Two thousand years later, they would constitute the Mercantile Order. This order still exists and we shall probably remain under it for a long time to come. What follow are its history and the laws that govern it, which will remain valid in the future.

Although history books, even today, are more interested in the fate of kings than that of merchants, and prefer to talk about the rise and fall of empires which will continue to rule the world between them during future millennia, the essence of the movement of history now lies elsewhere: in the birth of an individualistic order that upholds human rights as the absolute ideal. It is an order capable of producing wealth more efficiently than any other system before it despite the reality that it ceaselessly violates its own ideal through generating inequality and poverty.

This order began as a minute parasite in theocratic and imperial societies. Later, it started competing with them and gradually replaced kings with merchants and all services with mass-produced goods. Over a wider area, with more efficient technologies, amidst violence, injustice and even splendor, it established the market as well as democracy, in other words market democracy. Despite numerous setbacks (which blocked the prospects of many), it gave rise to the Mercantile Order. It led to the triumph of the ideal of individual freedom, at least for those who were prepared to struggle for it. Century after century, it has been refining its institutions and will continue to do so until it reaches perfection.

The Three Waves of the Future: Triumph of the Empire of Money, War, Then Global Democracy by 2060

What our world will be like in 2060 is being decided today. To leave behind a world that is habitable, we must take the trouble to understand the genesis of the future in our present actions. It can be done: history obeys laws that enable us to foresee it and point it in the right direction.

The situation at the moment is quite simple: Market forces control the world today. The triumphal reign of money is an expression of the victory of individualism and explains the reasons behind the most recent upheavals in history from the collapseof the Soviet Union to the rise of China.

Yet, if this evolution reaches its end without any moderation, money will trample everything in its path, including even the United States, which it will destroy gradually. Having become the sole law controlling the world, the market will establish what I shall call a hyperempire, creating both unfathomable wealth and suffering on a global scale, fortunes as well as extreme poverty; nature will be exploited and despoiled in a systematic matter; everything will be privatized, including the army, the police and the judicial system. In our health-and-longevity obsessed era, human beings will be equipped with artificial body parts, sold in bulk to consumers who will themselves become cocktails of artifacts. The market for the trade in human organs will become widely established.

If the raw globalization driving this future is disrupted by resorting to violence, however, we will surely witness a series of atrocities and devastating battles using weapons from nanotechnology to germs that cannot even be imagined today. State will be pitted against state and so will religious groupings. Terrorist factions and pirates will roam the globe.I shall call such a war a hyperconflict.

On the other hand, if globalization can be controlled without being totally rejected, if the market can be restrained without being abolished, if democracy can be extended to all the four corners of the world in a concrete form, if the domination of a single empire over the world can be brought to an end, we can look forward to a different future with respect, freedom, responsibility, dignity and material satisfaction for most. I shall call this a hyperdemocracy. It would lead to the creation of a world democratic government complemented by a set of local and regional institutions. It would enable each and every person, through a totally new way of using the incredible possibilities offered by future technologies, to enjoy the benefits of commercial creativity on a fair and equitable basis, protect freedom from its own excesses as well as from its enemies and leave behind for future generations a sustainable environment.

What is most likely to happen by 2035? The dominance of the American empire, like its predecessors, will come to an end and the three waves of the future—the hyperempire, the hyperconflict and hyperdemocracy—will take over the world one after the other. To all appearances, the first two seem lethal and the third impossible. There is no doubt that these three future scenarios may coincide; in fact, they already overlap. However, I believe that hyperdemocracy, a superior method of organizing mankind, will triumph around 2060, and, as the ultimate expression of freedom, it will become the driving force for history.

It would also be absurd to attempt to foretell the future, because what we imagine are usually extrapolations from the present: thus even in early human societies, discourses on the future amounted to no more than predicting the eternal cycle of the stars and crops. According to priests and soothsayers, the world could survive only by ensuring the return of the rain and the sun; a better world could exist only in an ideal cosmic heaven, both stable and cyclical, and access to it depended more on the enigmatic will of the gods than on the actions of men. When it became clear that innovation could improve mankind's material, intellectual and aesthetic existence, there appeared, first in the area around the Mediterranean, a few peoples determined to think of material advancement and put it into action.

Those who then pondered the future of the earth (philosophers, artists, jurists, and later, scholars, economists, sociologists, novelists and futurologists) still tended to describe it as a naive extension of their present. For example, at the end of the sixteenth century, it was widely believed that the introduction of the mobile type in Europe would serve only to strengthen further the two powers that were then dominant, the Church and the Empire; similarly, at the end of the eighteenth century, the majority of analysts saw the steam engine only as an attraction at fairs and did not expect it to change the existing agricultural economy; again, at the end of the nineteenth century, most observers believed that electricity could be used for only one purpose: street-lighting. And if, at the beginning of the twentieth century, some people foresaw the advent of the submarine, the airplane, the cinema, the radio and television, nobody—not even Jules Verne—could have imagined that these inventions would change the geopolitical order then dominated by the British Empire; similarly, nobody foresaw the imminent decline of Europe, the rise of communism, fascism and Nazism; even less did anyone imagine the coming of abstract art, jazz, the atom bomb and contraception. Similarly, at the end of the last century, many regarded the personal computer and the Internet as inconsequential curiosities, and very few could imagine same-sex marriages. Finally, even very recently, very few analysts foresaw the return of Islam to the center of history.

Even today, most of the stories about the future are no more than extrapolations based on already visible trends. There are very few that venture too far from reality to forecast out-of-the-way occurrences, total reversals, paradigmatic changes, particularly regarding moral standards, culture or ideology. Even fewer anticipate ideological conflicts that could slow down or even thwart these profound cleavages.

Nevertheless, during the next fifty years, there will be manifold changes that can be easily described.

There will be a demographic upheaval. In 2050, unless there is a major catastrophe, 9.5 billion human beings will inhabit the earth, or 3 billion more than at present. Life expectancy in the richest countries will be almost a hundred years; the birth rate will undoubtedly stagnate close to the replacement level. This will result in an aging of the population. In China the population is expected to go up by 360 million, in India by 600 million, in Nigeria and Bangladesh by 100 million, in the United States by 80 million, in France by 9 million while in Germany it will go down by 10 million and in Russia perhaps by 30 million. Two-thirds of humanity will live in cities whose population will double as also the consumption of energy and agricultural produce. The number of people old enough to work will also double; more than two thirds of the children born during this year will live in the twenty poorest countries.

There will be many other upheavals that can be foreseen with a certain amount of precision: when observed over a very long period, History seems to unwaveringly follow a set direction that no jolt, however protracted, has so far succeeded in deflecting it for a fairly long time: century after century, mankind has cherished individual freedom more than all other values. It has done so by continuously refusing to submit itself to any kind of servitude, through technical progress that has reduced physical effort, by liberalizing its moral code, its political systems, its art and ideologies. In other words, human history is the story of the emergence of man as an individual having certain rights: the right to think and to control his destiny, freedom from all constraints, except the need to respect the rights of others to the same freedom.

This evolution is still the preserve of the richest people who constantly challenge the powers that be and give rise to new powers. To emphasize the primacy of the individual over society, people progressively devised various systems for sharing resources that are in short supply. For a very long time, they put them under the charge of warrior chiefs, priests and princes at the head of kingdoms and empires; then a new ruling class that was larger and more mobile, namely the merchants, thought of two new revolutionary mechanisms for sharing wealth: the market and democracy. Having made an appearance almost thirty centuries ago, they gradually established themselves; today they shape the major portion of the world and determine its future.

Gradually, despite increasingly violent reactions, the market has changed the principal services in increasingly larger areas (food, clothing, leisure, housing, transport, communication); initially they were provided free of cost—either willingly or under duress, then as commercial services; later, it transformed them into mass-produced industrial goods, the real tools of individual freedom.

Also gradually, the freedom to trade contributed to the emergence of political freedom, initially for a small minority and later for most people—at least formally—in increasingly larger areas, replacing religious and military power almost everywhere. All said and done, dictatorship gave birth to the market, which in its turn sired democracy. Thus after the twelfth century the world's first market democracies came into being.

Once again gradually, their geographical area expanded; the nucleus of power controlling all these market democracies gradually moved towards the west: it moved in the twelfth century from the Middle East to the Mediterranean, then to the North Sea, across the Atlantic Ocean, and finally, today, to the Pacific Coast. Nine "nuclei" followed each other: Bruges, Venice, Antwerp, Genoa, Amsterdam, London, Boston, New York, and now Los Angeles. The entire world, except for China and the Middle East, is now is now directly under the Mercantile Order.

Still gradually, competition led to the concentration of power over markets and democracy – supposed to be equally accessible to all—in the hands of the new elite that controlled capital and knowledge and created new inequalities.

Although this history covering thousands of years will continue in the same manner for another half a century, the market and democracy will extend to areas where they are now absent; development will speed up, the standard of living will rise; dictatorship will disappear from countries where it still exists. But insecurity and disloyalty will be rife; water and energy will be in short supply, there will be alarming climatic changes; inequalities and frustrations will increase; conflicts will multiply; and there will be mass population movements.

Around 2035, at the end of a very long battle, and in the throes of a severe environmental crisis, the US—still the dominant empire—will be subdued by the globalization of markets, particularly financial markets, and by the power of corporations, especially insurance companies. Financially and politically exhausted, like other empires before it, the US will cease to rule the world. It will continue nonetheless to be an important power; it will not be replaced by another empire or another dominant nation.

The world will become polycentric for some time, under the sway of a handful of regional powers.

Then, around 2050, the market, which by its very nature has no boundaries, will gain the upper hand over democracy, which will be institutionally limited to a small area. States will become weaker; new nanometrical technologies will bring down energy consumption and transform the remaining collective services: health, education, security and sovereignty; new consumer goods will make an appearance—I shall call them supervisors, as they will be used to measure things and make sure that they conform to set norms: Each person will become his own doctor, teacher, regulator. The economy will use energy and water more sparingly. Self-supervision will be the ultimate form of freedom and the fear of not satisfying norms will be its limit. Transparency will be a moral responsibility; anybody wanting to conceal his relationships, morals, the state of his health or his educational qualifications will be necessarily suspect. Increased life expectancy will give more power to the elderly who will choose to run up debts. Governments will have to step aside to make way for corporations and cities.

Hypernomads will govern a virtual empire, open and without a center: a hyperempire. Each person living in this empire will be answerable only to himself; companies will no longer have a nationality; the poor will be a market among many others; laws will be replaced by contracts, justice by arbitration, the police by mercenaries. New forms of entertainment will appear; there will be shows and games to entertain the settled population, while huge masses of nomads driven by poverty, infranomads, will disregard borders as they look for means of livelihood. Insurance companies, having become world regulators, will decide the norms that governments, companies and individuals must conform to. Private ruling bodies will be appointed by insurance companies to oversee the observance of these norms. Resources will become scarcer, the number of robots will increase. Time, even the most private moments, will be spent almost entirely in using commercial goods. The day will come when each one will have to repair himself, produce spare parts for himself and, finally, get himself cloned. Man will then become an artifact consuming other artifacts, a cannibal eating other cannibalistic objects, a victim of nomadic ills.

Naturally, all this will not proceed smoothly: Much before the collapse of the American empire, and well before the climate becomes almost unbearable, people will begin to fight over land, there will be innumerable wars; nations, pirates, mercenaries, mafias, religious movements will acquire new weapons, surveillance systems, deterrents and striking forces using electronics, genetics and nanotechnology. Further, the advent of the hyperempire will make each one compete with everyone else. There will be fights over oil and water, to keep land and to leave it, to impose a faith or to combat another, to destroy the West, to make one's own values supreme. Military dictatorships, together with armies and police forces, will seize power. A war more deadly than all others, a hyperconflict crystallizing all others may break out and exterminate mankind.

Around 2060, at the latest—unless mankind has already disappeared under a shower of bombs—it will no longer be necessary to put up either with the American empire, or the hyperempire, or the hyperconflict. New forces, altruistic and universalizing—at work even today—will take over the world, driven by ecological, ethical, economic, cultural and political compulsions. They will revolt against the demands of supervision, narcissism and set norms. They will lead progressively to a new equilibrium, this time on a worldwide scale, between the market and democracy: hyperdemocracy. Global and continental institutions suitable for collective life will be set up with new technologies; they will decide the limits of commercial artifacts, changes in the pattern of living and methods of using nature to serve mankind; they will support disinterestedness, responsibility, access to knowledge. They will promote the emergence of a universal intelligence by pooling together the creative abilities of all humans so that they excel themselves. A new economy, called a relational economy, producing non-profit services, will compete with the market before eliminating it, just as the market put an end to feudalism a few centuries ago.

During this period, the market and democracy, which are not as distant as they are believed to be in the sense they are understood today, will become outdated concepts, vague memories, as difficult to understand as cannibalism and human sacrifice today.

Like any summary, what has been written in the preceding pages will surely appear arbitrary if not ridiculous. But the point is to show that this is what is most likely to occur in the future. It is not a future that I would wish for. Attentive readers will find in this book a deeper analysis of the theories developed in my earlier essays and novels where I had pointed toward the geopolitical shift toward the Pacific, the financial instability inherent in capitalism, the importance of climate change, the emergence of financial bubbles, the fragility of communism, the threat of terrorism, the rise of nomadism, the advent of the mobile telephone, the personal computer, the Internet and other nomadic objects, the emergence of free and customized services and the significant role of art, particularly music, in the world's diversity. The most attentive among these readers will also notice changes in my thinking: Fortunately, it did not descend from the heavens in a fully developed form.