Dan Hannan states into the future...
...and finds himself standing shoulder to shoulder with a Europhile French intellectual
It's a dangerous business, forecasting. Kelvin McKenzie, the pugnacious tabloid editor, once sacked his horoscope writer in a letter which began: "As you will already know..."
Predictions, especially those which seem banal at the time, often condemn their authors to the ridicule of generations. "Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?" demanded HM Warner of Warner Brothers. "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers," said the chairman of IBM in 1943. "We will bury you," Nikita Khrushchev assured the capitalist world in 1958.
The prophecies which seem most risible in retrospect were often received opinion in their day. Those who are most convinced that the world is overheating were warning us, in the 1970s, of a new ice age. In the 1930s, almost everyone assumed that a growing role for the state was both inevitable and desirable. Science fiction of that era envisaged a future in which mankind would be directed by a benign technocratic elite.
The future has turned out better than expected - democracy survived past 1950The Second World War caused people to question the state's beneficence, but not its power. The post-war period was the age of the dystopian novel: 1984, Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange – all still predicated on the idea that people would be told what to do by an all-powerful state. Happily, things didn't work out that way: the thing that almost all futurologists of that era missed was the rise in consumer-driven freedom.
By and large, the future has turned out better than expected. One especially enjoyable example of misread entrails was a book published in 1936 by John Langdon-Davies entitled A Short History of the Future, which confidently assured its readers: "Democracy will be dead by 1950". You can see why he thought so in 1936. But human resilience has a way of confounding pessimists.
Three years ago, Jacques Attali wrote a book with – apparently by sheer coincidence – the same name: Brève histoire de l'Avenir (Arcade, £16.99), which has just been published in English. I was all set not to like it. Attali is one of those semi-state-funded intellectuals who cannot exist outside France. He had been the first head of the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, which is meant to help struggling firms, but often ends up giving soft loans to Europhile multi-nationals. In that role, he caused a small scandal by spending millions of pounds on marble cladding to glorify his headquarters. Just the sort of Establishment Euro-enthusiast, I thought, who would be utterly assured in his opinions and utterly wrong.
Well, he's assured alright. He foretells our future with sublime confidence. The end of the American empire will be followed by planetary empire, then planetary war, then planetary democracy. His tone, thoughout, is that of a French philosopher, dealing with abstract nouns because empirical reasoning is beneath his dignity. And yet, for all this, the fellow has a point. Unlike past futurologists, he is neither unduly alarmist nor unduly pessimistic. His historiography is Marxist, in the sense that he sees humankind as having a direction, and politics as being ultimately about economic control. But he uses Marxist methodology to predict the rise of freer markets and freer citizens who will, in time, transcend the state. To put it another way, he turns the Orwells and Huxleys and Burgesses on their heads.
Is he, however, repeating their mistake in another way, viz by assuming that current trends will continue? I don't think so. Very few people truly grasp the magnitude of the technological revolution. In the past week, we have seen politicians and journalists struggling to explain the phenomenon of online news sources (such as The First Post). They don't understand that the internet has pulverised monopolies, that they no longer get to decide the headlines. Attali understands that change, and extrapolates from it.
For those who still don't get it, let me spell it out. The days when a front-bencher could brief a dozen lobby correspondents and thereby dictate the next day's news cycle are over. Millions of online readers and writers now reach an aggregate view of what is interesting. Amateurs are crowding out professionals – something that will soon transform medicine, law and teaching as much as politics and journalism. Why ask a GP to look up your symptoms when you can do it yourself online? Why pay a notary to fill in forms when a simple programme does it for you? Why send your child to school when you can download enough to teach him the national curriculum in less than two hours a day?
These points are not Attali's. He makes rather more sweeping generalisations about the return of nomadism, the value of leisure time, the spiritual role of music and the like. But the theme is the same: his vision of the future is based on the individual.
Why should we listen? Well, here's a reason. In between the French and English editions came the credit crunch. So, by sheer accident, we can tell exactly what Attali was writing before the event. This is it: "The price of real estate in the United States will plummet; the credit pyramid, based on the value of American housing, will collapse. The crisis could also come from the inability of the financial system to hold on to its own savings, which will be invested in increasingly speculative fashion in funds managed on the internet from tax havens. The profitability of capital will no longer be maintained by the rise in the value of assets. The financial crisis is about to explode".
I'd say that gives him the right to be heard, wouldn't you?