A Brief History of the Future

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 April, 2009, 12:00am

A Brief History of the Future

by Jacques Attali

Arcade Publishing HK$200

Arthur Wing Pinero famously said that the future was only 'the past again, entered through another gate'. Jacques Attali, author and former adviser to French president Francois Mitterrand, is hoping to prove the truth of this maxim. In his latest offering, A Brief History of the Future (a best-seller in France), he seeks to predict the course of the 21st century armed only with a 19th-century Marxist philosophy.

Attali believes human history is charting a 'single, stubborn' path towards a final destination. No prizes for guessing that the endpoint is global and benevolent communist government. Unlike other Marxists, however, Attali is not afraid of putting a date on the collapse of capitalism: in about 2035, he says, not only will the American empire begin to collapse, so too will all nation states.

Attali first surveys 800 years of capitalism to uncover the 'iron-clad' laws of history that condemn it to this future collapse. Global capitalism has evolved through nine successive stages, each with its own capital city and distinct technology. But whether it is dealing with Bruges in the 13th century, or contemporary Los Angeles, Attali's account is largely the same.

Typical of this is his highly misleading analysis of the Golden Age of Dutch capitalism in the 17th and 18th centuries. He describes Amsterdam during this period as a city where the working classes feel alienated and 'public life is sumptuous'. In fact, Dutch public life then was informed by strict Calvinism, which condemned ostentation. The Netherlands also had a system of social support that was the envy of the rest of Europe.

Attali's breezy history never differentiates between different forms of capitalism and he performs extraordinary contortions to avoid admitting its beneficial aspects. Unsurprisingly, his future charts a similar path.

Freed from the nominal constraints of historical scholarship, Attali lets his imagination off the leash. He foresees a world where advances in technology will create a class of hypernomads: an economic elite able to move freely through virtual worlds. A new global ruling class, Attali predicts they will create a super-empire where nation states are replaced by global anarchy, unregulated capitalism and rule by pirates and insurance companies.

Don't fret though: democracy will eventually be restored by an enlightened class of altruistic transhumans.

Attali's ideological preoccupations obscure as much as his needless jargon. Throughout the book, economic explanations for events are privileged to the exclusion of all other factors. This leads to some breathtakingly shallow analyses of past and present: we are told, for example, that it was the increasing production of steel, cement and aluminium that ultimately set Hitler's Germany on the path to war from 1933 to 1938.

It is this myopia that really undermines Attali's claim to a serious futurist study. A huge number of non-economic variables is ignored in his analysis so many future possibilities lie unexamined. Despite devoting scant space to the future of the Muslim world, Attali still manages to make elementary factual errors. He claims that with the exception of a handful of democracies-in-progress (such as Turkey, Algeria and Senegal) countries in the Muslim world today can be divided into secular dictatorships or theocracies. He has forgotten, of course, the example of the world's largest Muslim country and democracy, Indonesia.

A Brief History of the Future is, if nothing else, a brazen book. Attali makes a number of outrageous claims, but none more so than the idea that he should be taken seriously as an intellectual opponent of capitalism.