The Long View 2007-04-10: 2035; God & the Left

Hong Kong protesters attacked by Triads

Hong Kong protesters attacked by Triads

John uses this 2007 report from the British Ministry of Defence to riff on some of his favorite themes. In particular, he seems to have well understood that communications technology could be used to surveil and manipulate just as much as it can be used to enrage mobs, and this was well before social media’s peak.

I’m intrigued by the idea that we might have a better set of transnational institutions if we stopped trying to solve the last century’s problems. John here asserts that most of the features of the international system were created to mitigate the scale of industrialized total war between nation states. Now that we are starting to lose the capacity to mobilize citizens in grand projects, the kind of wars we saw in the twentieth century is becoming less likely. Which isn’t quite the same as saying that we couldn’t have massively destructive wars in our future. It is just that the destruction will be because of violence and chaos spilling out of control because state capacity is on the wane.

While in general, I think John’s thoughts are pretty interesting, at least in the short term, here is one he got wrong:

No, immigration is not going to increase, or even continue at current levels. No, the European demographic dearth is not going to continue until the last Belgian turns out the lights.

After the well-intentioned Angele Merkel invited the world to settle in Germany, lots and lots of migrants took her up on the offer, setting off a populist reaction. The likelihood of lots of people leaving Africa in the 21st century is pretty high too. Lots of people make fun of Steve for talking about the UN demographic predictions that say there will be 4 billion people in Africa by 2100, saying that this is clearly ridiculous.

Maybe. Trends have a way of not continuing forever. One way is that the future people of Africa will find their homes poor and crowded and relatively undeveloped, and they will move elsewhere. This will change everything, as lots and lots of people move into new places. This happened before, in fact. We should expect future demographic transformations to be just as unsettled as the previous ones.


2035; God & the Left

The British Ministry of Defence is entertaining some unhappy thoughts about the year 2035:

Information chips implanted in the brain. Electromagnetic pulse weapons. The middle classes becoming revolutionary, taking on the role of Marx's proletariat. The population of countries in the Middle East increasing by 132%, while Europe's drops as fertility falls. "Flashmobs" - groups rapidly mobilised by criminal gangs or terrorists groups. This is the world in 30 years' time envisaged by a Ministry of Defence [report]... ....

"The middle classes could become a revolutionary class, taking the role envisaged for the proletariat by Marx," says the report. The thesis is based on a growing gap between the middle classes and the super-rich on one hand and an urban under-class threatening social order: "The world's middle classes might unite, using access to knowledge, resources and skills to shape transnational processes in their own class interest". ...

Migration will increase. Globalisation may lead to levels of international integration that effectively bring inter-state warfare to an end. But it may lead to "inter-communal conflict" - communities with shared interests transcending national boundaries and resorting to the use of violence.

There is a tradition of making retrospective fun of predictions made in sober reports written by committees of the great and the good. Nonetheless, reports like this are not as ridiculous as we pretend. In contrast to popular forecasts, they rarely mention flying cars. I remember the early reports from the Trilateral Commission in the 1970s. They forecast, quite correctly, that first the United States, and then Europe, and then Japan, would go through periods of difficult economic restructuring, with each region going into a relative eclipse that would last about a decade. That was pretty much what happened through the 1990s. As for the famous "Soylent Green" future projected by the likes of Paul Ehrlich and The Club of Rome, they do seem to have been attended by an unusually high level of self-delusion, but even they were really just variations on the theme that certain trends can't continue. Well, the trends did not continue, in part because of reactions to the hysterical forecasts. Judging from the press report quoted above, the MOD-UK does not seem to aspire to prophecy. Let me make a few comments about the issues I excerpted:

Flashmobs: We'll take this as a synecdoche for the security-downside of communications technology.

I suspect that most of these problems create their own remedies. For instance, there is likely to be some way that mass political activity organized through a cell-network could be detected and monitored. Technologies like this should actually facilitate the construction of unprecedentedly powerful tools of surveillance.

And if that does not turn out to be true? Prune back the capabilities of the systems. Information may want to be free, but the infrastructure to support all this subversive chatter is licensed public utilities. Mobile personal communications devices could be as highly regulated as handguns, with the difference that the restrictions on these devices could be made to work.

Brain chips: We should be so lucky.

The end of warfare between states: I think we might distinguish between the end of warfare between states and between nation-states.

We must remember that the state preceded the nation-state and will out last it. The scariest aspect of the nineteenth century and the first half of the 20th was the ability of states to mobilize their populations. This was possible because "the nation" became the chief way that people defined themselves politically. The basic machinery of global governance was designed to mitigate the catastrophic scale of total war, of war between populations, and to smooth down the economic instabilities caused by the efforts of states to manage all economic activity within their borders. However, we may see a world where few states can mobilize their populations because "the nation" has evaporated through demographic changes or has become post-democratically non-political. In such a situation, what the state does with the very limited military force it can deploy becomes less important.

Europe in the 18th century, before the period of mass politics, was a continent where war as almost continual because it was limited enough to be tolerable. It is hardly likely that post-political Europe will return to that condition. However, we should not exclude the possibility of a revival of interstate warfare, for the simple reason it will be for limited objectives.

The revolutionary bourgeoisie: Actually, most revolutionaries have always been middle class.

Classical Marxism was in some ways a modest affair. It married the Hegelian model of history to a not wholly misleading theory of economic cycles. The idea was that history would end with the last economic bust, the one that was so severe that it could not be recovered from. The problem was that the economic crashes were largely an effect of inadequate communication of prices; the severity of the crashes were eminently fixable by regulatory oversight (especially oversight to ensure transparency) and better technology. By the end of the 20th century, the hypothesis that capitalism must be mechanically mortal had been as thoroughly refuted as this kind of question can be. Since then, Marxism itself has been moving in an ever more meta trajectory: consider Hardt & Negri's attempt to redefine production as culture.

That sort of analysis has an audience, but such ideas have nothing to do with politics. Indeed, the fashion for such notions is itself a symptom of the retreat of politics.

On a more general level, there were other projections by the MOD about which we can say with some assurance "reversal is the movement of the Tao." No, immigration is not going to increase, or even continue at current levels. No, the European demographic dearth is not going to continue until the last Belgian turns out the lights. And climate change is likely to take care of itself. The scary futures it conjures up bear more than a slight resemblance to the Soylent Green future, and seem likely to produce a similar overreaction (not in promoting an economy of scarcity, but in new presumptions about what constitutes good engineering). The adaptation of societies to climate change will become invisible as time goes on.

* * *

Speaking of ancient futures, PBS last night broadcast a documentary entitled Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, about the origins of the mass suicide of 1978. With no disrespect intended to people like Jim Wallis, I could not help but be reminded of the project in the Democratic Party to rescue religion from the right-wing fundamentalists. The fact is that the return of religion to American politics started from the Left. Here's a quote from the Jonestown cult's founder, Reverend Jim Jones, in his salad days:

"I represent divine principle, total equality, a society where people own all things in common, where there's no rich or poor, where there are no races. Wherever there are people struggling for justice and righteousness, there I am."

And here's what he said after he shot the visiting congressman and had started passing out the Cool Aid:

In an audiotape that was recovered from the disaster site, Jones declares, "We committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world."

Jones was by no means a marginal figure. He was important on the Left of the Democratic Party in California because he could deliver a respectable-looking crowd within minutes should a national politician come to visit. There is at least one embarrassing picture of him on the same stage as Marilyn Carter, the wife of Jimmy Carter. And about Jimmy Carter, we should remember that it was he who brought evangelical protestantism to the forefront of national politics, as an expansion of the New Deal Coalition.

There are problems with politically conservative religion, just as there are problems with any attempt to define religion in political terms. Nonetheless, at least in the American context, the most catastrophic association between throne and altar has been on the Left.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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