What will happen to the world in the next fifty years? Will we see nations replaced by corporations as the main geopolitical powers? Will the planet be engulfed in catastrophic conflicts and wars? Or will we see the dawn of a new Age of Enlightenment where humanity puts aside its differences and works together to build a better and fairer world? According to a leading author, futurist and social theorist, it could be all three!
Jacques Attali has written over 80 books, spanning fiction, non-fiction and even children’s literature. He also headed the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, co-founded the EUREKA program for the development of new technologies and was an adviser to French President François Mitterrand. However, what he enjoys the most is looking at the past and trying to use what he finds to predict what will happen in the future.
One of his best-known works is A Brief History of the Future, published in 2006. In it he postulates that since capitalism overtook militarism as the driving force of human progress around 1200 AD, there have been nine distinct “cores”. periods. During each of these periods, progress has focused on a geographic core – a city – and a technology that arose in that city.
It started with Bruges, Belgium – associated with the invention of the rudder stock, and progressed through Venice (the caravelle – small sailing ships), Antwerp (printing), Genoa (accounting), Amsterdam (fluyt freighters), London (the steam engine), Boston (the piston engine), New York (the electric motors) and Los Angeles (the computer chip).
When Attali joined me recently for a webinar, we discussed the theories put forward in his book regarding what’s next. Not all make happy predictions! First, it predicts the decline of the United States as the dominant global superpower. However, he tells me, the situation is more likely to be similar to that following the fall of the Roman Empire than to the fall of the British Empire centuries later. Indeed, as with the decline of Rome, there is no industrialized, modern successor ready to step in and take the place of the United States.
He said to me, “This is the heart of my book…maybe we won’t have a new center. If we have a new center, it means that we agree to move from the American empire to a new empire, and I guess we’re not going… at the end of the Roman Empire, there was no successor.
Of course, what followed the end of the Roman Empire is a period that is generally known to historians as the “Dark Ages” – the traditional thought being that we saw a deceleration in human progress, a decline in the level of life and a dark period in the development of art, literature and culture.
“I don’t think China or anyone else can replace the United States, like no one replaced the Roman Empire,” Attali says.
So what comes next? Well, Attali broadly divides the coming decades into five periods – the decline of the existing dominant empire (the United States), a period during which other powers (China, Russia and the European Union, in particular) will try to fill the void, a period he calls “hyper empire”, where capitalist corporations will be the beacons of society and human progress, then “hyper conflict” – war, on a local or global scale, and “positive society”, which he also calls the “rule of law” – something similar to a modern re-enlightenment, when humanity began to emerge from the medieval dark ages that followed the fall of Rome. .
Importantly, Attali doesn’t see this as a linear progression – in fact, all of these periods – or “waves”, as he calls them, can occur simultaneously. In fact, they probably already are. Which of them will win out and become the engine of human development over the next half century is currently up in the air.
For example, Attali says that hyper democracy – or “positive society” – could appear after hyper conflict or instead of hyper conflict.
He says: “The ‘third phase’ – the hyper empire – is underway. It’s possible that governments are trying to avoid it by closing the borders…but I don’t see governments being able to stop it…the US government could have done it, but it’s so embedded in business that [it can’t] stop them.”
As for the threat of war, local conflicts such as the one currently underway in Ukraine, or others that may arise in contested territories such as Taiwan, could act as a catalyst for larger global wars.
“Anything is possible, and we must do everything in our power to stop this coming war, and do everything possible to establish a global rule of law. We need the rule of law for the environment, for health, for hygiene, for food… [otherwise] the biggest losers will be humanity and life as a whole.
Attali is also deeply interested in the question of what makes us human – and how that might change as technology – from artificial intelligence to cloning to bioengineering – opens up new possibilities when it’s about creating and sustaining life. It is no longer inconceivable that we may one day transcend our mortality by overcoming the effects of aging or replacing parts of our bodies with artificial or mechanical components. But if we are headed for eternal life (or at least vastly increased longevity) where we live as blind consumers or slaves to a corporate hierarchy, is there any point?
Attali tells me: “There is no simple answer to this, but if you want to avoid a life that is absurd, I would say it is to say simply and with humility that we do not know why humanity is here on Earth, we don’t know the reason why an entity appeared a million years ago that can ask the question “why am I here?”…the only thing we can do here in the middle of the universe is to have a better humanity and hope to one day find the answers to these questions.
Click here to watch my conversation with Jacques Attali in its entirety, where we talk more about his career, his work, and his predictions for the future of the world and humanity.