What will happen to the world in the next fifty years? Will we see nations replaced by corporations as the major powers in geopolitics? Will the planet be engulfed in catastrophic conflicts and wars? Or will we see the dawn of a new age of enlightenment where humanity sets aside its differences and works together to build a better and more just world? According to a leading author, futurist, and social theorist, it could be all three!
Jacques Attali has written more than 80 books, spanning fiction, nonfiction, 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 served as an adviser to French President Francois 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 posits that since capitalism overtook militarism as the driving force of humanity’s progress, around 1200 AD. C., there have been nine different “cores”. periods. In each of these periods, progress was centered around a geographic core, a city, and a technology that arose in that city.
This began with Bruges, Belgium, associated with the invention of the rudder stock, and progressed through Venice (the caravel: small sailing ships), Antwerp (printing), Genoa (accounting), Amsterdam (fluyt cargo ships). ), London (the steam engine), Boston (piston engine), New York (electric motors), and Los Angeles (the computer chip).
When Attali recently joined me for a webinar, we discussed the theories presented in his book about what comes next. Not everyone makes happy predictions! First, it predicts the decline of the United States as the world’s dominant superpower. However, he tells me, the situation is more likely to be similar to what followed the fall of the Roman Empire than the fall of the British Empire centuries later. This is because, as with the decline of Rome, there is no modern, industrialized successor ready to step in and take the place of the US.
He tells me, “That’s the core of my book…maybe we don’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 think we’re not going to a…at the end of the Roman empire, there was no successor.”
Of course, what followed the end of the Roman empire is a period generally referred to by historians as the “dark ages”; the traditional thinking is that we saw a slowdown in human progress, declining standards of living, and a bleak period in the development of art, literature, and culture.
“I don’t think China or anyone else can replace the United States, just like no one else replaced the Roman Empire,” says Attali.
So what comes next? Well, Attali broadly divides the next few decades into five periods: the decline of the existing dominant empire (the US), 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 leading lights of society and human progress, then “hyper-conflict” – war, on a local or global scale, and “positive society”, which he also calls the “state of right” – somewhat akin to a modern iteration of the illustration, as humanity began to find its way out of the medieval dark ages that followed the fall of Rome.
Importantly, Attali does not 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 one of them wins and becomes the driving force behind the development of humanity for the next half century, is currently up in the air.
For example, Attali says that hyperdemocracy, or “positive society,” could appear after hyperconflict or instead of hyperconflict.
He says: “The ‘third phase’, the hyper empire, is happening now. Governments may seek to prevent it by closing borders… but I don’t see governments being able to stop it… the US government could have, but it is so involved with 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 disputed territories such as Taiwan, could act as catalysts for larger global wars.
“Anything is possible, and we must do everything we can to stop this coming war, and do everything we can 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 comes to creating and sustaining life. It is no longer inconceivable that we may one day transcend our mortality by overcoming the effects of aging or by replacing parts of our bodies with artificial or mechanical components. But if we’re headed for an eternal life (or at least, a much greater longevity) where we’ll live as mindless consumers or slaves to a corporate hierarchy, does that make any sense?
Attali tells me, “There is no simple answer to that, but if you want to avoid a life that is absurd, I suggest you simply and humbly say that we don’t know why humanity is here on Earth.” , we don’t know the reason why a million years ago an entity arose 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 one day to find the answers to these questions.”
Click here to see 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.