Fin de fearing the siècle

Anticipating the Future
October 2, 1998

Barry Buzan and Gerald Segal aspire, winningly, to vulgarise. Their bogeys are micro-specialism and millennial pessimism. Their oyster really is the world. Their message is progress. Their medium is part history, part current affairs, part science fiction: the past as preview. Anticipating the Future rejects endism as conventionally understood - Buzan's bete noire is "the clash of civilisations" peddled by Samuel Huntington - in favour of something like culminationism. "Many of the ideas going forward from modern history constitute a coherent package of practical and interlinked ideas about the organisation of the human political economy on a global scale I Not only are its individual components now deeply rooted in human society, but they are in many ways mutually supportive despite the tensions among them. The market needs a political framework. The state needs societal legitimacy. Societal legitimacy requires economic productivity. Both wealth and power require science and technology I It is not at all obvious how some or all of this package could be excised without threatening the overall function of the whole political economy. It is even less clear where the replacements would come from I What we seem to be looking at is the culmination of a long process of working out the forms of an industrial, global-scale, human political economy, and there is every reason to think that this package will have a profound effect on the future."

The authors pose for themselves - for us - certain overarching questions. Where does humankind stand today, on the verge of a new millennium? How did we get to the situation in which we now find ourselves? Are there patterns and momentums in the historical story that point to where we might be going? The answers to these questions are delivered in serviceable synopses reminiscent of a feature in The Economist, crossed with those invaluable little exam crammers, Key Facts. Key terms are glossed in parentheses in the text ("the newly emerging idea of nationalism (the principle that the right of self-rule resides in ethno-linguistic groups)"). Quotable quotes are boxed, like chocolates, for our delectation. Morsels of Marx: "Men make their own history; but they do not make it just as they please." Nibbles of Nietzsche: "Only strong personalities can endure history, the weak ones are extinguished by it." There is no time to dally, however; 20 millennia is a lot of human progress in one short book. We are whisked on by a distressingly efficient system of enumerated signposting. Four things happened to transform Europe's position from the 15th to the 19th centuries: the emergence of the nation state, the industrial revolution, the persistence of conflict, and the expansion overseas. Seven categories of global forces are now in play: the planetary environment, identity, knowledge, capital, population, sovereignty, and military power. Three transformations are under way: the shift from a world directly dominated by the West to "the westernistic era", the making of a single human space on the planet, and the potential to change the very components of ourselves. These are is never fewer than three, never more than seven.

Anticipating the Future exhibits an almost cabbalistic faith. As Superman leaps tall buildings, so the authors leap centuries. The spectacle is breathtaking, but the speculation is often earthbound. "What seems important about the past is shaped by what seems important in the present", "It is also likely that the past will still play a major role in shaping the future." Perhaps the most compelling passage argues for a broad conception of the West, not as a set of powers, but as a set of ideas - ideas with socio-cultural consequences. Hence the "westernistic" thesis:

"The old western core is now at the end of a unique period of direct global dominance. Just like the Greeks and the Romans, it leaves behind a vast penumbra of peoples and cultures influenced by its ideas - the sphere of westernisation I Unlike the Greeks and the Romans, the West still remains a powerful player into the post-western era, but it is only primus inter pares. Other ancient cores of civilisation I are increasingly able and willing I to assert the legitimacy of their own cultural values and the power of their economies and traditions. But these other cultures are now heavily penetrated by western ideas, and since many of those ideas are crucial to the generation of wealth and power, it is a safe bet that they will continue to be influentialI So just as the nearly two-millennium period of Hellenistic civilisation I can be distinguished from the 500 years of classical Greek civilisation that preceded it, so too can the 500-year period of 'classical' western civilisation be distinguished from the more multi-centred and multi-cultural period of 'westernistic' civilisation that we are now entering."

Who will read this book? Chris Patten, whose anticipations thus far have been spectacularly unsuccessful, recommends that every smart foreign minister and chief executive should do so. What the dumb ones should read he does not say, but the endorsement is indicative. Anticipating the Future is a bid for the global governing classes, if not exactly the browsers in the airport bookstall, then the lizards of the first-class lounge. It is a how-to book - part of a fin-de-si cle phenomenon of its own - how to get a handle on the past, how to get a lien on the future. The cut-price Kissingers who buy it could do themselves a favour. They could skip the sprat and try the mackerel: the big, brilliant originals like Fernand Braudel, Norman Davies, Simon Schama, and Theodore Zeldin. Not to mention People, States and Fear by Barry Buzan, and Rethinking the Pacific by Gerald Segal.

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Keele University.

Anticipating the Future: 20 Millennia of Human Progress

Author - Barry Buzan and Gerald Segal
ISBN - 0 684 81773 X
Publisher - Simon & Schuster
Price - £20.00
Pages - 295

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