Peeping over the parapets

Visions of the Future
March 22, 1996

Robert Heilbroner is a member of a comparatively rare and valuable species, the academic and scholar who speaks to, and writes for, the wider public beyond his own discipline,who spreads ideas and learning beyond the academe. Like John Kenneth Galbraith and rather few others, he is an economist who prefers writing English to publishing graphs. As that discipline grows steadily more remote and arcane, it is something for noneconomists to be grateful for.

His latest book is based on three lectures he gave at the invitation of Oxford University Press and the New York Public Library. Previous lecturers include Gary Wills, and Robert Hughes, whose Culture of Complaint attracted attention two years ago. This is not the first time that Heilbroner has peered anxiously into the future. Twenty years ago he published An Inquiry into the Human Prospect, and Visions of the Future is an elaboration of, and supplement to, that set of sombre reflections. There is very little repetition, yet Heilbroner makes no reference to his earlier book. This may be out of undue modesty. He certainly has nothing to be embarrassed about. Allowing for the collapse of communism and its consequences, The Human Prospect stands up extraordinarily well after two decades.

Visions of the Future is in part an attempt to set the earlier reflections in a longer historical perspective. Heilbroner discusses the way in which attitudes to the future have changed in the course of human history, and in line with these changes he divides history into three periods. Most of it is comprehended in "The distant past", an epoch which lasted until sometime around 1750 ad in the developed world, and longer elsewhere. "The distant past" was characterised by "expectations of changelessness", and a sense that the future was "hidden behind an impenetrable veil of ignorance". Incidentally, Heilbroner cites anthropologists and others who confirm that Rousseau was not far out when he associated the emergence of social and economic inequality with the development of agriculture and settled as opposed to nomadic communities. Rousseau's guesswork was truly inspired.

The 18th century begins the period which Heilbroner calls Yesterday, "but which is more accurately described as the rise and flourishing of capitalism", along with science, technology and popular political awareness. In this period the future appears as "a great beckoning prospect". There is a dominant belief in progress, in the possibility,indeed likelihood, of continuous improvement in the human condition.

But this period is now over. It came to an end sometime between 1945 and 1989. "Today" is where we are now, and its perspective on the future "is marked by a new degree of pessimism". It is not only a loss of confidence, but also the perception that the very forces which were once seen as the bearers of progress - economic growth, science, technological development - are now seen as malign as well as benign.

Science itself no longer has the self-confidence it once had: the philosophy of science is far less positivist than it classically was. As for capitalism, whose ascendancy has been so widely celebrated since 1989, Heilbroner points once more to its failures and weaknesses: the rise in the numbers of the poor in the United States and elsewhere; the persistence and growth of long-term unemployment in the developed economies, the widening gap between rich and poor countries.

When Heilbroner turns from "Today" to "Tomorrow", his projections are not on the whole encouraging. Apprehension tending towards pessimism is his response, and he gives sound reasons for both. Still, he tempers this with cautious hopes and reminders of the human capacity for endurance and resilience. Heilbroner's pessimism can be trusted, because he does not wallow in it.

This short book is written with all his usual clarity and elegance, although there are moments when it looks as though someone has misread his text, and put in the wrong word, or left the right one out.

Anthony Arblaster is reader in politics, University of Sheffield.

Visions of the Future: The Distant Past, Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow

Author - Robert Heilbroner
ISBN - 0 19 509074 8
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £13.99
Pages - 133

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