What will happen to the world over the next fifty years? Will we see nations replaced by multinationals as the major geopolitical powers? Will the planet be engulfed by catastrophic conflicts and wars? Or will we see the dawn of a new era of enlightenment where humanity puts aside its differences and works together to build a better and more just world? According to a leading author, futurist and social theorist, they could be all three!
Jacques Attali has written over 80 books, covering 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 advisor to French President Francois Mitterand. However, what he likes best is looking back 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 humanity’s progress, around AD 1200, there have been nine distinct “nuclei” periods. In each of these periods, progress was centered on a geographic core – a city – and on a technology that arose in that city.
This began with Bruges, Belgium associated with the invention of the rudder stock, and continued through Venice (the caravel – small sailing ships), Antwerp (printing press), Genoa (accounting), Amsterdam (the fluyt cargo ships), London (the steam engine), Boston (the piston engine), New York (the electric motors) and Los Angeles (the computer chip).
When Attali joined me recently to attend a webinar, we discussed advanced theories in his book on 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 that following the fall of the Roman Empire than to 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 United States.
He tells me: “This is the core of my book … maybe we won’t have a new center. If we have a new center, it means we agree to move from the American empire to a new empire, and I suppose we are by 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” – with traditional thinking we have seen a deceleration in human progress, a decline in living standards and a bleak period. development of art, literature and culture.
“I don’t think China or anyone else can replace the United States, as no one has replaced the Roman Empire,” says Attali.
So what comes next? Well, Attali basically divides the next 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”, in which capitalist corporations will be the main lights of society and human progress, then “hyperconflict” – war, on a local or global scale, and “positive society”, which he also calls “rule of law” – something like a modern take on the Enlightenment, when humanity began to emerge from the medieval dark ages that followed the fall of Rome.
Importantly, Attali does not see this as a linear progression – indeed, all of these periods – or “waves”, as he calls them, can occur simultaneously. In fact, they probably already are. Which of them wins and becomes the driving force of humanity’s development in the next half century, is currently in the air.
For example, Attali argues 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 moving forward now. It is possible that governments are trying to avoid it by closing borders … but I don’t see governments being able to stop it … the US government could have done it, but it is so ingrained in companies 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 could arise in disputed territories such as Taiwan, could serve as a catalyst for wider global wars.
“Anything is possible and we should do all we can to stop this war that is coming and do everything we can to enact a global rule of law. We need a rule of law for the environment, for health, for hygiene, for food … [otherwise] the biggest losers are humanity and life as a whole.
Attali is also deeply interested in the question of what makes us human – and how it might change when technology – from artificial intelligence to cloning to bioengineering – unlocks new possibilities when it comes to creating and sustaining life. It is no longer inconceivable that we could someday transcend our mortality by overcoming the effects of aging or by replacing parts of our body with artificial or mechanical components. But if we’re heading towards an eternal life (or at least, greatly increased longevity) where we’ll live as brainless consumers or slaves to a corporate hierarchy, does that make sense?
Attali tells me: “There is no simple answer to this, 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. why an entity arose 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 full, where we talk more about his career, his work and his predictions for the future of the world and humanity.