Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Review: A Short History of the Future

A Short History of the Future, by W. Warren Wagar

In his fictional account of the next 200 years, historian W. Warren Wagar outlines a plausible technoprogressive future. Perhaps more overtly leftist than many mainstream progressives would prefer, his future nonetheless encapsulates the criticisms of capitalist globalization they share.

Briefly, Wagar postulates the continued dominance of multinational corporations, culminating in the formation of a "super-WTO" called the Global Trade Consortium wielding enough economic influence to coerce even superpowers such as the Soviet Union (the book was initially written in 1989) to acquiesce to its wishes. Eventually, the GTC's capitalist boom results in a capitalist bust during the 2030s, followed by international rivalry and posturing, and ultimately the Catastrophe of 2044, global nuclear war. In the aftermath of World War III, as the global South takes on the role of the core and the North the periphery, a new order emerges, a democratic socialist regime called the Commonwealth. With time, technology allows the dissolution in 2159 of even this egalitarian government, and the House of Earth is the result -- utopian anarchy in which communities organize as they wish, independent and dependent upon each other only to the extent that they desire.

The book really presents one dystopia (the current system) and two utopias, and while chronologically the anarchist vision follows the democratic socialist, the socialist utopia is not portrayed as inferior or the anarchist as preferable. The interesting thing about both of these utopias is that they represent two great technoprogressive strands that are in some way opposed, but in others can work in parallel: large-scale public works and technoliberating decentralization.

The socialist Commonwealth is capable of achieving projects that would be generally impossible without some sort of centralization. They create a Planetary Restoration Authority to oversee the reversal of the significant damage caused by global warming, among other things reclaiming a flooded Florida and Bangladesh. They bring incomes to within a 2:1 ratio of rich to poor, and mandate gender and racial equity worldwide. A space solar power system is put into place, generating free energy for the world. Finally, they launch a Genetic Initiative for "enhancement" biotechnology; after a brief period of random lottery, the treatments are made available to all prospective parents.

The anarchist utopia founded by the Small party movement, in contrast, maximizes liberty for individuals and groups, but requires a much greater technological base. House-sized antimatter generators allow communities energy independence; the SPS system is discontinued as centralized and vulnerable. Advanced bio- and nanotechnology gives communities and households the ability to be entirely self-sufficient if they wish. Cultures can be as open or closed as desired; while this has the downside of allowing repressive societies to exist, there are no shortage of novel experiments in democracy and polyarchy and anarchy. Finally, since voluntary collaboration is certainly still possible, confederations manage to launch interstellar missions and terraform Mars.

Whether or not one agrees with the specific choices Wagar makes in his exploration of a possible future, the sheer depth of that exploration makes A Short History of the Future a valuable source of inspiration -- outrage at our present condition, amazement at the possibilities -- for any progressive.

A discussion of the more political aspects of Wagar's book can be found in the Journal of World-Systems Research, here.

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