What mysteries will the future hold? When people ponder the mysteries that await us, they think of the flying cars soaring above over-crowded cities and ruined countrysides, while men in Virtual Reality suits make love to imaginary aliens. Even if your images don’t run exactly along those lines, chances are that when your imagination turns to the future, what you see is the social changes, the environmental impact, and, most of all, the technology. But not the politics.
And those politics will be much more interesting than the standard clichés abounding in most portrayals of the future. They will not be simple utopias or dystopias, or some past or present political system dressed up in futuristic clothes. They will be full of contradictions, discords, passionate factions and their heartfelt arguments. Groups will clash over issues and priorities that do not exist today – or are barely thought worth mentioning in our time. In fact, guessing what the future of politics will hold is nearly impossible.
So let’s do it.
Of course, some new Marx at this very instant might be sitting down and writing a new Communist Manifesto, a book that will totally change the future of politics and redefine the lines along which people struggle. But with 20/20 hindsight, we can see that even the original Manifesto was a part of the emerging social trends of the time – so it is in the trends of today that we shall find the politics of tomorrow.
The main political trends we shall deal with in this essay are:
We shall look at each of these in turn.Libertarianism
Libertarianism is a dominant philosophy of our age. The ideal of liberty taken to their apparently natural conclusion: each person free to choose their own path, pursue their own dreams, without any outside interference. Not only is this an ideal closely linked to both democracy and capitalism, it is also very intellectually coherent, imbedded in the internet, and, according to the theory of the free market, economically viable. Moreover, once certain liberties have been granted, it is nearly impossible to take them away. That, and the freedom aspirations that are marked all around the world, promises that the libertarian ideal will be a major political force in the coming century, despite the throw-back nature of the current US administration. In fact I would venture to suggest that the future of political thought will be defined by the strengths and the inherent weaknesses of the libertarian ideal.
For, paradoxically, the unarguable aspects of libertarian ideal have nearly run their course in the West. Personal choice is more and more respected; religious freedom long established, and freedom of movement is coming along. Overt racism is no longer tolerated, most methods of oppressive social control are extinct. The movement towards sexual and relationship freedom is now irresistible, and the last two major libertarian issues – euthanasia and drug tolerance – both have strong movements behind them. The internet is a libertarian paradise, and will undoubtedly remain so.
But there remains limits to this seemingly unstoppable juggernaut of freedom; one turns around cases where personal freedom has a definitive negative impact on society (this will be addressed in the next section, Interdependence) the second is about one problem that libertarianism does nothing to address, namely inequality (addressed in the section of the same name).Interdependence
In the traditional phrasing, “my liberty stops where starts that of my neighbour”. And, as vacuous pronouncement after vacuous pronouncement reminds us, our world is getting more interconnected and more interdependent. Global pollution is the prime example of such a trend (which is why some factions try to argue it out of existence!), a definitive limit to libertarianism: a global problem resulting from individual freedoms.
There are many such issues, though most – with the notable exception of trans-national crime – are environmental problems of one sort or another. Being global, they require global solutions, a higher degree of political integration between governments at the highest level. There are definitive trends in that direction, but will this result in a major political force in the coming decades?
The signs are that yes. The economic factors are mainly positive; the main growth areas today are in high tech and internet industries, which are relatively non-polluting. Moreover these industries have a high turn-over rate, quickly being replaced by other, similar industries; it is therefore much easier to require the latest environmental improvement be built in from the start.
Also crucially from an economic perspective, more and more of the cost of products is becoming absorbed my marketing and advertising rather than the actual production costs; this means that the extra cost of “clean” production is proportionately smaller.
Economic aspects dealt with, can we say that there are strong social trends to support environmental protection policies? Again, the signs are that yes; environmental issues are becoming essentially “lifestyle choices” for a growing proportion of the developed world. These people want to have a pleasant and safe environment, and are willing to pay – a little – to that effect. Moreover these people are found across the political spectrum, from traditionalist conservatives to Greenpeace activists. Add to that a environmental movements among the poor themselves – varied though their agendas may be – and we have the social for a political movement. The question is, what form will this movement take?
A strong trend in the environmental movement today is for people to take responsibility for their own environmental impact – encouraging voluntary recycling, the use of more efficient cars, and so forth. However, this is not likely to be a major factor in future environmental politics, both from an efficiency standpoint (in a voluntary system, the major polluters are precisely those who do not volunteer) and a practical one (the current trend is towards people becoming money-rich and time-poor; voluntary measures, on the contrary, are relatively cheap but quite time consuming). So environmental politics will mainly take the form of governmental projects and subsidies (the disposable cash available for such measures becoming proportionately greater) and various compulsory measures, regulations towards corporations and individuals.
This will set up one of the main political fault lines of the coming years, between libertarian trends and environmental rules. Other such conflicts will also certainly develop between personal freedom and the common good, but this will probably be one of the most virulent. As well, since environmental issues are global issues, the means to combat them must be global as well: this dovetails into the next major trend, internationalisation.Internationalisation
Increased global problems of various sort, increased global mobility of people, technology, knowledge and capital, will inevitably result in increased internationalisation. This is not just the current economic-driven globalisation; this will be a homogenisation of legal systems (already visible across the world on issues like international crime, money-laundering standards, and trade barriers, but extending soon to more common crime, corporate standards, movements of people and environmental issues), an increase in binding trans-national treaties and corresponding legal authorities, and, ultimately, a certain degree of cultural homogenisation.
This internationalisation does not have a pronounced political agenda by today’s standards; however it will set the scene for future political conflicts, both with cultural and local movements trying to resist it, and conversely certain groups trying to establish a truly trans-national government or authority.
Nor should one minimise the effect of technology, both in promoting global homogenisation and in allowing various new sub-cultures to develop within the global culture; this last development is also aided by the libertarian trend. In fact, it is certain that the coming world will be a lot more diverse than any country is now: however the various sub-cultures will not be based around any nation-state.
Whereas all the other trends mentioned so far have clear-cut political implications, that is not the case for the issue of inequality (of wealth, of opportunities, of access to resources, etc...). It is not at all obvious what the future trend on this issue will be.
What is certain, however, is that current inequality, already at a record high (when considered globally; within most countries, inequality is generally well within historical standards), will continue to grow for at least several decades. This implies that political struggles over the issue will continue for some time to come. And the signs are that this it is shaping up to be a major struggle.
The forces arrayed against resolving the inequality issue will be immense. With internationalisation sweeping through the legal and immigration systems, old fashioned conservative nationalists will be turning most of their energy to fighting anything that would appear to cost their country money or opportunities. Libertarians, while sympathetic to the idea of equality of opportunity, will mostly resist most state or multi-state effort to bring it about. Most especially, they will resist the sort of taxation and redistribution that will be needed to make a serious dent on inequality of wealth. The internationalists will focus more on legal standards and on the middle classes, at least initially. And corporations will be very suspicious of any market-distorting governmental efforts to end all but the most egregious cases of inequality.
However, despite these formidable obstacles, there are reasons to believe that political forces pushing for more equality will have some measure of success. For a start, their core message – as opposed to their methods – is simple, easily articulated, and media-friendly. More importantly, the economic case against governmental intervention is not as strong as it seems. All the successful economies today are highly regulated capitalist economies (even the US). Often the emphasis is placed on the capitalist aspect, to contrast them with others; but the regulated aspect is also vital, to smooth out the wild fluctuations of a purely capitalist economy – it is no coincidence that a repeat of the Great Depression has not happened since the size of government has increased – and to stop companies themselves undermining the system by distorting the markets to their advantage. Free markets need to be highly regulated to remain free; this gives a window of opportunity to those who would want to argue the use of governmental resources to combat inequality.
Other issues, such as the distribution of water and other vital resources, will cry out for trans-national agreements. The increase in education standards in some previously third world countries, relocation of companies, and emerging middles classes in various areas imply that some inequalities are being successfully dealt with by their local government combined with standard economic forces. And this emerging power will certainly used politically, on the world scene.
Since there are some force on this side of the balance, it is probable that laws directly causing inequality (such as tariff barriers, restrictions on movement, double standards for national companies, etc..,) will be eventually got rid of. On the other hand, positive, active measures to reduce inequality will be much harder to get enacted, and will be one of the political battles of the coming century.Final Notes
Some major aspects of current trends have not been analysed at all in this essay; this list is not meant to be exhaustive. For instance, the political influence of religion has not been looked into at all. Though the possible future of religion is dealt with in a separate paper (see HHHHH) the political effect of this is much harder to predict, as religious influences can act in many different directions and the evolution of religious thought is very hard to forecast. Also, religious organisations tend to add their weight to various existing political movements; those that have created their own entirely separate agenda are – relatively – rare.
Another minor codicil to the future of politics is the future of intolerance (racial, sexual, national, etc...). All the trends mentioned here, from Libertarianism to issues of Inequality, converge on reducing intolerance: thus one can confidently say that strong, overt intolerance will continue declining in years to come. However, as pointed out in the Internationalisation section, various trans-national sub-cultures will develop, probably using the internet or its successor as a base. And any strong global political consensus will be erased by the strong libertarian/individualist trend, probably resulting in the rise of more subtle forms of cultural intolerance. This will be another major struggle for the next generation: unfortunately, it’s impossible to predict what form it will take.
Finally, what shape will politics take over the next hundred years? Will it still be based around elections, or more around the currently fashionable single issue campaign groups? This will be a question for the next essay (HHHHHH).
In conclusion, the politics of the future, like the politics of the present and the past, will be an arena of arguments, struggles, idealism and opportunism. I hope having been correct in setting out the major axes around which these arguments will take place.