Pros: A short book with an easy-to-read description of Western history
Cons: Predictions either trivial or absurd. Many factual mistakes. Not a single reference.
Predictions either trivial or absurd. Many factual mistakes. Not a single reference.
Very often, when I have a chance to sit down with my younger brother, a philosopher and playwright, I like to discuss history and politics and gauge my inferior knowledge against his more credible scholarly background. We live in a politically fascinating period, which saw the unexpected demise of Communism and also an unexpected crisis of Capitalism, with the accelerating collapse of its master, the USA. What will the world look like politically around the middle of this century? Which nation will replace US hegemony in a period that even the Wall Street Journal agrees will be the post-American century? Or will it be a transnational world, without a center? A few weeks ago, as we debated these fascinating themes, he suggested I take a look at a recent book by French economist and (mostly self-proclaimed) intellectual Jacques Attali.
Attali is a prolific 65-year old economist, who was advisor to F. Mitterand and writes about a book per year, plus commentaries for French magazine L’Express (this was my only exposure to him prior to this book) and occasionally novels and plays. In this 226-page booklet, written without the benefit of a single footnote, he rambles without any particular structure about the future of the world, presenting a number of interesting scenarios which, in the end, utterly fail to convince the reader that even the author himself believes in much of what he is saying.
First of all, I must clarify that I have respect for Attali: his vision goes beyond economics, and he seems to have a sweeping command of history and philosophy which allows him to paint the history of mankind in an engaging, if superficial way, without even picking up a reference book. I say this because this book is so full of factual mistakes that, had Attali even Googled some of the stuff he was narrating, he could have made the book a little more accurate and credible. I guess that was not the intent: whenever the pyramid of Cheops was erected (he’s off by 200 years) or whoever introduced liberty of religion in Rome in 313 (not Maxentius, who is Attali’s choice, because he was already dead in 313); and were the Mongols really an Indo-European tribe? All this isn't important…the broad strokes of his history are fun to read, errors aside, and provide a compelling (if skimpy) background to the future he is trying to predict.
The history of modernity, claims Attali, is a victory of the “merchants” (and therefore market democracies) over Gods and Kings. Each phase of market evolution is accompanied by technological revolutions, where the existing “heart” of the market fails to adapt to the new world and loses its supremacy. In sketchy descriptions, Attali traces the rise and fall of the 9 “hearts” of Western civilization: Bruges, Venice, Antwerp, Genoa, Amsterdam, London, Boston, New York and Los Angeles. Each of these hearts, if one wants to be picky, turns out to be as unbelievable as the next. As influent as Belgium may have been in world history, I find it debatable that it was positioned at the center of the economic world twice in the modern era. Was the world really ever so unipolar? At the same time, it is hard to see a transfer of power 3 times within the US. Why would LA be the center of the US? Because of the computer revolution? Biotechnology? Movies and entertainment? Is he confusing Silicon Valley with Southern California? Indeed, his knowledge of US geography seems shaky when he remarks that California stretches from Mexico to Canada. Are Oregon and Washington simply appendages of the Golden State? In referring to the urbanization that accompanied the rise of New York, Attali affirms that this was easy because <i>the US never had a rural tradition</i>. Could anyone knowledgeable have written such an idiocy? I read this three times: yes, he really wrote that! I must admit that at this point I began to take this man less and less seriously.
In the chapter “The End of the Empire”, Attali wonders where the next “heart” will reside. At first he speculates that America may still be at the center of the world, although no longer as dominant as now. Then he toys with the idea that Europe may go back to a central position in the world. In the next 20 years, the EU will probably incorporate the ex-Yugoslavian countries, Ukraine, Bulgaria, and Romania (note: at the writing of this book, the latter countries were already part of the EU – amazing how easy it is to predict the future after the fact!). Then comes the turn of Asia: China could be the next leader, but then again probably not, although it will become a democracy. Japan, Russia, South America? Well, perhaps there won’t be a heart after all. The globalization of the markets will create a population of nomadic professionals (good guess, it’s already taking place), and the countryside will empty further and this will create more mega-cities (brilliant – if you have seen Shanghai and Bombay, you know the future is here already). Here is one of the most amusing predictions: <i> In 2050, a billion people will live in 50 Asian cities, each with more than 20 million people, and some with even more than 30 million.</i> Clearly, Attali does not have a Ph.D. in mathematics!
To get to the meat of Attali’s predictions, the next phase of our history (easy to predict, because it is here already) is that of a “hyper-empire” where the nation states will lose power and the large industrial conglomerates will run the world. This will make democracies obsolete or simply empty shells, our freedoms will vanish and we will live under constant surveillance.
This phase will be followed by a “hyper-conflict” phase of endemic wars. All rising industrial powers will arm themselves (EU included), armies will become less and less tied to states and will be more of the mercenary type. War makes good business. New instruments of propaganda will convince people that the wars are necessary, and especially fierce will be the competition for dwindling resources, like oil and water.
Finally, unexpectedly – if we are lucky- a new wave of hyperdemocracy will rise. Sustained by visionary figures called “trans-humans” (Attali cites Mother Theresa and Melinda Gates!!), humanity will finally shape its vision of peace and prosperity and our history will have a happy ending, who knows? Maybe…I am definitely rooting for Melinda Gates to save the world….
This sugary ending tops the list of absurdities contained in this book, but it is unlikely that Attali believes a word of it. Perhaps a positive conclusion will help sell more. Written by a respected intellectual, this book will probably please a variety of readers who want a “light” version of historical analysis. The book appears to have been written hastily, without editing and fact-checking. Perhaps during a smoky TGV ride through France, or during a particularly fastidious bout of dyarrhea. The book is therefore of a quality commensurate with the setting in which it was probably produced. This is the first Attali book I read. Given that I consider him a lucid analyst of modernity, this book may simply be a slip. It would not deserve more than a star, but I will give him two out of respect for his stature.
I do not recommend this unsupported string of absurd (or obvious) predictions, unless you really want to feel good and see how many major blunders you can find in the book of a great French intellectual. I, who am not a historian, have found more than a dozen. If you are a scholar, you will certainly find many more. Attali just wasn’t paying attention, it seems. And finding all these mistakes will boost your ego. It worked for me!
NOTE: I read this book in its Italian translation. The English version is still in the press.