How is our Concept of the Future Related to our Economic Environment?

01 April 1997
Article

This isn't an article but notes dashed off rather quickly in reponse to a BBC radio researcher's queries for a series on the idea of the future. The questions are in bold. I didn't hear the programme and have no idea what they may have used or indeed if they used anything. These notes date from April 1997.


The market has no concept of the past or the future, it works in the eternal present. This is particularly worrisome in the area of the environment. The market cannot warn of disasters to come. For example, if you cut down all the forests in the world and sold them for timber, furniture, etc., the market would register only gains; it could not register scarcity until it was too late. the costs of present economic actions which can cause permanent harm to our surroundings and life-threatening illnesses in future are all in the jargon 'externalised'; these costs are expected to be borne by society as a whole so the economy does not even think about them. They are beyond its range and scope.

Now that the market is everywhere and rules not just goods and services but labour, nature and money, our capacity for recognising the future is increasingly impaired. This come into play with precariousness - précarité is the main feature of the labour market in France now for those lucky enough to find jobs - applies to nearly all young people. Paradoxically, those who have presumably the longestfuture have the least capacity to plan for it; they have no idea what tomorrow holds.

In spite of commodities contracts called 'futures' it's fruitless to ask the market to consider the future in any normal sense of the language. For a banker or a mutual fund manager, six months is the virtual equivalent of eternity; 'long-term' and 'short-term' have changed meanings, they've been shrunk.

Is the affluent North's perspective of the future different from that of the debtor South?

Not in significant ways because the world is now a pyramid (social classes) & the elites of the south know they can count on the IMF & the World Bank to continue to impose structural adjustment which insures that the poorer members of society will continue to work to pay of the debts but the elites will continue to accumulate.

For both North and South, the future is a time when the rich, basically the top 20% of a given society, will become richer and the bottom 80% will grow poorer. Verified again and again, not least in the US and the UK. Your view of the future will depend very much on where you stand in the social hierarchy, not on where you live in the world.

At what point in our history did the future become a meaningful issue in economic terms?

Basically since the Enlightenment, and I'm sure this is not a very original answer. For centuries, people didn't expect much change, they didn't expect things to get better, they did what they did because it was expected by society or honourable but not because it would change society which was divided into seemingly permanent, immutable castes.

Our view of time in the West is a linear one, at least until recently we believed in Progress, that the Future would necessarily be better than the past. For the first time, since the 1980s in the US, workers' conditions have worsened; their children's lives will not be better than theirs; the whole notion of the future is going to change in unpredictable ways.

We may become more like traditional peasants for whom time is cyclical, and any change is likely to be for the worse. They predominantly fear the future, which has brought them nothing but trouble!

As for the South, the notion of development is just about dead. This too was a linear concept, the future was supposed to bring material wealth and social services to huge numbers of people in the so-called Third World or developing countries. Development was also based on the idea that the countries that needed to be developed had no history or destiny of their own. In 1966, Robert McNamara spoke of '100 countries caught up in the difficult transnation from traditional society to modernity'. They were all the same and they all needed to go the same place - to modernity.

Development is a typically future-oriented word - but in biology, development goes from the fruit to the flower, the embryo to the baby, if it goes on forever, you get a monstrous organism. Development shouldn't mean never-ending growth but that has been the most generally accepted meaning. Actually, development has improved the lot of the usual suspects, the top 20% which 30 years ago held 70% of the world's wealth and now holds 85% of it.

The South was important during the Cold War; what happened there could profoundly influence the future, but now without the threat of the Soviet Union, places which were once the scene of superpower rivalry have returned to their a-historical condition. They don't count.

Have economists changed their notion of the future in the last two hundred years?

Very interesting question. Adam Smith sees a transition from a society virtually without a division of labour and then a market society. He sees the market society becoming more complex, with growing abundance and accumulation, but not historically very different in its prinicples. Malthus sees more clearly the sweep of history, how plentiful food will lead to the over-production of offspring and thus to famine - reproduction will always outstrip production. His is a tragic view of the future. Marx, following Hegel, is the perhaps the greatest future-oriented economist ever born, he believed in the development of productive forces and particularly in the possibility of historical change through revolution.

Now instead of Marx and the dialectic, we've got Francis Fukuyama who talks about the end of history because Marxism has been definitively vanquished and what we've got left is capitalism plus electoral democracies which is the highest form we can aspire to.

So in fact between Adam Smith and the present, the changes in our views of the future have been wiped out. The difference is that Smith was more compassionate than present market-oriented economists, he saw clearly that thes elf-regulated market could have undesirable social consequences and he counted on characteristics he believed inherent to humans - that they exist not as isolated beings but in a social state; that they are concerned with the good opinion of others and will not take self-seeking too far, that they are possessed of 'fellow feeling'. Modern economists assume nothing of the kind, for them the market doctrine starts and stops with greed and self-interest. So the future will become whatever the market determines it should become and we know that this includes much greatersocial inequalities, uncertainty, précarité.

How is the future exploited by political and economic organisations to justify their actions?

This question makes me necessarily think of the World Bank and the IMF which use the future shamelessly and in the teeth of all the evidence to justify their acitons. SAPs: allow debt repayment but also hold out the promise of redemption through the medium of foreign investment. Sacrifice today for a better tomorrow. It doesn't work.

Is there a gulf between what is said about the future and the effect of policies adopted?

Yes, a huge one. Investment figures: 80% goes to 10-12 countries, not everyone can win, but everyone has to keep on paying debts. African debt - no relief in sight. TNCs control most trade which isn't 'free' at all.

Why is it so difficult for those who steer the global economy to take the future seriously? Does the 4-5 year electoral cycle of western democracies make economic short-termism inevitable?

Again, I don't think it's so much the electoral or formally democratic nature of our societies and economies that is the problem for taking the future seriously as it isthe penetration of the market into every nook and cranny of human existence. In the market, we are all isolated individuals in the war of all against all, there is not enough to go around, the struggle is constant. Who can think of the future under those circumstances? They have to think of beating out the other country, just as individuals have to beat out the competition at the national level. There's not much room for a project. The Welfare State, the New Deal could have one; the privatised State cannot. Similarly, threats come from rival States, which are organised - Hegel explained this very well; History is the history of the State, which is the carrier of the Idea. Barbarian hordes can be inconvenient, they can carry out limited terrorism but they are not a historical danger. Structural adjustment (the Bank & the Fund) helps to destroy virtually all the functions of the State except for the maintenance of order internally. It can no longer make economic or monetary or commercial policy - this is done for it by the Bank/Fund and accepted, otherwise the country gets no more credit. The political and economic elites of the third world have been more or less incorporated into world elites anyway & they know which side their historical bread is buttered on.

The term 'sustainability' is commonly used in discussions of the world economy and the future. What is meant by it, and what does its use and misuse tell us about out attitude to the future?

Another perfectly OK word which has become meaningless withing a few years. It was originally supposed to mean 'meeting our needs without impairing the capacity of future generations to meet theirs', but since the problem of economic growth was never discussed in this context, it's impossible to talk meaningfully about sustainability. The crucial point is that we produce today as much in 10 days as was produced in the entire year 1900. Economic production is an open system; it takes its raw materials and energy from the planet and spews out pollution, waste and heat.

In other words, it's an open system inside a closed one, because the biosphere will never get any bigger no matter what we do. We have to accomodate our economy to the biosphere, not the other way around. And the human economy already consumes at least 40 percent of what biologists call the Net Photosynthetic Product; meaning we leave 60 percent for all the other species. Our economy doubles every 25-30 years. In the year 2025, are we going to leave only 20 or 10 percent of the NPP for other species - i.e. keep on growing at present rates? This is patently impossible, but the Bank/Fund/ conventional economic Establishment refuses to even reflect on the sacred concept of growth. It's the ultimate heresy. So it's silly to talk about 'sustainability', we're going the opposite direction.

Personally I believe the Planet is now the only actor that can in Hegelian terms 'pose the negative, the antithesis' in the ongoing drama of history. Whatever Fukuyama says, it's not over, but the national State is too weak to take if forward and the international organisations we have are completely devoted to the market ideology. Who or what else can act? Just the earth, saying Enough is enough. Either we get the message or it really is the end of history, because it will be the end of the species. We can't get on without the planet, but the planet might - would - be very much better off without us.