After the Century of Isms: What is the Future of the Future?

Gerry Hassan

July 7th 2010

1. How Do We Think of the Future?

This talk is going to take us on a journey into the future, look at the idea of ‘story’ and ‘the official future’, what it is, why we are living in it, and the possible alternatives. In this it will draw on the work of two futures projects – Scotland 2020 (1) and Glasgow 2020 (2) – which I led working with the UK think tank Demos.

2. The Notion of Futurology

The conventional way of looking at the future can be found in the notion of futurology. The origins of this can be found in the evolution of military planning at the end of the Second World War and the early years of the Cold War. This came together in the establishment in the immediate post-war era of the RAND Corporation who gave birth to the modern idea of futurology. From this time – such futures concepts emerged as ‘the three Ps’ and ‘the W’: probable, possible and preferred futures, and the ‘wicked issues’; along with scenario planning (3).

It is not a surprise that this age gave us the modern idea of futures thinking in the heart of the American military-industrial complex: for this was the greatest constellation of power the world had ever seen which had embraced mass production and ‘total war’ to defeat alongside the Soviets the Nazi and Japanese war machines. This period also gave us from futures thinking such ideas which appear in everyday life as ‘the war room’ and ‘the think tank’.

Futurology has become one of the languages of the world’s elites: of governments, corporates like BP and Shell, and the rich and powerful. This has made it more and more problematic, along with the democratising effect of the internet. This has begun to be noticed even in the mainstream by ‘The Economist’ who have stated ‘futurology as we knew it 30 or 40 years ago … is all but dead.’ Instead, futurists ‘have stopped claiming to predict what ‘will’ happen. They say that they ‘tell stories’ about what might happen’  (4).

3. The Idea of Story

Story is increasingly used as an alternative; used to democratise the future and open up discussions and conversations on values, meaning and philosophy.

However, we have to be careful and not naively assume that story is ‘good’ as institutional opinions, governments and corporates increasingly use story to legitimise their worldview. One sizeable British outsourcer that I know embraces ‘story’ for its processes of advancing marketisation, privatisation and the fragmentation of public services. If we go further some of the leading forces for reaction in the world clearly had a sense of story; the Nazis obviously had a story, as did the Soviet Union and George W. Bush; this doesn’t mean that they were somehow any more edifying in their views.

4. The Official Future

The notion of the official future is a concept which describes the way government, business and institutional opinion thinks of the future. What it implicitly says is that the future has already been decided by forces more powerful and wise than the rest of us, and that the only option available to us is to knuckle down and play our bit parts as cogs in the machine.

The official future presents a version of globalisation, marketisation and neo-liberalism – and by the latter I mean the prioritisation of certain kind of economic relationships which encourage dynamism along with inequality, precariousness and instability.

It presents a view of globalisation as elemental which was perfectly captured by Tony Blair at the 2005 Labour Conference when he said that ‘I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation. You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer’ (5). This is a position which says globalisation is a force of nature, not of human will; something which cant be debated with, argued with, changed and transcended.

The official future is a story: able to be told and retold in numerous populist and simplistic versions. Globalisation is a lifting hand; a force for good; a liberation movement based on markets. And its sense of inevitability means that it results in people feeling a profound powerlessness; this was shown in the research of Richard Eckersley in Australia with young people who found that this story of globalisation as pre-ordained directly related to young people having a sense of self-esteem which hurt and harming them (6).

5. The Official Future in Scotland and the North West

The official future can be found in most places in the developed world: in Scotland, the UK, in Manchester and the North West.

This is an agenda which is economic determinist, socially talks of inclusion and fairness but presides over vast inequalities, and sees culture as instrumental. We have ‘Glasgow: Scotland with Style’ and ‘Edinburgh: Inspiring Capital’.

We see it in Manchester in the publicity, promotional and tourist publication, ‘This is Manchester’ (7). This has a section entitled ’10 Reasons to Love This City’ of which the top are:

1. Fabulous Shopping

2. Breathtaking Architecture

3. Fantastic Museums and Art Galleries

It could be worse. This list does at least contain in its list: ‘The People’. ‘The Music’ and ‘The Talent’.

This is a world of superlatives, hyperbole and being breathless about the wonders of the modern city. It is a world filled with photographs of iconic buildings, late night public spaces carefully lit, squinty bridges, usually devoid and empty of people. There is the odd person dotted through these sort of documents and anti-visions or unvisions just to confuse you. It is a sort of Orwellian dystopian world.

Two points from this. First, the official future seems all-encompassing, all-powerful and everywhere. This is the language of the system, how ‘business’ is done, and institutional opinion describes the world. Yet, at the same time it is also very fragile with very few true believers. The official future hasn’t won hearts and souls. People feel they have no question but to go along with it.

Second, there is the notion of what is called ‘linear optimism’. There is an inherent and explicit promise of optimism, liberation and emancipation in the official future. It has a sense of progress in it and the confidence of Enlightenment improvement. However, this is based on the vision of promising us a better version of today tomorrow: a tomorrow of more of the same, a pale imitation of today. And thus behind this optimism is a profound, deep pessimism.

6. The Official Future is Still in Existence

Despite everything: the bankers, the Keynesian moment, the official future goes on. Where is the retreat from this vision of the world? Where is the self-reflection and recanting by some of its leading lights? Instead, what we are being offered across the Western world is restoration and reformation.

This is because the official future has to keep going: devouring, advancing, growing, expanding and opening new markets, claiming public services and goods for marketising values. It has an insatiable appetite which can never be satiated or satisfied.

7. Challenges

This leads to a number of observations and four challenges about how we oppose the current version of the official future.

a) The Official Future wont be defeated by facts and evidence. It is a dogma. The UK is the fourth most unequal country in the developed world – only surpassed by the US, Singapore and Portugal. London, the celebrated ‘world city’ is the most unequal city in the entire advanced world.

b) Language. Public discourse is now often framed unwittingly in the language of neo-liberalism. We talk of ‘the underclass’, ‘welfare dependency’, and a whole host of other terms originally associated with the New Right.

A recent example I experienced was a former Dundee Labour councillor who invoked the idea of ‘winners’ and ‘the underclass’. The background is a discussion about running events in Dundee on its future and who to run events with; the second point is Dundee’s experience of population decline, particularly amongst young people. Here is what he said:

‘We don’t need to do any events with the disadvantaged because they have nowhere else to go.’

‘We should focus on the winners because these are the people we most struggle to retain.’

One of many examples. This is what an ideology which reaches hegemonic levels can achieve, when people say it and believe it and don’t even realise they are. These are neo-liberal views; the language of the official future.

c) Gender. Men and women think very differently, learn very differently and mature and understand the world very differently. This isn’t an essentialist argument, but about socialisation, social construction and neurology.

Men and women imagine the future very differently. Women are generally much more optimistic. Men generally are much more pessimistic. Women have a more practical view of the future based on doing things and provide lots of examples which are grounded, real and effective. Men have a more abstract view of the future and talk of others doing things and needing permission to bring about change. Men were more located in the past with a sense of loss. The above was true for men and women across classes with the most pessimistic group being male self-titled ‘creative entrepreneurs’.

d) The Issue of Humour. If the official future wont be defeated by facts – one thing which can undermine, hurt and embarrass it – is humour.

The official future is serious, task driven, focused, KPI orientated. The official future has no sense of humour.

Here is my suggestion. In a previous age people created characters such as ‘Dave Spart’ and ‘Citizen Smith’ to show the over-earnestness of left-wingers. These characters are still with us today as popular stereotypes despite everything; they still tap into something and have resonance.

What we need are characters and caricatures of this age’s conformities and orthodoxies, which poke fun, ridicule and a sense of injustice at the consultant who does not talk plain English, the regeneration partnership leader filled with the latest jargon and buzzwords, the outsourcing privatiser, the hedge fund manager who pays next to no tax in the UK despite living and working here. The list of characters is endless.

8. What Should We Do About This?

Four concluding thoughts about action.

First, any ideas of action and social change have to be rooted in identifying a potential constituency and community. Otherwise we are just engaging in talking shops.

Current mainstream politics in the UK think people are stupid, or when they are being candid – say people are time poor in their rushed lives – and need everything simplified for them. Yet, Scotland 2020 and Glasgow 2020 showed that people are up for discussing the future, thinking about values, and the philosophies which underpin their lives.

Second, we have to develop a model of social change. Our political system is in huge crisis. The British political system is broken. We need a new approach to change: one that does not totally rely on traditional parliamentary means.

Third, we have to develop vessels and forces for change which are not ‘owned’ by the system, but by ‘people’ themselves. There are numerous examples of this. The work of London Citizens which has created a space and network movement which has not taken corporate or state funding, and thus has an independent voice. We called such entities in Glasgow 2020 ‘assemblies of hope’: emerging vessels and spaces which people owned themselves.

Finally, we need a philosophy which unites action, imagination and policy. This needs to shift from the narrow, conventional notion of self-government through political empowerment, political institutions and politicians.

It has to profoundly shift to a wider idea of self-determination – which is about society and communities and has an economic, social, cultural and futures aspect – which addresses the impermanence of the human condition, a sense of the planet and the fragility of life, a sense of the inter-connectedness and social aspect of the ‘self’ – and which refuses to accept the future as decided. And instead says that the future is there to be made, remade, imagined and created.

Notes

1. Gerry Hassan, Eddie Gibb and Lydia Howland (ed.), Scotland 2020: Hopeful Stories for a Northern Nation, Demos in association with the Scottish Book Trust 2005.

2. Gerry Hassan, Melissa Mean and Charlie Tims, The Dreaming City: Glasgow 2020 and the Power of Mass Imagination, Demos 2007. Many of the materials from both projects can be downloaded and accessed at: www.demos.co.uk, www.gerryhassan.com – under Scotland 2020 and Glasgow 2020, and at www.glasgow2020.co.uk

3. A good introduction here is: Oona Strathern, A Brief History of the Future: How visionary thinkers changed the world and tomorrow’s trends are ‘made’ and marketed, Robinson 2007.

4. Robert Cottrell, ‘The Future of Futurology’, The World in 2008, The Economist Publications 2007, p. 110.

5. Richard Eckersley, Well and Good: How We Feel and Why It Matters, Text Publishing 2004.

6. Quoted in Alan Finlayson, ‘Making Labour Safe: Globalisation and the aftermath of the social democratic retreat’, in Gerry Hassan (ed.), After Blair: Politics after the New Labour Decade, Lawrence and Wishart 2006, pp. 41-42.

7. This is Manchester, Kingfisher Media n.d., http://www.kingfishermedia.co.uk/books/manchester

These are the notes of a presentation I gave to the Future Everything conference which took place at Vision+Media in Salford last week.