Predictions, that’s all. I’m a science fiction writer – prognostication is part of the deal. But to paraphrase Ursula Le Guin: good science fiction is description, taking the DNA strands of the future that exist already in the present. Or as Goethe said: “Coming events cast their shadows before.”
The world, over the course of the next twenty years:
(click on PDF icon, above right, if you prefer to read black script on white)
Democracy will decline worldwide
The United States, for all her flaws, promoted the spread of democracy worldwide. Call it a demonstration effect, call it soft power, call it the hard-headed manner about which the Americans implemented foreign policy, but democracy flourished in the second half of the 20th century.
No longer. The decline has already started with 2016 the worst year, in decades, for democratic freedoms. This will only continue. Donald Trump is not man whose instincts can be described as democratic. Nor, after the last election, is there much faith left in the world for US democracy.
China has shown that free markets, economic liberalisation – all the various catch-cries of mutual masturbation from economists since the 1970s – have nothing to do with democracy. Indeed, as China has grown more prosperous and powerful, it has doubled down on repression. Human rights lawyers, liberal bloggers, feminists, publishers, anything with an anti-authoritarian agenda, has been stomped on by the Chinese government. To the point where analysts say that China is going through its most repressive phase since Tiananmen Square.
Call it demonstration effect, call it soft power, call the hard reality of economic graft, but as China grows, democracy will decline. Take Thailand, once a democracy (albeit a troubled one), now a military dictatorship. One upon a time, when the US was still its major ally, Thailand could be expected to swing back democratic.
No longer. As the Thais say: the bamboo bends with the wind. And the wind now is blowing hardest from China. Thailand’s military leaders have formed close ties with the Chinese regime, and have no incentive to turn back.
Thailand will never be democratic again.
Oh and yeah, that other bloke, Putin. We can’t forget that Russia is headed by a former lieutenant colonel of the KGB, who hates liberal democracies, and is actively trying to undermine them all over the world.
Climate change will get worse (but could suddenly get better)
The conspiracy-theory fuelled anti-science sentiment of Trump and his confederates will turn back the clock on effective action for climate change. Many other countries in the world will use this as an excuse to do little. In the short term, there seems few alternatives to this scenario.
However, two things may happen. One likely, one less so. It is likely, in my view, that China will become a climate superpower, and produce renewable energy technology that will change the nature of the world’s energy economy.
China is already the biggest producer of solar panels in the world (and yes, also the world’s biggest polluter). But, here’s the thing: there is no climate change denial lobby in Beijing. No petrochemical companies are funding junk science in Mandarin.
The reason the Chinese give for not acting sooner is usually historical – the US polluted their way through economic development, why can’t we? It’s a fair point, but one that is being made less often in China and Southeast Asia. This part of the world is taking climate change seriously, and this will be a good thing.
Added to this is the less likely outcome of financial collapse in the US. Some economics are predicting that Trump will send the US bust (though, of course, these are the same economists who thought capitalism would make China democratic). Should this happen, US carbon emissions will also collapse.
American alliances will crumble
Australian foreign policy experts have argued for many years that Australia should chart a careful path between the US and China. The calls to move away from the US alliance will only increase now. In Europe, leaders are terrified that Trump will abandon NATO, and therefore one of the cornerstones of a peaceful region. An irrational, belligerent America may push some into the Chinese (or Russian) camp.
The lines on this, however, will not so clear.
Trump surprised many – and horrified a few – when he spoke with the president of Taiwan. I think it’s the one good thing Trump has done. This notion that the US can’t talk to the vibrant democracy of Taiwan, but rather must continue to show supine deference to the oppressive dictatorship just off the coast of Taiwan, is an absurdity. China militarising man-made islands in the South China Sea (or as the Vietnamese call it, the East Sea), in violation of international law: this is a problem.
This is not to say Donald is going to be a steadfast supporter of democracy worldwide. His hand-jobs-for-Putin policy suggests the contrary. Indeed, Trump has already indicated his support for Taiwan may be withdrawn if China gives him a better deal on trade. Which is to say, the art of the deal may include fucking over fellow democracies for a bigger profit margin.
Kleptocracy will have its day
Oh, and what a day it will be. Donald Trump will be klepotcrat-in-chief, lining his pockets at the expense of working Americans. The Chinese system, currently built on a princeling kleptocracy, will continue to make hay (The New York Times was banned in China for this story about the corrupt Chinese elite). This is to say nothing of Russia, a mafia state run by the don of dons.
But the people will put up with that shit for only so long.
Working Americans will tolerate only so much widening inequality while Trump fattens his bank account, especially as the Donald came to power saying he’d be fighting for those abandoned by the economic system. China’s extraordinary growth is petering out, which is a problem for its leaders. Industrial-grade graft can be disguised when everyone is winning, but as the economy transitions into a more modest growth scenario, the growing chasm of inequality will be a source of anger. Russia, already close to bankrupt, may end up with even the most die-hard of Putin supporters losing faith. One can survive on a diet of potatoes and Dostoyevsky for only so long.
Which leads to the next point: with luck, not much blood will be shed getting there. But if it has to be, let’s hope it’s the aristocrats of capital who face the guillotine, not some fabricated internal or external enemy. A straw man that bears the brunt of the people’s rage – for Trump: Muslims; for China: the Japanese; and for Russia: the rest of Europe.
Left-wing politics will become meaningful again
Neo-liberalism has passed its used by date. Fifteen years gone, at least. Left wing political leaders – Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Paul Keating, and Barack Obama – pursued economic policies that widened the gap between rich and poor, and eroded the social contract. I say this as a fan of Obama, Keating, and Clinton (though not that oily pissboy for foreign dictators, Blair): progressive political parties worthy of that name will need to turn away from the destructiveness and hypocrisy of neo-liberal economics.
This will happen. Bernie Sanders – an elderly democratic socialist from Vermont who nearly won the democratic nomination – is a taste of things to come. The economic pendulum has swung too far to the right, and has for far too long served only the political and financial interests of the elite. Indeed, so-called economic growth has only happened for the top ten per cent, while the financial position of the remainder of the population has either stagnated or declined. (In fairness, it should be said here that old-school conservative parties weren’t keen on extreme inequality either, as they knew it could undermine social harmony)
The most obvious manifestation of left-wing politics in the future will be parties that extol a democratic socialist-environmentalist agenda. Twenty years from now, the idea of a zero-growth economic system will have moved to the political mainstream.
Right now, left-wing parties have begun to admit class actually does exist. In the coming years, they will concede at least half the population has been routinely screwed, for decades, by neo-liberal economics. Eventually, they will come to understand ‘diversity’ cannot exist without economically empowering the poor and working class, because that segment of the population is overrepresented by women, non-whites, and the disabled.
As a tweet that went viral after Brexit stated: I don’t want a future in which politics is primarily a battle between cosmopolitan finance capitalism and ethno-nationalist backlash.
Nor do I. Nor do most, in my view. There are better ways. But boy oh boy, it’s going to be a shit fight getting there.