The Astonishing World to Come
Max Singer's "History of the Future" Lexington Books, 178 pages, $24.95, eBook: $9.99I've just read one of the most brilliant, most important -- and most optimistic -- books about world politics that's been written in the last hundred years.
Max Singer's "History of the Future" Lexington Books, 178 pages, $24.95, eBook: $9.99
I've just read one of the most brilliant, most important -- and most optimistic -- books about world politics that's been written in the last hundred years.
Reader, have I got your attention?
It's Max Singer's History of the Future, and if Singer is correct -- for those among you who don't know Max, he usually is -- we're heading into a world that will be richer and more peaceful than humanity has ever known.
Simply put, Singer's thesis is that starting in roughly 1800 the human race began its transition to modernity. As we move through the 21st century quite a few countries have completed this transition, dozens are well along in the process, some are only just now beginning to become modern, and others haven't yet started. This global transition to the modern world is uneven, sometimes violent and often sloppy. But it's irresistible and broadly speaking irreversible, which means that in roughly another century the entire world will be modern -- and that will be a wealthier and less war-prone world that we have ever known.
Singer rests his thesis on a set of characteristics that contrast a country in the "traditional" world with a country that has entered the "modern" world. For instance, in the traditional world lifespan is short, while in the modern world it's long. In the traditional world practically no one has a high-school education; in the modern world almost everybody has one. In the traditional world most people live in villages or nomadic bands; in the modern world most people live in cities. In the traditional world, most people are dominated by nature; in the modern world most people are protected from nature. In the traditional world most people don't have a say in how they're governed, while in the modern world most people do have a say in how they're governed.
Singer stands back far enough from today's discouraging and sometimes-ghastly headlines to see the long-term trends:
There are two centuries of experience with modernization. We can see that Asian as well as European countries have already completed the passage to modernity. We see that some countries from all regions and cultures have moved a good way along the path to modernization. This includes Muslim countries like Indonesia, Turkey, and Malaysia; sub-Saharan countries like Ghana; and Latin American countries like Chile and Colombia. So we learn that many more countries are likely to become modern, too.
But we also see that many countries have not really started on the path to becoming modern, though they have some of the benefits of modernity. We also see countries like Argentina and Cuba, which once were well along the path to development, stagnating and falling far behind. So we learn that modernization is not just for some narrow group of special countries, nor is it automatic and guaranteed for everyone.
We also see that overall, the pace of growth is uneven. Per capita growth for the whole world was nearly three percent a year from 1950 to 1973, but just a little more than half as fast from 1973 to 2003 (although faster in the last years of the period.). Only Asia, led by China and India, grew faster after 1973 than in the twenty-three years before 1973. ...
It seems clear that unless there is a drastic and unprecedented change for the worse, much of the world will continue moving along the path to modernity. The real questions are: How fast? How many will be left behind?"
So what does this tell us about the future?
Most of the next century will be overwhelmingly dominated by modern countries. The big story will no longer be the passage to modernity, because most of the world will have completed its passage. In the twenty-second century the concern about modernity will be what, if anything, should be done about the part of the world that hasn't made it yet.....When you think about it, the question of when the "whole world" will be modern is not so important. Once three-quarters of the world is modern, and much of the rest is on the way, it will be the modern part of the world that counts.
And if you've been yearning to once again hear the voice of a hard-headed optimist -- and who among us who remembers, say, Ronald Reagan, hasn't been yearning to hear this voice again? -- here's just one paragraph that's typical of the clear, insightful, and uplifting prose that marks every page of Singer's remarkable book:
Until recently, people assumed that life would remain the way it had always been. Today, people all over the world believe that change is possible, and that their actions can change their destinies. This simple belief looses a great flood of human energy and imagination. It is the fundamental source of the power that cannot be stopped from gradually transforming the world. This power can be resisted in some places, perhaps even for decades or more, but it will always break out someplace else, and eventually it will overcome resistance everywhere.
There are two things to say about Singer's viewpoint: The first is: Wow! The second is: He's absolutely, obviously right. Just look at some actual, real-world numbers that rarely make the headlines and to which so many of today's political leaders seem oblivious: By 1980 or 1990, more than 2 billion human beings had emerged from poverty. Since then, about another half-billion have emerged from poverty; in just the last six years more than 20 million Brazilians have crossed this magic line. Today on the continent of Africa the number of people who now have disposable income is -- take a deep breath -- 300 million.
Put all these numbers together, and you discover that each year more than 50 million human beings are emerging from poverty. The result is the most astounding -- and most under-reported -- fact in the world: the emergence of a global middle class. In other words, and just as Singer posits, the world is getting richer rather than poorer -- as he puts it, more modern. And in the modern world, most people are busy leading productive lives and aren't interested in causing trouble beyond their borders. They'd rather shop than fight. They'd rather have a Starbucks on the corner than a car bomb.
Why is this so important? Because these people -- the ones you see marching toward Tahir Square in Cairo, or risking their lives in Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Iran -- don't want war. They just want a better life. They want a say in how they're governed. They want jobs, and enough money to live decently and raise a family. And this means they will be our future customers, creating a demand for the kinds of goods and services our country's entrepreneurs know how to produce and sell. And that will create more jobs for American workers.
Obviously, there's a lot that can go wrong. These revolutions can take some nasty turns; indeed, some already are. Singer readily acknowledges that there are people in this world -- al Qaeda, Hamas, the Taliban and so forth -- who would rather set off a car bomb than sip a latte. And he believes that no compromise is possible with these or any other group of Muslims who believe in violent jihad. Moreover, he sees the difficulties inherent in reconciling Islam with modernity:
Islam does not recognize a distinction between the political and religious realms....This is why, today, many Islamic countries are more deeply Islamic than Christian countries are Christian. It is also why outside of Turkey and Iraq (so far), Islamic experiments with democracy have failed, and free and representative government, with the guarantee of individual rights, has not taken root...Democracy, based on the rule of the people, grates against the Islamic view that law comes from God. It is regarded as a denial of the sovereignty of God.
But after providing his readers with a detailed overview of where things stand in the Muslim world today, and of how Islam is actually practiced, Singer concludes that even this faith can be modified as "modernity" takes root:
My conclusion from all this discussion and history is that it is not impossible that someday Muslims might reconcile democracy and Islam. Although liberal democracy is a product of the West, and the history of Muslim states is without exception one of autocracy, nothing in the nature of Islam makes it impermeable to the development of democratic institutions or the increasing desire for freedom.
There's a lot more to History of the Future, including some sharp insights about the nature of work in the coming decades and about the West's looming demographic problems. It's good stuff, and worth reading carefully. This is a book that should be required reading for every foreign minister, every intelligence chief, and every head of state.
And it should be read by every American conservative, precisely because History of the Future offers so much hope for a better world. Today in Washington, on talk radio, and on the cable news channels, it's conservatives who are coming across as the pessimists. We're the green eyeshade numbers-crunchers who keep explaining why tomorrow is going to be more miserable than today. Fair enough; the debt crisis really is awful, and our left-wing ideologue of a President seems determined to foment an economic crisis he can turn to his political advantage. And his interest in actually fighting and winning the war against radical Islam seems close to zero.
But if there's one thing we should have learned from President Reagan, and which too many of us seem to have forgotten, it's that while pessimism may be justified it's the optimists who usually win.
History of the Future points the way to victory, not merely for Republican or conservative candidates but for humanity. It's a knockout.
Herbert E. Meyer served during the Reagan administration as special assistant to the director of Central Intelligence and vice chairman of the CIA's National Intelligence Council. He is author of How to Analyze Information and The Cure for Poverty.