Why the left needs futures thinking

By Harry Farmer

Since its publication, Thomas Piketty’s findings in Capital in the 21st Century have been repeatedly cited as evidence of the dangers of unconstrained capitalism and its tendency towards snowballing inequality. But as well as a powerful repudiation of laissez-faire economics, Piketty’s work also casts sobering light on capitalism’s ability to entrench itself, making it incredibly difficult to meaningfully reform.

Central to Piketty’s argument is the idea that, as inequality increases, the rich are able to use their money to take control of state institutions, blocking or undoing any policies that might stem the upward transfer of wealth. This phenomenon is seemingly so powerful that the period of western social democracy between 1930 and 1975 was only possible thanks to the disruptive effects of two world wars and their aftermath. Without the social solidarity and economic planning brought about by decades of armed conflict – along with the presence of a rival economic system in the form of Soviet communism – there would never have been the political will to bring capitalism under control. In the absence of these factors, Piketty argues, capitalism is reverting to its default, pre-war state, with levels of inequality and corporate capture comparable to those of the gilded age.

For opponents of neoliberalism, this is an uncomfortable thought. There is a lot going for the idea that it takes a large, exogenous shock to break the mutually reinforcing relationship between inequality and political capture. But if it’s true, opponents of the status quo could be waiting a long time for a disruption big enough to make real change possible. In addition to having come at immense human cost, the circumstances that supposedly made social democracy possible in the short 20th century look unlikely to be repeated.

On one view, this is simply a new gloss on an all too familiar problem. The difficulty of implementing socialist policies against the backdrop of a global capitalist system seemingly too big and stable to overhaul is something that left-leaning governments and parties have been grappling with since the 80s.  Crucially though, the observation that systematic reform has only historically been possible in the wake of major disruptions has some very practical implications for how the left goes about pursuing change.

Rather than pushing for incremental reform of a system capable of resisting such challenges, the left’s best bet may well be to channel the disruptive power of biggest trends of the coming decades to help remake the current economic and political settlement. By developing a clear understanding of the different ways in which such trends might develop, it may be possible to identify those circumstances in which major disruptions make a departure from neoliberalism feasible – along with the policy choices that will make their realisation most likely.

Opportunities and threats

On the face of it, a look at the technologies and trends set to shape the 21st century is heartening – suggesting several potential disruptions significant enough to prompt a move away from neoliberal capitalism. At the same time, however, many of these phenomena could just as easily entrench the existing system further, or else propel us towards something far worse. Despite their enormous potential for good, it’s all too easy to envisage how changes brought about by automation, smart data, genomics and artificial intelligence (AI) might undermine the political and social conditions necessary for egalitarian politics and policy – particularly as these technologies mature and are shaped to work within existing capitalist structures. By the same token, population ageing and the threat of climate change both have as much potential to power insularity and inter-group resentment as they do potential to galvanize a move towards greater economic and environmental justice.  

One concern is the capacity of new technologies to shift for the worse the balance of power between capital, governments and citizens. In a world in which markets, the flow of information and social interactions are governed by opaque, proprietary algorithms, it’s unclear how governments might understand, let alone regulate, public and economic activity.

Similarly, the platform economy and – in the longer run – automation, raise serious questions about the relationship between labour and capital. Trade unions are already grappling with the difficulties of collective bargaining in a world where – thanks in part to digital technology –  work is becoming increasingly isolated, sporadic and alienated. In the longer term, we might wonder what happens to the labour movement if and when automation radically reduces the demand for human workers. While automation is often cited as a huge opportunity for the world to move towards more egalitarian distributive arrangements, it’s not clear how such an outcome would be secured (and sustained) once ordinary people lack the political leverage provided by the ability to strike.

Another broad threat is the erosion of the solidarity upon which progressive politics depends. Should they be lightly regulated, the ability of genomics and data mining to reveal otherwise unknown aspects of people’s futures could weaken support for social insurance schemes such as the NHS. (If you can suppose with a high degree of certainty that you will never really have to use health services, for instance, you might start to wonder why you should have to pay for them to be available for others.) We might similarly wonder about the potential for population ageing in the west to lead to levels of intergenerational resentment that make redistributive policies increasingly politically toxic.

Perhaps the biggest threat to social solidarity comes from climate change, however. Journalist David Wallace-Wells has recently highlighted how the influx of a million refugees from the Middle East was enough to destabilize European politics and contribute significantly to the rise of far-right movements. The obvious question raised by this is that of how much further politics might be dragged by the right when faced with levels of climate-induced migration far higher than those experienced by Europe from 2015 onwards.

Finally, there are threats and opportunities for democracy.  Since 2016, a lot has been written and said about the dangers presented by trolls, fake news and social media bubbles. There has been far less sustained exploration of the capacity of data-driven technologies to influence electoral politics (and human thought and behaviour more generally) more directly, and whether such technologies could also have benign applications. There are also questions to be asked about the influence automated decision making could have on democratic institutions and structures and how democracy is supposed to constrain such decisions. One such question concerns whether the incorporation of AI into policy-making represents yet another opportunity for technocrats to insulate decision making from democracy. Another asks how democratic structures are supposed to influence decisions made by AI systems controlling things like driverless cars, robot assistants and traffic management programmes.  

The right tools

It should be apparent from the above that there is no shortage of technological, environmental and demographic changes with the potential to disrupt the status quo profoundly enough to galvanize a move towards a more just political and economic settlement. At the same time, however, these trends have just as much potential to entrench or exacerbate the current neoliberal order as they do to pave a way out of it.   

It should also be clear that none of these trends points to a single, inevitable outcome. Instead, it is the background conditions against which they develop (the legal, political and societal frameworks in place now and in the immediate future), along with how they interact with one another,  that will determine the shape they take and the effect they have on the world.

If the left is to avoid becoming a hostage to fortune, it needs to understand the different kinds of futures these trends could bring about, which are the most and least desirable, and how current social, economic and legal structures affect the likelihood of different outcomes.

This is not the kind of thinking that happens without concerted effort. The relationship between today’s policy choices and the effects that technology, demography and the environment will have on the future is far from straightforward – and the potential for unintended consequences is great. Likewise, many outcomes that sound desirable on the face of it are actually anything but when considered more carefully or in relation to other factors.

Nor is it the kind of thinking that the left can afford to leave to trial and error. There are currently very few left-wing parties in power globally, and – given the right’s incumbency advantages – those that do find themselves in government shouldn’t count on having much time or political capital to affect the direction of travel. The left needs to have a clear picture of which policies and changes stand to have the greatest positive effect on how these trends develop. If we fail to set things going in the right direction, there’s no guarantee we’ll get another chance.

One set of tools ideally suited to approaching this problem systematically and rigorously is futures thinking: a set of techniques for informed, methodical reflection on the different shapes the future might take, given our knowledge of current trends and the variables that might affect them. Rather than trying to accurately predict the state of the world (or some section of it) in a number of years’ time, futures thinking concentrates on mapping out different possible futures, and working backwards to understand what factors might cause one to be realized rather than any other.

While more commonly used by corporations and government departments than by left-wing thinkers and organizations, futures thinking offers a powerful, long-established toolkit to help socialists navigate the threats and cease on the opportunities raised by emerging trends and technologies.

This idea – that futures thinking has something of value to offer the left – is the raison d’etre for Fabian Futures, a new Fabian Society policy group founded to bring futures thinking techniques to bear on questions about the long term viability of socialism.

The group aims to use a futures lens to explore some of the biggest challenges and opportunities for the left over the coming decades (including but not limited to those mentioned above), carving out a space for the consideration of these issues from first principles and (hopefully) developing thinking and research with practical implications for current left-wing policymaking.

Harry Farmer is the convenor of Fabian Futures and chair of the Central London Fabians. He works for a regulatory body, having previously worked in think tanks, consultancies and in the third sector. He is fascinated with the ethical and political ramifications of emerging technologies, and demographic and environmental change.

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