Futurists and Politics
It may sound very strange to tell the high tech enthusiasts of the New Economy in Silicon Valley that the early futurists and first proponents of the Post-Industrial society were very political people. In contrast, during the last two decades of flourishing of the high tech, the pioneers of the new technologies took pride in avoiding any political involvement, and focused on innovation and building the new economy.
Even people like Alvin Toffler who paid attention to the social side of the upcoming civilization, still focused more on reinventing the corporation and influencing business leaders, rather than thinking of political leadership for the U.S. and beyond. True he had always said that the change to the new society can happen peacefully or otherwise and Tofflers in their anti-war book had political discussions but they were concerned more about social goals of equal opportunity and peace than actually talking about the proponents of post-industrial society taking power in the U.S. and elsewhere, albeit peacefully, and driving a futurist platform as political leaders. Futurists did not see their role like the liberals, conservatives or socialists to take power.
All serious political forces never shy away from saying that they are for taking power, and not just writing critics or advising those who hold power, which is more of the work of journalists than political parties. A liberal would not try to advise a conservative to execute a liberal plan but strives for liberals to take power although will compromise depending on the strength of liberal factions at any time. Why futurists thought others can execute their plans was mostly because they thought objectively they had the best ideas and thought any disinterested politician should execute them.
Futurists and high tech technologists of the last four decades were more like the early enthusiasts of industrial society in 18th Century Europe who thought the superiority of the new industrial paradigm would automatically translate to replacing the old agricultural society to usher in the new industrial world of their time. It was true that from an unbiased view they had a superior plan to the old feudal system, and it took them a few major setbacks particularly in the heart of industrial society in England, to realize that agricultural society was not going to lose its grip on the leadership of the country, and throw in the towel, and would try hard to use the resources of the government to keep itself functioning longer through subsidies, and the proponents of the new society had to fight a major political battle with the old to be able to drive industrialization and make the industrial paradigm victorious, and the success would not be given to them on a silver platter and required a real political work. The same will be true for new post-industrial paradigm today.
The downturn of Silicon Valley in the last three years is getting the high tech enthusiasts and futurists to realize that just like the early industrialists, having a better technological, social and economic plan does not mean that automatically it will become the plan of the country and the world, and a political battle with the old industrial elite is a real challenge in the U.S. and abroad. Industries from oil to airlines got lion shares of government subsidies, and Silicon Valley went down the tubes in the last three years, and the bleeding of high tech has still not stopped and it is becoming the main battle of the upcoming presidential election in the U.S., with California recall of Gray Davis being the precursor of what lies ahead and already the Kerry, Lieberman, and Dean's platform debates are heating up.
Who were the first modern futurists? Two of the most well known founders of modern futurism were Ossip K. Flechtheim in Germany and Bertrand De Jouvenel in France in the years after WWII. They both reached the conclusion that one needs to go beyond capitalism and socialism, from a political analysis of the modern world, where they saw both liberalism and socialism no longer to be the viable solutions to take humanity to the next step beyond the industrial society, and they were seeing the seeds of a new civilization beyond the industrial paradigm to get formed, for which old solutions of industrial society were no longer an answer.
Although they did not know the basic economic characteristics of this new society that was being formed, their approach was not like Tito and some third world leaders in late 40's and early 50's who tried to have a middle road between socialism and capitalism as a political alternative in the post-WWII era. They knew that one had to go fundamentally beyond the whole industrial society, and moderating or mixing up solutions that had worked for industrial society, was not going to be the answer for the upcoming civilization, and similar to philosophers of early enlightenment like Kant, they looked at all areas of life and not just politics. Nonetheless they never neglected politics and were very political, especially after their own recent experience of dealing with Nazi fascism in Europe, when Nazism was some kind of returning to the past as an alternative to the crisis of industrialism in late 20's and early 30's.
Next major futurist who finally defined the fundamental characteristics of the post-industrial society was Daniel Bell. Daniel Bell's book "The Coming of Post-Industrial Society" is the classic of futurist thought, and I do not think any book has impacted the modern social thinking as Daniel Bell's legendary book of 1973. He defined knowledge-based post-industrial economy in contrast to the labor-based economy of industrial production and later in the foreword to the same book in 1999, he fully elaborated his definition of codified knowledge, as one can easily see today how the basic barrier to entry for complex ASIC in modern semiconductor production is the codified knowledge inherent in its design, and how such designs distinguish a real post-industrial economy from some service oriented old economies, where service does not mean real knowledge-based enterprises. As far as service industry, Daniel Bell's paper on The Break Down of Time, Space, and Society, clarified how the service industry of a post-industrial society is different from a service sector in a backward economy. However, the main differentiation is the codified knowledge as noted.
Let me return to the topic of politics. Daniel Bell was very political too. His views in his early works are focused on critic of Marxism, which was a major topic of political discourse in 50's and 60's. However, as time passed the futurists focused less and less on political topics. World Future Society (WFS) which is the main futurist organization in the world and was founded about forty years ago, basically did not get involved in the political battles in the U.S. where it is based, and its focus was on social topics and although would meet with presidents, both republican and democrat, they kept away from political battles. Other futurist organizations such as Institute of Noetic Sciences (ION) that was founded by Willis Harman focused more and more on spiritual aspects of life and Harman tried to bring his understanding of new thinking to the business world.
Analytic futurists like John Naisbitt and Tofflers addressed political trends but their involvement with business leadership took precedence over creating a new political alternative. None cared to strive for forming a new futurist party in the U.S. I have addressed the need for a Futurist Party Platform for Iran's future, where the political leadership of the country has been pushing it backwards to the Medieval world for decades, and a political leadership focused on a post-industrial society is needed to fundamentally change the course and form the Futurist Iran. Now as far as the U.S. is concerned, I think if not a futurist party, at least it makes sense to start futurist factions within the Republican and Democratic parties of the U.S., but I have not seen any such attempts.
The reality is that the first proponents of modern industrial world, whether liberal or socialist, were not political either and emphasized technology, social, business, and economic change and did not bother with politics and considered it as waste of energy. It may be ironic to say this today when all that socialism and liberalism has reduced to politics. In contrast the futurists who are interested in creating the new civilization of post-industrial society and its New Economy, still hope the politicians of the old industrial paradigm to do the work for them.
I think the experience of the last three years of Silicon Valley and other high tech centers of the world shows that the above is a wrong expectation. Only futurist factions in the political parties can understand and plan for the post-industrial society and it cannot just happen by itself, and it cannot happen by politicians of Old Economy using the New Economy enthusiasts as a voting block for a few more votes, and not really understanding and wanting to drive for a whole glacial change of Post-Industrial development in the U.S. and the world. It is in a way incredible that we being futurists and believing in planning for outcomes, have not applied the same principles to our own outlook for Post-Industrial society to design the political plans to achieve our goal.
It is time to form futurist factions in the major political parties of the U.S. Futurists and new economy enthusiasts are in great numbers in the U.S. but they cannot become a force to be able to impact the future as long as they are hoping political factions of old industrial world to do their work which is driving the post-industrial society, production and economy.
One thing that American futurists can learn from Iran's experience is that it was possible for a reactionary Medieval force to take political leadership of a country and push the society backwards in the 21st Century for 24 years and still counting.
Therefore just having a better technological, social, and economic model does not guarantee a success until one has the political leadership of the country or is a key part of that political leadership. This is what old industrial world has known for a long time and proponents of the post-industrial society need to come to grips with this reality, before a major reversal of all the achievements of the last two decades of the New Economy are lost.
Unless the above is achieved, major infrastructure projects that can fundamentally help the glacial change to the post-industrial economy will not happen. For example I have been noting the fiber to every home as the key project to make such a change today.
In response what I hear from old politicians is either to reduce the call to some Broadband patchwork like DSL or Cable Modem to get a bit more out of copper, or they tell me to wait and consider this as among many other projects they have which are mostly for old economy although with a lot of liberal jargon.
The current battles about the future will determine whether the New Economy will take the back seat for another four years in the U.S. or not. As I noted, in Iran, the New Economy has taken the back seat for 24 years and still counting. Political leadership and politics cannot be left alone by futurists anymore, and hope that Post-Industrial society and New Economy will win by itself. Old Economy politicians work for Old Economy and not for New Economy just as old agricultural politicians of England of 1800's still strived to subsidize the old feudal production and not to promote the upcoming industries or industrial agriculture.
Hoping for a democratic and secular futurist republic in Iran,
Sept 10, 2003