Today’s university graduates are going out into the world in less than optimistic circumstances, with not one but several predictions of doom hovering over their heads and the world at large. Among them are global warming, the collapse of capitalism, the prospect of more terrorism and further nuclear proliferation.
It seems to me that in the circumstances, they could do with a bit of cheering up. I recently turned 80, and one of the few bene-fits of growing old can be that, while one’s short-term memory may be pathetic, one retains a functioning and commodious long-term memory. This can provide context and a sense of proportion. It can do something to rescue one from what has been well termed the ‘parochialism of the present’ — the tendency to believe that what is happening now, and to us, must be of unprecedented and transcendent significance.
Bearing that in mind, let me briefly recall some of the things that many of the best minds have predicted during my lifetime.
In the 1940s, most of the leading intellectuals in Britain believed, as many do now, that capitalism was a failed system, one which had ‘manifestly no future’, to quote George Orwell’s words on the subject. An up-and-coming historian, A.J.P. Taylor, agreed, declaring: ‘Nobody in Europe believes in the American way of life — that is in private enterprise.’ A leading man-of-letters, Cyril Connolly, expressed the prevailing mood more melodramatically: ‘It is closing time in the gardens of the West, and from now on an artist will be judged only by the resonance of his solitude or the quality of his despair.’
Splendid words. But what actually followed these declarations was not collapse and despair, but the most successful era in the history of capitalism. Output in Western countries rapidly doubled and redoubled. And, for the first time in their lives, millions of ordinary people enjoyed a taste of affluence — home ownership, automobiles, labour-saving white goods, proper vacations, and so on.
A second memory: during most of the Cold War many leading scientists and intellectuals — men of the calibre of Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell no less — insisted that the world was poised on the knife-edge of a nuclear disaster, one that would certainly occur unless there was prompt nuclear disarmament. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists had as its logo a clock set permanently at five minutes to midnight. No issue was given higher priority by intellectuals than ‘banning the bomb’.
In the event, of course, nothing happened — no nuclear disarmament and no war. As far as the superpowers were concerned, the Cold War turned out to be an exceptionally stable state of affairs. Over four decades not a shot was fired in anger between them. This, not despite nuclear weapons but precisely because of the fear and caution they generated. In Winston Churchill’s words, ‘by a process of sublime irony’, safety would turn out to be ‘the sturdy child of terror’.
My third and final example: in the mid- 1970s, after the turmoil of the Sixties, with its assassinations, violent street politics, and the scandal of Watergate, some prominent thinkers began to deny the viability of liberal demo-cracy as a political system. As the one-time Harvard professor and future US senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it: ‘Liberal democracy on the American model… has simply no relevance to the future. It is where the world was, not where it is going.’
The prominent French commentator Jean-François Revel concurred, declaring that ‘democracy… may be an historical accident, a brief parenthesis that is closing before our eyes.’
But even as the ink was drying on their writing, the number of democracies in the world was rapidly increasing, not decreasing: first in Europe (Spain, Portugal and Greece), then in Asia (South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines), then other parts of the world (including much of the disintegrating Soviet empire). By the end of the century the number had increased threefold, and Francis Fukuyama had published his famous article, ‘The End of History?’, pronouncing not the death but the universal triumph of liberal democracy.
What is one to make of this record? The predictions that I refer to were all made by men of repute, all were taken very seriously, all were very pessimistic, and they all turned out to be wrong. This does not, of course, point to the conclusion that all other predictions of disaster must be false. As the old fable taught us, however many times the cry of ‘Wolf!’ has been raised misleadingly, one day the beast may really come.
But what these examples do surely justify is the rather reassuring conclusion that, in human affairs, prediction is far from being an exact science even when it is engaged in by the most eminent minds. Given their track record, there will be a much better than even chance that they will have misunderstood or overlooked something crucial. There are no experts on predicting the future. All too often, events confirm the experience of the English prime minister Lord Melbourne: ‘What all the wise men promised has not happened, and what all the damned fools said would happen has come to pass.’
Beyond that, and more important, the future is not to be seen as something preordained, not something already existing and impatiently waiting in the wings for its turn on the stage of history. The future does not exist, is not something already there to be discovered, like an island or a mountain. It is something which has still to be made. And how it is made, and what it will become, will depend on tomorrow’s leaders, here and throughout the world.
Owen Harries, a former editor, diplomat, academic, essayist and government adviser, was recently admitted to the degree of Doctor of Letters at the University of Sydney.