The Politics of the Future? Negotiating Tomorrow’s Uncertainties in Diverse Political Conditions

by Dr Félix Krawatzek

19 Oct 2015

In September 2015 the British Academy awarded me a three-year Postdoctoral Fellowship based at the University of Oxford (DPIR and Nuffield College). During the tenure of the fellowship, I wish to study how differences in political systems influence political debates about the meaning and the governance of the future. This work extends existing historical scholarship on the social emergence and competing constructions of the future and the political importance of these controversies.

The research centres on the post-9/11 world and compares France, Russia and the US. These three countries have responded in different ways to the need to find political answers to the problem of imagining and governing their future. The question of how predictions, scenarios or models interplay with policy making are studied by looking at three policy areas in detail: climate change, intergenerational justice and international security.

In the aftermath of the Cold War it seemed pertinent, at least for a short while, to speak about the “end of history”. Some scholars and politicians saw the fall of the communist bloc, amongst many changes, as an indication of the rising global dominance of liberal democracy and market capitalism. However, events over the last decade have unsettled this view and have fundamentally called into question narratives of future progress.

It is now implausible to predict the future from past and present developments. Eroding trust in political systems goes hand in hand with recurring financial and economic turmoil, climate change, ageing populations and new international security risks. In this situation of heightened contingency, an understanding of controversies about the future becomes crucial. Social movements and elites continuously confront one another in a conflict to determine what is understood as desirable and feasible in the transition from present to future. These actors are required to offer visions for the long term in a situation of heightened uncertainty and accelerated change. This combination undermines the very principles of rational and time-resistant planning of the future.

Historically, the future as a social and political realm that had to be planned has not always been part of human experience. Only the erosion of an eschatological world order at the onset of modernity gave rise to thinking about the future as a temporal space that can be designed and therefore requires action. Between 1750 and 1850, contemporaries began to articulate a distinction between the past – the space of experience in anthropological terms – and the future – the horizon of expectation. In this century of profound religious and political change, the future as a societal space emerged across Western Europe and decisively changed how societies engaged with time.

The future is thus a discursive construction, a narrative, a product of discourse without real world counterpart. But material and symbolic resources in the present constrain the capacity of actors to contribute to what counts as a plausible prediction for the long term. Scenarios developed by influential foreign policy think tanks are more likely to be taken into consideration by politicians than those put forward by less institutionalised and connected actors, such as social movements. Understanding the structure of controversies about the future, identifying successful or unsuccessful actors and their positions, therefore also permits an understanding of the current distribution of political power.

With these historical developments in mind, my research pursues four objectives.

  1. Descriptive: Identify and assess the actors (governmental and supranational agencies, NGOs, private corporations) involved in the politics of the future and their positions.

  2. Clarificatory: Evaluate what types of political interventions are considered appropriate for dealing with the future in the three policy fields.

  3. Theoretical: Analyse and compare the ethical principles that sustain future directed political decisions.

  4. Prescriptive: Bring out the extent to which differences in the political systems restrict how the future is conceived and what can be said and done about the future.

Three policy fields for which anticipations and scenario development are central in decision making are explored in detail. The policy fields vary, however, in the type of predictability and the time horizon that can guide decision making.

(1) Climate Change – Extrinsic unpredictability and long-term: significant unanticipated shifts might occur in the predicted outcome of climate change because of external factors such as technological progress or the ‘tipping points’ (nonlinear threshold effects) caused by fundamental changes (e.g. melting of permafrost soil in Siberia). Confidence in predictive climate models remains generally high, despite controversies over their interpretation and consequences for humans. Politicians and NGOs act on supra-national, national and sub-national levels.

(2) Intergenerational Justice – Instance unpredictability and medium-term: controversies about how to deal with the uncertainties of tomorrow must account for a non-negligible likelihood of unanticipated developments which might fundamentally impact upon future conditions (e.g. migration, changing birth rates, disease). The choice of models and values on relevant variables is therefore much disputed amongst politicians, NGOs and experts. This political field is dealt with at the national and the sub-national level.

(3) International Security – Intrinsic unpredictability and short-term: there is very little capacity to model this policy field, reflected in the awareness of a high degree of uncertainty in the political debates. Future developments are therefore discussed in terms of scenarios combining structural factors with anticipated changes of situation, and of the behaviour of actors. Questions of international security are largely addressed by supranational and national policies, although post 9/11 powerful sub-national actors have emerged.

Controversies about climate change illustrate what this research will explore in depth. Political and public debates about climate change are inextricably linked to ideas about where society is heading to in the very long run. Every argument about what human induced changes of our climate imply for present and future societies, has an underlying idea about how those currently alive ought to relate towards the people yet to be born. It makes a relevant difference whether a politician maintains that the value of the consumption (or environmental capital, etc.) of future people ought to be discounted at a high rate (such as 6%, drawing for instance on economists like Nordhaus), or whether a low discount rate is morally more pertinent (around 1% following for instance Wagner & Weitzman). Lower rates make projected damage caused by climate change more relevant in today’s money. Such rates are thus an argument in favour of strong climate policies. Moreover, the econometric climate models on which these projections of damage are based, have to deal with the extrinsic unpredictability of climate change. That is to say, the impacts of tipping points which cannot reliably be estimated given that we have never experienced what the melting of Siberia’s permafrost soil would imply. Ultimately, the question of how present generations relate to future generations underpins competing political positions about climate policies.

Amongst the multiplicity of possible positions for instance on climate change, this research identifies the conditions under which a judgement is heard and seen as policy relevant in different political systems. For doing so, the empirical core of the project examines political speeches, media coverage and interviews through a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods of text analysis and mapping of controversies in debates over time.

Félix Krawatzek is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow based at the University of Oxford’s Department of Politics and International Relations and a Research Fellow at Nuffield College. I finished my DPhil in 2015 after studies at the University of Kent (BA), the Institut d’Études Politiques in Lille (MA) and the University of Oxford (MSc). I was a visiting fellow at Sciences Po Paris (Centre d’études et de recherches internationales) in 2012-13.

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