Monday, June 20, 2005

The 21st Century hasn't quite started yet, but it should be a good one

It is a strange and yet apparently true fact that of late, centuries have tended to last about fifteen years longer than they should, delaying the start of what should be the current one by the same number of years. Have you not noticed that the XVIIth Century only ended in 1715 with the death of Louis XIV of France? Only then did anyone bother to really get stuck into to the Siècle des Lumières. Then that century didn't finish until Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815, which was really the tail end of the French Revolution, itself the culmination of the Enlightenment. The Congress of Vienna established the shape of Europe for the XIXth Century, and that came to an end at some point between 1914 and 1918, ending the tensions that had built up over the previous century to be released to their cataclysmic conclusion. And with that done, the XXth Century started. And now I suspect that we haven't quite finished the XXth Century, and won't for another ten years.

The fact is that we haven't finished tying up all the loose ends from the last century. A lot of our immediate problems, conflicts and importantly political leaders are just part of old stories that have yet to reach their conclusions. Of particular importance are all the problems left after the end of the Cold War. The ongoing war in Iraq is a case in point: it's the consequence the West propping up a corrupt, brutal regime to act as a bulwark against another pretty unpleasant regime in Iran, which itself arose because the previous incumbents under the Shah had been a corrupt regime propped up by the West. That and the fact that Afghanistan was just a Cold War battlefield in which the Soviets fought Mujahadeen who were armed and trained by the West to act as a bulwark against the Soviets. Can you see the pattern here?

Closer to home (and obviously that's a subjective statement, but as far as I'm concerned, that's somewhere in the middle of the Channel, on average) we're still dealing with the aftermath of the Cold War, and many of the people in positions of influence are themselves Cold War veterans, or in other words, yesterday's men. Take Jacques Chirac for example. He's been at the centre of French and European politics since the 1960s, and now he's at the top, waiting to start collecting his pension in a couple of years, having really made a bit of a mess of just about everything of late, particularly with regards to the French People's rejection of the European Constitution. Of course his task wasn't made any easier by the fact that the guy in charge of drafting the Constitution was Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, a man who was President between 1974 and 1981 and as such, isn't quite up to speed with the spirit of the times. Tellingly, the Constitution was most opposed by the young, and most popular with the older generation. So maybe one of the big problems with this Constitution is that it seeks primarily to address the concerns of yesterday, or at least is perceived that way.

Tony Blair has tried to make political capital from this by striding through the smouldering remains of the ratification process like the Pied Piper, telling everyone that he is the man of the hour and knows how Europe can get rid of the rats, but I find this unlikely, if only because no-one else in Europe much likes his vision. In fact, Blair has been behaving much like Chirac and Giscard d'Estaing, albeit in a more slick, polished way: he really doesn't like to have to take anyone's opinion into consideration. Blair is possibly the man of the hour, but he's not the man of the future.

Because here's the really good news: the men (and I use the masculine term as a stylistic choice, in this context it obviously includes women, at least I hope it does) of the future haven't actually turned up yet, because the future hasn't quite started yet. Even yesterday's men have grasped that there are new things out there that are bigger than traditional national politics and that really matter to people. Chirac's been going around the UN promoting the Tobin Tax on international capital flows to fund development in the Third World. Blair's been prancing across the world stage with his chum Bono trying to reduce Third World debt. In fact he's even succeeded a little, so let's give credit where it's due. It's a shame that these two choose to overshadow these actions with frankly shameful playground arguments and macho posturing in Brussels. Not everyone has quite picked up on the change in the air of course: Dubya and his gang of evil thugs don't seem to have worked any of this out yet.

The men of the future are going to be people who really understand this stuff. They're also going to be people with their fingers on the pulse, people who are familiar with informal networks that transcend traditional political parties, class divisions and especially national borders. People who hopefully have a broader understanding of what Douglas Adams' character Dirk Gently called "the fundamental interconnectedness of all things". And of course they will almost certainly mostly be a bunch of self-serving, manipulative and devious so-and-sos, but their motives don't really matter as long as they make things move in the right direction, and hopefully there will be a couple who are capable dreamers.

So next time you catch yourself thinking that everything's going pear-shaped, that the older generation have failed us, that the younger generation care only about mobile phones, clothes and haircare products, and that all that old idealism has just died, just remember that actually, it's just gestating and hasn't given birth yet. The 21st Century and the future will probably start in about 2015, and if we start working on it now, it should be a good one.

"All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the
dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity:
but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act
their dream with open eyes, to make it possible."

T. E. Lawrence from "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom"

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