Books: normal service will be resumed

In his ambitious What Next?, Chris Patten offers an optimistic view of the future. But the former Hong Kong governor avoids some “unmentionable realities” – like overpopulation – writes John Gray.

What Next? Surviving the 21st Century
Chris Patten
Allen Lane, 2008

At a time when a crisis was unfolding that would deflate American power irreversibly, the next US administration could have been elected on the back of voters for whom denying women abortion choice and promoting creationism in schools were more important than the state of the world at large. The financial crisis allowed American voters to overcome the drag of racism and elect Barack Obama as president, however — despite his obvious intellectual superiority.

Still, the leadership of the world’s largest liberal democracy was not going to be decided by anything like rational argument, or by concern for problems that lie beyond America’s shores.

The American election kept coming to mind as I read Chris Patten’s What Next? In many ways, this is an extremely impressive book. It is a very long time since a leading British politician produced anything so ambitious, or as well written. The subject is nothing less than the global condition at the start of this century. Nuclear proliferation, global warming, oil production and the energy crisis, world poverty and the “bottom billion”, the illegal drugs trade, immigration and human trafficking and the spread of epidemic diseases are all examined, with asides on Russia, China and practically every important development in world history since the Renaissance.

Patten is rightly scornful of some aspects of current political discourse: “You do not need to be a grammarian,” he writes, “to know that you do not fight wars against common nouns but against personal ones. You fight a war against this or that country or enemy. Wars on drugs, wars on poverty, wars on waste — all these things are idle if grandiose ways of describing doomed political ventures.” It is a crucial point, elegantly stated.

But the next US administration is sure to want to ramp up America’s bungling “war on terror”, most likely by taking the failed Afghan campaign into Pakistan. Maybe the war on terror will simply implode, along with the American financial system. Certainly, the vast levels of military expenditure of the past 20 years cannot be sustained. But it is hard to see the United States, which alone among the countries engaged in Afghanistan still believes the war can be won, quietly departing the scene. A political solution is nowhere on the agenda. Even Obama has urged that US forces hunt down the Taliban by following them into Pakistan. If this happens, America will have mired itself and the world in another intractable conflict, this time in an increasingly unstable state that is also nuclear.

Throughout his overview of global issues, Patten is supremely confident that he knows what needs to be done. Despite occasional swipes at recent policies, What Next? is conventional wisdom of the most elevated kind and, like all versions of the genre, it avoids unmentionable realities. For example, while he discusses population growth in passing on several occasions — mostly in conjunction with a dismissive reference to the political economist Thomas Malthus — Patten at no point confronts the vast problems posed by the fact that human numbers will rise by around another 50% over the next half-century. Informing the reader that in the second millennium “the world’s population increased 22-fold, while global domestic product went up 13 times as fast”, he shows no hint of doubt that, as long as globalisation continues, this trend will also continue.

In failing to consider the possibility that there may be a human population problem, Patten has plenty of company. He is at one with Marx, Hayek, Mao, the Pope, the Bush administration and many development economists. But is this near-universal denial of natural limits on human expansion well-founded? Or is it no more than a silly orthodoxy, like the faith of an earlier generation of bien pensants that central planning would create an economy of abundance?

An integral part of conventional wisdom is the conviction that all reasonable people subscribe to it, and this faith lies at the heart of Patten’s view of the world. Stung by a rightwing commentator who, in response to his rather modest criticisms of the Iraq war, described him as a “liberal internationalist”, Patten writes: “To my mind there is nothing else for a sensible person to be”. Evidently, Patten thinks the same is true of most of the opinions aired in the book. At times — in his analysis of the Iraq war, for example — he is plainly right. What is questionable is his assumption that the thinking that led to the Iraq war will prove to be an aberration.

Patten begins What Next? by citing approvingly former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s remark at her last cabinet meeting, “It’s a funny old world”. By the end of the book, however, it is clear that he sees the past eight years as a blip on the screen of history. Along with liberals across the world, he is confident that, with a new incumbent in the White House, what could be considered normal service will be resumed. “To live in a better world,” he writes, “requires a more democratic citizenry, a sentiment inherent in Senator Obama’s presidential campaign oratory.”

But what if the debacle on Wall Street leaves America fear-ridden, resentful and more stridently fundamentalist — whoever becomes president? It looks as if the future of the world is going to be funnier than Patten imagines.

John Gray’s Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia is published by Penguin.

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