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Whither the Twenty-First Century?

By Louis Coutts - posted Wednesday, 2 February 2000

In a recent article published in the International Herald Tribune, the stock market guru, James Glassman, quoted David Dodd, a financial analyst of the thirties as saying that the most dangerous words in the English dictionary were "This time it is different!"

As the inevitability of chronological measurement resulted in the date for the first day of this year having three noughts on the end, there was an expectation that a new and different epoch was commencing. In fact, Melbourne's weather was predictably cold and chilly, the sun rose according to predictions made by Keppler four hundred years ago and everything had a sense of familiarity. Nothing had changed. Nevertheless, I was impressed by the attempts of the crystal ball gazers to predict the unfolding of the coming century and I couldn't resist making some reflections of my own.

What impresses me today is the enormous body of knowledge that exists and our inability as individuals to absorb the tiniest fragment of that knowledge, with the result that we live in an age where we should be aware of our appalling ignorance. As against that, life was probably much more simple at the beginning of the twentieth century. From my very crude knowledge of history, there were four main streams of thought in western civilisation.


The first was a wide acceptance of the religious influence and the expectation in some form or another of one's accountability to an eternal deity.

The second was the product of the British Humanists Locke and Hume whose influence on political thought in the nineteenth century was so profound as to bring about legislation that abolished the slave trade. This philosophy also provided an underpinning of the rejection of the crass exploitation that accompanied the early Industrial Revolution and provided the comfort zone for such adventurous movements as the suffragettes. Our consciousness of humanitarian thought lingered to address the most ferocious consequences of conservative thought portrayed with poignant genius in Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath". The law came to recognise the incongruity of contracts entered into between people of frightfully disparate bargaining power and under Roosevelt's "New Deal" the Government finally stood between the weak and the strong to prevent the more obscene aspects of materialistic exploitation described by Steinbeck.

The next major philosophic or perhaps economic movement at the turn of the century was that of Marx: "Each according to his needs". Chauvinism was alive and well at that stage but it is difficult to argue with the simple beauty of this philosophy. As we all know, it fell into bad hands as is always the case when politicians take up the cause of an ideology because politics is not about ideology but about power. Marx was highjacked by a bunch of shocking crooks including Stalin with the result that Marx's concept of the social contract today lacks credibility.

The fourth movement was what might be called the Rockefeller philosophy, which is summarised in a statement of his enshrined in the Rockefeller centre in New York. I can't remember exactly how it goes but it equates rewards to hard work and initiative. In the depression, people who were prepared to work the clock around could not get work and people who had taken initiatives on the promise of capitalism were ruined. I am reminded of an experience when I lived in Paris for a short period with my family. We used the Metro at least once a day and were captivated by the beauty created by the buskers whose music would haunt the corridors of the Paris underground. Everyone would put a few francs in the receptacle provided by the buskers and they would get a modest return for their labour. However, one night at Concord (which is a major Paris Metro station) we were walking along one of the tunnels to our platform when I saw a blind person sitting down with a cap in front of him and a sign written in French which, roughly translated read, " I have needs but no talent". I saw in this the collision between the humanists and Marx on the one hand and Rockefeller capitalism on the other. The paradox has haunted me ever since.

So as we enter the twenty first century, to what philosophic underpinning do we look for guidance in seeking out our destiny?

Before we can give serious thought to this question, we have to recognise that we can either chose to live in a cocoon called western society or in global society. The difference is roughly 5.3 billion people or 85% of the world's population. To ignore this enormous human phenomenon would be as inhuman as it would be self defeating because this mass of humanity cannot be ignored even by the most insensitive of people. We have continents devastated; AIDS causing havoc; the majority of people living in a state of poverty that should be an insult to our conscience. A wave of hopelessness encaptures two thirds of the world's population which exists on less than $2.00 per day. If the global society has arrived, it may well be that we can no longer be western isolationists with the result that this frightful disenfranchised segment of the world "electorate" is essentially a part of our existence and therefore a part of our responsibility. This is not to make a point but simply to raise the question of where we see ourselves in the society of the twenty first century.


At this point, I do not see the clear philosophic choices that existed at the beginning of the 20th century although, I do see the emergence of a huge following to Islamic thought, the progressive abandonment of religious dogma in western society and the overpowering presence in western society of free markets and the capitalist philosophy. By virtue of the abandonment of humanist philosophy, the destruction of communism and the buoyancy of western economies in the last five years, those of us in the cocoon of western society are witnessing the celebration of the final demonstration of the so called flawlessness of capitalist thought. One dare not challenge its virtue or its successes. It is said to be what will save civilisation as more and more people are sucked into the vortex of globalisation. In this context, the prophets proclaim the opportunity of abundance and they point to the rapidity of change and the technological developments that are now promising to make things so profoundly different in the future. What was it that Dodd said in 1930?

In fact, as I look upon the scene today, and strip it of the cosmetics of technology, the web, and all that stuff, I see things as monotonously the same as they have ever been. Capitalism has withstood all onslaughts. It is impervious to humanist traditions although popular sentiment on occasions softens its impact. But the fact remains that despite every development in technology (and the printing press was a far greater dramatic technological development than any that has occurred since) most people are poor and disenfranchised, and some people are wealthy. This seems to be the fundamental result of our free market society and indeed, the Law of Natural Selection would seem to have it so.

However, there have been punctuation marks in history such as the Magna Carta, the French Revolution and the European revolution of 1848. The public outcry against the war in Vietnam had a lot to do with bringing that enterprise to an end. Occasionally these moments lend a degree of sanctity and hope to human existence. It is for this reason that people such as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese Nobel laureate and Nelson Mandela accepted the most extraordinary privations. They see the promise of human decency and the opportunity for all individuals to live in this dignity. So called free markets and globalisation have to be a tool in this pursuit, otherwise, they are an enemy to the achievement of our destiny as human beings.

The mass of the world's population cannot forever be confined to poverty nor can we expect that mass to accept our time frame for relieving them from their state of misery. We can choose to be part of the cocoon of western society and it may be that in our lifetime, we will have material prosperity. Nevertheless, I do believe that this coming century will be the century not of the haves but of the have-nots. Hopefully, this will come about in a spirit of collective human generosity but if it doesn't, it will nevertheless come about. In this sense, I believe that we are approaching a point in civilisation that will call into question fundamental western beliefs in such a way that the changes we are experiencing through technology will be peanuts to the changes that will result by the insistence that the majority of the world's people have their place in the sun.

This will also challenge us to redefine the function of society because achieving a place in the sun in the traditional context of property rights and wealth will make such huge demands upon an already environmentally depleted planet that there will be no meaningful inheritance for our successors. This in turn will challenge the materialistic waste land so poetically described by T. S. Eliott so that our expectations of planetary existence will need to become less selfish and more spiritual (not in a religious sense but in the sense of defining a more altruistic destiny). In turn, this spiritual dynamic will need some philosophic direction but at the moment the more humanitarian streams of thought lack the popularity of materialism.

I therefore see this century or whatever small part of it I will occupy, as a personal challenge to do whatever I can no matter how little, to create an awareness of spiritual purpose as part of our meaning for existence. As Teilhard de Chardin once said "One act of love makes the Universe ripple, no matter how slightly". Perhaps, this time things will be different.

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About the Author

Louis A Coutts is a principal of Management Consultants Coutts & Connor. He writes a regular column in the Australian Institute of Management Journal and is a visiting lecturer at the University of California.

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