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Extreme scenarios beyond the end of history

What happened?

At the Brainwash festival in Amsterdam last week, we speculated what the future could hold beyond Francis Fukuyama’s famous claim that we have arrived at “the end of history”. Fukuyama predicted in the 1990s, following the end of the Cold War, that every country would eventually converge towards a liberal democracy and free market capitalism, and that this marked the ideological endpoint of history. However, much has happened since then, from 9/11 to growing awareness about climate change. As a result, many feel that Fukuyama’s thesis has been falsified. To explore this issue, we developed three extreme scenarios of future societies, based on different political and economic rationales, two of which contradict his thesis and one that confirms it.

What does this mean?

Our first scenario describes a response to today’s climate crisis and builds on the notion that sustainability is becoming something of a secular religion and that a deep transition is needed. The result is a society and economy in which governments play a much bigger role than in Fukuyama’s liberal model. The second scenario pictures a future in which we delegate many of our choices to data-driven AI systems, including a large proportion of policy-making. This scenario speaks to problems such as sustainability and growing inequality as well, but builds on the notion that many choices or problems are too complex for human minds to grasp and that algorithmic governance will ultimately yield better and fairer decisions. This contradicts Fukuyama’s thesis in that we no longer value the freedom of the individual as a cornerstone to the way we organize our society. Finally, the “business-as-usual scenario” holds that current developments such as right- and leftwing populism, anti-globalism and the rise of China are merely noise and that the world is still converging towards a liberal world order.

What’s next?

Even though none of these scenarios are plausible as well as desirable in full, thinking through their rationales and consequences may help to sharpen our understanding of current events and identify “weak” signals towards future trajectories. For example, it might shed new light on the question whether a climate-neutral economy is possible under the conditions of liberalism, and whether voter sentiments on this topic are changing. Or whether reforms in China align with liberal values and principles. And what challenges could arise when algorithms increasingly steer and judge our behavior without understanding how they actually work. The world is clearly still in need of a political and economic model that serves the immediate needs of people (in search of welfare and recognition), but also takes account of planetary boundaries in terms of resources and climate change. Although large plans and theoretical proposals pertaining to these ideas have been drawn up, e.g. the Doughnut Economy or the Green New Deal, it is much more difficult to identify the pathway to making such models realities. As such, extreme scenarios and the reverse engineering of their implications may help us to decode the present and navigate the future.