colonomos review

Selling The Future shows how the prediction industry reproduces an international system favouring the existing rulers, argues Peter Stauber


Ariel Colonomos, Selling The Future: The Perils of Predicting Global Politics (Hurst 2016), xiv, 225pp.

In March 2016, the Economist Intelligence Unit, a research firm, listed the election of Donald Trump as US president as one of the ten biggest risks facing the world, more severe than Brexit, which was also among the top ten threats. Trump would disrupt the global economy and increase political and security risks in the US, wrote the EIU, with dire consequences around the globe. However, the researchers didn’t think that the property tycoon would actually win the presidency, but expected Hillary Clinton to beat the Republican contender. Obviously, they were not the only ones who got it wrong. In fact, over the past few years ‘experts’ predicting the likelihood of future events have come under increasing criticism for misjudging political situations.

At the same time, politicians have become ever more reliant political and economic think tanks, military consultancies and ratings agencies to get a better idea of the forces that shape the economy and the development of international politics. Particularly since the 1990s, after the fall of the Iron Curtain and the disappearance of a binary struggle between capitalism and communism, policy makers have been trying to navigate the uncertain world of global politics by turning to the expertise of professional futurologists. In his interesting – if slightly unsystematic – new book, Selling the Future, the French political scientist Ariel Colonomos traces the genesis of these oracles, and he explores the ways in which they operate and interact with governments, and try to make money in the process.

Washington DC is the centre of this community of political scientists. Some of the most prestigious organisations are based here, for example the Rand Corporation, the Council on Foreign Relations, or the Brookings Institution. The job of all these organisations is to accumulate knowledge about the world ‘or rather, of what Washington should do in the world, for the world, and in order to maintain its position at the centre of the world’ (p.93). Their staff is ‘highly homogenous in the intellectual and academic formation of its members’: they are predominantly male and hail from the elite universities of the US east coast. That they advocate a foreign policy that promotes the interests of the Washington establishment is therefore to be expected, but the extent to which they conform to US foreign policy is nonetheless striking: ‘think tankers consolidate politicians’ decisions by giving them theoretical bases and authorising pursuit of their implementation’ (p.122).

More surprising is the fact that when one looks at the history of these think tanks after World War Two, one realises that they are actually not very good at predicting the future. In the late 1980s, the fall of the Soviet Union was considered by experts an extremely unlikely event – geo-strategist and former National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brezinszki, said in 1986 that the American-Soviet contest was ‘a historical rivalry that will long endure’. Colonomos writes that this was not necessarily because they didn‘t know any better; ‘experts on the USSR knew perfectly well that this state was a giant with feet of clay’, but they were ‘incapable of taking this reality seriously and drawing the conclusions that followed from their observation’ (p.78). One reason for their failure was their ‘normative bias’ and the social pressure that comes to bear on a community of political scientists:

‘Such a view would have exposed its adherents to a dual critique with a powerful ideological charge. The conservative camp would have suspected them of minimising the threat posed by the enemy and criticised a lack of patriotism. […] what was required was to take its threat seriously and counter its expansion’ (pp.78-9).

There is, then, always a tendency towards conformism which prevents think tanks and experts from thinking outside the parameters dictated by their position within the establishment. This ‘group think’ was also noticeable during the Arab Spring. The authoritarian regimes in North Africa and the Middle East were considered unshakeable until right up to the beginning of the uprisings in early 2011. Colonomos likens the intellectual and academic community to a group of gamblers who put their wager on a certain outcome, with a pronounced herd instinct guiding them: ‘The dominant thesis acts like a magnet, attracting all who want to participate in the debate and thereby exist in academia without running the risk of being excluded from it’ (p.85). Devoted as they might be to the aims of US foreign policy, the ideological constraints of the community of futurologists puts certain limits on their usefulness as predictors of the future.

A similar centralisation of opinion can be observed in ratings agencies like Standard and Poor’s or Moody’s. Their emergence is closely linked to the development of financial capitalism in the early twentieth century: the information the agencies collect helps market actors decide which investments are likely to pay off. Their position at the very centre of the financial system gives them an enormous power over the fate of weaker states; a bad credit rating can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy and act to prevent investment flowing into the country, thereby worsening its economic outlook. Also, considerations of human rights do not play any role in the agencies assessments: ‘the authoritarian nature of a political regime is not necessarily a handicap for a state that is to be rated’ (p.35), writes Colonomos, as an authoritarian state might even be more stable and therefore more predictable than a democratic state, whose government might change at the next election.

Like the establishment think tanks in the western capitals, the ratings agencies also follow the general elite perceptions of international politics. Until the 1980s, for example;

‘rating involved states that were integrated into the liberal international order and sealed the division of the world into “friends” and “enemies”, members of a legitimate circle of the international order and their adversaries. The former were trusted, the latter distrusted’ (p.143).

In the late 2000s, the agencies turned their fire on the states in the Mediterranean: Italy, Portugal, Greece and Spain, which were considered uncreditworthy. What they had in common was that they were outside the ‘original epicentre of Protestant and Anglo-American capitalism’, writes Colonomos. ‘The agencies produce appraisals that are inseparable from the international order and its grand narratives; they are stuck in their time, whose foundation they only serve to strengthen’ (p.144).

Overall, Colonomos paints a picture of a highly conservative community of clairvoyants, which tends to see the future as an extension of the present and therefore fails to predict radical changes. He supplements his study with excursions into history, philosophy and literature, which offer some intriguing insights but can sometimes distract from his overall argument.

Nonetheless, Colonomos’ book provides an interesting take on the workings of international politics, and adds something important to the understanding of imperialism and how it is sustained. Many people are often tempted to reach for conspiratorial explanations for Western foreign policy, but the real mechanisms lie right out in the open. Imperialist agendas are rarely questioned in elite circles, because they form part of the basic assumptions of the institutions which guide leaders and politicians. This is the ‘group think’ which Colonomos outlines. To question dominant interests would be heresy and individual career suicide. The existing international system reproduces itself without needing to hide its workings or its debates.

Peter Stauber

Peter Stäuber is a freelance journalist and translator. He writes for English and German language publications and is a member of the NUJ.