At a macro global level, it may be averred that the most critical and urgent takeaway of a Covid-scarred 2020 is the bleakness of ‘our future’—a phrase that is part of the title of the book under review.
Whether the Covid pandemic that is still mutating, the irretrievable enormity of the climate crisis, or the growing gap between the global rich and poor—the list is long and there appears to be no flicker of light at the end of this gloomy tunnel.
Well-known American author Alex Ross is acknowledged as an innovation expert and had served in the administration of former US President Barack Obama. His earlier book, The Industries of the Future, was well-received and in the current volume, the author takes on a much wider canvas—one that links the global corporate company, the nation state and the vast demography scattered worldwide against the backdrop of this decade—the 2020s.
Deeply concerned with the state of the world as it is now poised and the relentless drive by those in power to maximise profit and personal gain, Ross ruminates with the reader over an ontological issue: “You would think that after thousands of years of civilization, we would have sorted out how we can all work together so that we not only survive but thrive. The hard truth is that at the core of humanity are impulses for competition and conflict, for the hoarding of wealth and for well-being to be determined more by where you are born than by any other factor. The where continues to matter.”
The hierarchy of discrimination is multi-layered and can be discerned in relation to the global north versus the south wherein the colonial cross of nearly half a millennium continues to exacerbate the inequities of the past; and within states and societies—deeply entrenched hierarchical redlines including gender remain tenacious to change despite the advent of modernity and the current technological revolution.
Using the US example to illustrate what is deeply flawed in the existing global socio-economic model, Ross points out that over the last 30 years “the top 1% have grown $21 trillion richer, while the bottom 50% have grown $900 billion poorer and the middle-class has stagnated”.
Asserting that the social contract that had earlier kept a certain degree of balance has now “fallen out of balance” Ross posits that the future of the world “now hinges on how that contract between business, government, and citizens is redrawn during the 2020s”.
The proclaimed goal of this book is to “map out what went wrong, and then work out how to fix it” and this is unabashedly ambitious. In six compact chapters, the author reviews shareholder and stakeholder capitalism; how billions of people are governed more by companies than by countries; the workers; taxes and the wormhole of the global economy; foreign policy as in whether every company needs its own CIA; and finally the geography of change that examines the contest for power between closed and open systems.
The book adopts a disarming chatty style and begins with the author making breakfast for his kids and how modern living (for the more privileged) allows him to move in less than three hours “from sleeping in my bed to flying across the country”, thereby pointing to the complex mind-boggling set of inventions and ingenuity that “power our daily lives”.
Each of the issues addressed in the individual chapters merits a book by itself but to his credit Ross cuts to the chase deftly—sometimes in a sweeping manner—but the messianic zeal of the author to trigger change is persuasive.
How the big corporate has crippled smaller companies is a familiar story and Ross points out with specific numbers how “established firms are snuffing out potential competitors before they ever leave the cradle”. This would perhaps qualify as venal corporate infanticide!
The perfidy of the hand-in-glove corporate-government nexus that now pervades the entire global macro-economic model with its safely tucked away tax havens is familiar and frightening. Technological advances and AI-led data generation will enable citizen surveillance of extraordinary scope, and not just China, the global panopticon will soon become all pervasive.
Can our imperiled future be saved? Ross closes on an optimistic note and his advocacy is for “bold action” by citizens, companies and governments to repair the existing social contract and forge a new one that will be compatible with the challenges of the 21st century. Is this a feasible option and one that can be realised? My optimism is fragile. The global experience of the last 50 years has been of ruthless exploitation—of the natural resources of the planet and of the more vulnerable cross-section of society. The deeply entrenched human DNA that is inherently acquisitive and less than altruistic has become even rapacious in the global techno-commercial conglomerate.
Mahatma Gandhi’s wry observation that the world has enough for mankind’s need but not greed is the subtext, alas, of our blighted world.
C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies
The Raging 2020s: Companies, Countries, People— and the Fight for Our Future
Penguin Random House
Pp 322, Rs 799