Bertrand Russell as Futurist
21 March 2013
In 1948, shortly after the end of the Second World War and the first use of atomic weapons, Bertrand Russell wrote an essay titled, “The Future of Man”, apparently published in The Atlantic in 1951 (and subsequently collected in Russell’s Unpopular Essays). Russell opened his essay with a sweeping prediction:
Before the end of the present century, unless something quite unforeseeable occurs, one of three possibilities will have been realized. These three are: —
1. The end of human life, perhaps of all life on our planet.
2. A reversion to barbarism after a catastrophic diminution of the population of the globe.
3. A unification of the world under a single government, possessing a monopoly of all the major weapons of war.
I do not pretend to know which of these will happen, or even which is the most likely. What I do contend is that the kind of system to which we have been accustomed cannot possibly continue.
Russell numbered three possibilities for the future, but there is a fourth, which we can call the zeroeth possibility: something quite unforeseeable. Russell left himself an out, but even with the out, I will argue, he got it wrong.
In any case, here are Russell’s four possibilities, which closely correspond to several categories of futurism hotly debated at the present time:
● 0th scenario: unforeseeable developments — this is Russell’s singularity, i.e., the occurrence of an event so discontinuous with previous history that it results in a “prediction wall” that prevents us from seeing or understanding subsequent historical developments.
● 1st scenario: human extinction — following the use of nuclear weapons to end the Second World War, Russell (like Jaspers and other contemporaneous philosophers) was fully aware of anthropogenic existential risks, of which human extinction from nuclear war is a paradigm case, so this is one of Russell’s qualitative risk categories.
● 2nd scenario: global catastrophic failure — Russell identified a two-fold global catastrophic event — drastic diminution of the human population followed by a return to barbarism — which obviously followed from his concern that the next war would be so catastrophic as to end civilization (this is a scenario that also worried Einstein, who famously said that, “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but world War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”). Whether we consider this a global catastrophic risk, or a form of subsequent ruination, this is another of Russell’s qualitative risk categories.
● 3rd scenario: world government — again like Einstein, Russell was an advocate for world government, and thought it likely the only means by which we could escape our own destruction. In the immediate post-war period, when the US had a nuclear monopoly, Russell actually advocated that the US should use its nuclear monopoly to assert global hegemony and enforce a world government. Later, Russell was to become much more well known for protesting against nuclear weapons, being sharply critical of the Cold War, and writing telegrams to both Khrushchev and Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
It seems to me beyond dispute that human life has not come to an end (Russell’s 1st scenario), that human society has not reverted to barbarism after a catastrophic diminution of population (Russell’s 2nd scenario), the world has not been unified under a single government (Russell’s 3rd scenario), and nothing quite unforeseen has happened (Russell’s 0th scenario). It is important to spell this out, being entirely explicit about it, because it is easy to imagine that any or all four of these possibilities might be disputed.
Of the strictly quantifiable predictions, any disputant would really have to tie themselves in knots in order to maintain the human beings have gone extinct or that there has been a catastrophic diminution of population. Only the philosophically desperate would attempt to argue that human life, as we knew it in 1951, has ended forever, or that the seven billion souls alive today somehow do not represent a much larger human population than in 1948. However, I must pause to say this, because there clearly are philosophically desperate disputants who are willing to make claims precisely of this character. But having explicitly acknowledged these strategies of desperation, I will henceforth dismiss them and consider them no further, except in so far as the bear upon the other scenarios.
It could be argued, and it has been argued, that the result of the resolution of the Cold War (which did occur before the end of the century in which Russell was writing) was the installation of US global hegemony as a de facto world government. It has also been argued by conspiracy theorists that there is in fact a world government operating behind the scenes, but not in any public and explicit fashion. It might also be argued that the UN and its associated international agencies (like the International Criminal Court) constitute a nascent world government that will someday coalesce into something more robust and capable of exercising authority. Sometimes these latter theses — government by conspiracy and the UN as world government — are merged together into a single claim.
Even if any or all of these claims are true, none of them have accomplished what was central to Russell’s concern for the future: the abolition of war. Near the end of the same essay Russell wrote:
Owing to the increased productivity of labor, it has become possible to devote a larger percentage of the population to war. If atomic energy were to make production easier, the only effect, as things are, would be to make wars worse, since fewer people would be needed for producing necessaries. Unless we can cope with the problem of abolishing war, there is no reason whatever to rejoice in laborsaving technique, but quite the reverse. On the other hand, if the danger of war were removed, scientific technique could at last be used to promote human happiness. There is no longer any technical reason for the persistence of poverty, even in such densely populated countries as India and China. If war no longer occupied men’s thoughts and energies, we could, within a generation, put an end to all serious poverty throughout the world.
The conspiracy theorists argue that war is part of the plan of subduing the global population, but this isn’t at all the kind of world government that Russell had in mind. When Russell and Einstein wrote about world government in the middle part of the twentieth century, they implicitly had in mind the Weberian conception of sovereignty, i.e., a legal monopoly on violence. Both Russell and Einstein wanted to see a single military power that would beneficently impose its unilateral will upon the world so that we would not see the perpetuation of armed conflict between nation-states.
This did not happen, nor did anything like it happen. On the contrary, the second half of the twentieth century demonstrated the possibility of a state of near-permanent armed conflict as definitive of the world order. In order for this to happen, something did come about, which I have called the devolution of warfare — that is to say, parties to conflicts throughout the world realized that nuclear war could lead to global catastrophic risks, so everyone decided to continue to make war, but to do so without atomic weapons. This way human beings could indulge to the full their love of war and violence without making themselves extinct (and thereby ending the fun for everyone).
This brings us to Russell’s 0th scenario: has the devolution of warfare constituted something quite unforeseeable? Not in my judgment. The devolution of warfare is a negative historical development, involving the suppression or limitation of human agency and capabilities previously demonstrated. The limitation of a demonstrated human capability represents a retrograde development, and I don’t think retrograde developments of this kind rise to the level of constituting a singularity in history.
If anything, the development and use of nuclear weapons constituted an historical singularity, therefore creating a “prediction wall,” so that the deliberate tradition of non-use represents a step back from an historical singularity and a return to predictability. Indeed, what some scholars have called “the return of history” might also be called “the return of predictability” in the sense of being a return to the predictable behavior of nation-states in anarchic competition employing conventional weapons.
It could be argued that what Russell did not see was that at precisely the time he was writing his essay a world order of sorts was being forged, in the post-war agreements on economics at Bretton-Woods and on political matters at Yalta — and, as importantly, if not more importantly, how these explicitly formulated agreements were worked out in practice, sometimes through open warfare, and usually through superpower competition, as in the Berlin Airlift. This de facto world order essentially held throughout the period that Russell considered in his essay — the second half of the twentieth century. Since the actually working out of these agreements in practice was as essential as the agreements themselves, we cannot blame Russell for a lack of prescience in not recognizing in Bretton-Woods and Yalta the foundations of the post-war world. And I don’t think that anything in that war-torn whilst stable post-war world could be said to have fulfilled any of Russell’s predictions.
Now that the post-war world that Russell failed to recognize as it was taking shape has finally become unraveled, we find ourselves once again contemplating the future with great uncertainty, and asking ourselves about the possibilities of radical historical discontinuity (i.e., a singularity), global catastrophic risks, existential risks, and world governance. Dante similarly found himself asking questions of this sort just at the very earliest moment when the scholastic synthesis of the medieval world was beginning to unravel — not only did Dante consider eschatological scenarios that would have constituted a singularity, global catastrophic risks, and existential risks, but also considered world government in his De Monarchia. But Dante was a great poet, and great poets are sensitive souls, and are likely to hear the rumbling on the horizon even when the rest of us are blissfully unaware.
Perhaps whenever the world finds itself at a point of historical transition, grand narratives of transition are contemplated — but in the final analysis (the Hegelian analysis, in which the owl of Minerva takes flight only with the setting of the sun) we usually end up muddling through in the best human tradition, rarely realizing any grand narrative.
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