The proposed workshop calls for an effort by scholars to be speculative and to imagine future political developments based on clues currently becoming available in only fragmentary fashion through trajectories of technological innovation as well as changes in social norms and observable political conduct. The main question is to explore what may be the stakes of political struggle, and the modes of political interest mobilization, decision-making, and accountability of elites roughly two generations from now into the future, say in the 2060s and beyond.
Participants will attempt to imagine the “politics of the future,” but along the way also ponder whether there is a “future of politics,” i.e. whether—and in what way—politics has a place in societal governance, as it evolves in the 21st century, among other forms of governance that tend to rely more on voluntary exchange and persuasion in decentralized modes of social coordination. Consider “politics” as a process in which citizens in a non-violent manner pursue rival proposals to produce collective and club goods (“policies”), participate in institutionalized procedures to decide among the alternatives, and make the winning course of action binding for all members of a political realm. To be sure, politics is not self- sufficient: It presupposes the containment of coercive capacities in a monopoly (the ‘state’), or in a field of countervailing actors with coercive capacities that make non-violence a self-enforcing mode of coordination. As novel technological capabilities and societal conditions unfold in the 21st century, how will politics, as the articulation, aggregation, decision, and realization of collective objectives change? What forms of political governance are likely to emerge particularly in polities situated near the global technological innovation frontier? Or will changing technological capabilities (and actors’ dispositions?) displace political processes by other modes of social coordination?
The initial motivation for a workshop on the Politics of the Future is to explore whether a foray of political science scholars into the realm of quasi-science fiction, disciplined by whatever information about technological and social developments are currently appearing on the horizon, can assist political science investigations to pose new questions and field new hypotheses about the changing nature of political interest mobilization, decision making institutions and procedures, and democratic accountability. In light of a quasi- sci-fi exercise, can we pose different questions about the evolution of politics, government and governance than those asked in the currently prevailing run-of-the-mill empirical and theoretical literature about the politics of economically advanced democracies?
A focus on technology as a sequence of shocks that reshape politics will necessarily have to concentrate attention on contemporary affluent postindustrial democracies, situated at the global technological innovation frontier. But this set of countries can nevertheless not be treated in isolation. Their interaction with rapidly developing countries plays a critical role in studying the possible evolution of governance structures, as leaders affect laggards, some laggards leapfrog the earlier leaders and may change the direction of the whole process, and continuing laggards constrain whatever the leaders might undertake.
There is no simple deductive strategy to go about imagining the future of politics in order to illuminate the present. The proposed workshop, therefore, will be an experiment, both in form as well as in substance. What constitutes researchable questions about the politics of the future will itself emerge in the course of the workshop, out of the collective brainstorming process of imagining scenarios of change concerning emerging modes of political participation and governance.
In order to begin to conceptualize at least some strands and implications of the politics of the future, the overarching theme needs to be disaggregated into more manageable topics. The core preparatory group eventually settled for the simple strategy to identify aspects of social life that may serve as sources of changing politics—economic production of goods and services, the sphere of social reproduction, the interface between society and nature, and the evolution of technologies in politics itself—as themes around which individual sessions of a three-day initial workshop can be configured. For each theme basket, two workshop participants are charged with taking the lead as convenors and moderators who prepare and guide a single half-day workshop session. The four baskets are:
- Changing occupational task structures, political interest alignments and policy-making: How may the disappearance of existing and the emergence of new occupations revolutionize the stakes of political conflict, and with it institutions and procedures of political decision-making?
- Political consequences of transformations in the sphere of social reproduction and consumption: How may new patterns of social activity outside the production sphere—the changing nature of societal primary groups (“families”), the organization of caring for children and the elderly (provided that biotechnology will not yet have radically altered the notion of aging), and the styles of socio- cultural consumption—transform politics in the 21st century?
- Political-economic implications of the interface between society and nature: Inspired by Neo- Malthusian scenarios for the late 21st century, how will new scarcities in complex natural and social systems affect systems of political governance and accountability? And how will conflicts about newly emerging scarcities and potentially catastrophes recast the political process?
- Technologies of governance and political accountability: Against the backdrop of a reconfiguration of political interests that derives from changes in people’s occupational lives as well as their activities in social reproduction and consumption, how will technologies of information processing and communication within the political sphere enable actors to reshape the quality of governance, particularly the political accountability by elected politicians and professionals in executive agencies to societal constituencies?
The purpose of the following paragraphs is to motivate each of the four substantive themes byelaborating on potential directions in which the topic can be developed. This is meant to highlight possible avenues the workshop may pursue in dealing with each subject. These remarks are in no way meant to restrict the prospective workshop moderators who have signed up for each theme basket. Our consensus is to give each convenor duo full autonomy in interpreting their themes, fleshing out the agenda, and choosing specific reading materials for the group.
- Changing occupational task structures, political interest alignments and policy-making (convenors: Torben Iversen/Harvard and Philipp Rehm/Ohio State): Since the Industrial Revolution, societies have experienced a shift of work across economic sectors, individual market participants’ skill levels and occupational task structures. In the 21st century, jobs that can be translated into “code” are likely to be displaced by technology, as they can easily be transcribed into the algorithms of software programs. Jobs will remain more plentiful that require local situational knowledge and case-specific judgment, either at very high or very low levels of cognitive, if not scientific professional sophistication. This transformation of occupational labor markets puts entire occupational domains at risk with the consequences of large-scale changes on labor market participants’ substantive policy demands and modes of political interest mobilization. In other words, this thematic basket may be pertinent to probe into the future risk profiles of occupations and explore how they affect people’s demands for political protection and (re)distribution of scarce resources. Who wins, who loses and how will winners and losers deal with each other to craft political institutions and policies?Under conditions where technology puts a premium on market participants’ levels and differentiation of investments in occupational skills, and as work lives become increasingly individualistic, idiosyncratic, and punctuated by periods of skill-acquisition and retooling, how will people define their political interests in the capitalist market economy? How and to what extent will they still be able to agree on collective interests, let alone pursue them through collective mobilization? One line of investigation, then, may pursue the tension between an ever-greater individualization and differentiation of occupational roles and task structures, on one side, and the ever more precarious construction of social solidarities, on the other. Will the nature of occupational differentiation undercut citizens’ capacity and propensity for collective action? And how will this affect political accountability and policy, particularly with regard to policies that shape people’s access to “promising” professions, i.e., education and training programs? Conversely, to what extent will political processes and alignments be able to shape the evolution of occupational profiles the resulting patterns of interest divides?
- The politics of social reproduction (“primary groups,” “family” and “leisure”) and social consumption (Silja Häusermann, University of Zurich, and Herbert Kitschelt, Duke University): Most humans seek their ultimate social gratification in activity sphere beyond the production of goods and services for market exchange and paid remuneration. And they spend at least fifty percent of their annual waking hours as adults, and a greater percentage when calculated over their lifetime— in activities outside the production sphere: forming and maintaining households of primary groups; raising children and caring for the infirm in or around such households; and engaging in all kinds of acts of ultimate socio-cultural gratification—extending over a dizzying variety of forms of cultural self-expression, disciplines of sports, or destinations of travel, to name only a few. How does the activity profile, composition of activities, and resources people devote to the ~50% of waking hours they do not spend on their jobs or commuting to/from their jobs change in the 21st century? How will people substitute time between time spend on jobs and social reproduction, and what task structures will be (time) winners and (time) losers? How do socio-demographic differences—age and gender— and the demographic transformation of societies through medical technology-induced rising life expectancy influence the nature and differentiation of people’s socially reproductive time budgets? And what difference will all of these changes make for citizens’ political aspirations, preferences, political mobilization, and ultimately for the choice of public policies themselves?The idea is that critical changes in the sphere of social consumption and reproduction also generate fundamental changes in the political realm. As time spent on necessities of household maintenance (housekeeping, food preparation) declines, how will the ultimate “release” time accrue to “aesthetic” activities dedicated to purely individual self-expression (social, cultural) and/or to activities of social reproduction…or for the pursuit of political ends? How will these shifts affect the role and significance of primary household groups in the 21st century, as a point of reference individuals employ to calculate their politically consequential economic interests, for example over family-oriented social policies? Will technological shocks in the 21st century, for example, reshape the household economy of family and informal social networks, e.g. mediated by a changing centrality of investment in children’s skills and dispositions, and the distributive implications of such changes become a major bone of political contention? As total lifetime employment declines as a percentage of human activities, how will increases in leisure time, particularly when people depart from professional employment, affect political interest articulation and mobilization? How will changing political involvement affect and control political decision-makers (“accountability”), and the policies they deliver in the sphere of social reproduction?Reversing the perspective, will political processes themselves be able to influence how human activities evolve in the sphere of social reproduction and affect the stability and direction exhibited by political decision-making? Economists and political scientists have been worrying about the frustrations of the market place and of consumer society (e.g., Hirsch, Lane, Linder, and Scitovsky, …), but also the frustrations of political involvement, and particularly of democratic politics (Dahl, Hirschman). Will people oscillate in their attention between “private” spheres of social reproduction and “public” spheres of politics? And, when in the political realm, will they confine themselves to narrow, limited niches of issue demands pursued by highly interest groups and issue-centered movements, with participants engaged in narrow interactions with like-minded people, or will they participate in a broad reconstitution of the public sphere of political deliberation?
- Political-economic implications of the interface between society and nature: a Neo-Malthusian Scenario on managing the architecture of complex systems (Pablo Beramendi, Duke University, and Steven Wilkinson, Yale University). There has been a massive literature on the physical catastrophes and dangers humanity will encounter in the later 21st century due to population growth, natural resource scarcities, energy consumption/global climate change and environmental degradation. Much of the public debate is at the level of what one might call a “crude Malthusianism” that anticipates pandemics, floods, droughts, or famines. But even if gradually increasing investments in adapting to climate change and technological breakthroughs in managing energy consumption and diseases were to come to pass, there may be reason to consider what one might call here a “sophisticated Malthusianism.” It underlies all the overt crises likely to make headlines now and in the future. Sophisticated Malthusians are not concerned about the earth physically running out of natural resources and being overwhelmed by environmental crises per se, but the constraints on human cognitive and organizational problem-solving capacities available to devise governance structures to monitor and counteract unwanted developments and thus cope with the exigencies of decision-making under conditions of high complexity.Will human societies be able to devise governance structures that can manage the complexity of natural and human-made systems? Will human institutions be able to grasp the complex causal processes at the interface between nature and human technology that current social and political processes are unleashing? Or will a gap between humanity’s capacity for technological intervention and its social and institutional ability to anticipate or at least to act on consequences of such interventions become so large that it generates an increasing frequency and gravity of “natural” catastrophes and chronic degradation? And under what circumstances could polities become aware of the growing governance performance gap and strive to contain it? What sorts of institutions and policies could “freeze” technological pathways that are likely to exacerbate a crisis of social governance in complex socio-biological systems, for example an artificial super-intelligence running amok? And what political processes in the 21st century may become reflexive agents of managing the effort humans may devote to intervening in complex systems?The sophisticated Malthusianism focuses the attention squarely on problems of political accountability. How can political accountability still work, when organizational forms of governance may fall short of managing the causal complexity of processes set off by new technologies of human production and consumption?
- Technologies of Governance and Democratic Accountability: How the nature of work, social reproduction, and human management capacities of complex social and natural systems affect political alignments, institutions, and public policies may ultimately depend also on internal developments in the sphere of political interest articulation, mobilization and policy-making itself. The technologies that are critical to create, communicate, aggregate and act on collective political preferences are caught up in continuous evolution. The role of information and communication technologies looms large in this regard, but possibly also changing citizens’ dispositions to participate in political processes and to exercise oversight of political decision makers that may be encouraged by new information technologies as well as greater cognitive capacities (education) of larger shares of the population.Traditional vehicles of collective action—social movements, interest group organizations and political parties—may undergo change in scope of action and political leverage. Seizing on new technological opportunities, political actors may create new forms of political mobilization and interest aggregation that supplement or even displace old modes of collective political coordination. All this may transform the terms of accountability to which politicians—whether elected to office or professionally appointed to bureaucracies—have to face up, when confronting new modes of political claims making.As an alternative scenario, one might imagine a transformation of current democracies from “input” democracies to more or less pure “output” democracies (Fritz Scharpf). Citizens are no longer able to solve collective action problems and feed into collective vehicles of interest aggregation that present coherent political alternatives. Popular participation shrinks to the level of short-term, focal disruptive mobilization around narrowly circumscribed issue grievances and political elites garner preferences from public opinion thermometers expressing levels of popular (dis)comfort with a given state of governance. It will then fall into the lap of professional elected politicians and of an executive stratum of technocrats to preserve the coherence of political governance and social organization by registering such signals of popular dissatisfaction in a timely fashion and craft new policies and institutions that preempt economic, social and political disruptions. Elite survival triggers accountability to societal preferences of sorts, but without the presence of durable, well-organized interest associations and parties.
The four thematic baskets just vaguely sketched in the most bare-bone manner possible, of course, leave lots of room for interpretation and redefinition by the moderator duos organizing the sessions. Moreover, a bounty of alternatives or complementary social and political practices could have been nominated for inclusion in the deliberations that would deserve equal hearing time at a meeting about the Politics of the Future. Our only excuse for the current selectivity is that in order to get a workshop on the general theme going one needs to start somewhere, and the point of departure may be less relevant—and thus less of a bone of contention—than the process of thinking through the interfaces between technological change/shocks, social preference formation, and political processes of mobilization that yield new policies.
In the preliminary deliberations about the characterization of thematic baskets for the Politics of the Future workshop, it also became clear that in whatever way we may choose to slice or calibrate our focal topics, at least three cross-cutting concerns will appear almost inevitably in the workshop deliberations:
- Notions of Human Agency: The predominant contemporary vision of human agency in political science builds on a specific conception of autonomous persons as rationally deliberating individuals whose autonomy is predicated on a societally protected sphere of privacy and personal control shielded from collective surveillance, and who are self-regarding (self-interested) in the pursuit of ultimate gratifications. Institutionally, realization of a full conception of individual agency is closely intertwined with civil and political liberties in politics and society. To what extent will the technology and social practices of the 21st century undermine these underpinnings and consequently change the nature of political agency itself in a networked world, where individual privacy and autonomy may become harder to conceive and sustain, and maybe abandoned as the appropriate regulative by many actors themselves? Can autonomous individuals, if they ever were, still be reasonably considered the constitutive building blocs of agency in the politics of the future? Or will, for example, the capacity for agency move to social networks, nodes of dense communication in cyberspace?
- The Reconstitution of Institutions and Governance: Each of the most influential programmatic political belief systems (“ideologies”) of the 19th and 20th centuries attributed primacy to a social organization built around a single dominant mode of interpersonal coordination: liberalism (in the classical sense) has been partial to social coordination through market exchange; Marxian socialism preferred hierarchical organizational coordination (state-based governance, “planning”…); and a wide variety of modes of communitarianism—ranging from anarchism and syndicalism to diverse religious and mystical visions—advocates informal social reciprocity and generalized exchange. By contrast, the experience of the last several decades has been that none of these modes of social coordination is likely to be self-sufficient and conducive to dominating social organization. The question of primacy of a single form of social coordination has given way to a recognition of the complexity of modern “governance” that interweaves and nests principles of market exchange, hierarchical coordination, and communitarian reciprocity. The political-economic field of “mechanism design” recognizes this challenge most succinctly. In practice, and in theory, governance overcomes the archetypical contrasts between markets, hierarchies, and communities, and instead creates complex hybrids of institutional coordination. This centrally applies to the problem of principal-agent relations and the organization of accountability relations in politics. Whenever dealing with the changing features of 21st century politics, questions of governance will therefore not be far off.
- Technology, Social Sorting, and Hierarchy/Inequality: New technology is likely to relax, if not render irrelevant, some currently prevalent societal inequalities of life chances among citizens, but also to create new scarcities that produce profound disparities and stratification in the social order, for example according to people’s differential capacities to access and process information, a gradient that will fundamentally affect relations of political accountability in the polity. In various domains of societal practice, under which conditions will we witness tendencies towards greater social “closure” and vertical stratification of vital capabilities and critical resource control—in social, geographical- spatial, political, and cultural regards—or towards more openness, permeability, horizontal interactivity, and fluidity, as the 21st century wears on?Each of the cross-cutting threads touches the essence of what constitutes politics—the players, the rules, and the outcomes of collective decision-making: Defining the foundations of political agency (individuals or collectives, conceived as networks or organizations?), considering the governance structures that coordinate such social agents and produce binding decisions, and the mechanisms that allocate costs and benefits to agents in time and space.To conclude let us reiterate the selectivity of the topics that will be featured at the Politics of the Future workshop. We are probably already biting off way more than we can digest. But many vital questions that are likely to have a huge impact on the politics of the 21st century will be ignored, or incorporated only in a peripheral fashion. Among many other things, this applies to the whole complex of new technologies of warfare and their consequences for political organization far beyond the narrow military domain. This also applies to the complicated relations between lead and laggard regions relative to the technological and institutional frontiers of human development. Also the whole thorny complex of collective identity formation—around religious, ethnic, geographical and cultural markers—is likely to be incorporated only in a subterranean fashion. Of course, the workshop will also not home in on the grand macro-economic questions concerning the future of economic growth (or secular stagnation?), the continued vitality or exhaustion of innovation, and the sustainability of economic employment throughout the 21st century (or the “Great Idle” just around the corner?). We will also only indirectly touch upon the grand political question of regime dominance or change. Will representative democracy, in its current liberal-democratic appearance, assert itself in the 21st century, or will it be contained and displaced by different forms of governance that do not fit into conventional classifications and categorizations of political regimes?