The latest instalment of our ‘Imagining 2030’ series took place at Juju’s Bar and Stage on April 10, 2018, on the future of political power.
John Raines, Head of Political Risk at IHS Markit, started by looking back 12 years to 2006, examining how much had changed and stayed the same. He pointed to the rise of populist leaders, new platforms, such as social media, as well as a growing economic shift away from the West. He expected cyber attacks to continue to rise, while US politics might increasingly oscillate from one extreme to another. This, he suggested, might be complimented by problems being solved ‘from the bottom up’, given examples of civil society movements, such as #metoo.
IHS Markit Russia Analyst Alex Kokcharov took the audience to Russia in 2030, where a ‘supreme arbiter’ Vladimir Putin could still be in power. Kokcharov spoke of a fundamental change in Putin’s core politics with a swing from the man of the middle classes to a more socially conservative agenda. Kokcharov voiced serious doubts over a possibility of Putin stepping down and suggested a change of the maximum of terms, as seen in Kazakhstan and Belarus, would be much more likely. The only way a handover of power would occur, so Kokcharov, was if Putin’s successor could guarantee he would not end up being tried for war crimes, corruption or anything else.
Professor Kerry Brown, Director of the Lau China Centre at King’s College London, noted that for the first time in modern history, the world was faced with a China that was strong rather than weak, and which had naval capacity which was now in terms of numbers at least rivalling the US. From a military perspective, however, it appeared difficult to project the country’s real fighting capabilities, given China’s last combat experience goes back to 1979 with Vietnam. According to Brown, the economic super power had been effective instead in waging wars in the cyber sphere. Brown predicted that by 2021, China’s aim with the achievement of the first centenary goal (to mark the hundredth anniversary of the Communist Party’s foundation) would have won the battle of modernity on its own terms and would seek to act according to its own values, a hybrid mixture of traditional Chinese culture and signified Marxism Leninism. It was hard to predict how this would harmoniously co-exit with the enlightenment values still prevailing in the West. . His biggest worry was the exclusive and excluding nature of Chinese values and the ways in which they did not seem fit for purpose in operating as a transferable world view that others could embrace, and see a space for themselves in.
Anthropologist Eleanor Beevor talked of a simultaneous desire for greater democracy coupled with a want for stronger leaders. The latter, said Beevor, stemmed from a desire to form personal bonds within politics and connect emotionally with leaders – even if that were often unrealistic. Politicians might increasingly be tempted to embrace overly simplistic messages, she said. Instead of single authoritarian figures emerging, she predicted it was also possible a range of such figures would come from a variety of local and globalised power structures.
Fiona Almond, Senior Lecturer at Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, stressed she was speaking as an individual rather than for her institution. She pointed to new communications technology creating new power structures as well as new ways of understanding people and communities. Harnessing this data was important to forming understanding, power, and the ability to influence people’s actions. Data, she said, was the new oil. As a result, it was important for people to gain a better understanding of the power they held through it.
Laurence Dodds, Assistant Comment Editor at the Daily Telegraph, said technology had changed the way power was felt, as well as the nature of truth and lies. Following on from Almond regarding the power of data, Dodds said the power of platforms such as Facebook could be nuanced: for example, Facebook marketing campaigns were more effective at increasing turnout rather than altering strongly held opinions. The companies themselves increasingly operated more like governments in their own right rather than firms – although this was open to a mounting challenge. At the same time, “algorithmic governance”, will offer a great deal of new power to repressive regimes, which we can already see being deployed against the Uighurs in western China. The same techniques would be used in the West in a more diffuse, subtle way – deployed by outsourcing companies on behalf of governments, or by platform-holders like Facebook. This will make power more opaque and diluted – held by systems more than people – while fuelling the desire and the ability for digitally-aided populists to rise.