A History of the Future, part 2

The Superpowers

The United States of America.

Predictions that America would be overtaken in the 21st century proved naive. With the world’s largest oil reserves coupled to the world’s third-largest agricultural production, feeding one of the world’s richest economies, America went from strength to strength.

Yet that is not to say that nothing happened to America. Demographically, socially, politically and economically, the country was transformed. To begin with: by the end of the Winter, 40% of America’s population was Hispanic, 20% was African-American or African, 15% was Asian, and only 25% was ‘non-Hispanic White’. This inevitably had sociopolitical consequences. Even more important was the changing nature of employment, as the manufacturing sector, boosted by high transport costs and lowering wages thanks to the population boom,  grew to a size that had not been seen in a century or more.

The result was a clear class structure. At the top were a tiny number of men and women of staggering wealth: known as ‘Oil Barons’, they often built their fortunes in oil, but by the time of the Long Winter they had branched out, and came to control not only oil, but raw materials, agricultural land, and virtually all industry. In 2072, they were the richest people in history. Beneath were a large class of bureaucrats, administrators, and minor entrepreneurs, all of whom depended for their precarious security on the goodwill of the Barons. Below them came the unionised working class: the backbone of the economy, who performed the actual industrial labour; next, the lower class, who might get by in transient and low-paid service jobs, oiling the metaphorical cogs of society, or who might labour for low pay and no prospects on the great farms – a privileged few among them had stable, long-term jobs as servants to the higher classes. Finally, an urban underclass that was perpetually unemployed, save by criminal gangs.

Within, or perhaps outside, this class structure sat another group, neither poor nor rich, Republican nor Democrat: the Third Estate. These were the individuals who supported the larger-than-ever Quaternary (knowledge) and Quinary (creativity) Sectors: highly educated, but usually not highly paid, liberal, increasingly isolated, the Third Estate (found almost exclusively on the West Coast and in New England) provided culture, research, and entertainment, channelled to the masses through the medium of the internet. Serious higher education was declining in America, but it remained a net export: America continued to enjoy a distinct relative advantage in education over almost everywhere in the world, and it exported heavily, both physically (in Third Estate professors migrating to take posts in the universities of China and India) and electronically (in lessons provided by American institutions on-line to the wealthy of the world, and in the products of American intellectual-cultural labours).

The two-party democratic system survived for a long time: the Republican party, controlled by the oligarchs, against the Democrats, controlled by the unions. But when the Long Winter came, all that changed. The threat of starvation forced the lower class and the underclass to unite behind the Democrat banner in an increasingly socialist crusade to save the poor from the abuses of the rich – and the rich could not allow it. Neither could the Supreme Court – and when President and Congress appeared to be trying to defy the Court, a coup d’état occurred, led by the Air Force. Normal service was quickly resumed – but military tribunals backed by the intelligence services weeded out all political candidates with ‘un-American’ and ‘un-constitutional’ views or histories. Great resentment existed, and many parts of the country were plagued by low-level insurrections, many of them lead by army personnel who increasingly were being replaced by private armies sustained by the Barons; yet despite the violence, it is not clear that the populace as a whole was oppressed: they may have despised the oligarchic rulers, but there were no clear opposition leaders not tarnished by ineptitude or venality, and gradually people came to accept their way of life. They could still vote. Yes, their votes were limited to those who supported the regime; and yes, their unions were now run by their management; but still, they could see, looking around, that many countries were doing far worse than the US, and as opposition to the oligarchy became associated with aimless violence and threats to stability, most people came to prefer the devil they knew.

Finally, a strong marker of class was the treatment of the elderly. With minimal pensions and benefits, only the upper classes could afford to send their parents to private care homes; the lower and working classes had to care for them themselves. This required at least one adult per family, usually the wife, to stay at home to look after them. Particularly in the more settled working class, the result was large, extended families in which the womenfolk could perform caring duties for the elderly, and elderly and adult could together watch over the children. The third estate, meanwhile, tended toward life in isolated communes (dubbed ‘(workfrom)Homes’), in which the elderly could be cared for by the community at large – in any case, their elderly were generally of more economic use, as their jobs depended more on the mind than the body.

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3 thoughts on “A History of the Future, part 2

  1. nac says:

    You don’t think cheap internet will bring knowledge (bundled with misinformation, no doubt) within the grasp of the masses, greatly democratizing information before the energy crisis hits? Eg. http://www.khanacademy.org/ to http://www.physicsforums.com/

    Can a separate, consolidated Third Estate exist under these circumstances?

  2. nac says:

    (or, develop from…)

  3. nac says:

    BTW, how will the internet be affected? Even Indian village urchins have (limited) internet access these days, not to mention the OLPC project. How will the energy crisis affect connectivity and cyberspace itself?

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