What does 2006 have in store? (part two)

Isabel Hilton
22 December 2005

In the last days of 2005, leading thinkers and scholars from around the world share their fears, hopes and expectations of 2006.

Forty-nine of openDemocracy’s distinguished contributors, from Mariano Aguirre to Slavoj Zizek, Neal Ascherson to Jonathan Zittrain – offer their predictions for the coming year. Since this is openDemocracy, we did not expect them to agree. We were not disappointed.

Dave Belden and Michael Edwards take differing positions on faith. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Ramin Jahanbegloo and Khaled Abou El Fadi see different prospects in the middle east. In the United States, Todd Gitlin, Anatol Lieven, Gregory Maniatis and Colin Greer have divergent views on the year's prospects.

Eric Hobsbawm takes the long view, Neal Ascherson maps his hopes and fears and Mary Robinson calls for a change of attitude to migration and development. Read different visions of Europe’s future from John Palmer and Krzysztof Bobinski, find out why a woodpecker matters to Charles Chadwyck-Healey and browse the diverse predictions of Ariel Dorfman, Leszek Kolakowski, Michael Naumann, Gwyn Prins, Roger Scruton, Bill Thompson, Tony Judt and many others.

How many of our predictions will be proved right? Stay with us in 2006 to find out.

A very happy New Year from openDemocracy.

Isabel Hilton, Editor


Ramin Jahanbegloo Gregory Maniatis Richard Rodriguez John Jackson Michael Naumann Paul Rogers Tony Judt Hamish Nixon Olivier Roy Mary Kaldor John Palmer Saskia Sassen Mark Kingwell Sandra Postel Roger Scruton Leszek Kolakowski Gwyn Prins Nabaneeta Dev Sen Anatol Lieven David Rieff Bill Thompson Gil Loescher Mary Robinson Slavoj Zizek Jonathan Zittrain


Ramin Jahanbegloo: Stronger demands for democratisation

That history might not repeat itself is one of the promises 2006 holds.

Global challenges will continue to be met only by scattered answers for some time, I am afraid. What appears as the first problem in the explosive cocktail of international relations is a crisis of governance: states will continue to deal with issues that are no longer confined to their national borders and yet, in the absence of an effective system of global governance, they will remain at a loss to deliver concrete solutions; while problems will continue to become more global in scope, the political institutions to deal with them will remain largely the same.

The erosion of global governance takes place in tandem with the rise of problems we will face with an increased sense of frustration in 2006, from terrorism and drug trafficking to poverty, migration and threats to our global environment.

One of the greatest challenges to the EU member-states, the US and international organisations is to intervene in order to bridge the deep gap in economic, social and human development as well as demographic growth between the southern and northern shores of the Mediterranean. In this connection, one should bear in mind that the creation of a collective security system to counter terrorism and drug trafficking and to strengthen non-proliferation cannot be dissociated from respect for fundamental human rights, sustainable development and the rule of law.

In the eyes of many Muslim countries in the middle east, a political solution to the Palestinian problem would mark a return to the international rule of law. If the Palestinian authorities succeed in containing violent elements such as Hamas, and should the Israeli elections tip things in favour of the moderate and peace-minded elements of the Israeli polity, the prospects of a long-term peace between the two sides could look more promising.

The failure to find a solution to the tension between the two sides, or a renewed slide toward violence, would narrow the abilities of Arab regimes to address underlying domestic problems, while emboldening their Islamist movements. In this game, the success of the democratisation process in Iraq will certainly provide a solid example for the security and stability of the Persian Gulf region.

Iran, for its part, will continue its diplomatic and military efforts to become a regional power by over-committing to an ideological approach. The continuation of such an approach, representing clear discontinuity with past diplomacy, will only harm Iran's interests and bolster the position of global forces pushing for Iran's isolation and marginalisation.

Last but not least, one must not forget that the signing of new agreements with the European Union, the appearance of local, non-governmental human rights groups and other signs of civil society, and the partial co-option of Islamist movements in some of the Arab countries could generate new hopes for the middle east in 2006, and demonstrate that the demand for democratisation will continue to grow.

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John Jackson: One challenge

My hope for the future is that humankind becomes wiser and achieves a better understanding of itself. We are all the prisoners of our genetic inheritance. At the instinctual level we behave as social animals but, beyond that, our brains have the capacity and configuration to give us prescience. We have knowledge of cause and effect and can see a future bounded only by the limits of our own imaginings. This is the origin of individualism. Conscious of our own identity, we seek to control our own selfish destiny, a destiny that extends, possibly, to an afterlife.

This internal conflict between socialisation and individualism demands definition and resolution in many spheres: without that life is intolerable. Politically, it has spawned the compromises found in systems of government. Representative democracy (the power to elect and hold to account those who govern us) allied with capitalism (encouraging wealth creation by the individual) is currently a successful and appealing compromise, not least because it brings with the rule of law and respect for human rights and freedoms.

Another compromise is to submit to the authority of God and find solutions to our inner conflicts in the divine word. Such a religious “God above man” system sits uneasily in the present world of politics and who knows what the divine word really is? But secular systems have their difficulties too and, given the extent to which they place man above God, appear blasphemous, even satanic, and cause deep offence.

The current and, if we are not careful, escalating clash between Islamic fundamentalism and representative democracy is potentially catastrophic. Perhaps the only answer is to recognise that they represent only two of a range of possible solutions to our uniquely human problem, and to find ways of respecting human dignity by bringing facts into the open and giving people choice.

My expectation is that this will not happen: it is far too challenging. We will muddle on, much as we do now, dealing unsuccessfully with the scourges of poverty and sickness, struggling to stop ourselves poisoning our environment and hoping that somehow we will find ways of keeping a sufficiency of uneasy peace.

There is an alternative nightmare. Our world’s tectonic plates, whether defined in terms of geo-politics, race, religion, economic power or systems of government, are shifting on a mantle of human aspiration, uncertainty and discontent. Knowledge, and access to knowledge, is growing. The magma is heating up. My fear is that, at some unsuspected hotspot or the junction of two grinding plates, magma on an overwhelming scale will break through. The cause? Some ghastly event - an attempt to eliminate Israel, the imposition of punitive sanctions on Iran, biotechnology gone ballistic? I worry about these.

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Tony Judt: A time of troubles

These days it seems prudent to believe, on the whole, that next year will be worse than this year. But that need not always be true. It is possible, even likely, that Silvio Berlusconi has outstayed his welcome in Italian public life and that he, his party and his coalition will be dislodged from power in the Italian general elections. For anyone who has followed the steady degradation and moral corruption of Italian public life in recent years, this is good news whatever comes after.

Elsewhere in Europe, however, there is little to hope for: the current political class, from Poland to Britain via Germany and France, is universally mediocre. ‘Europe’ is at its lowest point since the early seventies – bad news for Europeans but far, far worse for those (Macedonians, Serbs, Moldovans, Turks) whose present improvement and future hope rest almost entirely upon the promise of eventual inclusion. Meanwhile, in so far as the terms “right” and “left” preserve any meaning, the right has power but few ideas. The left, except in parts of Scandinavia, has neither.

The prospects for the middle east are grim: a timeless proposition, true, but nonetheless one that requires re-stating. If anything, they are grimmer – at least for Palestinians – than for some time. Israelis, like their American backers but with less excuse, are promising and expecting miracles from the recycled Ariel Sharon (“the new De Gaulle”), or dreaming of a revived Labour Party under Amir Peretz.

But the harsh truth is that the withdrawal from Gaza has confirmed Sharon’s strategy of focusing on the West Bank and forging “facts on the ground” that must forever preclude a viable Palestinian state. This is undermining the credibility of Palestinian moderates and boosting support for Hamas, even as Jerusalem and Washington raise the rhetorical volume against Palestinian “extremists”. Sharon, if he recovers from his illness, may call and win an election, which will liberate him from the few constraints the US has gingerly placed upon him. More trouble lies ahead.

In the US, the worst presidency of the 20th century has three years to run. A handful of Republicans may lose their House seats in November – gerrymandered districts notwithstanding – but nothing more (the American left is in even worse shape than its European counterpart). As Iraq slips beyond its grip, the US will become ever more hated by its foes and resented by its friends. The Supreme Court will have shifted significantly to the right. This will not result in the “overturning” of Roe vs Wade (and if it did many state assemblies would substitute permissive legislation); but it will see the start of a rolling back of the federal legislative reach inaugurated by the early 20th-century reformers and accelerated through the New Deal and Johnson eras.

Taken with the increasing polarisation of rich and poor and the country’s steady turning in upon itself – becoming a “gated community” whose only widely-shared characteristic is a renewed suspicion of (and unconcern for) the opinions of outsiders – this marks the beginning of the end of the American Century and the “American Way of Life” as lived during the halcyon decades since 1950. One hundred years after Upton Sinclair published The Jungle (1906) and precipitated the first era of federal reforms, the US is about to enter a time of troubles.

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Mary Kaldor: Peace in our time

I hope that 2006 might return to the optimistic multilateralism of the 1990s. The Human Security Report published in October, showed the end of the cold war and the new international humanitarianism brought a decline in wars and the number of people killed in them. Long-running wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo, southern Sudan, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka and Aceh have paused, in part due to greater international attention. If we look at the proportion of people killed in wars as a share of the world’s population, the 21st century may rank as the most peaceful in history.

Yet that is not how we in the west experienced this period. This was the post-9/11 time of terror and the “war on terror”, when we found ourselves to be targets both at home and in Afghanistan and Iraq. In what Manuel Castells calls the “happy 1990s”, the United Nations and international NGOs were seen as legitimate actors, offering assistance without becoming part of the problem. That innocence was lost in Iraq and Afghanistan. The so-called international community has been subsumed by American unilateralism. Suicide-attacks, kidnapping and hostage-taking are directed against American and international forces, aid workers as well as ordinary civilians.

Have we passed the point of no return? Could hurricane Katrina and the growing opposition to the war in Iraq change US policy? Many are calling for a political solution in Afghanistan and Iraq. A Shi’a-Sunni coalition government, influenced by pressure from women’s groups, might be installed. The British might pull out of southern Iraq in part because of overstretch. Blair might give way to Gordon Brown who is committed to poverty reduction and economic development in Gaza. The Israeli Labour Party might do better under its new leader as the ageing Sharon and Peres lose public confidence. Iranians might reject their leader’s extremism and moderate forces favouring nuclear negotiations might regain the initiative. Europe might be more united and offer an alternative to global unilateralism. And in the middle east and Britain, Muslim voices that support ijtihad – the use of reason and human interpretation – might sway those currently influenced by more absolutist positions.

I dread in 2006 that none of the following happens. Bush and Blair stay in Iraq and the violence gets worse because the Sunnis do not get an effective voice. John Bolton scuppers United Nations reform. Blair refuses to give way to Brown and tries to undercut Cameron from the right on security and immigration, and pursues new dogmas of “reform”. Likud rather than Labour benefit from Sharon and Peres’ ageing, and a Likud dominated government attacks Iranian nuclear facilities. European governments remain divided about agriculture, Turkey and their external role. The Muslim communities in Europe feel more alienated and attracted to nihilistic causes. And we neglect global warming, new diseases and natural disasters thus creating a world with fewer wars, but where no region can protect itself from pervasive everyday violence.

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Mark Kingwell: The human factor

2005 witnessed the long-overdue hollowing out of the Iraqi invasion’s credibility; a new American obsession with the economic might of China; and the astonishing success – unlikely to be halted even by the landmark federal judgment in the Dover case in late December – of creationist fideism masquerading as theory in “intelligent design”. 2006 will surely continue in the same vein, with more car bombs, Asian productivity scare stories and assaults on professors who dare to mock religious “science”.

On the last, let us apply the logic of Hume’s Razor. First: what we call the appearance of design may be a judgment of our own devices. Second: why should the appearance of design offer evidence of a singular designer rather than, say, self-organisation? Third: even if there is a singular designer, why is it a supernatural entity rather than, say, space aliens? Fourth: even if it is a supernatural entity, why is it the God of the Christian scriptures rather than, say, the Greek pantheon? (The philosopher Daniel Dennett offers a simpler version: intelligent design cannot be a scientific theory because nothing changes either way if it is true or if it is false.)

So much for that – though Hume probably won’t play in Kansas. More interesting things are afoot in the world where claims of design are plausible because demonstrated. It has been a good decade for architecture – Gehry, Koolhaas, Libeskind, Foster, Alsop, Hadid, Calatrava – are now global celebrities. Architecture and civic awareness are, at long last, coming into shared focus. Notoriously, the great utopian architectural experiments of the 20th century did not create the oases of work and play imagined by Le Corbusier or Sant’Elia, resulting only in vertical slums and dead zones. More recently, they were offloaded to Asia – Taipei, Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur – where they have created a cityscape that, depending on your height off the ground or place in the emerging class structure, is either futuristic or medieval.

All of which made architectural utopianism suspect. And yet, even amid the security checks and torturous justifications of torture of the “war on terror” – even under the fear and suspicion that have so deeply etched the new millennium – citizens are creating new public spaces, new monuments to human ability and innovation, and new possibilities for play and even justice. They’re wielding the tools of reason and science, building edifices and communities with the natural levers for discourse, imagination, and problem-solving.

2006 won’t witness any general triumph of reason over superstition, at least not in the United States or, a fortiori, the middle east. But every day, someone, somewhere is, without aid from any god or spirit, creating something that wasn’t there before. If humans have a future, that’s where we’ll find it.

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Leszek Kolakowski: My scientific method of predicting the future

The safest way of thinking about the future is by believing that tomorrow will be like today. We automatically expect the world to work according to this principle. I go out and I expect the street to be what it was yesterday; I visit my friends and I expect them to be what they were yesterday. I know, to be sure, that unexpected things do happen: a house may burn down, a person may die suddenly. But – again – the aforementioned principle is the safest way of dealing with the future in relatively stable conditions. Absolute stability, however, never exists; in the middle of a revolution, during a terrible sea storm, the principle does not work.

But this is only half of the most reasonable attitude we can take toward the future. The other half is a truth known to all of us. It says that historical processes are made up of innumerable accidents; and if they are steered by divine providence, we are totally unable to detect their plans or intentions. There is no such thing as laws of history; we can all cite any number of important events that could have easily gone differently and, if they had, the entire course of history would have been changed.

We have observed such accidents in the recent history of central and eastern Europe. There were no historical laws that caused the emergence of the Solidarity movement in Poland, one of the main factors in the peaceful collapse of Communism in Europe. Solidarity grew out of a few small accidents. Had they not happened, we would today be living in a different world. No historical laws were at work preventing Mikhail Gorbachev from sending Soviet troops into East Germany at the request of Erich Honecker; no historical laws assured the victory of Yeltsin in the coup that had been staged against him. The history of central and eastern Europe in last few decades abounds in small accidents which transformed the face of Europe.

There is no reason to suppose that there will be a war in Europe in the coming year. (If the war in the Caucasus expands, Europe will know about it only what the Russian government wishes us to know, and anyway, European governments will be no more interested than they were in the deportation of Caucasian nations by Stalin.)

Ultimately, if we want to predict events in central and eastern Europe for 2006, we may rely on the first principle: that tomorrow will be like today. Certainly, there might be new parliamentary elections in Poland and they might change the character of the government. Everywhere there will be more scandals, more conflicts. But we have no reason to expect events that would merit articles on the front pages of British and American newspapers.

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Anatol Lieven: Large rocks in the stream ahead

The underlying tendency of the US over the next year seems likely to be one of drift and increasing weakness. A virtually lame-duck Bush administration will be carried by the current rather than shaping its own course. In many ways, this is of course preferable to the period of 2001-03, when the administration set out boldly to reshape the world, with disastrous results.

The problem, however, is that the stream ahead contains large rocks, on which American power, middle-eastern peace, and the world economy may all strike and founder. These rocks are not submerged – on the contrary they are in plain sight. But that does not mean that American policymakers will be able to avoid them.

In Iraq, American public opinion will, in my view, compel moves towards the progressive withdrawal of US forces from the frontline. Some will be withdrawn from Iraq altogether; others will be confined to bases, from where they will sally forth if the insurgents seem to be on the verge of winning major victories. As the Congressional elections of November 2006 approach, the pressure from Republican senators, congressmen and governors for a reduction of US casualties is likely to become irresistible.

The administration will seek to cover this with a flood of rhetoric about the Iraqis being ready to take over, but the reality will probably be increased power for US-armed Kurdish and Shi’a militia. This will ruin moves to bring the Sunni Arabs into the new political order, and point the country towards full-scale civil war. The implications of this for the region as a whole may well be disastrous, but will emerge in 2007 and after, rather than next year.

Two immediate threats are those of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear sites – which would lead to various forms of violent Iranian retaliation – and a world economic crisis. Since one of the obvious potential catalysts for such a crisis is another oil shock stemming from market fears about the security of supplies from the Persian Gulf, it is easy to see how hitting the first rock could then lead to the US hitting the second. But given the deep weaknesses of America’s fiscal, debt and current account situation, an economic crisis could also be generated simply by structural factors in the US and world economies, as in 1929, rather than by a geopolitical event.

If – or perhaps rather when – such a crisis does strike, the key question will be whether the world’s leading economic powers will be capable of acting in unison to manage and contain it, or whether they will resort instead to some of the mutually destructive approaches adopted after 1929. If they fail, the political consequences across the world could be truly dire. But leading such an international response would require far greater vision than anything yet displayed by the Bush administration.

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Gil Loescher: Refugees’ world

2005 saw standards and practices regarding refugees and asylum seekers erode nearly everywhere. European Union governments continued their efforts to find ways to send unwanted refugees back to so-called “safe” third countries without their original claims or appeals heard. The situation in large parts of Africa and Asia, where the majority of the world’s refugees reside, is hardly any better. An increasing number of host states in the developing world respond to refugee influxes by containing or “warehousing” them in isolated and insecure refugee camps, typically in border regions far from the governing regime.

Refugees living in such situations frequently have no rights. They are not permitted to work and cannot move beyond the perimeter of the enclosed camps. They are soon forgotten by the rest of the world and become dependent on subsistence-level assistance, or less, and lead lives of poverty, frustration and unrealised potential. Over two-thirds of the world’s refugees now live in protracted refugee situations and the average length of stay for refugees in these conditions is now an incredible seventeen years.

In future years we have to do better by refugees. The way we treat refugees matters because it is a litmus test of how tolerant and just we are as a society, as nations, and as an international community. However, it is important to recognise that refugee situations not only have humanitarian consequences but also are the result of political actions and have deep consequences for politics and security. Arthur Helton, who was killed in the suicide bombing of the UN in Baghdad in August 2003, once wrote that “by solving refugee problems and dealing with the fears and insecurities that both give rise to refugees and animate refugee responses, we may begin to deal better with the insecurities that characterize the new century.”

Humanitarian actors alone cannot address the political dimensions of chronic and unresolved refugee problems. As long as discussions on these problems remain exclusively within the humanitarian community and do not engage the broader peace, security and development communities, they will be limited in their impact. Resolution will not be achieved easily or quickly but the return home of thousands of Sudanese to south Sudan from neighbouring countries in recent weeks shows that solutions can be found given the active engagement of all sectors of the international community.

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Gregory Maniatis: May the Democrats lose

The best hope for American progressives in 2006 is for the Democrats to fail in November’s mid-term elections. Let me explain.

The Republicans are imploding in sleaze and incompetence. But if the Democrats claw back a few seats without a coherent governing philosophy, this would cover up the party’s intellectual failings and reinforce its long-term decline.

The Democratic strategy in 2006 seems to be to run Iraq veterans in vulnerable House districts. But is opposition to the war enough? After all, John McCain, a Republican who opposes abortion and gay rights, would trounce any Democrat in a presidential race dominated by the war.

It’s natural to play Bush’s Iraq incompetence for political advantage. Less heartening is their failure on more central and longstanding issues:

  • Rigged politics: can America’s electoral integrity be meaningful when nearly 99% of Congressional incumbents routinely win re-election? In 2004, 401 of the 435 sitting House members sought re-election; all but five were re-elected.

  • Inequality: in 1975 the average compensation of the top 100 chief executives was thirty-nine times that of the average worker; today that multiple exceeds 1,000. Between 1979 and 2000, the income of households in the bottom 20% grew by 6.4%, that of the top 20% by 70%, and the top 1% by 184%. Social mobility is on the wane; in the 1970s, 65% of people moved up an income bracket; in the booming 1990s, only 60% did.

  • Health care: America could spend the same on health care and provide universal coverage. But you wouldn’t know this from listening to the Democrats, so many of whom have been bought out by the health-care lobby.

The House has approved a bill that would criminalise the offering of assistance to illegal immigrants, be it by social workers, teachers, or church groups, and reversed one of the Democrats’ few recent triumphs by allowing oil exploration in Alaska.

There’s no single reason behind the decline of the progressive movement. But you could do worse than finger the co-option of Democratic Party leaders. America’s rising tide has created a more populous, fatter elite. Democratic leaders once lived amongst their working-class constituents; today they vacation in St Barts. Journalists, union bosses, NGO leaders, and university presidents have been similarly softened. And as the Economist noted earlier this year: “Everywhere you look in modern America - you see elites mastering the art of perpetuating themselves.”

For the better part of the 20th century, progressive forces were able to erode the advantage of the wealthy. Reform was catalysed by unions, feminism, and the civil-rights movement.

Today, such collective progressive movements have withered. Their pale replacement is a combination of the internet and celebrities – Bono and the Gates’s are Time magazine’s persons of the year.

If the Democrats make gains in November, it will be a false dawn. A less-than-stellar result might catalyse the revolutionary debate the party desperately needs.

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Michael Naumann: Predictions

When Jonathan Swift wanted to tease the publisher of an Almanack who had somehow annoyed him, he predicted his death in the upcoming year – and then, a year later Swift celebrated his own clairvoyance in an article, although the altogether healthy man didn’t die at all at the predicted date. Whereupon the poor object of his wit protested too much. In the world of satire, he was dead.

Predictions are the stepchildren of prophecies and the bread and butter of political pundits who prefer never to look back at their own warnings and apocalyptic admonitions. In other words, they’re embarrassing and fun. So, here goes:

We predict that Monica Lewinsky will again fail to secure the impeachment of an American president. In fact, “waterboarding”, the practice of submerging an “illegal enemy combatant” in any kind of liquid until he almost drowns, will be officially declared harmless in comparison to oral sex in the Oval Office.

We predict that Vladimir Putin will change the Russian constitution (yes, they have one!) and forfeit the role of president to become the new prime minister – after the president’s powers have been reduced to those of a ceremonious constitutional czar (as in “CCC”, that is without the “P”). The new prime minister, unlike the present president, will not suffer from any term limit.

We predict that the soccer world championship in Germany will produce an avalanche of bad journalism, bad television, bad advertisement, bad hooliganism and bad soccer. Anybody who thinks that there will be good journalism, good television, good advertisement and good soccer, will also believe that there is good hooliganism.

We predict that Tony Blair will be remembered.

We predict that few will remember what for.

We predict that the German chancellor Angela Merkel will speak to her people on every new year’s eve for the next ten years. She will admonish them to finally start working – until the last job in the country has been exported to India, China, Turkey and the Republic of Slovakia.

We predict that the next Iranian president will also have an unpronounceable name, but that will not matter anymore.

We predict that the serious issues of our times - that is, terrorism, world hunger, Aids, genocidal wars, climate change, demographic shifts of enormous proportions - will be the subject of numerous academic essays. Without any consequences.

We finally predict that within fifteen years the internet will be controlled by a world government which in turn will be controlled by Google Inc. And as you read this, your name is already being registered and sorted according to your reading preferences.

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Hamish Nixon: Afghanistan vision

In 2006 Afghanistan will be trying to move from an emergency situation towards longer-term state-building and development goals, with more Afghan ownership. However, significant obstacles to this developmental “normalisation” will remain. Important developments will be the fulfilment of the main provisions of the 2001 Bonn agreement through the election of a parliament, and the underpinning of future efforts through a National Development Strategy and a renewed compact with the international community to be signed in London in late January.

The role of international military forces will also change as Nato expands the peacekeeping International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) by sending more soldiers to the troubled south of the country. US forces, while reducing their numbers by 4,000 to 16,000, will continue to lead counter-insurgency operations there, and will retain military responsibility for restive eastern borderlands. Improvements in Afghan army and police capacity to support, and eventually manage, security in the south and east will be crucial.

While progressive expansion of state authority in the centre, north and west has allowed improvements to infrastructure and administration, there is danger of a widening division between those parts of the country that are able to move forward into some development and those too insecure to do so. A potential fusion in some places of insurgency with narcotics trafficking, along with infrequent but increasing attacks by suicide-bombers, highlight the continuing security challenges.

The inauguration of the national assembly brings important changes in politics. The lower house, a grab bag of jihadis and warlords, religious conservatives, surprisingly many women, and a few liberals, will present a chaotic picture in its first year. For the first time there will be a domestic check on the presidency, and the task of ratifying the decrees of recent years will begin to expose the assembly’s complex range of positions and shifting alliances. Yet, no group or shade of opinion holds decisive sway, and with support, some good faith from its members, and luck, the parliament may signal the start of a political system that will foster debate rather than force. Equally, if the house descends into naked patronage it will quickly lose the fragile trust of ordinary Afghans.

The overall challenge in 2006 will be to reach further towards a common vision for Afghanistan’s political and administrative structures, and the place of religion and tradition in its future, and then to take sustainable steps towards that vision. Any such vision is still far in the future, and Afghanistan will need continued support, as well as more independence, to reach it.

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John Palmer: Europe’s year

In 2006 it seems clear that the European Union is bouncing off the bottom. The steep curve down in 2005 was the product of success: enlargement proceeded so fast that it went beyond the capacity of governance and the EU lost internal focus. There will be twenty-seven members by the end of 2006, and the queue gets longer and longer – an interesting phenomenon for a club allegedly in difficulties.

The transformation from industrial to knowledge economies, managed well by the Nordic countries, will go better in 2006. The smaller economies – Finland, Sweden, Ireland, Austria and so on – continue to boom and, according to the OECD, we can expect a modest recovery in the core economies: Germany and France are on the turn.

Germany has returned as a core player. The agreement at the December 2005 summit was brokered largely by the German foreign ministry and Chancellor Merkel’s team, and, after a long period of stasis and disorientation, Germany’s grand coalition is a powerful combination which agrees on the centrality of Europe. The German presidency in 2007 will be decisive.

In 2006 there will be key decisions on the future of the constitutional treaty. Austria’s presidency in the first half of 2006 will focus in March on the revitalised Lisbon agenda – the economic process – where there will be a swing in the Nordic direction. France and Germany have realised that there is no point in protecting doomed sectors of the economy but you can protect workers by retraining and empowerment. The UK model is unattractive because it is done on the cheap. The spring summit will focus on the reconstruction of welfare and sustainability and proposition that, with China and India industrialising, European social standards represent an entrepreneurial opportunity.

Externally, there has been a big effort to repackage the transatlantic relationship with an allegedly more multilateral Bush mark-2. Now, the further decline of US power in the middle east, and Iraq in particular, brings a new unpredictability, deriving not from US strength but from weakness. A new instability in the administration itself, between the neocon rearguard and the new realists, is critical.

The question of how far the EU enlarges remains central. There clearly are limits because of the visible problem of delivery on expectations. But if we are not to have a Manichean world, the focus must be on putting substance into the relationship with the wider Europe - the commonwealth of Europe. For this to work, it has to go beyond cooperation to include not membership, but some element of shared sovereignty on economic and security issues.

We need a more coherent global architecture, for example on labour migration and rights and how to extend the rule of law. There may be a kind of General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade of the labour market and it might be possible to make progress, on the Kyoto model, with the extension of the rule of law, perhaps through the International Criminal Court, in the context of a weakening United States.

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Sandra Postel: the geopolitics of water in 2006

In 2005, the global water cycle began to strike back. From the flooding of New Orleans after hurricane Katrina to the startling drought in the Amazon rainforest, the world began to feel the impact of a hydrological cycle under assault. And there is every reason to expect that water-related disasters will grab more headlines in 2006.

The unsettling fact is that distinguishing a natural disaster from a human-induced one is getting more difficult. Storms, floods, landslides and tidal waves are natural events, to be sure, but the degree to which they produce disaster is now often strongly influenced by human actions. By necessity or choice, more people are living in floodplains, along coastlines, and on fragile hillsides – zones that place them in harm’s way. At the same time, the clearing of trees, draining of wetlands, engineering of rivers, and destruction of coral reefs and mangroves has frayed the natural safety nets that healthy ecosystems provide. Consequently, when a natural disaster strikes, the risks of catastrophic losses are higher.

Munich Re, one of the world’s largest reinsurance companies, reports that the loss of life and property due to natural disasters has been climbing for two decades. Worldwide economic losses from natural catastrophes during the past ten years have totalled $566.8 billion, exceeding the combined losses from 1950 through 1989. More than four times as many “great” natural catastrophes occurred during the 1990s as during the 1950s.

Global warming and its anticipated effects on the hydrological cycle will make the robustness and resilience of nature’s way of mitigating disasters all the more important, as tropical storms, seasonal flooding, and droughts increase in frequency and intensity.

At the same time, expanding populations and water-consumptive activities are straining freshwater supplies around the globe. In the United States, signs of water stress that used to be relegated to the west are now increasingly common in the east – from dried-up rivers, to shrinking lakes and reservoirs, to falling water-tables. When persistent droughts occur, there is little reserve to weather them, leaving people, crops, livestock, and fish at risk.

Corporations see a “water-stressed” future as a new frontier of opportunity and profit – and so, of course, it is. But whether those profits lie more in big dams to store water and plastic bottles to sell it or in efficient irrigation systems and native landscaping designs that enable us to use scarce water more productively will depend on one important thing: whether governments take seriously their role as custodians of the public trust in water.

In practice, this means putting tough policies in place that safeguard freshwater ecosystems and their life-support functions, and that encourage conservation rather than exploitation and waste. The European Union’s Water Framework Directive takes some positive steps, but concrete results have yet to be seen. US policies with regard to rivers and wetlands have largely gone backwards under the current administration.

In 2006, the hydrological cycle will almost certainly lash back at us again. Expect more floods, droughts, dried-up rivers, and intense competition over dwindling supplies. Will it be enough to spur consumers and governments to act? Don’t hold your breath – unless you’re under water.

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Gwyn Prins: The Mandate of Heaven

The Mandate of Heaven is moving on. The post Cold War interregnum began its closing stage with 9/11 and ended it on 1 June 2005 in the Netherlands. In 2006 we should be watching for The Mandate moving elsewhere. This can be bumpy. When The Mandate moved during the Tai’ping rebellion, more Chinese died than from any other human-induced event of the 19th century.

The background constants for 2006 remain remission and demography. We are still in remission between 9/11 and the next equivalent jihadist terrorist attack – after which all bets are off. The key long-wave demographics show the Asian superpowers growing, Europe greying and fading, melting-pot America eternally 37, but changing skin colour, and Russia dying. Aids stalks on unchecked.

The death throes of the European Union advance apace, generating contradictory forces. Schroeder agreed to Putin’s submarine re-routing of the Vyborg Baltic gas pipeline. Scales fell from eastern European eyes. What price l’esprit communautaire? Conversely and predictably, the Brussels nomenklatura has responded to loss of its federal constitution with a savage acceleration of covert centralisation. We therefore risk an explosive, not a graceful disintegration.

Gold will continue its rise past $500/oz. This is a 50% gold/dollar devaluation since Bush began to build his deficit; but it is also the market damning the euro. The market prefers gold, and treats the euro not as a new reserve, but as a debauched currency. The banks already have prepared for its ending.

As Iraqis continue to put democratic facts on the ground, the insurgency to lose momentum and the issue to fade, American policy will focus more visibly on the emerging four-cornered Pacific concert. A key requirement for buffering China – whose emergence as an imperial commodities-seeker was the main unintended consequence of 9/11 – is the India strategy. America is consciously building India as the English-speaking, democratic, demographic superpower. Indian-Americans are becoming a powerful domestic constituency. Japan’s new assertiveness occupies the other corner.

After the train-wreck of the 60th summit, the UN will continue to move into the shadows. With it go more parts of the left/liberal credo. The object-lesson failure of Gordon Brown’s firehosing of money onto public services has its international reflex in dissent from his G8 approach. In reaction, seriously interesting capitalist responses to African poverty are starting.

Many major economies will now follow the Finnish example and build new nuclear capacity in the face of global warming and energy insecurity or, like Germany, they will risk energy blackmail. In 2006, if the oil majors revise their exploration viability price assumption up towards $40bbl, important new oilfields become winnable. The Kyoto Treaty will remain dead. Conservation and technology gains will continue to be the way to abate CO2 increase.

Of shocks, bird-flu is the most predictable, along with military removal of Iranian nuclear ambitions. Nuclear next-use needs will come onto the agenda as we grapple with problems of what are greater and lesser evils.

In England, “New Labour” will to continue to unravel and The Mandate will move towards Cameron.

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David Rieff: Eppur si muove

2006 is likely to be like the years that preceded it in that there is not a single major world leader whom it is possible to admire unreservedly, as, for all their faults, one could admire Vaclav Havel or Nelson Mandela. So it is surely a safe prediction that from Tokyo to Washington, Johannesburg to Brussels, and Beijing to Moscow, the world will go on being governed by moral and intellectual dwarves. The real question is how malign the effects of their particular stewardship will be. I would say in the case of Putin’s Russia (the erosion of what democracy existed, the continuing war in Chechnya), Mbeki’s South Africa (the insane refusal to deal seriously with Aids), and of course Bush’s United States (the extraordinary arrogance of power, and the utopian folly of trying to impose democracy at the point of a gun), quite malign.

Fundamentalism will surely continue to grow in strength in the Islamic world. Presumably at some point, one of the old tyrannies of the region will be replaced by the new tyranny of Islamic rule (Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia being the likeliest prospects). But whether that will occur in 2006 is anyone’s guess.

Does anyone doubt Africa will continue to burn? Making Bill and Melinda Gates and Bono Time’s persons of the year will not change that. Neither will the bogus rescue packages of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. To change things in Africa would mean sacrifice in the rich world, and…well it’s obvious, isn’t it?

And then there’s the environment. That has been for some time, remains, and will continue to be the great issue of our time. Or should I say the great ignored issue of our time. For while they think about terrorism in Washington, illegal immigration in Brussels, and capitalism in Beijing and New Delhi, the environmental crisis that will literally change the world as the oceans are plundered, the ice caps melt, and the hole in the ozone layer widens, is already upon us. That should be the real life and death question in 2006. But it is safe to predict that despite the efforts of groups like Greenpeace, it will not be.

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Mary Robinson: The human face of globalisation

There are three areas I would like to see progress on in 2006.

The first is in trade and development. It is important to see the completion of the Doha round as a true development round. The Hong Kong meeting was disappointing because there was no evidence of a paradigm shift in approach towards making trade work for development. As Grant Aldonas, the former US Under Secretary for International Trade, put it, “you can’t negotiate a development round in the same way as you negotiate a trade round.” I saw little will in Hong Kong to look at the development impact of the negotiations.

The process is also opaque, complicated and lacking transparency. I was struck by how much time my Oxfam colleagues spent trying to find out what was happening in the meetings and then explaining it to the smaller delegations. It is not a fair process when smaller delegations can’t find out what’s going on in such areas as agriculture, Nama and services. So I hope in 2006 that it is recognised that there must be clear emphasis on the development impacts of trade as negotiations continue.

Second, I want to see health recognised as a human right, following the launch in London of the leaders’ statement “Everyone has the Right to Health”. This would change the dynamics of global health and would seriously scale up the priority given to health issues. It has been established that it makes a difference to government priorities in such areas as the immunisation of children. Treating health as a human right would require an emphasis on strengthening health systems in poorer countries where systems have been weakened by the World Bank/IMF structural adjustment policy including capping of the numbers of public employees.

Third, migration. I was a member of the Global Commission on International Migration that reported to Kofi Annan on 5 October. What I hope for in 2006 is a shift in mindset to one that values migration as positive both for the sending and the receiving countries. We should recognise the benefits of remittances, the benefits to the EU, with its declining and ageing populations, of inward migration, and to the US which has always been built on immigration.

We must delink the word illegal from the word migration, just as we have delinked the word illegitimate from the word child. Even undocumented migrants have rights under the treaties and conventions that have been ratified, at least in part, by most countries.

There will be a high-level dialogue in the UN general assembly in September 2006 on migration; sadly in 2005 the discussion got harsher in the EU and the US, with images of barbed wire in the Spanish enclaves in north Africa, an increase in the deaths of migrants by boat and US negative references to illegal aliens. Immigration is good for the country’s economy, but we have seen the reality of big walls, vigilantes and people dying in the desert. The commission’s report will, I hope, contribute to a change in attitude. It is only eighty-eight pages and available on the website www.GCIM.org. I hope that people will read it and understand that migration is the human face of globalisation.

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Richard Rodriguez: Two pronouns

In the new year, the dangerous stranger will move ever closer. He may take up residence in our house.

London learned, in this dying year, that the dangerous stranger lived just up the street. He was native-born and had not needed to cross an international border to cause mayhem in the name of Allah. His journey required merely several tube stops.

In the United States, it was a lesson we should have learned ten years ago, but didn’t. Just before the federal building in Oklahoma City was bombed (and hundreds killed) in 1995, an eyewitness saw three men “either Hispanic or Arab” running from the explosion in jogging suits. No one noticed the native son with flaxen hair leaving the scene.

In 2005, along the US border with Mexico, posses of Americans calling themselves “Minutemen” patrolled the desert looking for “illegal aliens” who might also be terrorists. President Bush labeled the Minutemen “vigilantes”. But growing numbers of Americans (according to polls) are troubled by the fact that America’s two thousand mile border with Mexico is largely ungoverned and may be ungovernable.

Through the long, perspiring day, it is difficult to distinguish on the horizon between the brown peasant from Mexico or central America, looking for a job washing dishes in Dallas, and an agent for al-Qaida. At night, that cactus might be a human figure.

For all our worry about the dark stranger who has just boarded our bus, a more domestic anxiety could await us at our destination. Call it a neo-Victorian story of home: one person is living uneasily with two pronouns, the “I” and the “we”.

The “I” is, of course, the great pronoun of modernity, of solitude and ambition and self-seeking. It is the pronoun stamped onto our passport into the secular city.

But many of us also come from societies of “we” — families and tribes that bend or refuse to bend against the child’s ambition for “I”. Many of us belong to the desert religions which, as we have come newly to appreciate, are oriental, not western, and belong to the medieval “we”.

In the past, there was an uneasy, often unresolved compromise between the public “I” and the private “we”. The compromise made the secular city possible.

But with the desert religions — Judaism, Christianity, Islam — beckoning the believer with their more ancient pronoun, balance between public life and private belief may be lost. The Arab teenager in the Paris suburb frustrated by the difficulty of claiming his French “I” turns to Islam’s “we”. The Canadian Jew abandons Toronto to take his family to live in a desert colony of settlers that serves as a bulwark against the infidel.

In the US, a new awakening among Christians seeks to make the political life of the nation more harmonious with the agenda of the televangelist. And the president’s men are at this moment in prayer at the White House.

The dangerous stranger, don’t you see, may be at this moment in the bedroom upstairs?

“I” versus “we”: the self at odds with its own pronouns. Dr Jekyll meet Mr Hyde.

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Paul Rogers: A change in the weather

The rampant nuclear-power lobby in Britain suffers major setbacks as the full cost of decommissioning old power stations becomes clear (£56 billion and rising at the last count).

The replacement of Britain’s Trident nuclear submarine force becomes an unexpected issue as Tony Blair faces yet another backbench challenge.

The United States department of energy is revealed to be developing new mini-nukes in a programme kept from Congress and funded out of the "black budget". Bush says it is essential to fighting the war on terror but doesn't say how.

The climate of the near-Arctic is shown to be warming up even faster than thought. As the permafrost melts, vegetation frozen for many thousands of years starts to decay. Climatologists say this will release millions of tons of methane, a far worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

A United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) report says carbon emissions must be halved within ten years and halved again in the following decade if climate change is to be reversed.

Tony Blair has a "road to Damascus" conversion, gives up on nuclear power and announces a massive programme to promote energy conservation and renewables, together with increased tax on petrol and diversion of all proceeds into public transport. He aims to meet the Unep target even if it costs Labour the next election, and challenges David Cameron to back him. Cameron keeps quiet.

Iraqi and Afghan insurgencies continue with no let-up but Bush announces 20,000 troops out of Iraq and 5,000 out of Afghanistan ahead of the Congressional elections in November.

More paramilitary attacks across Europe – London, Rome and Warsaw targeted.

US aircraft carrier sunk in the Persian Gulf by Iraqi pilot flying a 747 freighter loaded with fuel and explosives. 5,000 American sailors killed. Pilot's family had been killed in a US raid on Fallujah in November 2004.

Bush reverses troop cuts, orders reprisal attacks on Fallujah killing 15,000. Insurgency escalates and US casualties soar.

Blair has yet another conversion and announces that the war on terror is failing. Distances himself from Bush and pulls British troops out of Iraq. Sets up a task force of the most independently-minded security experts from Europe, the US and the middle east to propose alternative policies. Backed by Germany, Spain and even France.

Democrats finally mount united opposition to Bush and clean up in the elections. Year ends as families in Iraq, Europe and the United States mourn their losses.

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Olivier Roy: Democracy and Islamism

2006 will see the unravelling of the contradiction between the “war on terrorism” and the “greater middle east” policy. The first is devoted to fighting violent radical Islam while the second means promoting democracy in the middle east. The war on terrorism enlists regimes which are confronted with the threat of terrorism. The greater middle east policy challenges the existing regimes, either hostile (Iran, Syria) or supposedly friendly (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan), in favour of an immediate process of democratisation.

The problem is that elections, from Egypt to Palestine, are bringing Islamist parties either to power or close to power, enabling them to impose a part of their agenda, namely the sharia, which runs against what is seen as a prerequisite for democracy: secularisation and women’s rights. Drawing a clear line between radical groups and legitimate political actors becomes more and more difficult: Hamas has been put on the list of terrorist movements, but at the same time any process of democratisation in Palestine requires the recognition of Hamas as a legitimate political actor.

This contradiction is also reflected in the ambivalence of Arab public opinion, which massively opposes the US intervention in Iraq, but also resents the long lasting western support for authoritarian regimes. Clearly things have changed: regimes nervously react to the US pressure but are more or less reluctantly opening the political sphere and allowing some sort of freedom in elections. Democratisation is on the move, but has to be rooted in nationalism and Islam, rather than being imposed through pressure. Elections are not just a technical tool: they allow the emergence of repressed actors and feelings.

There are therefore growing voices in America, Europe and Israel calling for more restraint in democratisation. But there will be no democracy if Islamist parties are not engaged. The European approach of advocating a slow process of reform within authoritarian secular regimes before allowing elections has been a failure. The regimes will reform only under pressure.

2006 is therefore a turning point: either democratisation remains the priority, in which case the military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq will make some sense, or the west will step back towards a short-sighted Realpolitik, which will neither suppress radicalism nor stabilise the middle east.

The problem here is not that religious parties are opposed to democracy. The mainstream Islamist parties in Egypt, Syria and Iraq clearly indicated that they are on the democratic trail, while Hamas and Hizbollah stick to armed struggle less for doctrinal reasons than because of their nationalist orientations.

But the process of democratisation requires time. Western support for authoritarian and corrupt regimes will boost the nationalist credentials of the Islamist parties and lend legitimacy to the accusation of double-speak. There is no other choice than to endorse democracy and pressure authoritarian regimes. This is the challenge of 2006.

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Saskia Sassen: Fear and camouflage: the end of the liberal state?

The liberal state has changed profoundly with significant consequences for the type of society we have come to expect – whether in the rich democracies of the north or the struggling democracies elsewhere.

At the heart of this emergent transformation lies the historical reshaping, firstly of the relations between the three parts of the liberal state (the executive, the legislature/parliament, and the judiciary), and secondly of the relation between the state (especially the executive branch) and the citizens, with the latter losing rights and entitlements.

The United States is the most extreme case and hence also the one that makes these shifts most legible, though the Iraq war and its close cousin, the “global war on terror”, also brought some of these shifts about in the United Kingdom.

The privatising of the power of the government’s executive branch (or prime minister’s office) along with the erosion of the privacy rights of citizens is hollowing out the powers of the legislature. These shifts are no anomaly. These are systemic shifts. They transcend party politics and go beyond the much-discussed democratic deficits brought about by economic globalisation.

It will take much political work and innovation to address these shifts. The executive has become by far the most powerful branch of the US government: it has amassed undemocratic powers, become highly secretive, is increasingly a form of privatised power and has gained added control over public administration.

The “people’s branch of government” – the legislature – was never strong but has lost much of its power. Much of this loss is structural: when the state privatizes public sector firms and deregulates such major economic sectors as finance and telecommunications, the legislature loses part of its oversight and some of its law-making functions. This has had the indirect effect of weakening its authority vis-à-vis its constitutional role of public scrutiny of the executive. Today the executive essentially controls and uses the legislature. It is increasingly rare for the legislature to make new laws. The third branch, the judiciary, particularly the Supreme Court, is increasingly in charge of both – scrutinising the actions of the executive and making law.

Finally, US citizens have been losing “little rights” for the last decade, a process accelerated by the “anti-terrorism” legislation. They range from the right to sue the federal government in a lower court around issues as diverse as immigration, tobacco companies, and environmental dangers, to such rights as declaring bankruptcy in order to use what money you might have to pay for your children’s food, rent, and the like. Now the first taker is the credit-card company.

Such events as the Iraq war and the global war on terror function as camouflage for these deeper transformations. In 2006 these trends will continue. We must develop innovative political strategies to get at the heart of the matter – the excessive powers, including war powers, of the liberal state’s executive branch.

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Roger Scruton: A year of awakening

In Britain, I look forward to a revival of the Tory party under David Cameron’s leadership, and the adoption by Tony Blair and the Labour Party of a more tentative style of government. On the domestic front I assume that the Islamist threat will continue to grow, and that there will be atrocities at least as revolting as those we saw last summer.

Of course it is dangerous to make such prophecies – look what happened to Enoch Powell. But the country has received its wake-up call and it is now more acceptable to say what we all know in our hearts to be true – that immigration must be followed by integration if it is not to blow our society apart. It is a tragedy that people have to die before the truth can be publicly acknowledged, but that is the way establishments work.

In the world of culture there is much to hope for: the revival of tonality in serious music; the return to classical styles and principles in architecture; a new moral seriousness in art and literature. In architecture especially people are beginning to look for ways to escape from the vinegary prescriptions of the modernists, and to use styles and materials that blend with the urban fabric.

In this matter, as in so many others, the Labour establishment has remained bogged down in the 1960s, mulling over opinions that were once progressive and which have therefore dated far more quickly than the conservative sentiments they aimed to replace. The architecture of the 1960s, based in the half-crazed theories of Le Corbusier and Gropius, is one major cause of social breakdown in our cities. Thanks to the recent riots around Paris, educated opinion has begun to focus on exactly what happens to immigrants from village communities, when they are shut up in the satanic mills fabricated from Corbusian lego.

2006 may very well be the year when people finally wake up to the fact that the state educational system cannot be rescued, and that pouring money into this bankrupt organisation will only make matters worse. Whether an effective political consensus concerning the alternative will emerge I do not know. It could be that 2006 will see the beginning of a wholly new approach to education, and a recognition that, after all, it is not the business of the state.

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Nabaneeta Dev Sen: Writing India

What do I fear most in 2006? Consider the following.

I have walked into a classroom in West Bengal, India, where I am introduced as a Bengali writer. The students look surprised. They have never seen a Bengali writer. Are there living Indian writers who still write in Bengali? Wasn’t that a practice of olden times, when green tramcars were drawn by white Weller horses on the beautifully cobbled streets of Calcutta? Isn’t present-day India writing in English?

Regional languages, after all, are there to be spoken. True, Bengali was the fourth largest spoken tongue in the world in 2005, but that does not mean there are crazy people still writing in a language that nobody reads. It is just what it claims to be: a regional language, not a global tongue. In this world of global citizens who, except for specialists, cares for regional varieties?

There are, to be sure, courses in India where Bengali, Tamil, Hindi, Urdu and other regional idioms are taught to local students who have shown intellectual curiosity in the cultures connected with these now remote spoken tongues.

After all, those languages had once produced great literatures, and some had long literary histories behind them, but could not survive in the competitive global market, in which extra-literary qualities matter as much, if not more than the literary ones.

No one noticed exactly when the language of the global market became the language of Indian literature. Strangely enough, the trend of Anglicization in India, which destroyed twenty-two full-grown literary traditions, was not global. Literatures in French or Spanish, even in Latvian or Estonian have survived, as they have in Japanese, Chinese, Arabic or Hebrew.

So what of India? Post-colonial damage? But during the British Raj Indian regional languages flourished. Mother-tongue was identified with the motherland, giving writers and readers a cultural identity, tied to a geographical and historical background that made them proud of their national heritage.

Mother -tongue has lost that utility in Mother India today. Now we need to be free of any specific background. To become citizens of the world, we need international languages. This does not, however, prevent us from exploiting our exotic cultural experience. That is what the sensible Indian writer has been doing: writing India in an international tongue. What else should one do? You get more freedom to express yourself, unchained from your cultural inhibitions, and you get a readership that covers the whole planet, financial considerations aside.

Maybe in 2006 I shall introduce myself in a classroom as an Indian writer in English. And send my grandchildren to special modern Indian language courses to learn to read and write Bengali. After all did not both my parents also spend all their lives writing poetry in that lost language? Interest in ancestral history has come back into fashion these days.

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Bill Thompson: Through a wifi-enabled crystal ball

There will be more blogs. Software patenting will rear its ugly head again in Europe but won’t really damage the open source movement. The Wikipedia backlash will gather force. The developing world will see a massive percentage increase in net use, but actual numbers online will remain low. Wimax standards will be agreed but rollout will be slow and we won’t see the technology deliver for another three or four years. Bluetooth will be heavily marketed and fail to deliver.

The really hard thing is to see which cool things from four or five years ago are finally going to hit the mainstream. The disruptive technologies are already invented and coming out of the labs – we just have to spot them.

Two complementary principles apply: first, William Gibson’s realisation that “the future has already arrived, it’s just not evenly distributed yet”; and second, Amara’s Law, named for futurologist Roy Amara, that “we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”

If we take these together, what movements can we observe in the tectonic plates of technological determinism? Where’s the earthquake going to happen? What much-loved way of life is about to disappear into a subduction zone? And which new islands will emerge in the network landscape?

Three trends will shape the technology world next year. The network will become pervasive, at least in the developed world. Almost everything that can have a chip in it will get one. And these chips will be able to talk to each other through relatively low-power short-range network connections, creating a “mesh” infrastructure that will pervade our lives.

At the same time, we’ll stop noticing both the network and the computers that are attached to it, as the internet finally joins the other utilities – gas, electricity, running water – as just part of the given in the industrialised world.

We’ll see the impact most in two areas.

For business users, being connected and available will become the default, and being able to “turn it off”, to disconnect, will be the position of privilege. If being given a Blackberry was a sign of status at the tail end of 2005, being able to return it will be the aspiration of every senior executive by next Christmas.

But the real impact will be in the toy market. Manufacturers have been talking about “intelligent” toys for years, but it’s now reached the stage that toys with chips and communications capabilities are reaching the market.

You can buy a Dr Who doll that will ‘talk’ to its enemy Slitheen, you can buy educational toys that will interact with a TV, and soon they will be everywhere.

Such toys have been around for some time – I remember an interactive Barney from four or five years ago – but the technology was neither mature nor cheap enough for the mass market. Now it is both, and our children’s worlds are about to be transformed.

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Slavoj Zizek: The new politics of truth

When, on 2 November 2004, the Dutch documentary filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered in Amsterdam by an Islamist extremist (Mohammed Bouyeri), a letter was found stuck into a knife hole in van Gogh’s belly, addressed to his friend Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali member of the Dutch parliament known as a passionate fighter for the rights of Muslim women. If there ever was a “fundamentalist” document, this was it.

The true pearl is hidden in the last paragraph, in the form of a challenge to Hirsi Ali – it is a brutal assertion of the wish to die as the proof of one’s truthfulness:

“I challenge you with this letter to prove that you are right. You don’t have to do much for that, Mrs. Hirsi Ali: wish death if you are really convinced that you are right. If you do not accept this challenge, you will know that my Master, the Most high, has exposed you as a bearer of lies. … If you wish death, then you are being truthful”. But the wicked ones “never wish to die, because of what their hands (and sins) have brought forth. And Allah is the all-knowing over the purveyors of lies.” (2:94-95). To prevent myself from having the same wish come to me as I wish for you, I shall wish this wish for you: Master give us death to give us happiness with martyrdom.” (emphasis added)

Here we get an almost imperceptible shift which signals the presence of a perverse economy: from the readiness to die for the truth to the readiness to die as direct proof of one’s truthfulness, which is in fact a motivation to die; from “if you are truthful, you should not fear death” to “if you wish death, you are truthful.” The passage ends in an astonishing taking-over of the other’s wish: “I shall wish this wish for you…” The underlying logic is complex enough: I will do this “to prevent myself from having the same wish that I have for you come to me.”

What can this mean? Is it not that, by wishing death, he is doing precisely what he wanted to prevent; doesn’t he accept the same wish (that of death) that he wishes for her (he wishes her dead)? So the final proclamation should not surprise us:

“This struggle which has burst forth is different from those of the past. The unbelieving fundamentalists have started it and the true believers will end it. There will be no mercy shown to the purveyors of injustice, only the sword will be lifted against them. No discussions, no demonstrations, no petitions: only death will separate the Truth from Lies.”

Here the situation is pushed to an extreme: there is no symbolic mediation, no symbolic activity – the only thing that separates Truth from Lies is death, i.e., the truthful individual’s readiness and desire to die.

No wonder Michel Foucault was fascinated by Islamic political martyrdom: in it, he discerned the contours of what he called a new “regime of truth” radically different from our Western one, a regime based not on factual accuracy or the consistency of reasoning, but the readiness to die.

This, alas, is what awaits us in 2006 and, one must say, beyond: the struggle between a spurious “culture of life” (the way Christians formulate their refusal of the very core of human creativity) and a “culture of death,” both of which must be rejected in the name of any truly emancipatory politics.

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Jonathan Zittrain: An end to PCs

2006 will see a fading away of the personal computer. Blackberries, iPods, Tivos, Xboxes, mobile phones – these chimeras of convergence will leave increasingly less room for the general-purpose PC. What should we miss most as the PC recedes? Its generativity. An open internet combined with PC platforms that any third party can program without permission from Bill Gates or Steve Jobs led to an extraordinary series of information technology innovations – chat, instant messenger, web browsing, email clients, screen savers, Napster.

So much innovation, in fact, that I fear people think that our cups already runneth over – that everything that might be invented already has been. As existing popular applications are reified into special-purpose objects, the generic PC, jack of all trades, master of none, will become less prevalent among diverse groups of people and institutions – instead being relegated to, and locked down within, white-collar office environments. At that point, coding new applications for it will be that much less attractive, since there will be fewer audiences ready to take them up.

We need to find a way to maintain the generative nature of the PC and internet – especially because so many of the innovations have to do with speech and dialogue, bringing people and cultures together that formerly would be ignorant of one another. We must do this even as the PC's very success and excess have sealed its fate.

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