Through a greenscreen darkly

Millions of paperbacks from Penguin’s Golden Age now rest in secondhand bookstores all around the English-speaking world. By Golden Age I mean the wonderful range and designs of the 1960s and early 1970s, until the rationalisation following Pearson Longman’s buyout in 1970. The non-fiction Pelican imprint was pretty adventurous, publishing a whole range of series that have become the blue-spined backbone of my secondhand collection – from cut-price economics and social science readers to the New Left Review collaborations.

Penguin Australia was no exception. It rode the wave of student radicalisation to put out editions like Australian Capitalism: towards a socialist critique [1972] But Penguin was playing both sides of the fence. I recently picked up Australian Management and Society: 1970-1985 [1971], edited by Devon Mills. It’s a collection of essays by management gurus avant la lettre and, even better, futurologists.  It is, as you would expect, tragically but humourously dated. You can hear the Kraftwerk as you scan chapters like “Cybernetic Systems and Cybernation” and “Data Banks and the ‘Cashless Society'”. The cover is a wonderful pixellated representation of what appears to be a bald, fat manager:

Australian Management and Society

I have to confess to not having read the whole book. But I’ve been drawn to the last chapter, in which a “syndicate” of economic historians and economists present four scenarios of how the future might pan out up to 1985. These scenarios are written in shorthand timeline form, with a stirring combination of sweeping world historical drama and corporate law minutiae:

1979: On Black Friday in January, all-shares index falls heavily. Government closes stock exchanges for one week in hope that panic will subside, but slump continues for three months. During this period federal election is held. Labour [sic] has sweeping victory…

1981: Gargantua & Sons Inc. of Montana, which dominates Australian baby foods, leads way by enlarging board to twelve and distributing its shares among its Australian directors, thus retaining full voting rights over its Australian enterprise.

The four alternate realities are presented in order of increasing hysteria. In the first, a Labor government comes to power and wreaks havoc with the companies law, seemingly backed by a new party called Student Power.

In the second, Japan and China sign a ‘friendship treaty’, while Indonesia beats the Philippines in a short war, before funding New Guinean radicals for “major acts of violence and dissent”, which “hastens Australia’s decision to grant independence to New Guinea”. Said independent country quickly gets military assistance from the USSR and commences a “confrontation policy” to block Australia-Japan maritime traffic through the Torres Strait. European migration to Australia dwindles. A new political party led by the Chief of General Staff wins office on a platform of “nationalism and discipline” in 1978, and the companies law presumably suffers. (Where is Student Power when you need it?)

In future #3 the US and its ally Australia withdraw from Vietnam but are soon bogged down fighting insurgents in Thailand, while another Red force emerges in the Malaysian jungles. This precipitates a run on the US dollar, and the world splinters into trade blocs. The IMF is stretched to the limit and the world staggers towards depression. Thankfully, the companies law remains unscathed.

Finally, in the fourth alternate reality, Australia spirals into open inflation on the back of wage rises after a lengthy strike in transport and metal trades. China invades Laos and Cambodia, seemingly unprovoked. The US suffers a balance-of-payments crisis (possibly a result of a transdimensional leakage from future #3). Devaluations, recessions, etc. Australia joins American ally in keeping an eye the Chinese from a base in the Philippines, and an Australian spyplane is shot down on the far side of the Yalu River.  Government becomes largest employer. New political party arises demanding the secession of Western Australia. European immigration declines while China takes a proposal to the United Nations demanding immigration rights into Queensland and Northern Territory. All twenty-year-olds are drafted into the military.

The Coalition wins in 1978 but the Liberals are able to govern alone and ditch the Country Party. Japan produces a cheap substitute for wool and floods world markets. There is a large inflow of Asian goods into Australia. Capital inflow ceases. Strikes, recession, etc. Government lowers wages by 11 per cent across the board. Western Australia secedes.

China renews its lobbying at the UN for settlement rights in unpopulated parts of Australia. The US supplies Australia with nuclear warheads and rockets. Australia becomes one of the two most highly taxed countries in the world. Closer settlement schemes are commenced to get to remote regions before Chinese. New political party called Social Credit is a roaring success in the 1982 state elections. Western Australia signs trade agreement with Japan.

Chinese special forces land in Northern Territory. All Australian males under the age of fifty commence military training. Social credit policies are applied at the national level and the states are abolished following a referendum, with consequent deleterious effects on companies law. In 1985 Chinese insurgents arrive in the Gulf of Carpentaria. The US and Britain veto United Nations intervention.

Fantastic, huh? One wonders at the forecasting possibilities of today’s more powerful Cybernetic Systems and Data Banks. And the authors of these national nightmares? One is none other than Geoffrey Blainey, who in a more familiar dimension achieved national notoriety in 1984 when he used his powers of futurology to warn of an Asian Australia, and quickly became John Howard’s favourite historian.

Published in: on 22 May, 2007 at 8:00 pm  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I desperately want to be a futurologist, now more than ever. I believe my future predictions will be far better than these. I’m betting on a conflict between the US and China ushering in an awesome Mad Max dystopia.

  2. Interesting. One of my pet post-PhD projects is a comparative study of two Kiwi dystopias from the ’70s – CK Stead’s Smith’s Dream, which is regarded as a national treasure, and Craig Harrison’s equally fine Broken October, which is out of print and largely forgotten. Both books are well worth reading, for the same reason as the chapter you discuss, and their different fates tell an interesting story too.

  3. Yeah I read ‘Smith’s Dream’ years ago – I remember it was very bleak. NZ Men Alone as Viet Cong right? Never heard of ‘Broken October’ though, which proves your point. I see they have it in the uni library though, so I’ll check it out.

  4. Bleak but abstract and ahistorical. Like Kafka. The dictator’s politics are hardly fleshed out; nor are those of the resistance. Harrison’s novel is dense, sociological, full of faux-newspaper reports and analyses of the policies of the dictator and his left-wing and Maori nationalist opponents. It’s often been argued that, in making Heart of Darkness an allegory for the human condition – that is, an abstract, ahistorical novel – literary canon-builders effectively diverted attention from Conrad’s expose of the horrors of colonialism in a particular time and place. I think that some of the same tendency is at work when literary critics and historians prefer Smith’s Dream over Borken October. Harrison is asking us to examine truths about Kiwi society which are more concrete and uncomfortable.

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