“Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming”, was the slogan David Bowie coined to promote Heroes, the second instalment of his great Berlin album trilogy. It neatly captures one of his most important talents: to intuit the future and draw it forward into the popular culture of the present. Sometimes he would simply grasp the importance of a trend, as when he understood that the arrival of the internet would transform the economics of the music industry and the relationship between artists and audiences. But more often it was his artistry in self-reinvention that opened up new modes of cultural expression or brought shooting up to the surface deeper social trends. When he famously threw his arms round Mick Ronson’s shoulders on Top of the Pops, he was doing more than advertising his bisexuality. He was helping catalyse the liberation in the politics of sexual identity that would unfold in the 1970s.
Most of the commentary on Bowie’s life has been romantic in nature; that is, it has attributed his remarkable oeuvre to a singular, creative genius. But like most artists, his talents were nurtured in collaboration with others and born of particular historical circumstances. The flowering of social liberalism in the 1960s and 1970s was the product of the success of post-war Keynesianism. Full employment allowed young men and women to travel up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to new forms of self-expression. Their talents were nurtured by expanded opportunities to learn and study. If they fell to earth, the welfare state safety net was there to catch them. The fruits of their creativity couldn’t be streamed to a mobile device, but nor were they simply commodified for a global marketplace.
Yet for all that, the creative ability to intuit, anticipate and lay claim to the future is hard to institutionalise. Since the Cold War, governments have modelled scenarios of the future, gaming wars and scoping geo-political risks. The tools of this trade are now familiar to most multinationals. Climate change has brought sophisticated modelling and probability theory into the heart of environmental policymaking, and thence into international agreements, like last year’s Paris treaty, and domestic legislation, such as the ground breaking 2008 Climate Change Act in the UK, which set out a clear target and framework for climate policymaking to 2050. But orientation towards the long term future is still rare in much public policymaking; political and economic cycles militate against it.
Some politicians think hard about the long-term, and cast backwards and forwards across the past and future to think about intergenerational obligations. A notable example is the former universities’ minister, David Willetts, whose Burkean mindset lends itself to sharp thinking about how the old and wealthy are laying claim to resources that the young cannot enjoy. Other politicians manage to embody the future. When politics has ossified and decayed, the political leader who promises change can carry the promise of tomorrow. Wilson, Thatcher and Blair all once had the “future in their bones”, as Eric Hobsbawm put it. Thatcher used the crisis of post-war Keynesianism to embark on a radical transformation of Britain’s political economy, but a deep crisis is not always accompanied by profound change. The Great Recession of 2008 has ushered in a politics of security, not reform.
Only perhaps in the USA has the political terrain started to shift towards a new settlement in recent years, as this long read in the Atlantic claims. But President Obama, in his final State of the Union address, was still in the business of staking out an agenda for future reforms. Though he can claim a legacy of achievement, it was the future he sought to own for his party, even as he bows out of office.
Some countries create institutional forums for thinking about the future. Finland’s Parliamentary Committee on the Future is a thoughtful example. Better still, Finland increasingly combines incremental experimentalism with long range thinking; the sort of public policymaking Geoff Mulgan had in mind when praising the philosopher Roberto Unger here. Universities are well equipped to perform these tasks, of course. Bowie’s long-time collaborator Brian Eno, even helped form a foundation dedicated to long-term, slow thinking - the Long Now.
Ultimately, however, it is only when we write the obituary of an artist, movement, party or institution that we know whether it helped bring the future into being. And that is one reason, of course, why we can be confident in the tributes paid to David Bowie this week.