‘In the long run we are all dead,’ wrote John Maynard Keynes in his 1923 work A Tract on Monetary Reform. Very sharp, Mr Keynes, perhaps so sharp you’ll cut yourself. The remark is open to the riposte that although Keynes and his reader will be dead, future generations have a good chance of still struggling on – unless, of course, we’re talking about deep geological time. Whether Keynes was really as indifferent to the long term as this remark suggests is open to debate. As the author of the semi-utopian ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren’ (1930), he was prepared to gaze on a more distant future, predicting, among other things, a massively reduced working week by the year 2030.
Jonathan White’s deft and attractively written new book takes its title from Keynes’s quip. At its heart is an examination of the tensions that arise when democracy comes head to head with a range of long-term issues. The sense that we are at the edge provides the context of contemporary politics, White argues. ‘Time is running out’, and we live under the threat of all-consuming emergencies. Climate change has taken over from imminent nuclear war as the most significant danger, but other spectres that haunt not just Europe but the entire world include out-of-control economic and racial inequality, international instability, artificial intelligence and, of course, pandemics. Democracy can often feel too slow-paced to deal with the crises staring us down. Does effective action on climate change, or banking reform, or pandemic preparedness really have to wait another electoral cycle or two for the right president or prime minister to come along?
Chapter by chapter, the book provides highly perceptive, engaging and sometimes startling analysis of six temporally related tensions. We time-travel through futures that are – as the chapter titles have it – open and closed, near and far, imagined and calculated, rational and impulsive, public and secret, shared and apart.