MONTPELLIER, France — The most dramatic contemporary event from which one can attempt to extrapolate future world change is the political and social uprising of the Arab peoples of the Mediterranean basin. The consequences are unpredictable, highly political in the short run, and wholly unfathomable in the longer term since the immense energy resources of the Middle East, put to work to industrialize (or “post-industrialize”) the region, could prove of enormous consequence to the international role of Islamic societies — and that of their neighbors.

More significant may be its eventual effect upon the political character of the Islamic peoples themselves, and on Islamic political civilization. Or all of this might come to little or nothing, since Islam itself, a religion doctrinally committed to theocracy, has since the Middle Ages proven to be a profound obstacle to change.

These reflections are prompted by a meeting just held in Montpellier, France, under the auspices of the regional authorities and Mikhail Gorbachev’s New Policy Forum. The volatility of history is clear in Montpellier itself, as well as the enduring influence of ideas and culture: Huguenot (Calvinist) in post-Reformation times, Spanish, French and Moorish in cultural origins, once part of the Moorish kingdom of Majorca, a center of medical learning since the early Middle Ages — and today an exemplar of the New Europe’s 20th century transformation.

Policy discussion nearly always is constrained to the short term because that is the time zone in which decisions have to be made. It’s the place where governments live. What about the Egyptian and Tunisian election outcomes? What will come of the uprising in Syria? What will an awakened Arab society mean to Israel?

Long-range speculation and forecast are easier, if only because the people doing it may not survive to assume responsibility for the outcome. The longest long-term forecasting is linked to ideas and ideology, in which theory is spun from the present and projected into the future. Marxism was the result of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ observation of the new industrial working class of mid-nineteenth century England and Germany, which was literally a new class in that industry was new. Until the 19th century, labor was almost wholly agricultural, and the lives of workers on the land had a specific character inherited from deep in the human past.

Industrialization changed the nature of states as well as of labor and life, over time redistributing power among states, causing the rise and fall of individual European nations, and then of the states abroad that industrialized, Japan the first such in Asia. From this came Marx and Engels’ conclusions about state and private power and ownership, and about the economic, political and social roles of industry, anticipating the revolutionary transformations of the 20th century.

Today the intensified force of Islamic fundamentalism is an important phenomenon, but it is not a new ideology capable of changing 21st century history. It is a parochial matter, not a universal ideology. Leninism, which was universal and millenarian, lies in wreckage, thanks in part to Mikhail Gorbachev.

Contemporary capitalism, with its doctrines of market infallibility, deregulation, and globalization, has discredited itself, producing global financial crisis.

However, the cunning, exuberance and tragedies of history are well known to all. It merely is strange that governments and experts take so seriously the idea that they can foresee and control history.

At the beginning of the 20th century, which is little more than an individual’s lifetime away from us (life expectancy in the advanced European states today is now into the 80s), Western Europe ruled the world. The United States was a rising but secondary power. Nearly all of Asia was under imperial domination. China was impotent; Japan still disregarded. Marxism-Leninism was an ideology of cranks, and powered flight the dream of bicycle mechanics. Only 112 years ago.

Not one of the great disruptive events of the 20th century was foreseen — the World Wars, the end of empires, the rise and fall of Communism, the murder of the Jews and the ambiguous triumph of Zionism, the American war against Islamism, nuclear physics, relativity. Today we can see trend lines; we can identify great current phenomena that seem potential sources of grave tension — the rise of China, the mounting American crisis, the union of Europe — but these exist against a darkened future, the trend lines disappearing into the fog of time.

Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at www.williampfaff.com.

© 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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