Jan Zielonka is an international academic born and bred in Communist era Poland and now teaching at Oxford and Venice universities. “The Lost Future” was composed in Venice during the Covid lockdown and the irony of writing a book about the future in a decaying city in thrall to its own history is not lost on its author. Indeed for Zielonka Venice’s past offers instructive lessons for the shaping of our own futures. In the city-based, well-governed, outward looking Serene Republic of Venice that lasted for a thousand years, Zielonka sees pointers to a better ordered world, one he calls a “cosmopolis”.

The thesis that drives “The Lost Future” is that nation states are no longer fit for purpose. They can no longer order their own domestic affairs effectively nor respond creatively to global challenges. Public disenchantment with governing elites is growing and extremist political ’solutions’ are consequently gaining support. Politicians in the democracies cannot see further than the short-term and longer-term approaches cannot gain traction. And though autocratic states are on the rise across the world they too are frustrated in their efforts to impose control and exclude external influences. Governing the world has become more complex and intractable and new technologies have added to the scale of complexity. The internet and AI have generated unbounded communication in a politically bounded world. Will states win out by corralling the internet or will the internet and its offshoots undermine order and provoke international anarchy?

Zielonka is not an utopian idealist intent on abolishing the nation state or a Luddite set on wrecking the internet and disrupting AI. What he tries to do is to tease out a different path altogether. He articulates a synthesis which recognises the need for ‘goods’ that can only be provided by the state – the rule of law, the safety of the citizen and the provision of armed forces, etc – whilst drawing civil society into more active participation in national and international decision-taking by an enhanced but controlled employment of the internet. Instead of exclusive top-down structures comprised of politicians elected for short periods in office supported by ‘expert’ civil servants to implement their decisions, he advocates more porous and differently configured modes of governance.

All of that said, trying to summarise “The Lost Future” is a hazardous business. It is a sophisticated analysis of a complex subject. Though it can also shade rather too often into an odd mix of the portentous and the frivolous. The early chapters on changing relationships with time and space attempt to give an overarching frame to the book, but they do so in a distinctly heavy and, for this reader at least, sometimes obscuring way. The cartoons which pepper the text and are presumably intended to lighten the mix are more irritating than illuminating. But it is worth persevering with the book because it grapples with an important subject and poses challenging questions. 

Zielonka suggests that the world is running ahead and away from us: we are losing control of tomorrow. Enlightened democracies can see the problems but are unclear how to address them. Pulling the existing levers of governance at home and abroad, singly or collectively, is not producing desired outcomes. Governance needs re-energising if issues arising insistently from the variable impact of globalisation, increased migration flows, resource constraints, and, most acutely, climate change are to be addressed successfully. If current opinion polls are to be believed and on the evidence of recent elections across Europe and in the US, citizens do not trust their governments to deliver desired results.  The autocracies – from Russia to China via a range of lesser ones in parts of Europe and beyond – may persuade themselves that their methods can work but they must realise that tightening borders and developing autarkic economies will not alone save them from the longer-term challenges of tomorrow. Both kinds of government suffer from short-term thinking even if the autocracies may for now think themselves different. 

The full title of Zielonka’s book is “The Lost Future and How to Reclaim It” but he is better at identifying what is being “lost” than at devising how to “reclaim” it. For many observers the impact of the internet (and the prospect of AI) are part of the problem rather than a remedy. Zielonka however believes that by expanding communication and using the internet to draw in wider sources of expertise via NGOs and other citizen groupings governance can be made more creative and less fixated on the immediate. He is not so naive as to think the internet is without risks or offers a simple way forward; but he is convinced that not escaping from the tramlines of traditional nation state governance poses even greater risks. Instead of reinforcing boundaries and borders in the hope of securing immediate and nationally favourable outcomes, Zielonka believes a properly ordered internet – which of course begs many questions – can help open up government planning and decision-making to a wider range of actors and to longer-term considerations. In this way the forum of public decision-making could be made wider, more comprehensive and more effective over time.

Which brings Zielonka and the reader back to Venice or what might be called a Venetian approach. Zielonka sees in the Serene Republic pointers to the possibilities of a more cosmopolitan approach in our own day. Venice was a strongly governed but open society. The rule of law existed and the state was equipped to protect its citizens and to face down its enemies. But it was also an expeditionary republic seeking trade and contacts of all kinds across the known world. It was a “cosmopolis” open to influence and good counsel. For Zielonka those elements are suggestive of what is needed today if states acting together are to be able to respond to global challenges. And the oil to grease the wheels of governance in our own time is in Zielonka’s view to be found in the imperfect form of the internet. 

For the reader of “The Lost Future” the question is whether such an approach is naive or visionary.

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