Published online 3 June 2010.
This is an attempt to assess how political life has been foreshortened by the fact that “the horizon of the future has contracted.”
(crossposted at Docudharma)
This was somewhat popular in avant-garde circles when I was a mere highschooler; today its message seems more relevant than ever:
Yes, that’s right: no future for you. In October of ’08, during the most accelerated phase of the downward economic slide, there was some sort of pseudo-questioning which was going on in publications such as The Economist about “capitalism at bay.” There wasn’t really any thought here of divergence from the official ideology: The Economist’s capitalist flag-waving is on full display in its final paragraph:
Indeed, history suggests that a prejudice against more rules is a good idea. Too often they have unintended consequences, helping to create the next disaster. And capitalism, eventually, corrects itself. After a crisis investors (and for that matter regulators) seldom make exactly the same mistake twice.
The problem with this logic, of course, is in what counts for The Economist’s readers as a “mistake.” For the investor class, appropriate behavior means predatory accumulation, and a “mistake” would be failing to turn a profit. During certain periods of capitalist history, predatory investor behavior was forgivable because conditions were such that, to quote John F. Kennedy, “a rising tide lifts all boats.” This is no longer the case, as it once might have been in the ’60s: in the era of neoliberalism (1980-present), the global growth rate declines from decade to decade, while investor expectations remain as high as ever, and so you have economies of growing inequality in which the investor class grabs all the economic gains while everyone else just breaks even.
Thus nobody in the investor class is going to consider predatory accumulation a “mistake,” whereas in real life the growth of inequality is generally bad for the economy as a whole. With continued appropriate investor behavior, as profits continue to be privatized while losses continue to be dumped onto the public as a whole, the worsening of economic situation is a practical inevitability. This is the reality you’d read from bobswern’s last diary, or from gjohnsit’s statistical litany of last month.
The dynamic of worsening capitalism, moreover, does not appear to be limited to the logic of capital accumulation. It repeats itself across a whole spectrum of social behaviors. The root cause of this dynamic appears as an accumulating pointlessness, as the mad rush of global capitalism desperately gropes for a good reason to continue to burn 85 million barrels of oil every day and preparing eventual climate disaster in consequence.
Here it is important to consider the substance, or lack thereof, of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism, as the link shows, favors “the rule of the market.” But this is a mere philosophy of convenience, as the general pattern is one of socialism for the rich and laissez-faire for the rest of us. The neoliberals, then, don’t really believe in their philosophy — it’s just an excuse for corporate penetration of the world’s markets. So our world society, then, has put a philosophy of convenience in control of our most basic processes of “making a living,” with the result that there is a spreading pointlessness to our everyday existences as human beings.
Back in 1984, toward the beginning of the neoliberal era of Reagan and Thatcher (and not too many years after Johnny Rotten & Co. came out with their song), the philosopher Jurgen Habermas lamented as follows:
Today it seems as though utopian energies have been used up, as if they have retreated from historical thought. The horizon of the future has contracted and has changed both the Zeitgeist and politics in fundamental ways. The future is negatively cathected: we see outlined on the threshold of the twenty-first century the horrifying panorama of a world wide threat to universal life interests: the spiral of the arms race, the uncontrolled spread of nuclear weapons, the structural impoverishment of developing countries, problems of environmental overload, and the nearly catastrophic operations of high technology are the catchwords that have penetrated public consciousness by way of the mass media. The responses of the intellectuals reflect as much bewilderment as those of the politicians. (pp. 50-51 of The New Conservatism).
Well, at this point the bottom has fallen out, and the future is not only “negatively cathected,” it appears to be on the verge of disappearing altogether. Our three-decade grace period has expired, extended no doubt by the invention of the Internet but expired nonetheless, and in that interim we have done nothing of consequence to create another future to replace the one which disappeared when our nation put Reagan in the White House and brought neoliberalism upon the world. The normal function of the system is what we have left, and the normal functioning of the system didn’t need our productive labor (thus offshoring) and won’t need our consumer dollars (now that there’s a debt crisis). Some expanding symptoms include:
- The shrinking educational system: as Arne Duncan runs his “Race to the Top” contest, 300,000 teachers face layoffs, so that’s the immediate issue: the longer-term issue is one of increasing tuition and increasing corporate dependency at colleges and decreasing budgets at public schools over the past three decades. See e.g. “The Lost Soul of Higher Education,” recently out via the New Press. So, to review: children are our future, and here we are sacrificing them on the altar of educational poverty. Doubtless they will find it more difficult to consider the future than we currently do.
- The complete inefficacy of the political Establishment’s approach to abrupt climate change. Nothing being proposed in Congress advocates what’s necessary: forcibly shutting off the world’s oil spigots and abandoning the world’s coal mines. Instead, Congress limits its diet to proposals which will hand out a few bucks to “alternative energy” while fooling the public into thinking that “carbon restrictions” have somehow been invented, thus maintaining “alternative energy” as a mere supplement to destructive fossil fuel energy. The concessions to “offshore oil production” should have taken the mask off. (NB: I have already written at length here on the flaws of cap-and-trade.) What has apparently got under the environmentalists’ skins is Congress’ refusal to consider alternatives to catastrophe as future options.
- Entitlements reform: Now there’s a topic related to the future. When you retire, where does your Social Security go, when the “debt commission” is packed with Social Security looters?
- The “shock doctrine” as applied, now, to Europe. They don’t really care whether or not Greece or Spain has a healthy economy; their main concern is that these countries pay off debts, and if their economies shrink to nothing as a result well that’s just too bad. The rest of the poorer half of Europe comes after that, and then it’s hard to tell who’s next. The rest of the world, of course, will eventually be obliged to run up the credit cards in order to maintain financial solvency while their economies are brought to ruin by financial speculators.
- The persistence of pointless war. Our nation’s leaders no longer sing the praises of the wars they conduct, with any great demonstrations of how war actually achieves their great patriotic goals, or any open-air invitations to the media to show to the public what-exactly is being achieved through war. Perhaps there is the occasional assassination of “al Qaeda number whatever,” but that is the sort of thing which would be accomplished by a program of targeted assassination, which would be different from war. We appear, then, to have witnessed the triumph of the concept of warfare as an ongoing Operation Speedy Express as practiced upon the obscure corners of the world (see e.g. Fallujah). And the rhetoric of patriotism is engaged in a rearguard defense of “the troops” against whomever is left to decry war as a scam, while the government continues to prosecute those evil whistleblowers as our wars are conducted in secret. Since the main purpose of these wars seems rather disconnected from any actual goal of “fighting the terrorists” and rather securely connected to the continued blank check that Congress continues to hand to the defense corporations (while in the same stroke keeping the military careerists in business), we have to wonder what pitiful trauma of global resource exhaustion will actually end them.
- The continued, and reckless, across-the-board subordination of the natural world to the short-term profit motives of large corporations. As the fishing industry depletes the oceans of its natural endowment, so also the forests are removed for the wood industries and the gene pools of essential food crops are polluted by genetically modified organisms.
Thus we can see how Habermas’s concept of how “the horizon of the future has contracted” has proceeded over the decades to the point at which one has to ask about whether the future is being considered at all. I suppose you have groups such as the Campaign for America’s Future — but there’s no vision of the future represented on that website except that the future will be “progressive,” whatever that is. The problem is of course that the specter of systems exhaustion hangs over the whole world-society. Any future we imagine will have to confront that systems exhaustion. The future we currently imagine (if we imagine one at all) doesn’t do that, and so it’s a sure bet that our future will be imposed upon us as we operate as cogs in the existing system.
All of this tinkering-around-the-edges, let’s-ask-our-policymakers-to-do-something-nice “action” will be of little use except insofar as we might be able to cannibalize the social programs thus produced to create something better. As Stan Cox points out in his book Sick Planet, “we have to work from the beginning to develop smaller organizations and structures that are specifically intended as parts of a system to succeed capitalism” (p. 175). The problem, then, is that the vision of such a system is singularly lacking in our society. No future, no future, no future for you.
Earlier this week, Tom Engelhardt put out a “college commencement address” in which he suggests to the “Class of 2010” its future. Its message is quite apropos here:
I was born in a country that thought it could rebuild anything. You’re living in one lacking recuperative powers. Our resources are now being mobilized to fight two obscure and remarkably pointless, if destructive, trillion-dollar wars in distant Afghanistan and Iraq that most Americans pretend aren’t even going on. In the meantime, you have never been called upon to mobilize for anything. You have never been asked to sacrifice anything for the greater good. Even as nothing is being asked of you, your future is nonetheless being sacrificed. If you leave this campus and do nothing, your life will be far worse for it.
When I began, I said I wouldn’t want to be you. That’s because the task before you is grotesquely super-sized. You undoubtedly sense this, sense that somehow you need to free yourself from so much these years have taught you in order to imagine a future for us all.