On imagining futures.
A philosophical attempt to write a general world history according to a plan of nature which aims at a perfect civil association of mankind must be considered possible and even helpful to this intention of nature.
Immanuel Kant, “Idea for a Universal History with Cosmopolitan Intent” (1784)
Capitalism is what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration, and all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics.
Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism (2009)
It’s hard to take the long view of history, and even when we do it’s usually wrong. We hold such small capacities to see and to know, but this nevertheless fails to deter us from thinking in terms of futures. Toward what does the arc of the universe bend? And what provokes us to seek out such a determinate logic?
As a boy, being fed histories of the great upheavals of the twentieth century—the trenches, the Holocaust, the dropping of the big bombs, Vietnam, the birth of computers—I would imagine the possibility that things might turn a corner and become interesting again. What if the rollercoaster sequence of all the accidents that happen, like the Mamba that I used to ride a dozen times per visit at our local amusement park, could just possibly be cresting that first big hill. I would lean back, shield my eyes from too premature a view of the drop, and await the plunge into the dynamic course that would always unfurl me along with it.
When September 11th happened, I was in the third grade, too young to know that something new had occurred and too young still to know that the ground of the new tends toward mundanity. Spectacles become background noise before they finish playing themselves out, if they ever do. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have trundled on in the background of the larger half of my life, so far from Kansas and Nebraska, and I’ve managed to forget about them more than I’ve remembered that, no, they still haven’t stopped. It took me several years before that old rollercoaster started making me nauseous. Despite the constancy of its path, how well I knew each pivot, rise, and fall, I just stopped riding along. I found it impossible to enjoy as rapturously as I used to. I could watch, uninspired but sufficiently composed, from the ground.
Later, I learned to spectate lethargically regarding other affairs. Some of my college pals and I would feel that “realism” was just another word for “cynicism,” and so we called ourselves cynics. We understood that caring too much about a cause was just another way of being strung along like we had been for years in our own lives by other grand redemptive narratives, messianic tales about the end of history and the beginning of a new one. Disillusionment—this was a term I learned from history class in the context of World War I, the crushed dreams of the entire modern epoch, a limp response following a confrontation with the great failure of their highest hopes in one prolonged blustering display of the great stupidity that humanity breeds in its advancement. Disillusionment—the only response we can muster when a redemptive myth not only fails but was proven to be a damning joke all along. As with all jokes, what makes it a joke is that, in the end, it comes to nothing, though everything else carries on. It’s the sudden violent recognition both that an illusion existed in the place of what you thought was reality and that the illusion can no longer be maintained.
Jean-François Lyotard was famous for declaring in the late 70’s that what defined the contemporaneous “postmodern” era was a general “incredulity toward metanarratives.” Here, “metanarratives” means any grand story that fundamentally serves to explain subordinate daily goings-on and thinking in society, a story that usually includes the end-game teleologies of various social forces. Whether or not that general incredulity was true of that era of recent history—and I have reason to think that it’s a bit reductive (and perhaps elitist) as a descriptive account of social phenomena—I certainly think it can be complicated today. If we think about the course of the later 20th century into the 21st, it is true that certain foundational modern metanarratives had apparently proven indefensible. As an example, the great modern philosopher Immanuel Kant, whose thinking arguably had a crucial impact on the whole modern epoch, in the late 18th century theorized history as a grand revolution of slow time. He argued that, by means of the various accidents and self-interested activities of humankind, an ultimate perfect state of rational relations between humans on earth could be achieved. This was not a revolution that could be forced into being by a singular act of the general will at a moment in time. Rather, it would be a moral revolution, in which humankind, through a process of incremental progress, would as a race achieve the full use of its reason and would therefore seek to act with a good will at all times. A cosmopolitan society of security and freedom would be constructed, with freedom defined by Kant as acting upon the rational use of one’s faculty of moral judgment. One day, by means of the long winding course of history, a future would arrive in which humans relate rightly to each other.
Kant’s was a utopian vision that every century seems more and more unlikely. It is, however, worth noting that his utopia ends in a stasis of civic relations: a perfect state of human relations is achieved at the teleological end of history. This leads me to my complication of Lyotard’s claim. Modern metanarratives of history, such as Kant’s, still exist today but have become mutated to endorse the current state of affairs. Moreover, where these narratives still exist, they often exist as Janus-faced, claiming a narrative of progress while simultaneously running on the premise that the teleological end of such progress has fundamentally already been achieved. Today the mutated metanarrative exists as a function of neoliberal capitalism’s self-reproduction.
The late Mark Fisher, in his book Capitalist Realism, interrogates capitalism’s claim that “there is no alternative” (as famously put forth by Margaret Thatcher in 1980). This claim fuels the engine of capitalism’s dominance: the idea that no alternative future can be imagined beyond a global “free market” economy and its bedmate liberal republican democracy. This claim was also made by Francis Fukuyama in his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, in which he argues that human ideological evolution has concluded its progress and that, in a way, Kant’s teleological utopia had been achieved in the liberal democratic form of government. “Capitalist realism” as Fisher defines it is this: the belief that capitalism can be the only reality. It subsumes all resistance to it, and it defines all of its goals of progress within its extant bounds. Fisher writes, “The ‘realism’ here is analogous to the deflationary perspective of a depressive who believes that any positive state, any hope, is a dangerous illusion”—a tragically ironic comment, since Fisher would later, in January of this year, commit suicide due to his own depression.
Within the regime of capitalist realism, there can be no future, because everything that happens is a playing out of different iterations of the present state of affairs. Our best hopes for leadership lay with those who will uphold the status quo and save it from decrepitude—hence the (in my opinion, mistaken) perception that Hillary Clinton was a progressive candidate, when in fact she would uphold many centrist policies that would continue the violence of neoliberal capital’s imperialism both at home and abroad, maintaining both the financiers’ grip on domestic “democracy” and the global state of emergency that liberal democracy maintains to legitimize its wars. Even the “hope and change” of Barack Obama’s campaign turned out basically to be more of the same, though in a voice that was more pleasant to our ears than his predecessor’s.
Fisher titles his first chapter after the phrase associated with Frederic Jameson, that “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” When I hear this phrase, I relate it to the form of capitalism that was closest to home for me growing up, by which I mean capitalist evangelicalism—or, possibly, evangelical capitalism, because it’s nearly impossible to imagine evangelical Christianity today without its capitalist core. This religiously-inflected capitalist realism truly brings together the two faces of the current system in rather a clever, if somewhat subterranean, manner. The American system of Christian evangelicalism, on the one face, culturally fights tooth and nail in defense of and toward the intensification of neoliberal capitalism. They call for the privatization of public goods and public care, as well as the tax-sheltering of private institutions. They define freedom in terms inextricable from market freedom: because of Christ’s saving grace we are afforded the freedom to understand ourselves in whatever Christian-identitarian terms we like, but the actual acting out of that freedom must go no further than what the doctrines of financial maximization allows. None of our absolute freedom may presume to provide public structures or public goods to preserve the actual positive freedom required for hard-pressed communities to flourish. In this sense, evangelicalism, like capitalist realism writ large, believes that the end of history has arrived and that it is very good.
On its other face, Christian evangelicalism—whose doctrines of dispensationalist millenarianism developed concurrently with post-industrial capitalism—believes the end of history is imminent, that it is yet to arrive but will arrive, one day soon, like a thief in the night. With regard to this religious sect, I would take Jameson and Fisher one further to say that it is easiest to imagine the end of the world and to believe that there is no alternative to capitalism. The two claims support each other in political factuality, if not in logic. Kant presciently described the same dark chiliasm of end-times-obsessed Christians when he distinguished the three possible ways to predict the course of history in his essay “A Renewed Attempt to Answer the Question: ‘Is the Human Race Continually Improving?’.” One of those options is what he calls, intriguingly, “moral terrorism.” He defines it as follows, in terms that sound a lot like the signs-of-the-times sermons I heard as a teenager:
A process of deterioration in the human race cannot go on indefinitely, for mankind would wear itself out after a certain point had been reached. Consequently, when enormities go on piling up and up and the evils they produce continue to increase, we say: ‘It can’t get much worse now.’ It seems that the day of judgement is at hand, and the pious zealot already dreams of the rebirth of everything and of a world created anew after the present world has been destroyed by fire.
In the evangelical Christian imagination, the best system we can hope for on Earth is capitalism, with all of its cruelties and incoherencies. But that’s the key: on Earth. For them, there is no need to imagine alternative futures, because Jesus is coming back to save humanity from itself, to destroy all the kingdoms on Earth and to install a new kingdom on a new Earth, one that will reign perfectly forever and ever. One must wonder what sort of monarchy that will be—perhaps a bit like Kant’s ostensibly beloved Frederick the Great’s, with a little hedge-fund investing mixed in, and in which all the streets of gold are owned by private proprietors. But it’s not just that there’s no need to imagine alternatives to capitalist realism when the world will ultimately end by fire anyway. This end-times theology enforces capitalist realism’s present reign—the intensification of disparities in economic well-being, the willingness to benefit off of what must necessarily be a doomed system, and to keep enjoying the prosperity God gives to his chosen ones.
It’s a godless activity to imagine real futures. Those who dare attempt it deny both the God of the Armageddon, whose sword reaches from his mouth, and the God of the Invisible Hand, who gives us the absolute freedom to buy what we want to fit what we need. After several exhausting turns on this nauseating rollercoaster, however, I am not yet convinced that I am actually unable to use my own two feet, among the cloud of many witnesses—the disillusioned multitude who see the present two-faced “realism” as two faces of the same debilitating profane phantom—in new directions, right out of the amusement park. At the very least, if we allow ourselves, just for once, to second-guess the myopic resignation of the claim that there is no alternative, we may be able to open up the space in our imagination to conjure visions of different futures that are, against all odds, within our power to create.