I was recently asked to take part in a horizon scanning exercise with the idea that I would gaze into the future in the name of figuring out likely hot research topics for years to come. Although I know that all major organisations undertake these exercises and had recently taken part in discussions about a Labour Party horizon scan – what would we do in the case of capital flight brought about by Brexit and so on? – I found scanning the future more difficult than I had imagined. Apart from feeling uneasy about the neoliberalism of the term, the horizon scan (in this terminology the horizon is not phenomenological but rather capitalist – what we are looking for is potential profit), my problem went like this - whatever I came up with seemed either absolutely presentist or absolutely speculative and more like something one would expect to read about in the pages of a science fiction novel. This left me in a quandary. It seemed that there was no point saying anything totally presentist – the future will look like today, but worse – but equally pointless to start talking about wild science fiction. So what, then, should I do? How to connect the present to some possible future?
As a sociologist, cultural historian, and theorist of utopia I am, of course, acutely aware of these kind of problems of handling time and the relation of the now to the future to come. How to think the future? If I become too realistic in the name of pragmatism, nothing changes and I can’t step outside of the present. On the other hand, if I throw myself into imaginary futures, I end up similarly trapped in the present because my thought experiment is so remote as to be effectively meaningless. Here, I have to rely on the idea of irony – that my critique will reflect back on the present to produce action in clever readers who understand the relevance of my sci-fi to the real world. But since my task wasn’t to write a fictional utopia, what I needed to try to do was to find a way to move from the present to the future on the basis of some kind of reason. But what reason? In the case of the utopian the trick has always been about being able to mobilise the necessary resources – first of all, basic rationality, and second, organisational capacity – to move from the present to something else we might call the future. Every utopian movement has struggled with this problem, which is precisely why the left in particular has historically had so many organisational issues around the relationship between the people who have concrete demands related to immediate social problems (we want more food etc.) and the Party or organisational unit of the people which has to try to deliver on these demands in a way that is sustainable and will change society in the long run. The tension here is obvious to anybody who knows anything about history. Let’s take a quick detour to explain this tension historically.
We might say that the problem of the people is how to make things happen. They know they have a problem, but they don’t have the organisation to do anything about it. What about when they get the organisation? Well, things don’t really improve when they invent the organisational form – the Union or the Party. At this point they become caught up in Party politics and the movement takes on a kind of inertia. They have to compromise, settle for less, and everything gets bogged down. Their leaders become cynical. Nothing changes. This was in a way the problem of modern and post-modern utopian history. How to really invent the future? After the Russian revolution, and the realisation of the problem of the Party (Stalinism), the left decided the people were the way to go. This is why horizontal organisation is considered the best democratic way forward these days, even though this comes with its own problems – how to organise etc. without a vanguard?
The problem of modern utopia, the problem of organisation, is one thing, but I think things are much worse now. Let me explain through reference to two concepts, the end of history and the risk society, which emerged in social thought at around the same time (the early 1990s). The strange paradox of the end of history thesis is that it has its own long history, dating back to the work of the German philosopher Georg Hegel, his Russian follower Alexandre Kojeve, and moving forward, the American political thinker, Francis Fukuyama, and finally the French postmodernist Jean Baudrillard. Beyond Hegel and Kojeve, who imagined an end of history in an empire of reason, Fukuyama and Baudrillard saw the end of history operative in post-modern, American capitalism.
The story goes something like this. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Fukuyama argued that there would be no more great or epochal political change. American globalisation was it. Baudrillard went slightly further, as he always did, by arguing that the future had been cancelled in a swirling permanent present of signs, symbols, and consumerist junk that ultimately meant nothing. We thought 9 / 11 put paid to this talk, because people started to see that American capitalism wasn’t the end, and that there was something else – Islamist terror, the rise of China, climate change etc. etc. But, of course, none of this is really representative of the rebirth of history. We all know there are all kinds of global, social, problems now and we can signpost these endlessly, but the questions remains how do we move into the future without a dialectical model to explain where we are going? How do we map the movement between now and what follows in order to create some kind of narrative, some kind of story, we could talk about in terms of history?
It is precisely this which would allow us to talk seriously about the future and solve my problem of the horizon scan. At this point I realised my problem – there is no real way to scan the horizon today with any kind of seriousness because the ideational structures linking past, present, and future together have been dismantled. Dialectical theory, which had allowed us to understand the movement of history from the Greeks through to Hegel and later Kojeve and Fukuyama, no longer works today. Why? In one sense Baudrillard hit the nail on the head. We live in a swirl of stuff and we cannot think beyond it. Baudrillard didn’t meet Trump and he didn’t live to hear about post-truth and fake news. But he didn’t need to. He had already predicted the rise of this nonsense which prevents us from thinking rationally long ago when he wrote about post-modern hyper-reality. This theory is all about endings. But what brought this situation about?
The German sociologist Ulrich Beck provides an answer here. Today we live in a risk society. Our global society is totally connected and moves at such speeds that our rational powers to link cause to effect in order to understand the relationship between the past, present, and future start to break down. Despite what we have been told since 9 / 11 (history is back on with the clash of civilizations), I think the tradition of Hegel, Kojeve, Fukuyama, Baudrillard, and Beck is correct – history is history. Unfortunately reaching this conclusion left me in something of a tricky position. How to scan the horizon and tell my colleagues what I think might happen in the future when I really have no way to do this because there will be no future in the real sense of this term. I can either project from the present – more of the same, but even worse, because we have no way to imagine the future and solve problems – or make some wild utopian or dystopian speculations on the basis of what? A hunch, a feeling?
I still don’t have an answer to the ‘what will happen next?’ question, so I am afraid I can’t provide a social forecast likely to make anybody any money, but I do have a diagnosis and a view about what we must do in order to imagine realistic futures which will in turn allow us, where ‘us’ refers to social beings who move into the future in more or less motivated predictable ways, to begin to challenge the seemingly intractable problems of the present. What is this diagnosis? Centrally, I think that we must reconstruct our sense of human temporality. We must remake our sense of the connection between past, present, and future. We must remake our history itself. How? Well, let me finish by saying a bit about how this would work through reference to two thinkers – the philosophers Martin Heidegger and Bernard Stiegler – who both have a lot to say about time.
Let’s start with Heidegger. I don’t have the space to get into the detail of Heidegger’s Being and Time in this short piece, but what I do want to do is pick out one of the key ideas of this monumental book – the difference between inauthentic and authentic time. Basically Heidegger tells us that inauthentic time happens when we allow ourselves and our path through life to be defined by external forces. Here, he talks about the fall into everydayness, das man or ‘the they’, where the basic idea is that the way we think about ourselves and where we are going collapses into received opinion and the banality of everyday life. How to understand this? Well, we could say that we allow ourselves to be measured by external yardsticks. ‘This is how you should live’. ‘This is what you should be doing’. ‘You have this, that, and the other value’ and so on. By contrast to this, authentic time comes from within me. Here, I map my own sense of self, who I am, what I am doing, where I am going, onto the world and resist colonisation by external forces. I create my own values and live by the measure they provide. In this situation my sense of self comes from inside me, not from some external point of view.
According to Heidegger, when I think about life and time in this way I am resolute. ‘This is what I am doing, no matter what, and I will not bend to external forces’. I am true to who I am regardless of what is happening in the outside world because one day I know that I will die and when that time comes I need to be able to say to myself that I followed my real inner being. In the words of Frank Sinatra, I need to be able to say that I did it my way.
But what has this got to do with the end of history, the problem of horizon scanning, and the collapse of the future today? The answer is that if my self is externalised today, in an end of history, an end of future, chaotic risk society, then I won’t know what I am doing from one moment to the next. There is no predictability in the world. If I am not resolute and stick to who I am, then my entire sense of self will collapse and with it my ability to contribute to a human future. In effect I will stop being human or at the very least I will become absolutely inauthentic and potentially psychopathological. In the language of the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan I will become psychotic. This is what I think we must resist today. Essentially, I think the reason we find ourselves in a situation where it is so difficult to understand our world, to map history, to scan the horizon, to think the future, is because we have allowed ourselves to be objectified by economy and the forces of capitalism and turned into so much flotsam in a world that has become increasing post-human.
This is what we must fight. We must fight the forces of estrangement that are, let’s face it, what capitalism is all about in order to re-establish the human world and human reason. Unfortunately, the problem of capitalism today is no longer simply one of inequality, and this is why it is so important to understand what neoliberal thought is all about. Neoliberalism is capitalism on crack, capitalism absolutely committed to dehumanisation, and the transformation of every aspect of life in capital value. Nobody can stand this for very long. No wonder we have become stupid and lost touch with our future possibility. We cannot think today because of the media that thinks for us, telling us to buy this, that, and the other. Despite what Marx thought, we cannot really work either, because we now work to pay off our debts. In this respect we no longer work, we labour like beasts of burden. Thus our species being, the way we make ourselves into the future, has been colonised by debt and the need to make repayment for ever more.
Under these conditions the future starts to look grey, murky, and gloomy, like no future worthy of the name. There is nothing here but buying more stuff and paying off debts in an endless present that never really changes. We cannot even hold onto the utopia of retirement because even our pensions are being cancelled because they are too expensive and investors have no intention of putting themselves at risk. How will we live in old age? Without a future where things might be different there is nothing but the control society of the present which invariably decays because we have no way to repair social problems. Indeed the attempt of the elites, governments, and investors to withdraw from risk in a catastrophic form of social policy only further destroys the future because they are completely unwilling to take a chance on investment (which always has a future orientation). No wonder I couldn’t scan the horizon! There is no horizon or even worse, the contemporary horizon is what the French writer Paul Virilio called a negative horizon. This is not a horizon I head towards that forever vanishes into the distance, but rather a nightmare, a horizon rushing towards me, a catastrophe heading straight for me.
It is precisely this situation that led Beck to write of the catastrophic society, which seems locked onto future disaster because it has no way of thinking anything new, and Heidegger’s student, Hans Jonas, to conceive of what he called the precautionary principle. This is an interesting idea, and one worth thinking about in relation to our (here ‘our’ means human) need to save the future from becoming an endless parade of unrelated events out of our control, because what Jonas says we need to do to reanimate the present and imagine the future, is project forward into some future catastrophe – the catastrophe bearing down on me. In much same that Heidegger said that we must live meaningful lives in the knowledge that we may die at any moment (death is a certainty, but we don’t know when it will happen), Jonas says that we must live our common social life thinking about what will happen if we do nothing. We will inevitably end up killing ourselves. Human civilization will collapse. This is, then, what I think we need to do today…
We need to imagine the worst, and think about the end, because it is only when we do this, when we create a dystopian future, that we will start to be able to animate the present and live with resolution about who we are, what matters, and what must change. Of course, even though we know the present is miserable, and the neoliberal capitalist system is a disaster for the majority of people, it is not easy to be resolute for the sake of some abstract ethic, which is why our resolution must be based upon experience and causes close to us – family, children, people close to us who we are willing to fight for. It is on the basis of this ethic of proximity and closeness that we must resist the alien forces of objectification, forces that will turn us into stupid commodities, flotsam unable to think the future, because we know what these conditions will eventually mean for these other people close to us. The catastrophe will happen and it will happen to them.
This is a basis for social action, action based in a defence of social security, a defence of social identity, a defence of the value of experience, and understanding, and having a place in history which is the history of people and people who make meaning, not the history of an anonymous system that towers over people who become so many things that are largely irrelevant to the progress of some mysterious, reified global process. This is a different history, the history of non-human processes studied by scientists, but humanity cannot be swallowed by this natural history. Humans cannot live under this anonymous system because we are meaning making creatures and we need to understand the relationship between past, present, and future in order to control our fate. What are we if we are not this? It is our ability to think through a temporal horizon that makes us human and gives us a sense of our humanity. This is not about saying I am the centre of the story and that everything revolves around me because this is megalomania, but rather understanding that I have a history, that this history matters, and that my history is part of a bigger story that gives it some kind of wider meaning relevant to other people. In this story, this social history, individual experience is suspended in the whole, and matters for this reason. Despite what capitalism thinks (because we have reached a situation where the machine thinks us today) we are not base resources, meaningless objects to be used and abused by an economic machine, but rather historical creatures who become human precisely through our ability to understand ourselves and our present situation in terms of the past and possible futures.
Finally it was in thinking through the problem of horizon scanning today, and the fact that I could not easily make the leap from the catastrophic present to some imagined improbable future, that I realised that it is precisely this situation that the French writer Bernard Stiegler seeks to solve today through the reconstruction of a sociological history based in deep cultural understandings. This is, I think, Heideggerian sociology, a project we badly need to pursue through education and our universities, because it is here, in these places, that we can tell people that they matter, that they are not things, that their experiences are significant, that they are part of history, and part of a potential future beyond the horrors of objectification that transforms people into so much junk floating about on the stormy sea of capitalism.