Monsignor Ivan Ilich's phatic outburst: "To hell with the future. It is a man-eating idol."
What's in the future is death. At least part of it. On my mind lately. People I love are sick or dying. It's not a unique situation. This is what getting older is, apart from the more self-involved stuff we notice about our declining personal vigor and and fading good looks. Time, in this world, will always bring loss. Life, in a broken world, is often loss.
Good lit is always about love, death, sex, and power. The reason novelists and poets can tell the essential truths is that the good ones are "always mindful of death." Fine old Catholic dictum there, and one we ought to use more. It's almost a form of resistance in a PR-managed culture, where death has been excluded from the vocabulary except as entertainment or polemic, or warning against disobedience. Death is a reminder of the futility of the future in chronos time.
That's why there was - for a long time - such an ongoing and Herculean effort by various quacks, demagogues, social engineers, and ideologues to frame up stories about The Future as the telos of Progress. We know our history, though, don't we? "The road to hell . . ." and all that. The modern penitentiary - perhaps the most recklessly sinful institution we might hope to describe - began as a post-constantinian, church-sponsored social experiment.
Illich was railing not just against the often-hideous consequences of our march into The Future; he is calling it an idol. It is a false image, a graven god, a calf fashioned out of gold. People are always telling us what we have to do to prepare a new future, but this is not the future that is described by Jesus. He's on kairos time. "It is accomplished." Grace.
Illich died some time ago, and since his death the myth of progress, the myth of The Future, continues to lose its luster. And so we need more potent an idol, the new New Future, a more spectacular one, than the old New Future. We got hot-doggie, wazoo, high-flying, digital, post-special effects, what Chris Hedges calls our electronic hallucinations. The Future Redux.
Hold on for dear life.
The disconnect between our rhetoric and reality is staggering.
MacIntyre describes progress in a different idiom. Using craft practices as an example of "traditional" progress (this is a form of resistance to the universalizing tendency that underwrites that other kind of Progress):
The standards of achievement in any craft are justified historically. They have emerged from the criticism of their predecessors and they are justified because and insofar as they have remedied the defects and transcended the limitations of those predecessors as guides to excellent achievement within that particular craft. Every craft is informed by some conception of a finally perfected work which serves as the shared telos of that craft. (Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry, p. 64)
We can mull over the differences between these two kinds of progress, which are considerable, but the point of today's post is the kind that requires social engineering (like Quakers cooking up schemes for workhouses as institutions to rebuild character) is that consequences - at greater scales - breed new consequences, which can be at least foreseen in their broad outlines, even if the granular details remain fairly unpredictable.
What happens when you get most of a society invested in The Future, and that mass hallucination begins to disintegrate? Well, for one thing, the order in which things specifically happen is unpredictable, even if the end points for many trendlines are already within view.
A lot of big systems that evolved in support of the progress-fantasy are beginning to fail. Big systems inevitably do fail, because big systems lose touch with reality. I could argue that Dunbar's number - a sensible-sounding anthropological hypothesis that a single person cannot sustain more than 150 close-personal relationships. Dunbar himself thinks this is an innate limitation, which it may be, but even if it weren't, time itself places limits on the number of personal relationships we can sustain. The army got wise to it long ago. An infantry company is around 150 people. Cohesion. Interpersonal commitment. All those things that lay the groundwork for solving our problems without appeals to authority beyond our circle. Covenental, instead of contractual relations. Friendships. Strong bonds. Go far beyond it, and you need a staff, a new layer, divorced from their personal commitments in order to administer, to manage the group that is too big to manage itself any longer. Then that layer is consolidated over and above the rest, and you have the cellular form of everything from the government of the county seat to Barnes & Noble to the Vatican. Without that granular contact, they lose touch, and faced with all the problems associated with control, they become arbitrary. They would do good with the ring, but once it is in their possession, the ring of power has a mind of its own.
Global financialization is failing. Too big. Too powerful. Too out of touch to discern the causes of its own failures, the victim of it own superstitions. A parasite that is destroying its host. Failing. Our kids will feel the aftershocks way more than we will. But we'll get our share. We already are.
We have wiped out water stocks, fish stocks, soil, paved away our children's birthright, poisoned our home, ripped it up, and now we realize we are going to see a self-inflicted, long term, and dangerous destabilization of our climate.
The story in the news these days is of refugees. The refugees of war are on the run, and who can blame them? I promise you, if you have even a single mortar round go off near the home where you raise your children, you will look elsewhere and fast for a way to get them out of the line of fire.
With further financial destabilization there will be more wars. With each new demographic crisis, whether from war, famine, or chronic hopelessness, and with each piecemeal failure that spells loss for metropolitan middle-classes, that middle-class will react.
Twentieth century fascism was a middle-class phenomenon. Middle-classes, dependent on the rich, but structurally antagonistic with lower classes (as their bosses, eg), live in a state of constant fear that can only be held at bay by reassurances about the veracity of the New Future narrative. If the narrative is disrupted, that fear boils over and takes on a combative character.
September 11, 2001, tore down the boundaries of that narrative. Part of the story was our invincibility, or at least the unfocused sense that we live in the real world, the worthy world, and all those bad things are above all Not Here. But here it was. And where did it come from? Well, of course, instead of all that confusing history, we can boil it down to this: they hate us, because they hate progress.
People forget now, in 2015, what it was like just before 9-11-01. We had the Battle in Seattle. We had Durban. Remember any of that? The whole neoliberal world order was in a state of siege (it still is, though we go to great lengths in the US to conceal that fact from our own citizenry).
The global financialization of capitalism - a transition from the predominance of the material capitalist economy over finance capital to the liberation of finance capital to fill in the gaps left by material capital as it exhausts the potentials for profit. The entire relationship between the ruling class and everyone else has been transformed by an underlying crisis that has been apparent since the American occupation of Vietnam. We have bizarre phenomena afoot. Our own country (fellow USians) now holds the rest of the world hostage, not by their debts to the US, but by the US debt to them. It's true. When you owe the bank a thousand dollars, you have a problem. When you owe the bank ten million dollars, the bank has the problem.
9-11 sparked a reactionary spasm across the country. I know people who started flying US flags in front of their houses, and they'd never done it before. And when you asked, it wasn't that they were feeling more patriotic, though many did after the attacks. I had friends who were urban, college-educated, African American socialists - no religious affiliation, no investment in the civic religion either - who wondered, with reason, if failure to display a flag would result in attacks. That's what it was like. There was no out-shouting sense against our collective howl of abjection, wrath, and a dangerously contagious fear. It was a din, a juggernaut of righteous rage, yes, but also the more gutteral rumble of a wounded national masculinity.
Robert Connell, now Raewyn Connell, wrote once, in an early book, called simply Masculinities, that:
In gender terms, fascism was a naked reassertion of male supremacy in societies that had been moving toward equality for women. To accomplish this, fascism promoted new images of hegemonic masculinity, glorifying irrationality (the “triumph of the will,” thinking with “the blood”) and the unrestrained violence of the frontline soldier. (p. 193)Ain't the whole story, but it's a big enough part of the story that nothing will make sense unless this part of the story in included. Hmm?
The reversion of American culture immediately post-9-11 inaugurated years of political lawlessness and warmongering that together aimed at one common purpose: the centralization of executive power.
Think perfect storm. This opportunistic centralization of executive power concurrent with a war (which thickens the state's case for secrecy and skulduggery) concurrent with the financial destabilization of a huge core-nation middle-class, so dependent on the current order - which they assumed was forever only better - a class of people that has been so infantilized by deskilling and consumerism that it now cannot find its own ass with a radar, is scared, angry, and ignorant as a pig.
Moreover, for the perfect storm requires for its setting a sea, our middle-class heritage, in spite of a few qualified inclusions, is white. We are only a melting pot for you and you and you if you can only see your way clear to flush your own history down the toilet and behave just the way we do. If you're gonna melt, you gotta melt white. White supremacy. The sea. It's rising.
We all know that old fascisms won't re-emerge, at least not the fascisms of the early-mid twentieth century. Nor need we fear overmuch the lone, gun-slinging wing-nut of the National Alliance (a dangerous "one," to be sure, but without the collective agency of a destabilized middle-class).
The white middle-class, those still in their seats, and those who have been "de-classed" already, are a reservoir of flammable gas, and their emblem is a "victimized" white male. 9-11 scratched a match over this reservoir (I am a victim!); and since them 2007-8 moved the match closer (I am a victim!); the election of a black man moved the match closer (I am a victim!); and now the grinding part of the grinding halt - the economy stumbles forward, having lost its bearings for the New Future (its telos), propped up for a moment by an insane Hail Mary play for the whole thing - something called quantitative easing (don't ask unless you're ready to deal with the pseudoscience of economics). Held together with bubble gum and baling wire, things are, and did that match just flare some?
It's like a Petri dish, made just to grow a culture of poisonous, nativist, threatened (and self-pitying) national masculinity. A nation-state within which there are 88 privately owned guns for every 100 persons.
Into this, inject one Donald Trump. Brash and hostile, he channels that white male "victim" complex into a giant fuck-you to all his victimizers - brown people, women, people who look down on them (some of us are actually guilty of this - yeah, those specks and beams). I'll tell you why The New Future and the New New Future and the New New New Future aren't paying off, why that future keeps kicking you in the ass, humiliating you, compelling you to make brave, pugnacious gestures in the face of your fears. Those people! They did this to you.
In kinder times, this kind of redirection only connects with a small fraction. As things begin to feel like your life is a slow leak, though, this trash-talk connects more and more. Disproportionately so among those households, by the way, with the most guns.
Does that mean Trump will get the nomination. Who knows? But that isn't the point. He is a locus of consolidation, and the problem doesn't end with yet another election. The centralization of executive power and Donald Trump are not co-located. Yet. But we are closer to it than we were in 9-11-01, precisely because of everything that was put into motion then.
Once reactionaries are in power, people look back and try to figure out how that happened. Why did it seem so easy?
It is happening because we can rationalize the failures of a New Future with a narrative of the loss of a mythical past. The world was broken in the past, it is broken now, and it will remain broken until the Parousia. It gets broken in a special way, however, when someone finally decides to impose that New Future. In this, the church has played a terrible role in the past, and much of it continues with this mysterium iniquitatis. This is not a world - the Trumpworld, this post-9-11 world - that is apart from the church. It grew within the church - within its capitulations to power, to armed men, throughout our history. The church cannot live apart from this. So what are we to do that doesn't reproduce the same sins? To model the only new future we've been promised - already and not yet - the Word made flesh. How do we turn away from this perverse new world, Trumpworld, rebuke this, live into an alternative to this? Not a rhetorical question.
So what did these prophets have to say to the Church . . . ? I think they had to announce a mystery, which was that the final evil that would bring the world to an end was already present. This evil was called the Anti-Christ, and the Church was identified as the milieu in which it would nest. The Church had gone pregnant with an evil which could have found no nesting place in the Old Testament. Paul in the second chapter of his second letter to the Thessalonians calls this new reality the mysterium iniquitatis, the mystery of evil. . . . The more I try to examine the present as an historical entity, the more it seems confusing, unbelievable, and incomprehensible. It forces me to accept a set of axioms for which I find no parallels in past societies and displays a puzzling kind of horror, cruelty, and degradation with no precedent in other historical epochs.