The end of the future
One of the most tiresome tropes on the futures circuit is the idea that the world is speeding up, often accompanied by a dodgy video with dodgier data. It’s one of those things that almost every generation in history has believed, along with the notions that young people are less respectful than they used to be and that society is going to the dogs. It also helps to sell books and consultancy projects. And broadly speaking, it is just plain wrong. To borrow Sohail Inayatullah’s terminology, it is a “used future”, borrowed from someone else.
Breathless about change
I have a theory as to why this view has so much traction at the moment, based on the work of Carlota Perez. (Yes, I’ve written about her before). Her model of technological change sees a series of 50-60 year surges, in which new infrastructure platforms are first installed (e.g. rail, electricity, roads, internet) and are then normalised in a “deployment” phase. In terms of the rate of change, infrastructure change is fastest and most fundamental during the investment/infrastructure phase, but it is less visible, and social, cultural and regulatory change doesn’t accelerate until the platform hits the mass market, towards the middle of the deployment period and after. (In terms of ICT: about now).
Breathlessness of tone about the speed of change is actually a sign that the platform is approaching social and financial saturation. The second idea that’s embedded in this trope is a version of “this time is different”. Obviously I could riff on this at some length, although it doesn’t seem necessary to make the point. Enough here to observe that commentators as different and the American economic historian Robert Gordon and the Swedish geographer Hans Rosling both observe that in terms of everyday life, and everyday living conditions, the period from the 1870s to the 1930s was transformational in a way that the last 50 years have not been.
The slow cancellation
Reading Mark Fisher’s new essay collection Ghosts of My Life, though, I got a sense of something deeper: that the combination of the neoliberal ethos that has dominated since the 1980s and the emergence of ubiquitous ICT had closed down our ideas of the future. Fisher is a leftist cultural critic and academic based in London, and one of the better writers about the pieces left in the street in the aftermath of the financial crisis. The first essay in the book, “The Slow Cancellation of the Future”, named after a phrase of Franco Berardi’s, sets the tone.
Berardi suggests that this cancellation dates back to the ’70s and the ’80s, when the brakes were applied to the idea of “progressive modernity” that had shaped Western worldviews for at least a century, or possibly two. Fisher, from his cultural perspective, contrasts the cultural energy of the 20th century with the languors of the 21st:
While 20th Century experimental culture was seized by a recombinatorial delirium, which made it feel as if newness was infinitely available, the 21st Century is oppressed by a crushing sense of finitude and exhaustion. It doesn’t feel like the future. Or, alternatively, it doesn’t feel as if the 21st Century has started yet. [p8]
Retrospection and pastiche
Of course, it’s not as if nothing has happened in those years of the cancelled future. There has been sweeping economic, technological, and political change. One result, as Fisher suggests, is that “there’s an increasing sense that culture has lost the ability to grasp and articulate the present. Or it could be that, in one very important sense, there is no present to grasp and articulate any more.” [p9]
And from this, Fisher makes an argument about why. The first element is consumption:
Why did the arrival of neoliberal, post-Fordist capitalism lead to a culture of retrospection and pastiche? … Could it be that neoliberal capitalism’s destruction of solidarity and security brought about a compensatory hungering for the well-established and the familiar? [p14]
And the second, of course, is production, and in particular the production of culture:
It’s no accident that the efflorescence of cultural invention in London and New York in the late 1970s and early 80s (in the punk and postpunk scenes) coincided with the availability of squatted and cheap property in those cities. Since then, the decline of social housing, the attacks on squatting, and the delirious rise in property prices have meant that the amount of time and energy available for cultural production has massively diminished. [p15]
Readers might recognise in all of this some connection to the argument made by David Graeber in The Baffler, and now published in a recent Baffler collection. There’s not space to do his argument justice here, but in summary he argues that the 50s and 60s promised us all sort of exciting technological futures, from space exploration to flying cars, and we we ended up with … computers. “Had the Internet been described to a science fiction aficionado in the fifties and sixties and touted as the most dramatic technological achievement since his time, his reaction would have been disappointment.”
But wondering about the 1970s, and the long squeeze on social democracy, is not an exercise in nostalgia. Fisher again:
What should haunt us is not the no longer of actually existing social democracy, but the not yet of the futures that popular modernism trained us to expect, but which never materialised. (p27, emphasis in original)
One of the themes that sits inside Fisher’s argument is is the way that, just as neoliberalism declared economic war on working class institutions such as trades unions, so at the same time identity politics (race, gender, sexuality) has made huge gains. If the ’70s was the most equal decade in terms of income (certainly in the UK), the level of prejudice it was willing to tolerate was astonishing. It’s as if power structures can only manage one variable of political desire at a time. As you repress one, the others balloon out between your fingers. Indeed, there is some prescient writing on this from the ’70s, notably Beyond The Fragments.
It’s worth also positioning this in the context of the idea of futures work. The long emergent history of futures, in the days before it became a body of practice in the 1950s and 1960s, going back to – say – Comte, H.G. Wells, and William Ogburn, is essentially an Enlightenment project, a progressive idea about human development, an idea that came juddering to a halt in the 1970s. This moment is perhaps exemplified by the publication of the widely misunderstood Club of Rome report in 1971, but other marginal voices maybe got the idea faster than political and business leaders.
To expand on this idea: when Fukuyama proclaimed the end of history he was also declaiming the end of the future, in the sense of multiple possible futures. For, in the neoliberal world, there is only one future. Actually existing capitalism, to borrow the notion of my sometime colleague Ian Christie, turns out to be every bit as totalitarian as actually existing socialism was.
Of course, people have been queuing up, pretty much since around the millennium, to declare that the future is still open, in Seattle, in Genoa, in Zucotti Park. So far, it has had an effect only at the edges. But perhaps, slowly, the future is re-opening. The cracks are appearing. In the UK, the only parties that are putting on members are those that aren’t neoliberal (Greens, UKIP, SNP), while much of the Labour Party’s problem is the New Labour neoliberals still holding it tighly around the ankles. As David Runciman has observed, British political crises come around every 40 years. The ’70s crisis closed down the future. The next one, which we’re seeing the early signs of now, should open it up again.
There’s an engaging review of Ghosts In My Life at the Year In The Country. I’ve also borrowed the image of the cover of the book from there, with thanks, because it was more interesting visually than the usual publisher’s cover shot.