Have dystopian futures produced a dystopian present? The world of “the pandemic” in 2020 is often compared with a dystopia, and with good reason. Official control of the minutiae of everyday life, the ruination of livelihoods, the casual slaughter of the dreams of countless millions, and the encouragement and even wide adoption of the view that everyone we meet is nothing more than a dangerous disease vector are all characteristic of a dystopian society.
I find it very interesting that not too long before these developments, dystopian fiction was very popular and greatly influenced the mass cultural discourse surrounding the future. The particular and most recent wave I’m thinking about, “young adult dystopian fiction”, began in the 2000s and crested in the 2010s. What if at some level our culture has prepared us to expect and even accept such a future for ourselves? What if we have collectively willed such a future into being?
Dystopian Futures, Dystopian Present?
It might seem like a wild thought, but visions of the future can and do have profound influence on societies. Not in the sense that people will mindlessly recreate what they read and watch, but more in the sense that if a particular vision of the future is accepted as desirable and attainable, people will tend to work to make society conform to that vision. If a particular vision of the future is accepted as inevitable, even if it’s not desirable, people will tend to show less resistance to society conforming to that vision when it happens.
So it may have been with the dystopian futures our culture has presented to us. How often we read and hear in casual conversation that there is no hope for the human individual and his hopes for freedom and wealth, that we are inevitably progressing toward some sort of totalitarian surveillance society with lower standards of living and less hope for the human individual to fulfill his dreams and shape his own destiny.
The excuses vary depending on which pessimistic misanthrope is talking to you, common ones being climate change, terrorism, or the rise of “technology”, but whatever the vague amorphous threat is the predicted end result is the same: a shrinking of humanity’s horizons. Is it really so fantastic to think this steady diet of future visions we have received from mainstream culture has made us less resistant to the transformation of the world into an impoverished and repressed madhouse?
The Future after the Crisis of the 20th Century
Like most large-scale social trends, this disturbing development has deep roots, most likely in the crisis of the 20th century, where Western civilization lost its spirit of confidence in itself after the horrors of the World Wars, the Great Depression, the Cold War, and the Holocaust, not to mention the more general golden age of democide. After the First World War, the belief that there must be something fundamentally wrong with Western culture if it produced such a result began to take hold, leading to a spirit of guilt that was only strengthened by subsequent crises.
Thus began the aesthetics of guilt, an ugly 20th century echo of the morbid aesthetic that took hold during the crisis of the 14th century, and the hatred by Westerners of their own civilization, culture, and heritage, a tendency which culminates in the fact that the most forward-thinking, “progressive”, or “woke” elements of our culture endeavor to morally condemn and erase the history, heritage, and culture that has been bequeathed to them. This tendency, while much more famous in recent years now that it’s progressed to iconoclasm, actually has roots that stretch back well into the 20th century.
As unwholesome as it is, by itself an antipathy toward the past need not be fatal to a culture. As far as its effect on society is concerned the past is ultimately about the future, in the sense that valuing continuity with the past as the objective for yourself and your civilization constitutes a vision of the future to strive for. However, the spirit of guilt and self-hatred is not so kind as to spare the future, for if the West stains its past with its sin would it not also stain its future?
Thus the crisis of the 20th century stripped the West of both pride in its past and hope for its future. A fundamentally wicked civilization could hardly be expected to produce a better future, after all. Worse still, the West was responsible for the scientific and industrial revolutions and by extension modern technological civilization itself; self-hatred of the West therefore melds easily with self-hatred of technological advancement, the modern world, and industrialism itself.
This is where the so-prevalent skepticism of the ability of science, technology, and industry to deliver a better or even more progressive future comes from. This perhaps has its culmination in our society’s radiophobia, the irrational fear of radiation and nuclear technology, which has since the twin nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki accompanied the imputation by masses and elites alike of supernatural and demonic properties to nuclear science and technology. Rather than embracing their ability to deliver a bounty of wealth and power to all, as we did with analogous chemical sciences and technologies when they came into their own in the 19th century, we have feared and shunned their nuclear successors under a mountain of fear, regulation, and restriction.
Progress and Pessimism
All this is not to say that pessimistic portrayals of the future are anything new. Although probably less common, they did constitute a thriving genre of futurology and science fiction in the 19th and early 20th centuries just as they have more recently. One key difference is that even pessimistic futures from this period tended to portray Western or, more generally, modern civilization as being a victim of its own success and progress carried to fantastic extremes. The idea that there would be no progress, success, or advancement was not nearly as prevalent.
The idea of progress was so prevalent in fact that it powered the self-styled progressive movement starting in the late 19th century, an excellent example of a view that had little concern with preserving the past but valued moving toward a certain vision of a better future, the whole premise being that scientific and technological developments had made certain cherished traditions irrelevant. Marxism itself, from the mid 19th century, took progress as a fundamental component of bourgeois society, and indeed held that unleashing “productive forces” was a prerequisite for realizing the boundless and universal prosperity of a socialist, and ultimately communist, future. Progressives likewise believed their own doctrine of economic planning by “experts” would unleash prosperity and riches like never before.
Contrary to what you hear from some quarters this is actually very different from so many of the modern movements that have taken up the Marxist or progressive mantle; rather than believing the modern West is an engine of progress that will fulfill or transcend itself, today’s “progressives” believe the modern West is an engine of sin, with unending displays of guilt and inversion of tradition being the only true progress available to us. Ideas of prosperity and riches for all have by this point been long forgotten.
The Shrinking of Man’s Horizons
This is rather significant, because an economically stagnant future of inverting traditional culture and finding ever-more-humiliating ways to display guilt over the past requires no scientific or technical advancements to realize. Indeed, it would have been well within the technical abilities of the lower Paleolithic. This represents a major contraction of the horizons of human possibility our culture encourages us to envision for ourselves and our future.
In fact, a startling array of projects by ruling classes over recent decades have seen expectations of progress by the public as a social problem in need of resolution in the form of using powerful institutions’ influence to steer people toward accepting lower horizons for their ambitions, usually couched in terms of “moving away from economic growth and toward well-being as the measure of prosperity”. What this really means is a shift in approach from changing the horizons of human possibility to fit our dreams to changing our dreams to fit the horizons of human possibility, as defined by elites of a culture which no longer really cares about building a better future.
This of course represents a response to the scientific, technological, and economic stagnation that has set in since the 20th century (touched on in a previous post), and is also to some extent a cause of it, for a people that cares less about the future is a people who will devote less energy to making it better. Where this ties in is that the science fiction such a culture produces will reflect that contraction of human possibilities.
Much of the “social science fiction” movement itself and the environmentalist movement culture it is intertwined with, from around the mid 20th century, might represent a concession to that loss of possibility, to dress up accommodating ourselves to stagnation as “progress” rather than taking the truly progressive position of transcending stagnation and reopening the now-closed frontiers of the human imagination.
The Closing and Reopening of the Frontier
Frontiers in physical reality have been closed as well. It is rather interesting that the explosion in Western exploration of new frontiers which began when Henry the Navigator unleashed the Age of Discovery in the 15th century ran aground in the 20th century. The wave of frontier settlement in North America and Siberia clearly crested in the 19th century, effectively sputtering out by the mid 20th century. Polar exploration and the dawn of the Space Age, culminating in the reaching of the first truly new world, the Moon, represented a last gasp of the spirit of the Age of Discovery before stagnation set in in that area as well.
There is currently an attempt to revive that spirit in the form of the new drive toward opening outer space as a new frontier, with Elon Musk representing the current leadership, but after half a century of no real progress in human spaceflight, and over a century of decline in the opening of new frontiers to settle, it can only be characterized not as a continuation of the lust for discovery, but its resurrection.
There is every reason to believe the new drive toward space will succeed in opening up our pathway to the stars, but losing a half century remains remarkable. Also remarkable is the widespread skepticism, for a variety of reasons, of the very idea of colonizing outer space, which is yet another reflection of the anti-humanist misanthropy that characterizes the age we are only now making some attempt to emerge from.
The Frontier as Indication
The settling of new frontiers on Earth has not been as fortunate, but there are signs of hope even there. The frontiers of modern civilization contracted in the mid to late 20th century, perhaps most severely in the poorest and most remote regions of Africa, the world’s least-developed regions. After the European powers left, modern infrastructure such as roads and highways crumbled into the jungle in places like the Congo, with decay, poverty, and repression advancing into the late 20th century. For much of Africa the 1990s represented the nadir; a revival took hold beginning in the 2000s, which has seen prosperity and to some extent liberty return to most of these regions. Instead of roads crumbling into the jungle, new roads are being built, this time under native leadership. The narrative has flipped from Africa being hopeless to “Africa Rising”.
Perhaps the most obvious indication the winds have changed is Angola. Through the 1960s Portuguese people heavily settled the country, only to be forced into a mass exodus starting with Angolan independence in the 1970s as the country descended into civil war and an economic collapse. Beginning in the 2000s peace was reached, the economy revived, and the Portuguese are once again leaving Portugal to settle Angola, under native rule this time.
Economics tells us that the natural course for capital, human and otherwise, is to flow from more-developed to less-developed regions, a pattern which in the 19th and much of the 20th century held but by the late 20th century flipped into the reverse. This is thought to be caused by the lack of sound institutions and economic freedom in the less-developed regions in this period. With time this could very well reverse, stimulating new investments in and migrations toward the poorer and more remote regions of the world and, with the advent of affordable mass spaceflight, the solar system.
Assimilation as Indication
The cultural hangover we have from the period when any physical frontier was closed to us persists into our own time, however, and influences the way our societies perceive the whole concept of a frontier. It is not a coincidence that the closing of the frontier, and indeed the repudiation of the concept as tainted with the sin of Western civilization, coincides with the period when immigrants to Western countries were starting to be seen as not assimilating into local values.
Aside from the nativist bigotry that has long been directed against immigrants, another driver of this perception is likely a kernel of truth. Consider that Britain has gone from being able to attract members of the most alien races in the most remote regions into adopting British culture without even trying to not being able to assimilate immigrants in central London into so-called “British values” even with a concerted effort to do so.
This is not due to “multiculturalism” or insufficiently nativist government policies. The truth, which really should be obvious to many more people than it apparently is, is that a culture that has self-confidence, a proud heritage, a hopeful future, and is out-achieving its competition by a wide margin will have a far easier time converting people than a culture that hates itself, has no heritage or future, and isn’t out-achieving everyone by as wide a margin as it used to. There is little left for anyone to assimilate into, except perhaps for the “progressive” ideologies born of the West’s failures; in either case nothing recognizable as traditionally Western.
Multiculturalism in practice, as distinguished from the mere fact of many cultures coexisting in one country, may actually be thought of as a way of covering up the emptying of meaning and purpose in modern Western societies with the celebration of any culture so long as it wasn’t traditionally Western.
The loss of a sense that the future contains possibilities for human advancement into new frontiers of science, technology, prosperity, and space is ultimately decisive in all this. It shapes our view of the future and encourages us to believe that the best we can hope for is to preserve what we already have, the alternative being varying degrees of dystopia. This conditions us to believe, especially when the preservation of the “old normal” is no longer seen as viable, that a “new normal” contracting our horizon and stripping us of our livelihoods, our hopes, and our dreams is inevitable. It conditions us to not resist when measures that move us toward a dystopian society are introduced.
This is why our societies have proven so vulnerable to what I like to call the ideology of lockdown. It should be increasingly clear that resistance against the dystopian future is desperately needed if society is to mount truly effective resistance against the dystopian present. Reason, imagination, vision, artistry, and creativity are all needed to rekindle our confidence in the power of man to shape a better future for himself, to transcend the false choice of stagnation or dystopia, and to fulfill his boundless hopes, dreams, and ambitions.