This piece is part of a series exploring salient aspects of the philosophy known as “Social Futurism” (a term coined and idea developed by myself from 2011-2018). For more full and systematic exploration of these ideas, see http://socialfuturist.party & http://socialfuture.institute.
Twenty First Century Politics
Having a philosophy of Futurist politics is a critical foundation for future achievements, but is not such an achievement in and of itself. Achievement is a matter of engaging with the world as we find it, and effecting change toward the world as we would have it be. Furthermore, within the realm of active political engagement we may think in terms of two broad phases: The Destructive, and the Constructive.
In a world of accelerating change, profound technological disruption, and extremely high stakes, it is better to start afresh with new solutions to old problems, rather than wasting new opportunities thanks to a myopic over-reliance on the way things have been done by earlier generations with (vastly) fewer technological options on the table. In other words Social Futurism is a revolutionary worldview, not a Reformist one, meaning that we advocate the abolition and replacement of old institutions rather than their gradual reform.
Thus, the Destructive phase encompasses a clearing away of old, dysfunctional institutions and traditions as soon as workable placeholders toward new approaches have been established, and the Constructive phase then follows with the creation of a new and better world.
2.1 Why Human Institutions Don’t Matter
Humans are wired to be cautious, and wary of change, to some degree. That is a natural response, selected for by the evolutionary process. The greater “human organism” thrives best when it strikes a balance between novelty-seeking and risk-avoidance, just as all organisms do. Thus, we observe a distribution of cautiousness and novelty-seeking behaviour across the population, with some proportion of people naturally being averse to rapid change of any sort. There is an inevitable tension between such people (among others) and the fundamental need for our culture to rapidly and effectively adapt to changing times. Long story short: Certain things – big things – have to change about our society if it is to have a future, and a lot of people are going to be unhappy about that. Better to make a casualty of people’s sensibilities than to make casualties of the people themselves by letting the wheels fall off this wagon that we call civilization…
So, you may feel that certain institutions are precious. That’s nice, and probably related to their having had some tangible value in the past. I would, however, advise you to get over it, and fast. The chances that your pet institutions and traditions will make the cut during a period of rapid, radical civilizational change are – statistically speaking – somewhat unlikely. Things that you think of as “unalterable truths” and “inalienable rights” will soon be revealed to be made of nothing more solid than a mayfly’s hopes and dreams. If this is a new idea to you and you consider yourself to be a Transhumanist, then allow me to venture that you may not have thought things through.
2.2 Why Your Opinion Doesn’t Matter
Humans are very good at spinning personal narratives that make sense of their experience, and make them feel good in the face of a threatening (or at least uncaring) world. One particularly well-worn tool in that box is the human tendency to think of ourselves as the exception to every rule, while somehow not seeing the glaring logical error in that stance (or at least not seeing it in any way that sticks, or meaningfully changes our behaviour). For example, most people believe that they are more competent at any given task than most other people. Plenty of people acknowledge that many “eternal verities” are just fashionable ideas that can easily be swept away in the maelstrom of an accelerating future… but then still somehow imagine that their “individual sovereignty” is exempt from that rule, that it is magically set apart from the observed conditions of reality.
In other words, people can quite happily adapt to the idea that institutions or ideas they don’t like might be swept aside by accelerating change, but they balk at applying that same logic to the things they want to believe, to the principles they want to adhere to. Handy, that. In our modern age, the fundamental myth (and it is a myth) is that “each man is an island”, able to somehow dissociate themselves from the views or fortunes of others. It should be telling that people have only ever believed this myth in times of plenty, when evidence to the contrary is not thrust in your face on a daily basis. When times get hard, strange, or both, then people band together as a simple matter of survival, and notions of “personal sovereignty” are the first thing to go.
Yes, personal freedoms and principles supporting them are very important, but no, they do not exist independent of your ability to make your “rights” or indeed your opinion something of consequence.
2.3 Libertarianism is a Mistake
“Libertarianism”, and most specifically the U.S. cultural artefact known by that name (a right-wing, pro-Capitalist political philosophy masquerading as a call for individual freedoms) is probably the most grotesquely exaggerated form of the individualist fallacy. Again, the call for individual freedoms is extremely important, but there are two key issues to consider before conflating “Libertarianism” with that call:
(1) is the above-mentioned difference between the assertion of one’s “rights” and their actual existence in practical reality. It is telling that full-blown right-wing economic Libertarianism is primarily an American phenomenon, in that the U.S. is founded on an assertion of individual rights… which conveniently ignores that those rights could only be asserted in the War of Independence by a literal army of people who sacrificed their individual freedom to fight as one for the cause of American independence. It is an irony that seems completely wasted on the average U.S. Libertarian that if Libertarianism had been popular in the 1770s, there is simply no way that George Washington could have raised an effective revolutionary army from the constantly squabbling, disunified factions that individuals naturally fall into when not offered some higher organizing principle.
(2) Perhaps more to the point in our current era, it is worth noting the glaring hypocrisy of a movement which claims to stand for individual rights and freedoms against large organizations (typically governments), while actually being the de facto tool of large private organizations (typically corporations) who thrive in the absence of any sense of organization or solidarity among workers or community members, and whose abuses of power are every bit as egregious as those by governments, and perhaps even more so when you take their scale and access to resources into account. Libertarianism is not some kind of anarchist movement for individual freedom against overreaching government control (that would be Anarchism!), but on the contrary is effectively a movement for corporate control of the unprotected individual.
[p.s. Just as a matter of clarity; If you’re wondering what the polar opposite of Social Futurism would be, see Anarcho-Capitalism; which is essentially a mythology in which people give their entire lives over to corporations and expect something good to magically come of it. Technology and private enterprise have their places within Social Futurism, of course, but they must be moderated by a sense of balance].
2.4 Why Europe will Run the 21st Century
So, now that I have alienated every Individualist and Libertarian reading this piece, let’s take things a small step further and alienate the entire American continent… oh, and what the hell, let’s throw in Russia and the rest of Asia for good luck…
Social Futurism is geography- and culture-agnostic. In principle, anyone could subscribe to the Social Futurist philosophy, regardless of where they live or what citizenship they hold. Europe, however, appears to be particularly compatible with Social Futurist ideals, for both historical and futurological reasons as I will now briefly outline:
Before you get too irate in the contextual vacuum, you should be aware that the title of this section is in fact the title of a 2005 book by Mark Leonard, in which the author argued that the European Union’s network-based design makes it uniquely suited to exploit all sorts of cultural, social, political and economic trends which we see unfolding in the 21st Century. The near future, as painted by Leonard and others, is one in which the USA increasingly seems to have played its hand and not invested enough in its own educational systems and infrastructure, Russia has incredible resource wealth but like India is hampered by demographic and cultural issues, while China is undoubtedly an emerging superpower but perhaps not one as inevitably unrivaled as some think.
Europe has a tendency to be caricatured in cheap American propaganda as “Old Europe”, but ironically its ability to adapt to the intense challenges of the 20th Century have left it well placed to enjoy a new phase of growth in the 21st. Of course, since 2005 Europe has increasingly come under challenge from the Nationalist Right, but it is far from clear how these events will play out. It seems likely that the UK will face severe consequences for its extremely ill-considered “Brexit”, and that since the EU is no Left-Wing monolith (regardless of what certain conspiracy theorists would have you believe) it seems quite plausible that today’s opposition will simply be “folded into” the ongoing European narrative, and will in part determine Europe’s future. Europe is not so brittle as to simply fall apart the way the USSR did, or the way the US could if full economic failure visits the land of automatic weapons.
In Social Futurist terms, Europe already represents a near-perfect balance of technological innovation, desire to build a new and principled culture, and an understanding that a reasonable degree of regulation is necessary to ensure that things do not descend into the chaos of nature, red in tooth and claw. As I have noted elsewhere, China seems to be already taking steps to incorporate Transhumanist ideas into their official governing institutions (sans any Western notions of personal liberty, of course), and Russia is hardly shy about pursuing new technologies. India has thoroughly embraced free market ideology and the tech sector, and it truly is hard to see what will become of America over the course of the next hundred years. It seems quite clear, however, that the “American Century” was the 20th, and that Western grace period seems unlikely to also encompass the 21st. That leaves Europe (leaving aside minor quibbles over what counts as Europe, exactly) as the one and only place which has a history of rich culture, some sense of shared identity, an understanding of the power of technology, the wealth to develop it, and the sense of social justice required to do so responsibly.
Challenges loom, naturally, and no-one can see the future, but for my part I believe that Mark Leonard is correct: Europe Will Run The 21st Century, and if we are hardworking and lucky then it will be a Social Futurist Europe which achieves that honour.