The War Against the Future
by Mike Meyer ~ Honolulu ~ October 24, 2020
The critical issue right now for many societies and national groups is how people are handling rapid change. Human reaction to rapid change, social, technical, and cultural is the source of political polarization. Rapid change means the rate at which the future is arriving.
Throughout most of human history, the future arrived slowly. Excluding large natural disasters that affected everyone, even significant conquests or internal political conflicts were disruptive for only a small part of society. For generations, most people would experience only slow incremental changes in population, and the future meant only the sequence of local events and seasonal activities.
There is an ancient tradition of not worrying about stuff that doesn’t intrude directly into your life. Many people still operate this way by preference, even in postmodern metropolitan environments. We see that in the difficulty of projecting voting patterns in large national, high-stakes elections as the current one in the US.
Much of our daily flow of information, dependent on personal levels of education and public involvement, is about politics, and avoiding it is seems difficult. Yet, only 25–30% of the population ‘follows’ politics actively. This shortfall of people is a problem that has steadily undercut the validity of the representative political system.
Even with a broadly hated and reviled psychopath running, we only see just over fifty percent of the voting population actively opposed and committed to vote. Some forty percent of the population is still willing to vote for him despite all the Trump regime disasters. This self-destructive commitment is the mystery that haunts people.
The question is, what motivates these people?
There are two broad themes in American society that explain this. These two broad themes are complex and tied to personal and cultural attitudes on general values. Still, I would say those are secondary or tertiary influences that shape forms of reaction.
The future that was of little real interest for centuries has become increasingly intrusive. With technological and social changes, we have come to pay more and more attention to the future and what it means. Our primary entertainment forms are focused directly or indirectly on the future as agents of change for human personality and social organization.
Either the future is a threat or a solution. This difference is the cause of the great split in post-industrial societies. Those who see the future as a solution are looking, almost invariably, for greater equality, diversity, and opportunities. Those who do not want those things see the future as a threat to their existing preferences and wish to delay or stop it.
Put even more simply; this is a war between a future and no future.
But wait, wait, that can’t be right! The future is inevitable, whether you like it or not. And the future is malleable as we make individual, social, and cultural decisions. No one wants to eliminate the future. That’s suicidal.
To a portion of the human population, the future is too dangerous to allow. These are the people genetically oriented toward stasis. We describe them as ‘conservative’ and authoritarian. Change is a threat, and they want nothing to do with it.
They also tend to prefer living in smaller, homogenous communities that provide less risk of conflict over attitudes and lifestyles. Comfort is consistency and similarity. Curiosity killed the cat, so we need to control interest and curiosity.
I have stated this in non-political terms, and human characteristics are not pure but subject to classic bell curve distribution. Throughout human history, these are the people who stayed home. In any traditionally oriented society, in our age, this includes small towns and small cities, this was the majority.
The distribution in these societies included those people who stayed with their parents and may have taken over their parent’s property and may have become the upholders of tradition in the community. A different segment would go out to explore the world in their youth but then return after a few years and, as it was said, settle down while introducing a few new ideas.
Those who left and did not come back also tended to pursue education to change the future. For those who did not stay home, the future is or becomes an essential tool and an objective. For those who stayed at home, the future is of little relevance to their lives except if it becomes intrusive and threatens that way of life. Then it is a threat and a problem to eliminate.
I’ve described the age-old story of life, youth, and maturity. I am old enough to have grown up in precisely such a traditional, predominantly agricultural community with little thought of the future by most. Something near a majority of the kids I went to school with are still there. Some of them are already buried in the church cemetery.
The concept of the future snuck up on these folks. The nature of the word, future, changed drastically. Reaction to that change and the realization that the future was now different has created an unbridgeable split in society. Attempting to explain that gap by looking at other aspects of each community or demographic group misses the point. The conflict is whether we have a future or not. To a portion of the population, a future is not required, but it’s threat to the norm is inherently evil as their leaders tell them.
No wonder we see the extreme advocates of this conflict as willing to accept death and even species death to prevent the unwanted future. But it is important to understand how fundamental this has become. It is not a specific future they do not want but any future. At the same time, they may seem to want a return to the past, but that is not specific. They want a homogenous and continuous now.
Authoritarian rule is, by definition, a reaction against change. The anti-future portion of the population will give up almost everything in exchange for an idealized present with no future. The importance of traditional Abrahamic religions to this population is not political or economic and indeed not moral but the deliverance of a mythic alternative to the human future. This alternative future sits awkwardly with the authoritarian opportunists who are the default leaders of this population, but it is mythical and has no practical reality.
How did this become such an intractable problem?
The future, as an objective, is new. It is a product of the Western Scientific Revolution and did not appear until about four hundred years ago. Ironically it was an assumption of the Enlightenment and both the US and French revolutions. The vagueness of the future in the late 18th century created a problem that crippled both political revolutions. The designers included mechanisms for change, but there was no means for continuous improvement based on shifting goals and objectives critical to working toward the future in a modern and postmodern sense.
In the US, the political disasters of both the Senate and Electoral College exist to deny the future anachronistically. These were not the original intent but were compromises to support the most backward slaveholding states and their rural, anti-future populations. After two hundred years, the consequences of this are a failed nation struggling to make minimum possible changes to have any future at all.
The absurdity of the anti-future and authoritarian minority’s arguments for ‘original intent’ in constitutional decisions is a metastasized growth of that cancer. All of this is to remove the future as a threat to the existing power structure and cultural form.
America’s peak was in the 1930s to 1950s, with unleashed capitalism able to ransack much of the planet justified by the concept of progress. That was when the future became something much more than merely the sequence of seasons and years. Progress was our most important product, and it would bring the wonders of the future to everyone.
While that has created the biggest human-created disaster in history, it did build tremendous material wealth and transformative technologies. The dominance of advertising as a tool sold progress and the future that went with it to three generations. Unfortunately, the future sold was a false future for the majority of the population.
The conservative reaction was first the realization that the future meant diversity and change, followed slowly by realizing that the future products went only to an elite. It was effortless to influence the unhappy population by denouncing the future as unneeded and dangerous as everyone once knew.
It was also natural to identify and denounce all the things that a future required. Education, expertise, open societies, combined with the displacement of traditions and their old mythologies, were all targets for attack, not for any benefit to the target groups but as a means of locking into no future as protected by a vastly wealthy elite. That is traditional, too. The alternative reward of heaven for the religious fringe worked just as well. They had already given up any future except as a story.
None of this has anything to do with liberal conservatism, representative government, democracy, economics, morality, or equitable asset distribution. All of those things make sense only to the population that holds the future as a goal. Those things tied to humanity’s future are meaningless to the problem population who have no trouble denying everyone a future to protect their denial.
If we are to have a future, and the brutal realities of the climate crisis and entangled economic disasters we face make that a huge challenge, we need to get everyone educated on the need for a shared future. It did no matter for centuries, but it matters now. No future now means no future at all.