Towards the end of his Pulitzer-winning novel The Road (2006), US author Cormac McCarthy finally lets his two protagonists, a father and his son, reach the coast. They have struggled through a collapsed human civilisation in a post-apocalyptic United States on the slim hope of finding a ship that can take them away. It is a scene that refers both to something essentially American and something generally Western. The ship refers to the birth of the United States – when the religious British refugees left the Old World to find a new, free one – but it also refers to the idea that the future holds the solution to even the worst problems humanity may face.
Father and son find the ship – but it is lying wrecked in the ashy sea. There is no new world to travel to; no bright future. It must be one of the harshest endings of a novel in recent times. We do not get the happy ending that had been the driving force for the novel’s protagonists and made reading about their hardships bearable. It expresses a sense and an experience of our times that reach beyond the novel itself: the wave of pessimism and negative views of the future that washes over the West in these years.
The extent of this pessimism is in fact so great that social scientists and cultural researchers talk about how our idea of the future is shifting from something we immediately connect with human progress to something we increasingly view as threatening. One proponent of this perspective is the French social psychologist Nicolas Fieulaine, PhD and assistant professor at Université Lumière Lyon 2. He does research in a relatively new field in psychology – Time Perspective Theory – which examines how we see, experience, feel and imagine the past, present and future, and what this means for our behaviour. The conclusion of his extensive qualitative research is clear:
“I see a crisis in the future perspective,” he tells SCENARIO.
“Low growth, unemployment and an unstable work life with a lot of short-term employment makes it difficult for many of us to view our personal future as something we can believe positively in. We are at a point where we need to acknowledge that the future cannot be controlled the way it could before.”
We can get a sense of how deep and widespread Western pessimism is by looking at the results of the so-called Right Direction/Wrong Track analyses for the last few years. Here, people are asked if they think their home country is generally moving in the right direction or not. One of the latest such analyses comes from British research institute Ipsos MORI in 2015 and shows that 80 percent of the French and Italians, 75 percent of Swedes, and 65 percent of Germans and Belgians believe that things are heading for the worse. The Brits are the most positive; only 60 percent view their nation’s future as dark. A similar result was reached when Ipsos MORI’s US colleagues at Pew Research Centre in 2014 asked European millennials if they felt they were masters of their own destiny. About half responded that they weren’t. Those are hard facts, considering the adage that the future belongs to the young.
Pew also asked if the millennials thought that children in the future would be better off financially than their parents. Here, less than half – 37 to 38 percent – of Brits and Germans agreed, and only 15 percent of the French. If we look across the Atlantic, things don’t look much better. According to Ipsos MORI, 66 percent of Americans thought things were going the wrong way, and even though US millennials are more optimistic than their European peers, more than 40 percent still think that their future isn’t in their own hands.
Numbers like these are what make Nicolas Fiuelaine conclude that we are at a crossroads.
“We are caught in a present where we find it difficult to build a narrative about the past and imagine the future. We either adapt to a new fundamental uncertainty or we become a culture that lives in opposition to the uncertainty and tries to mitigate its consequences,” he says.
The invention of the bright future
The question is if this change in our perception of the future is a momentary aberration, in which case we soon will return to the idea of the future as equalling progress, solutions, and improved lives, or if we see a deeper paradigm shift in the heart of Western culture.
German Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, professor of literature and philosophy at Stanford University, has researched modern cultural history through his long career as a thinker and intellectual. Gumbrecht explains that the optimistic conception of the future– where history is a movement towards increasingly complete knowledge and hence more and better opportunities – is a relatively new invention or idea. The concept originated in the 18th and 19th centuries as a reaction to the role that human subjectivity and consciousness had been given in philosophy and science.
From Descartes over Hume and Berkeley to Kant it became de rigeur that the question of what is couldn’t be answered until after having studied human consciousness. However, when consciousness studies itself it becomes difficult to determine when and how what lies in our consciousness corresponds to what lies outside it.
“This led to a sort of epistemological horror vacui; a philosophical fear of empty spaces. Self-observation became inevitable in the observation of the world and this had the consequence that we became aware that however we interpret the world and whatever we decide to do depend on our own point of view. This hits like a crisis, for with a potential infinitude of interpretations and decisions, the self-identical objects in the world disappear,” Gumbrecht explains.
“The 18th and 19th centuries’ concept of history and its focus on the future as a synthesis became an answer to this problem.”
Gumbrecht’s point is that we, with the idea of history as a progressive movement towards greater completion, can ‘save’ the world from crashing under the weight of infinite possible interpretations.
“In the historic worldview you find an object’s identity in a natural or cultural evolution. Since then, the answer to what things are has undergone an historic explanation, in the sense that if you want to answer what a country is, you need to tell its history from past to present, and if you need to answer what a horse is, you must account for the horse’s evolutionary history. The historic worldview provides a narrative that allows you to integrate the different interpretations and versions of the world and its objects in a synthesis. It neutralises the problem. This idea about time gains popularity so quickly and widely that the historic worldview from circa 1830 until today can be seen as ultimate. That History with a capital H is how the world is.”
For Gumbrecht, this is when the idea of the future as a ‘better’ place was born as a social construction of time; a chronotope, as he calls it, which became a cultural guide.
“Big institutions are unthinkable without the idea of an open future. The growth concept of capitalism requires this chronotope; the socialist idea of a classless society that can be achieved sometime in the future if we just do the right thing requires this chronotope. It is also necessary for Darwin’s evolutionary theory,” he says.
“This is also why it is difficult and provocative to imagine alternative worldviews or – as I put it – that there is another chronotope; another social construction of temporality that dominates today.”
This is where another important point from Gumbrecht comes in and connects to the crisis in the future perspective that Nicolas Fleulaine talks about. Gumbrecht’s provocative thesis has for some time been that the idea of future that we have been given in our cultural mother’s milk for the last 200-250 years, is today losing more and more of its cognitive and interpretative power. A new chronotope is emerging where the future no longer is something we shape through positive choices and insights, but rather something threatening that is approaching. The big ideological projects trying to shape the future in our own image have long since run aground; either because they turned out to be destructive without historic precedent, as with Soviet communism or Nazism – or like capitalism and technology, which contain self-destructive aspects that may lead to climate crisis and an economic precariat. Gumbrecht speaks of our times as “ontology without teleology” – meaning existence and insight without goal or direction – and about how his grandchildren’s future won’t be about choice in a horizon of opportunities, but rather challenges they must attempt to survive.
“Today, very few people believe – as I truly did when I was 25 years old – in socialism as the future. Today’s socialists are that as a sort of faut de mieux (for lack of something better; ed.). Yet we also know that if we let capitalism continue as today, it will be environmentally fatal and will burn all resources up within the next fifty years. Here, the historic worldview says that we will find a solution in the future, but the problem is that there is no obvious solution – no third path to go. Here, the old chronotope runs aground, and hence the future’s character shifts from promise to threat.”
Political nostalgia and the return of the zombies
Nicolas Feuilaine and Gumbrecht both analyse this transformation of our collective conception of the future as the basis for what we could call a new political megatrend: nostalgia as a mobilising factor. Everywhere in the Western world we have heard the criticism that politics today lacks vision. However, if we take a look through temporal-psychological or chronotopic optics, there are plenty of visions. They just aren’t futuristic plans for how we move forward to a better existence in the future; instead, they are nostalgic visions of how we avoid a threatening future by recreating a lost past. This is not just the case of the so-called populist right’s image of a threat from immigrants. On some topics, the progressive centre-left isn’t progressive at all. When for instance climate change is on the agenda, it’s not articulated as a future we need to reach, but a future to be avoided.
While Gumbrecht speaks of a shift from “the era of ideologies in the first half of the 20th century to the era of fundamentalists today,” Nicolas Fieulaine puts it into a grammatical formula: “In French, we have two words for future; futur and avenir. Futur is how you personally align yourself towards the future with your projects and dreams. Avenir is the future that comes towards us as something strange and threatening. What we see is a clear shift from futur to avenir. Trust in the future is declining, and we focus on the past, or rather the idea of the past as a safer and more stable time. We talk about a return to traditional values and traditional thinking. Donald Trump’s surprising success in US politics and Marine Le Pen’s in France, as well as the success of similar parties in most of Europe, is closely tied to this phenomenon,” he explains.
The signs of a new and dark chronotope can in fact also be seen in popular culture. One of the most remarkable phenomena in the last 10-15 years is that the zombie genre has returned massively to TV and the silver screen. In the first rank we have AMC’s surprisingly successful adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead (2010-), which has its own spin-off with Fear the Walking Dead (2015-). Then there’s Marc Forster’s World War Z (2013) starring Brad Pitt, and Netflix now has its own zombie series, Z Nation. We can also mention 28 Days Later (2002), Zombie Land (2009) and George A. Romero, who, with Night of the Living Dead (1968), really introduced the zombie in Western cultural circles and returned in the noughties with three more movies in his Living Dead series. This isn’t a direct return to back when zombies could be stand-ins for everything from communism to rebel youths to the individual’s fear of losing their authenticity and discovering that they are part of the grey consumer masses. Today’s zombie orchestrates and incarnates a post-human era where the world no longer submits to human needs and desires, but turns against us. It is easy to see the zombie of today as a metaphor for the collective perception of the future as a threat that almost unavoidably is coming our way; a fiction that we use to examine the human condition and the possibility of ethics in a time when the gap between living and surviving looks smaller than we care to think.
Socio-centrism without growth – or how to become a small local hero
So, now what? Can we live with a dark future or no future at all? It sounds like a description of a generalised cultural depression. On the one hand mankind has, according to Gumbrecht, before lived with a very different perception of time. In the Middle Ages, change was a different word for evil, since it changed God’s creation. When asked directly, Gumbrecht will not provide solutions for how to deal with the new chronotope, but what does he do himself?
“Personally, I survive by filling my days with tasks, and I also seek moments of high intensity. If my existence doesn’t have a long-term horizon, and if I in reality can’t do a lot for my grandchildren whom I love, at least I can have lived a full life. And then I’m addicted to watching sports. Tonight I’m going to see ice hockey, and for three hours I will be fully engrossed by that and can forget everything else. But it doesn’t change anything,” he says.
Living hard instead of living long. It’s a possibility, and even though Gumbrecht won’t advocate his own example, we can tell from the enormous amounts of sports on TV that he isn’t the only one living by that strategy. On the other hand, it can be seen as passivity or even escapism. One of Gumbrecht’s colleagues at Stanford University, psychologist and professor emeritus Philip Zimbardo, has a different suggestion. If his name seems familiar, it is no coincidence. In the early 1970s, he gained fame as the scientist behind the Stanford Prison Experiment, where he studied the psychological dynamics between prison guards and inmates. If we could say that he back then studied how ordinary people in the right – or wrong – circumstances can become evil, today he is preoccupied with the opposite, namely how ordinary people can turn to good and become small, local heroes. In addition, he is actually one of the pioneers of Time Perspective Theory, which Nicolas Fieulaine is researching. 83-year-old Zimbardo not only has a far more action-oriented idea of what we can do in the present, even if the future isn’t as full of promises as we used to imagine; he is also working to personally spread the message as director of a non-profit organisation he founded in 2011, called the Heroic Imagination Project or just HIP.
“More and more people are getting what I define as a present-day fatalistic view of themselves and their environment. You cease to believe that anything you do in the present has any impact on the future. What we attempt to do with our heroism project is to reconceptualise people’s self-image, enabling them to see themselves as potential heroes. Not heroes in a classical religious or military sense, but in the sense that the hero always has been socio-centric – that is, acting for others than themselves. It is a matter of seeing yourself as an agent for social change,” he explains.
“Take for instance the ‘bystander effect’, which says that the more people who just stand and watch when somebody gets in an accident, the smaller the chance is that anybody actually helps whoever is hurt. We are however making experiments for and with young people, which show that as soon as one person helps, it only takes a few seconds before another also takes action. Our message to the young people is: Be that first person. It is an example of how you can do a lot of things in your near environment, in your family, in your school.”
The main point hidden in the message of small heroics is that social change doesn’t have to depend on economic growth to happen. Yet it requires, as Zimbardo says in closing, a change of consciousness to get there.
“It will be many years before we experience high growth again. this is the reality for an entire generation of young people. However, even under these conditions you can be psychologically successful and make a difference. Compassion and empathy are becoming major buzzwords all over the world, but they are emotions and thoughts that don’t change anything by themselves. Heroes change things because they act. Go to an old people’s home and teach an old person to use a computer, or volunteer for a soup kitchen for the homeless. When others see your good deeds, it has a positive, accumulative effect. Like a ripple effect.”