This was the future, once.
Amidst all the coverage of the Greek election last week, one line from a report
stood out for me:
The ruling New Democracy party is still wondering how its platform of Endless Suffering For Everyone was defeated by Syriza’s competing message of Maybe Not That.
Yes, it’s from the Mash, but as so often one line of satire gets closer to the truth than thousands of pieces of punditry. When traditional politics and traditional parties neglect to offer a positive vision of the future, there’s a natural appeal to anyone who can offer something that resembles a vision. Even if it’s just ‘Maybe Not That’, it’s much more appealing than offering people nothing more than the status quo, perhaps with slightly better gadgets.
This links to what I was saying yesterday – if all that mainstream politics can offer is a red, blue or yellow-tinged version of the elite consensus, and that consensus doesn’t offer a positive vision of the future, then why are we surprised that people are looking for alternatives?
What we don’t have, and what no one seems to be offering in the upcoming election, is a positive vision of the future. David Cameron has been touting the ultimate uninspiring managerialist vision of ‘Britain living within its means’, while Ed Miliband offers ‘maybe that, but not quite that’ and Nick Clegg promises ‘that or that, but perhaps slightly less of it’. Meanwhile, when confronted with any vision of the future, Nigel Farage runs screaming to the past and while the Greens at least acknowledge the future is likely to be radically different, their vision for it is short of hope.
We used to dream about the future. Yes, there were things in those dreams that were never going to happen like flying cars, jet packs and double-digit Jaws sequels, but there was hope in those visions. We had futures where the whole wealth of world knowledge was at our fingertips, instant worldwide communication was simple and the need to work was reduced or even eliminated by robotics and automation. We’ve got those, but the world we live in now resembles a cyberpunk dystopia rather than the utopian dreams of the future we had.
What we need is to reclaim and reinvent the idea that the future can be better and different than today. Our politics and culture aren’t offering that vision anymore, instead retreating into expecting tomorrow to look much like today and offering purely managerial solutions to try and keep things running much the way they have been. The problem, I think, is that even if people can’t articulate it, they know that vision doesn’t work. It might not be as obvious in Britain as it is in somewhere like Greece or Spain, but keeping things the same equates to keeping everyone at the same level of insecurity they’re already feeling. That’s not a future anyone would want to sign up for. Merely offering people endless workism from now until the end of time isn’t a vision, it’s a punishment for sins we never committed.
This is why I think ideas like basic income are important. As Paul Mason explains here, it’s too often seen through the prism of our current system, not as a transformative idea that would change the way our society works. It’s getting back to those old visions of the future, where technology has made fulfilling our basic needs – food, clothing, shelter, heat, light – such a simple task that they’re available to everyone without question or effort, just something you get by dint of being you. Instead, we often end up discussing it in terms of how we’d implement it through current systems as though they’re the only way of doing things.
The future doesn’t have to be about basic income, but I think there is a yearning out there for someone, be it politician or artist, who can provide a vision of something different and better, a future that we hope will come about, not one that we dread finally coming to pass. We have occasional moments when we recognise the importance of hope – even the audacity of it – but then we forget about it, or think that what people hope for is more management and more targets to regulate their lives. That might be some people’s vision of the future – a human finger, clicking off the items on an assessment checklist, forever – but surely we can come up with something better?