Today I See the Future
We can only ever think the future in the conditions of the present. And one of the most powerful myths is always that the present is the natural order of things: ‘It has always been like this, and it always will be.’ Ten years ago, against that closure of the future, a multiplicity of movements arose which claimed that other worlds were indeed possible. It went by a multitude of names: the ‘movement of movements’, alter-globalisation, anti-globalisation, the anti-capitalist movement. We knew it by the names of the cities where, in flashes, it would become most visible – Seattle, Chiang Mai, Genoa, Porto Alegre, Cancun.
Looking back today, it’s hard to avoid two simultaneous impressions: success and failure. On the one hand, the movement of movements, compared to those days, appears a spent force; yet the situation it opposed has changed. The faint outlines of a victory? The door of history is open – or at least more open than it appeared ten years ago. Things that were necessary articles of faith have been discredited even in the eyes of their proponents. Political freedom goes hand-in-hand with free markets? The invisible hand of the free market, unburdened by regulation, knows best? Utter rubbish. In the words of the UK government’s Chief Economist, Nicholas Stern, climate change is “the biggest market failure in history”. Lawrence Summers, former US-Treasury Secretary and World Bank Chief Economist publicly defects from neoliberalism when he argues that “what is good for the global economy and its business champions” isn’t necessarily good for workers. Of course, it’s easy to overstate the point. The door of history wasn’t forced open only by ‘the movements’ – not unless we re-define ‘the movements’ to include millions who’ve never heard of Seattle or Chiang Mai or Genoa. But this much is clear: the liberal-democratic-free-market-capitalist future that was the only flavour on offer at the turn of the century has gone out of fashion in 2008, and the futures paraded before us all look rather different.
We see a few stifled yawns: yet another crisis and the end, if not of capitalism, then at least of its latest manifestation – bored now! Anti-capitalists are renowned for seeing every little downturn as the precursor of complete economic meltdown. And of course, CAPITALISM IN CRISIS! is the perennial headline of choice in left-wing newspapers the world over. We’ve all been there. Exactly a decade ago, two of us sat with a stack of envelopes and sent letters with precisely that title to hundreds of the world’s social movements, in the hope of finding more people to shut down the summits of the WTO, the G8, the IMF etc. So maybe it is hard for us to say this with any credibility. But this time it’s different. Honest. Back then, the crisis was an emerging one, and it had more to do with the growing perceived illegitimacy of neoliberalism than with anything more ‘material’.
OK, don’t take it from us. Read the Financial Times, Economist or Wall Street Journal. Every day there are articles asking what is to come now that the ‘American Century’ has ended, now that food prices can’t be kept in check, climate change rolls on, the world’s financial architecture seizes up, oil production finally has peaked… It is ironic that, while on the left it seems impossible to conjure up an image of revolution – a rupture with the past and the end of capitalism – the FT imagine it all the time. If it happens, it’s the end of their readership’s power; so they’re keen to discuss what to do about it. Or take the new Shell report,Energy Scenarios to 2050. They state boldly that the era of Thatcher’s ‘There is No Alternative’-doctrine is over. Now the choice is a “scramble” for resources and some nightmarish Hobbesian war of all against all, or “blueprints”. That’s right, “blueprints”: some sort of organised supra-national planning. Meanwhile on the left, we only seem able to imagine the end of the world as Mad Max-style mayhem arising from our fashionable new friend ‘eco-collapse’.
The food crisis. The climate crisis. The oil price crisis. The Iraq crisis. The financial crisis. Crises are nothing new. We should know: we’ve cried wolf before. Back in 1997, in the midst of the Asian financial crisis, when millions of people were thrown out of work, governments fell and South America teetered on the brink of joining the crash-fest, some of us were excited. It was tempting to see those millions out of work, the race-to-the-bottom wage reductions, as bringing us closer to rupture, to radical change. But far from heralding capitalism’s downfall, these crises are in fact precisely what capital needs to constantly revolutionise itself and the world around it. So why think that now is different? Why think this is a turning point, and not simply another turn of the screw of capital’s waves of creative destruction? Are we not all Schumpeterians now?
Joseph Schumpeter was an economist who popularised the term ‘creative destruction’ to describe the regular revolutionising of economic and regulatory structures and institutions needed to ensure new ‘long waves’ of economic growth. Crises were seen as a helpful way of sweeping away the old and creating room for the new. In The Shock Doctrine Naomi Klein outlines the way economic crises, natural disasters, and military conflicts have been transformed into moments of creative destruction by neoliberalism over the past 30 years. Turning disaster into an opportunity seems to have become so much a part of neoliberal ‘common sense’ as to be comparable with US President Nixon’s 1971 assertion that – when it came to government intervention into the economy in order to stimulate growth – “We are all Keynesians now”.
The answer lies not in pathological optimism, but in the possibility of crisis management – or its impossibility, as it were. We can look at this from two perspectives. First, that of capital’s activity. Crises aren’t necessarily productive for capital, nor do they necessarily increase states’ power. They have to bemanaged to have those effects. One crisis – say, the surging oil price – is relatively easy to handle. Two can still be manageable. But five or six major crises occurring at the same time? Of course, it’s not only about numbers, because any amount of crises would be manageable if they all had the same cause or proximate causes: the solution to one would probably also solve or at least contribute to solving another. But in this case, the various crises have multiple causes that are apparently independent of each other. More importantly, the most obvious solutions to any one crisis may exacerbate one of the others to a point of unmanageability.
Take the food price crisis. This year, food riots occurred in big cities in 37 countries: arguably a speedier and more widespread revolt than anything pulled off by the movement of ’68 or the ‘movement of movements’. People in a quarter of the world’s countries said ‘enough is enough’ in a matter of weeks. A couple of governments fell; many gave rare concessions to the poor. There was panic on the first class deck, and an emergency global summit in Rome was called in June.
Then there’s the climate crisis, caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases, most of which come from the burning of fossil fuels. And then there’s the oil price crisis, caused by our inability to kick our oil habit, rapidly rising demand in ‘emerging’ economies, chronic underinvestment in the oil industries of most oil-producing countries, and perhaps a growing belief that global oil production has peaked. And then there’s the financial crisis, caused by… You catch the drift.
But something very important is lost if we only look from the point of view of what capital has done to produce this situation, and what capital will do to manage it. Crises don’t just ‘happen’ all by themselves; they are also the outcome of struggles that are ongoing and constantly spilling over boundaries and borders. Sometimes these pit different capitalists’ interests against one another – for example, the OPEC countries against the world’s leading economies. But the desires and actions of people too are constantly reshaping the field of play. The food crisis isn’t just the by-product of neoliberalism’s attack on any reproduction independent of the market: growing demand in developing countries is also the result of long-term pressures for increases in real wages and wealth redistribution policies. If we simply dismiss this process as the way capital reduces the risk of large-scale uprising (by ‘buying us off’), then we end up playing the old teleology game, at the expense of other people’s lives – ‘hang in there, comrades, just one more sacrifice for the revolution!’. More importantly we ignore the fact that transformations such as access to education and basic needs also create new bases for struggle. One of the factors in the rapid spread of the food riots is the fact that since some point last year, for the first time in history the majority of the world’s population now live in urban areas, and access to means of communication allows tactical information and agitation to travel much more quickly. It’s the same with the oil crisis, where rising prices are also due to the victories of struggles in oil-producing regions as far apart as Venezuela and the Niger delta. More fundamentally, in an oil-dependent world, oil is used to do the work that workers have successfully refused: machines that are driven by oil get introduced only when labour power becomes too expensive.
In this respect, we don’t have to choose between either mourning the death of the mythical proletariat as unitary world-subject, or giving up on it and accepting that the only force of transformation in the world is the aggregate of capital’s decisions. It’s not a question of whether we can act in the face of these crises: people have always acted, and are always acting, in ways that change the world. The real problem is this: how is it possible to act on a global scale in ways that can take advantages of conjunctures like the one we have now?
Back to the view from the top: let’s imagine it’s your job to sort this mess out. Let’s start with high oil prices and energy security – crucial in a world where economic ‘development’ has so far been linked to access to fossil fuels. Many of the world’s governments are getting interested in the production of agrofuels, one of the very few ‘renewable’ energies that is pretty much a straight swap for oil. The problem? Growing more crops for agro-fuels would almost certainly exacerbate the food price crisis, and thus cause more of those food riots that governments would rather avoid. So what are you going to do? Annex an oil-producing country? Easier said than done: Iraq has proven that even the largest military power can become overstretched. And it doesn’t deal with climate change, which must be managed because extreme weather events interfere with production, and voters expect you do to something about it. Solving climate change? Cut back on fossil fuel use. Not really, as that would mean less economic ‘development’. More renewable energy. But what about the food riots? Ignore climate change and adapt. What about a sudden spread of infectious diseases in the wake of major flooding? This is complex stuff.
Crisis management in an overly complex and open situation becomes very difficult, and that difficulty is obvious when listening in on the conversations of global elites. Which is where we return to the beginning: it seems that the power of those who control the present has unravelled to such an extent that the future once again appears unwritten, probably in a way that it hasn’t been since the 1970s. There really are plenty of similarities: then, too, a phase of capitalist development was drawing to an end (Fordism/Keynesianism then, neoliberalism now); US hegemony was being challenged (by Germany and Japan then, by China and India now), while the country fought a neo-colonial war it couldn’t win (Vietnam/Iraq); the dollar was weak, financial systems were in crisis, stagnation and inflation were setting in, oil prices had some nasty shocks in store.
More importantly, the present seems to be a point in which various historical series are crossing each other. And they’re doing so in ways that could make them diverge in new directions. First and foremost, the series set in motion during the 1970s, where various crises – of public debt, the oil price boom, and a high level of working class organisation – overlapped and brought a ‘solution’ that involved financialisation, deregulation, the rolling back of social guarantees, and an internalisation of all risk by individuals (i.e. ‘globalisation’) appears to be coming to and end. The new wave of regulations introduced by the US Federal Reserve, along with the cries that the credit crisis is a result of ‘the free market gone too free’, would appear to point in this direction. What’s more, this seems to be happening at a moment when the decades of effort to put climate change on the agenda appear to have borne fruit; whilst the series of world events opened by 9/11 – and which had a tremendous impact in holding down the cycle of struggles begun in the 1990s – seems to be drawing to a close.
With this in mind we’ve assembled a collection of articles that, in different ways, speak to us about futures. As much as we didn’t want people’s ten-point programmes when, in June 2007 we asked ‘What would it mean to win?’, our interest here has nothing to do with futurology. There are no grand predictions in what follows. No imminent victory, because comfort-zone wishful thinking is the last thing anyone needs now; but no apocalyptic doom either. Neither are there any forward-view mirrors where capitalism recuperates everything and always gets the last laugh. We must have the modesty to recognise that the future is unknown, not because today is the end of everything or the beginning of everything else, but because today is where we are. What we do, what is done to us, and what we do with what is done to us, are what decide the way the dice will fall. This requires the patient and attentive work of identifying openings, directions, tendencies, potentials, possibilities – all of which are things that amount to nothing if not acted upon – and of finding out new ways in which to think about the future.
Turbulence, July 2008
So who is this aimed at?
The short answer is: anyone wanting to think about how to change the world. That is, potentially everybody. But doing so isn’t straightforward. This isn’t a collection of lowest common denominator writings aimed at some abstract ‘public’ whose common sense we can second-guess. Even if we could, we’d much rather undermine it. To go through the experience of thinking differently – in a different way or from a different perspective – creates new possibilities. And perspectives aren’t different takes on a same thing, but each one a world in itself. Likewise, words aren’t different ‘clothes’ for one object, but can create their own objects. So thinking differently involves engaging with ideas that seem alien because they go against some of our assumptions about the world, or come from within contexts we are unfamiliar with. Some of the writing here might seem difficult or abstract – we have tried to contextualise pieces and explain technical jargon – but each article is open to anyone prepared to make the effort of reading it. Reading is a two-way violence: a text can change us to the extent that we are willing to appropriate it to our own ends. It’s the same wager as love: if you jump in, you won’t come back to the same point (and may regret it, or be disappointed); but if you don’t jump in, how can you know what you’re missing?
Science Fiction’s Double Feature
Sci-fi movies, books and comics tend to have two common features. First of all, they all tell us much more about the present than what is to come. That which is fantastically projected into the future reflects what appears to be just beyond our current scientific limits. The Matrixtrilogy – where hacker Neo finds himself up against a simulated reality, governed over by intelligent machines which feed on the energy of humanity – could only have been created in the 1990s, in the context of the rise of both Virtual Reality and internet technology.
Second, it is precisely this first feature which allows sci-fi to demonstrate how our ‘situated-ness’ – our present lived realities and immediate histories – determines the kinds of utopias and dystopias we are able to imagine.
But maybe there is an exception: The role monsters, like Frankenstein’s, often play in sci-fi is generally less determined by the present than, for instance, the technologies used to create or destroy them. They imply a potential for, or at least fascination with the idea of, transformation. They defy easy categorisation: they’re often part-human, and tend to be embroiled in a process of becoming less so. They are the aspect of science fiction which can help open our imaginations to possibilities of becoming, rather than limit them to what seems possible from within the matrix of the present. They are an antidote to the idea of humanity as a ‘species-being’ whose essence is static; and a nod towards the idea of flight-lines out of this world.
Where does the future start?
What we take to be the present is made up of the apparent repetition of ordinary, regular points. In fact we become so accustomed to these regularities that we lose sight of the subtle differences that occur in their actual repetition. Octavia Raitt’s Today drawings, done at the rate of one a day for 143 days, are a beautiful portrayal of the difference that occurs in the repetition of ordinary points. She shows that finding the singular in the ordinary is a matter of selection. But every singular point means a break from what is ordinary, an opening up of possibility. In order to stop the future being erased by the present, we need to exploit this potential for singular points to change the rules of the game.
Turbulence is a journal/newspaper that we hope will become an ongoing space in which to think through, debate and articulate the political, social, economic and cultural theories of our movements, as well as the networks of diverse practices and alternatives that surround them.
We don’t want Turbulence to become yet another journal or yet another edited collection claiming to offer a ‘snapshot of the movement’. Instead we want to carve out a space where we can carry out difficult debates and investigations into the political realities of our time – engaging the real differences in vision, analysis and strategy that exist among our movements.
David Harvie, Keir Milburn, Tadzio Mueller, Rodrigo Nunes, Michal Osterweil, Kay Summer, Ben Trott, David Watts
All articles are published under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike licence. You are free to share or remix as long as you attribute it to Turbulence and the author; you may not use this work for commercial purposes; you may only distribute under the same conditions. More details from http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/
All artwork and images are published under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial No Derivatives licence. If you copy, distribute and transmit artwork, you must credit the work to the artist. You may not use this artwork for commercial purposes, and you may not alter, transform, or build upon this artwork. More details fromhttp://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/
Front & back artwork by Kristyna Baczynski
‘Today’ cartoons by Octavia Raitt
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