The End of the Future

Both the Left and the Right used to articulate radically different visions of the future. Today the entire political spectrum looks backward, aiming to restore the past.

American railworkers on strike, June 1894. (Wikimedia Commons)

Judy Wraight, a thirty-year veteran autoworker who worked at Ford’s River Rouge plant as a member of Local 600 of the United Auto Workers (UAW), was walking the picket lines in the fall of 2023. In a PBS Newshour report on September 21, she explained why. “Everything the UAW is asking for is literally what we had before.”

She was right. Most of what the union fought for and won had been lost in one way or another over the previous forty years. Wages to begin with, as well as retirement benefits and the right to strike at local plants, had been serially sacrificed to keep the Big Three auto companies in business and eventually flush with profits. And this is not to mention the precipitous decline in the standard of living of young, new workers, compelled by contract to enter the industry at a lower “tier” carrying severely reduced wages and benefits and with little chance of moving up.

Victory was sweet, hailed by everyone, even the president of the United States. Credit belonged, first of all, to the strategic brilliance of the union’s leadership, which conducted a rolling series of “Stand-Up” strikes simultaneously at all three car makers (an audacious move never before attempted by the union). It effectively pitted the automakers against each other. But this in turn depended on the collective resilience and solidarity of the workers themselves — people like Judy Wraight.

Less tangible but potent in its own way was a shift in public sympathies. Underway for some time, people were increasingly appalled by gross inequalities in income and wealth as well as by corporate arrogance and malfeasance. Majorities thought unionizing was a good idea. So the atmospherics favored the strike.

Triumph was punctuated with a certain pathos, however. All this effort — risky, self-sacrificing, heroic — was expended just to claw back what had been lost. And this predicament was faced not only by Judy Wraight and her UAW comrades but is the universal dilemma confronting working class people generally.

The United States has long since become a developed country undergoing underdevelopment. Life expectancy is falling. People sleeping on park benches, in subway cars, or by the side of the road are on the rise. Whole towns and small cities have died along with the industries that once gave them life. Highways, bridges, tunnels, and electrical grids — indeed, the entire material infrastructure of public life — are scandalously rotted. Public services are run down, closed, or auctioned off to private enterprises.

Child labor, once thought extinct, an industrial medievalism of the sweatshop era, now shows up in nearly every sector of the economy from industrial laundries and auto-parts plants to fast-food eateries and construction sites. Adult jobs, once thought secure, got converted into various forms of precarious or temporary employment. Two-wage-earner families now earn what one-wage-earner families used to. Pensions guaranteeing a retirement income have either been replaced by ones tied to the fickle oscillations of the stock market or not replaced at all. The social safety net, a metaphorical exaggeration even in its best days, has become a Dickensian embarrassment.

Rural America is despoiled terrain, abandoned or the site of superexploitation by logistics and distribution networks. “Deaths of despair” — through drug and alcohol addiction, suicide — have become epidemic, in cities and in the countryside. Rights once taken for granted — the right to vote, the right to join a union — are now contested or, for all practical purposes, denied.

In the words of famed management consultant Peter Drucker, “No class in history has ever risen faster than the blue-collar worker. And no class in history has ever fallen faster.” All within less than a century.

Back in the days of tsarist Russia, during the late nineteenth century, a revolutionary movement known as the Narodniks (the word meant “going to the people”) tried to arouse the Russian peasantry to overthrow the tsar. It didn’t catch on. One activist of that era mourned that “history goes too slow.” We might say about our own moment that history has gone in reverse. This in turn has generated a peculiar political response both on the Right, where it might be expected, but also on the Left, where it is strikingly strange. Call it “the politics of restoration.”

Looking Backward

Looking Backward was a best-selling utopian novel published in 1888 at the height of America’s Gilded Age. Its author, Edward Bellamy, described an ideal society a century into the future (about when we’re living now) that looked back at that past Gilded Age as a barbaric time. Social and political movements today, such as they are, instead look back to other, earlier epochs and wish they were back there again, to recover what’s been lost. Life was better then, or so it is presumed. In some respects, that is transparently true, as Judy Wraight would be the first to testify.

True or not, this political culture of restoration tacitly acknowledges that the future, in the way that word has customarily been used, is dead. Or if it lives on, it does so on life support.

On the Left, it’s kept barely breathing by incantations to revolution that have next to nothing to do with the actual immediate and even longer-term objectives of these same movements. The Right is more straightforward. From those quarters, there is no question that what they’re talking about is “back to the future.” In both instances, history becomes ideology, invoked to glorify a past and thus legitimate an attempt to transplant that past into the present.

Restoration may have always found a place within the repertoire of political possibilities. Uniquely today, it dominates the agenda.

MAGA world longs to go back — way, way back. It imagines a time untainted by the cultural inversions of the ’60s, one where the New Deal never got dealt, for some even one where the Civil War and Reconstruction were roads not taken. This is made plain in its racial and ethnic phobias, its sexual orthodoxy, its patriarchal sensibility and patriotic braggadocio, its evangelical piety, and its live-free-or-die antipathy to interfering government. MAGA is a magnet for all the anxieties unloosed by the decay of an antiquated industrial capitalism.

A Donald Trump Rally in Greenville, North Carolina, July 17, 2019. (Dan Scavino / Wikimedia Commons)

MAGAites are resentful, and for many good reasons; they are the flyover, bypassed, disdained millions of the postindustrial order, living in the ruins. Their sense of the future is soured in the bile of their resentment. That past tense future is a gossamer prevision, a reincarnation of a past that never quite was.

Still, it grips. A recent survey of Republicans, reported by the Washington Post on July 6, found that 70 percent of them believed life had deteriorated since the 1950s. Maybe the old-time familial order wasn’t exactly frictionless, but in their minds, at least it was orderly, unlike today’s entropic disarray and dysfunction. God lent solace and moral certainty, even if His regime could be exacting, His ineffable mercy just beyond reach. Now God is a social refugee, exiled from the mainstream.

Back in the day, America the muscular lent its vitality to the everyman, carrier of a vicarious victory culture that offered up significant psychic rewards. Any semblance of victory nowadays has vanished into the abyss of the “war on terror,” a war without end, with inflated heroics, frustratingly elusive when it comes to enemies and purposes, enervating rather than exalting.

Once shoring up the foundations of the old order, race and ethnic discriminations functioned as a kind of social safety net avant la lettre for those living just above the submerged underclasses. But today, beleaguered working classes of the favored nativity and race utter the language of caste consciousness to recall a bygone privilege that always survived on short rations.

Restoration, therefore, strikes just the right note on the Right, no matter how blinkered and fantastical its view of the past may be. “Restore” has been a favored verb deployed by right-wing politicians for years now. Glenn Beck rallied marchers on the Washington Mall in 2010 to “Restore Honor”; Mitt Romney’s super PAC in 2012 promised to “Restore Our Future”; Mike Huckabee’s book for his 2012 campaign was subtitled Restoring America’s Greatness.

We expect that. Conservatives conserve. Yet even that has not always been so.

Take fascism. Fear of fascism haunts contemporary political life. Fascism is viewed as the denouement of right-wing reaction. Whether MAGA is headed that way is an open question. Historically speaking, it’s by no means obvious that MAGAism is the antechamber to an American-style fascism. Their kinship is undeniable. But the circumstances of their emergence differ fundamentally. While restoration is MAGA’s raison d’être, the situation with fascism was more ambiguous.

Where it has arisen in the past, fascism confronted and sought to vanquish a revolutionary-minded working-class movement of considerable size and political weight. (Indeed, elements of the fascist movement emerged out of or were subsequently recruited from the ranks of mass socialist and communist parties.) No such left-wing working-class formation of any substantial influence exists today, at least not in the United States.

Reactionary though they were in many ways, fascist movements also conjured up a vivid presentiment of a transformed, even modernist future. To be sure, the theatrics of Italian fascism included a heavy-handed invocation of ancient Rome (the Mussolini salute, the movement’s name recalling the “fasces” or bundle of rods circling an ax carried as a symbol of power by Roman officials), its imperial grandeur and martial heroics. But from the outset, the movement shared an infatuation with the speed, disruption, technological innovation, and other cardinal features of modernism celebrated by the Italian Futurists.

In these circles, history was so much dead matter; all eyes were on the new age. Indeed, Futurism’s founder Filippo Marinetti and his Futurist Political Party were soon absorbed by Mussolini’s. Apt here is George Bataille’s notion that from a psychological standpoint, fascism was less about resurrection than it was about summoning a futuristic utopian social unity. In this never-never land, a “New Man” would be born — rather than, as is the case with MAGA-world, a resuscitated myth from the days of Horatio Alger.

Moreover, fascism, both in Italy and in Germany, entailed the aestheticization of politics which, so far at least, does not define the existential core of the MAGA world. Politics-as-spectacle was hardly invented by fascism. And it’s true that MAGA incorporates some of this invocation of dramatic public acting-out without substantive political traction. But its imagination is circumscribed by performing a quite specific historical past, or rather an invented memory of that past; fascism’s political aesthetics reached outside of history, or rather escaped history entirely into the realm of pure myth and fantasy. MAGA mass get-togethers could be mistaken for football rallies; not so the Nuremberg rallies of the 1930s.

Nazi rally in Nuremberg, Germany, 1934. (Georg Pahl / German Federal Archives via Wikimedia Commons)

In Germany, the Nazi party and regime luxuriated in Teutonic mythology, and promised to restore a never-was pastoral society undone by the modern, industrial, urban order of things. Yet in real life, the Nazis built the autobahns, not tribal villages. Techno-futurism was part of a Nazi gestalt historians have called “reactionary modernism.” And even the “reactionary” part of that formula may too easily place in the shade the degree of the Nazi’s future-oriented outlook.

Germany’s Institute for Labor Science was a vast planning agency that envisioned a “Beveridge Report” for a postwar welfare state. Despite its antipathy to bureaucracy, rationalization, Taylorism, and so on, social engineering the future was very much part of the Nazi Geist. Anti-urban and anti-industrial as its cultural proclivities were, the regime nevertheless built cities and factories and planned them to include such socially progressive features as affordable housing, preventive medicine, comprehensive social security, equal pay for equal work, and even the leveling of the hierarchical distinction between blue- and white-collar labor.

For all the talk and deadly action inspired by Nazi racial obsession with the supposedly organic Volk, on the ground, the regime displayed an abiding concern with function and rational integration. Collectivism, something profoundly alien to the spirit of MAGA world, focused as it is on restoring the individualism of the past, in Germany instead combined the archaic and modern to incubate the “New Man.”

Glorifying violence, inventing mythical origins stories, racial primitivism, picturing past pastoral make-believes, were of course all part of the Nazi repertoire and political aesthetic. The point here, however, is that fascism emerged when the future still captivated the imagination of political and social insurgencies wherever they arose. MAGA, however, is part of a broader political sensibility that is restorationist to its core. There the future goes to die.

The Left-Wing of the Present

Recent social movements on the Left display the same instinct. Black Lives Matter, organizations of indigenous peoples, and those seeking gender and sexual justice and equality look to a better future. However, that future, one where everyone’s rights are respected and protected, is rooted in the past. It would rightly be accounted a great accomplishment if this long struggle to fulfill a promise made long, long ago was finally realized; even more so today when rights thought secured a half century ago are in jeopardy, part of the social retrogression now characteristic of American society generally.

Victory in this fight would be heartening and is hardly a foregone conclusion. Yet it would not constitute a revolutionary transformation of American society, based as it is on traditional pledges from the past. Mainstream economic and cultural institutions as well as leading political ones are “woke,” supporting precisely the advances in racial, ethnic, and gender equality they once either opposed or delayed. This is indicative. Revolution is not on the table. On the contrary: for liberal elites, being “woke” provides a certain élan to the politics of their future. As Georg Lukács once noted, “the fighting power of a class grows with its ability to carry out its own mission with a good conscience.” According to one commentator, what is now known as “corporate social responsibility” is “fundamental to neo-liberal utopianism.”

If the Left traditionally treated capitalism as the enemy, capitalism as a way of life is not being contested in this instance. It might be a stretch to depict these movements as restorationist — except insofar as certain people can no longer count on the right to vote, or become a citizen, or be protected against once illegal forms of exploitation, or get medical treatment they were once entitled to. Restorationist or not, led by avowedly left-wing organizations or by those content to think of themselves as social liberals, these are struggles to make the present conform to some idealized past. Nobody here is contemplating crafting the “New Man.” Yet such future-mindedness used to define the Left.

Presumably it still does for a newly revivified American socialism. The world invoked by Bernie Sanders, with a major assist from the Great Recession and Occupy Wall Street, is, by definition, anti-capitalist. And, again by birthright, it looks to a future after capitalism that will die not by its own accord but thanks to the revolutionary efforts of the socialist movement. Yet as a practical matter, its eyes are trained on the past. Like Judy Wraight, it wants to retrieve what’s been lost over the last forty years.

Bernie Sanders and Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) — not to mention a range of other progressive-minded movements, magazines, liberal think tanks, and politicians (many in the Democratic Party) — spend most of their time scheming and agitating around bringing back the New Deal. That is their default position. Sanders, as well as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, describe their objectives as an “updated New Deal.” During his first presidential campaign, the Vermont senator defined his “socialism” as equivalent to what Franklin D. Roosevelt called “an economic bill of rights.” Today, the New Deal constitutes the far horizon of their political hopes, whether or not they happen to carry socialist credentials.

At the height of the New Deal, income and wealth were distributed far more equally than they are today. The government policed business; workers’ rights to organize were respected; working people were held in higher cultural esteem and exercised real political influence; employing children was a crime; the social safety net was invented; jobs and life after work were secure, or at least seemed to be compared to today’s precarious McJobs and pared-down pensions. In hindsight, viewed from the dreary perspective of nowadays, it can seem idyllic, as something well worth trying to restore.

New Deal idealism does not go uncriticized. Many note its shortcomings. It made its peace with Jim Crow. Some argue its social reforms were deliberately conceived and executed to exclude African Americans. Women were treated as second-class citizens. The welfare state institutionalized patriarchy. Its minimum-wage provisions were so paltry, surviving on them was next to impossible. Public housing and public health were only weakly supported. The probationary status of big business lapsed quickly.

All true, but the implication is that had these faults been corrected, the New Deal order would deserve the devotion it now commands within liberal and left circles. It’s easy enough to sympathize with this view given the sorry state we’re in today. For liberals, this is especially the case. Historically, the liberal persuasion rests its case with a socially conscious capitalism, which is what the New Deal was. And it draws back when that consciousness of what in the nineteenth century was widely talked about as the “social question” or the “labor question” starts to interrogate the property relations of capitalism itself and wonders aloud about what might replace them.

At such moments of danger, as Walter Benjamin mused in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” “every age must strive anew” to keep the spark of hope alive, to wrest it away “from a conformism that is about to overpower it.” Or else the revolutionary movement runs the risk of “becoming a tool of the ruling classes.”

Normally, that’s where the socialist movement picks up the conversation about life after capitalism. Abstractly it does that today, or at least DSA does. However, even at its most programmatically adventurous, the New Deal circumscribes its imagination.

Take the Green New Deal. Climate change was not an issue in Roosevelt’s day. So, the Green New Deal is new in that sense. However, its essential means are not and are entirely at home within the house of the New Deal. Jobs are created by government-subsidized private investment in renewable energies and other ways of mitigating climate change. The jobs are intended as well-paying and skilled and come along with some vague rhetoric about the right to organize unions (although it’s a measure of how far things have regressed that the rhetoric is vague and toothless, and that the lion’s share of new investment is happening, quite purposely, in nonunion locales).

A Green New Deal is better than no deal. But it also assumes the limitless accumulation of capital on into a future not fundamentally different than what came before. And as Rosa Luxemburg observed, “if the limitless accumulation of capital can be assumed, then the limitless viability of capitalism must follow.” (Those who posit that climate change is a barrier that capitalism is inherently incapable of surmounting are, I think, wrong. Refutations appear daily, including the startling fact that Texas produces more renewal energy than any state in the union, and not via public enterprises.)

If the choice is between species extinction or capitalism, then there is no choice. But the restorationist mind closes down the question before it gets asked.

Foreclosing such possibilities, on the other hand, is a necessary precondition for alliances between the liberal world and socialists (more broadly defined to include the progressive-minded ready to confront capitalism). Forging a common language is essential. It’s been done before. With this in mind, the contemporary socialist left draws on the past, particularly the metaphorical universe of the New Deal.

Bernie Sanders and the movement that backed him as a whole tirelessly indict the system’s overlords for their greed. This is a moral censure that enjoys great political traction. Occupy godfathered the argot with its social arithmetic of the 1 percent and the 99 percent. And it echoes Roosevelt’s condemnation of “economic royalists,” “money-changers,” and plunderers of “other people’s money.” Indeed, its pedigree goes back much further. Referring to the tiny fraction of the French population entitled to vote under the July monarchy by virtue of their property holdings, a French radical in the lead-up to the Revolution of 1848 warned his class enemies: “Sleep on, senators of the 3 percent! Sleep on your money boxes; it won’t be long before you are woken again!”

Greed existed long before capitalism made its appearance. It can offend everyone from clerics to communists. It is, however, not a systemic indictment of capitalism.

Capital, as Marx pointed out, is a social category, while capitalists are, as owners, private and indifferent to the social implications of their behavior. They may be gluttonous or abstemious; in either case, capital may live on and grow. The language of greed lubricates a political relationship between those ostensibly opposed to the system and those who are not so inclined; it is a language of restoration.

Historically, however, the Left was always about creating new worlds. Rather than restoring the past, it approached history as a platform for inspiring the future. Criticizing the New Deal for its imperfections, even the most damning imperfections, is categorically different than reckoning with its vaunted achievements.

After all, what made the age a golden one — its unionized assembly line, its social security, its decent standard of living — came at a steep price: the soul-crushing monotony of that same unionized workplace; work surveilled, disciplined, and alien; political inhibition; pervasive social and sexual self-repression; bureaucracy’s iron cage (Weber’s “polar night of icy darkness”); the tutelary condescension of the social welfare apparatus; imperial domination masquerading as democracy; an insatiable appetite for consumer fantasies from which the heart grew ever more diseased; and an enervating decomposition of the social organism and its replacement by a narcissistic, anomic individualism. The New Deal was a peace treaty that, like many such settlements, left the underlying causes of war unresolved.

If the New Deal was born, in part, out of revolutionary desires, resuscitating its corpse won’t rekindle those aspirations. Only a vibrant anticipation of a wholly new way of life, a renewal of the future, can do that. But the future is dead. How did that happen?

The Life and Death of the Future

Investing hope in the future was by no means an exclusive preoccupation of working-class revolutionaries. Capital itself is similarly preoccupied, although only in the most abstract sense. Return on investment is the futurism of capitalism, a relentlessly repeated quest that carries the accumulation process ever onward into a featureless future.

Matters are infinitely more concrete from the vantage point of the bourgeoisie itself. The future inspired all the liberal revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Freedom and Progress defined the new world they sought to bring into being. Freedom of thought, of speech, of civic assembly, of political engagement, of trade, of labor, of religion, would happen in the future when the ancien régime that prohibited all that was done away with.

Thanks to the revolution, mankind would enjoy a future of unlimited Progress. That was to include but not be limited to technical and economic and scientific advance. The revolution would midwife a future of unfolding enlightenment with no end point, a kind of permanent revolution of the mind and spirit.

Revolutions originate in and perpetuate just this sort of ecstasy of the intellect and the emotions. The world is turned upside down and a transformed future beckons. This was true of the liberal upheavals of yesteryear, even if they derived their motor power from the risings of subordinate classes, which they almost invariably did. Heinrich Heine for one captured the universalist esprit in the lead-up to the revolutionary movements of the 1830s and ’40s: “What is the task of our time? It is emancipation. Not just the emancipation of the Irish, the Greeks, the Frankfurt Jews, the West Indians, the Blacks, the oppressed peoples of that kind, but rather the emancipation of the entire world and particularly of Europe.”

Suddenly politics as the art of the possible was suspended. Everything seemed possible. Even those who opposed or stood apart from the tumultuous doings in the streets — people like Gustave Flaubert and Alexis de Tocqueville — acknowledged the exaltation of “men possessed of frenzied eloquence, of the magnetism of the enthusiastic crowd.” Flaubert went on: “Hatreds were hidden, hopes were displayed, the crowd is full of softness.” Tocqueville (a member of the Assembly of the Second Republic), chafing against his ingrained instincts and beliefs, saw the Revolution of 1848 as liberating: “here lies the country’s salvation.”

Illustration of the barricades in Prague during the Revolution of 1848. (Wikimedia Commons)

True too in France in 1789, where insurrectionist Martin Bernard noted in his prison memoir, “Woe betide them who try to block the chariot of Progress! They will be broken beneath its wheels.” And again in 1848, and yet again during the Paris Commune of 1871. But by then the celebration of the unimaginable had passed on to the lower orders. Henri Lefebvre observed, “It was first of all an immense, a grandiose festival . . . of the disinherited and of the proletarians, a revolutionary festival and festival of the Revolution.” The Commune was “an unlimited opening toward the possible.”

That the middle classes were also afraid of where these plebeian revolts might lead and were prepared to quash them (they would go “this far and no farther”) does not alter the fact that the bourgeoisie were architects of the future, molders of a New Man, after their fashion. After all, an openness to the new, the innovative, made up the DNA of modern times, of what, in one respect, the life of the bourgeoisie was all about (notwithstanding its orderliness and prudential caution).

However, it is noteworthy respecting the history of the future, that if at first liberal reform tended to give way to more radical measures, or to a Great Fear about where those measures might lead, in our own times, radicalism has been more apt to give in to the great somnolence of liberalism. This gradual shift in the center of gravity between bourgeois and plebeian instincts is one way of grasping the closing up of the future. The newborn liberalism of the long era of revolution engaged with the future, depended on the radiating energies it emitted; the neoliberalism of today, even its most socially avant-garde, is running on empty.

The Secular Sacred

Utopian thinking and dreaming pervaded the atmosphere before and during this long era of revolutionary futurism. Charles Fourier and Henri de Saint-Simon left their impact not only in France but throughout Europe and in the New World as well. Moreover, long after Fourier-inspired communities had run their course in antebellum America, analogous experiments and a vast utopian literature accompanied the great working-class and agrarian upheavals of the Gilded Age. Even Eugene Debs belonged to a new cooperative settlement before decamping to help establish the Socialist Party. Far off in Russia, peasants invoked their own utopias, magical places, even underwater cities and underground kingdoms, that soon merged with the this-worldly risings of the dispossessed and impoverished.

Indeed, the very import of utopia as a concept had changed. Once, say in Thomas More’s day, it signified an impossible place (a fictional island in More’s Utopia or “no place”), imagined in the present, vaguely resembling a perfect monastery. After the French Revolution, utopia pointed to a possible place, but one that would be sometime in the future.

Religious sentiment too was infected with revolutionary fever. Not counting the afterlife, Christianity had had no place for a future here on earth different than what had always been — just a perpetual recycling until came the time beyond time. Saint Augustine, for example, condemned astrology as a sin for daring to predict the future, a realm strictly reserved for the Divine. One reason official religion (both Catholic and Protestant) censured financial speculation (and gambling generally) was for its hubris in dabbling with the future.

But during the long era of revolution that gave birth to the modern world, extending at least as far back as the English Revolution, movements fired up their imaginations with prophetic, religiously inflected apprehensions of a new world.

Men and women of the Left in Europe, the United States, and all over seized sentiments that had once been the property of ecclesiastical authority and deployed them instead on behalf of the emerging new society. The French revolutionary Louis Blanc announced that “the task of our epoch is to bring life back into religious sentiment, to combat the insolence of skepticism.” Jewish socialists in America and elsewhere likened the revolution to the coming of the Messiah: an earthly salvation. Other immigrant communities did the same. Even the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), irreverent and anticlerical in its blood and bone, would inspire the ranks by recalling the “hobo carpenter from Nazareth” whose dream “clothed in the original garb of communism and brotherhood continues to sound intermittently across the ages.”

Echoing in these religious invocations was a recalling of history that seems to resemble the rites performed by today’s restorationist movements of the Right and Left. What they seek is resuscitation. But this apparent similarity is a misperception. Historical consciousness among the revolutionary classes — bourgeois, artisan, proletarian, peasant — informed and inspired visions of future social transformation well into the twentieth century. They were looking backward to leap forward.

As long ago as the German Peasants’ War of 1525, the challenge to established authority (both feudal and ecclesiastical) enunciated in the “Twelve Articles” of the Swabian peasantry, imagined a radically democratic “new world order.” History as much as theology was its justification; Jesus had redeemed both the shepherd and the nobleman, so it was “deplorable” that “we have been treated like serfs.” From then on, remembering the past, whether expressed in religious language or in purely secular terms, afforded a benchmark and a springboard for remaking the present.

Abolitionists, for example, rested their case for emancipation, in part, on a Declaration of Independence never meant to suggest such a future. Ex-slaves helped give birth to an agrarian republic in the reconstructed South — a revolutionary victory, however brief, over capitalism — undergirded by that same emancipatory and egalitarian tradition. American Populists repeatedly called up memories of the Revolution, of that same Declaration of Independence and the writings of Tom Paine — not to recreate that past, but to mobilize the struggle for a new cooperative commonwealth.

The civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. (Peter Pettus / Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

Their working-class brethren in the Knights of Labor did likewise. So too did the Socialist Party of Eugene Debs make recourse to the country’s democratic heritage to ignite the fight for a future socialist democracy. The civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century relied on a black Christianity steeped in previsions of liberation, mythic and real. Even the liberal circles that helped engineer the reforms of the Progressive era and the New Deal genuinely conceived of their work as innovating on historical precedent under unprecedented circumstances.

Every May Day celebrates the Haymarket anarchists. Memories of Emiliano Zapata or Augusto César Sandino or Farabundo Martí energize their revolutionary descendants. The heat given off by a social explosion may alchemize historical tradition, turning what had once been the foundation of the ancien régime into its executioner, cracking through the wall separating the present from its alternative.

When the Russian tsar’s soldiers slaughtered 1,500 protestors on the ice of the Neva River on “Bloody Sunday,” 1905, Father Georgy Gapon, the “little father” who led them to plead with the tsar to spare the people from their “capitalist exploiters,” was aghast: “We have no tsar,” was his portentous conclusion. Although Walter Benjamin was the severest critic of the God of Progress, he was at pains to recognize that, “There can be no struggle for the future without a memory of the past.”

History then may become an activist. How? All the memories of past exploitations and oppressions, vaults full of insults and debasements and erasures open up to fields of rage and outrage — a thirst for revenge to be sure, but also desires for redemption and deliverance. Benjamin reverses the conventional logic; revolutions “are nourished by the images of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren.”

A revolutionary eschatology remains earthbound insofar as its anti-capitalism is grounded on histories, partly mythic, partly real, that antedated capitalism. That might be rendered as an invented memory of primitive communism, as arguably Marx posits when he peers into the future. There, in prehistory, he encounters an earlier antiauthoritarian, nonhierarchical life.

If not this kind of prehistoric past, then precapitalist ones have also served the cause. This was true for various artisan-based working-class movements: for the Knights of Labor and for the Populist Party and the IWW in the United States, for peasant insurrections in Latin America and Europe often infused with liberationist theology. All through the nineteenth century, revolutionary uprisings were coupled with demands to restore the customary rights of earlier times.

As one historian notes, whenever traditional feudal land usage systems were replaced by “more homogenous forms of commercial ownership and exploitation, communities responded with protests, law suits, illegal occupations and attacks on enforcing officials.” The same was the case in towns and cities where, for example, the strikes of weavers in Lyon and Silesia in the 1830 and ’40s drew their energy from historical experiences of “premodern” life, life before the rationalist-utilitarian ethos of the modern age degraded work and made machines of men. “Ancient liberties” were at stake. In these instances, among many others, the past enriches and is the bearer of utopian hopes.

So the past may be prologue — not merely to the present but to an undoing of the present. Leon Trotsky apprehended history, including the history of revolution, as a “drawing together of different stages of the journey . . .  an amalgam of the archaic with more contemporary forms.” Yet as our contemporary predicament suggests, history may, on the contrary, lay a trap.

Marx, among others, made this point, noting in his Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon that the Left must escape the gravitational field of the past or else risk becoming its mimic. Just as deadly, more deadly in fact, counterrevolutions that summon up the past to stop an unwelcome future may release a nightscape of fears: xenophobia, misogyny, blood lusts, and racial scapegoating.

The relationship is a mercurial one. That is especially the case at a time when a sense of the future is living on short rations, hovering near death, its vision having become so myopic that the “future” is hard to distinguish from where we live right now.

Progress and the Death of the Future

“Dystopian” characterizes much of recent thinking about what’s ahead. The future is bleak. Climate catastrophes, pandemics, social mayhem, and slaughter foretell the end. Punk’s war cry was “No Future.” At the turn of the new century popular bands sang “Planetary Burial,” “Pure Fucking Armageddon,” and “Final Sickness.” Even the New York Times reported last October that America has stopped “spending on the future.” That is the fate of the Anthropocene or, as some would call it, the “Capitalocene.”

This is sensed as a fate because a feeling of helplessness to stop it all from happening looms. Progress, for centuries the secular faith of the modern world, has lost its power to inspire, has been hollowed out, or worse, has turned dream into the long sleep. Progress is committing or has already committed suicide.

Not quite, however. For some, techno-utopias keep hope alive. Information technology in general, and artificial intelligence (AI) in particular, renew the promise of Progress. Or do they? Erik Byrnjolfsson and Andrew McAfee in The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies ask us to contemplate a robotic replacement for human labor in which the robot “can work all day without needing sleep, lunch, or coffee breaks.” Better still, it “won’t demand health care from its employer or add to the payroll tax burden.” A frictionless social universe awaits us.

Arguably, this is a clinical case of utopian declension that comes perilously close to a kind of managerial dystopia. When looked at more closely, these “digitopias” seem more about surveillance and control, depicting a world of internalized, self-repression camouflaged as “likes.” And the “look ma, no hands” world of AI, and of information technology more generally, is underwritten by slave labor in locales like the cobalt mines of the Congo. Not only that, but such investment in high tech presumes the automation of skilled and semiskilled labor, made degraded and cheap and intensely surveilled. Moreover, the premise that new machine technology will eliminate the need for workers is belied by the growth of the global working classes by two to three billion people over the last two decades.

Utopias about the liberation from work — a life of perpetual leisure as a perverse form of salvation — are overshadowed by forebodings. Movies, television dramas, novels, and graphic novels, not to mention prophesies grounded in the social sciences, are rife with anxieties about the lobotomized worker, surveilled, medically rearranged, the drone-like object of elite manipulation. Put simply, these might be seen as the cultural offspring of that ballyhooed transition to cognitive capitalism.

Yet what at first blush promised to open up a pathway to labor’s empowerment, brain work, has turned into its opposite. Under the reign of private property and capital accumulation, the new knowledge worker needed to be resubordinated and the domains of common knowledge commodified, privatized, and monopolized if possible. The brave new world of the knowledge worker is as programmed as anything dreamed up by Frederick Taylor. Declarations of independence, inscribed on the banners of techno-futurists, conceal an updated form of proletarianization.

Moreover, this techno future has its human collaborators toiling away in human resource management departments, who, in the words of one analyst, are like “extraterrestrials who plan on harvesting mankind,” perfecting their science to detect and eliminate the pathologies of employees unable to adjust. Dystopia is instead the reality. There the worker gets mined and monitored and risks losing a sense of self.

The rehabilitated corporation looms as an opaque but omniscient and forbidding presence. Lacquered on the outside with disarming good will, master of banal bloviations about self-fulfillment, its dystopian dark side is up to no good. To the extent that this latest wave of idealized Progress, cognitive capitalism, colonizes all of life, where everyone at all times (not just at work) is a producer of capitalized information, today’s dystopia expands the reach of proletarianization into realms both infinite and intimate.

All this amounts to Progress with a vengeance. Once inspirational, now drained dry, or worse, Progress has become a threat: not so much a promise of a different future, but like what we already have, only more so.

Who Killed the Future?

The future has a history. It was born several hundred years ago. It was like the emergence of a sixth sense; that there was a time and place when and where the unfamiliar would get invented, where nature would reveal all her secrets, where the powers of mankind would exfoliate without end, when social antagonisms would fade away, became part of the warp and woof of what we call modernity.

True, even in its formative life, the future revealed its dark side: a furtive intimation that something of value might be left behind in the wake of Progress. For some, like Benjamin, the dark side of Progress was its only side. Industrial capitalism had turned that intimation into a harrowing reality. Still, the future showed remarkable stamina, thanks first to the creative destruction of the bourgeoisie, with the torch was passed to the revolutionary proletariat.

But even the most sanguine among them knew Progress was hardly assured. Lenin, for example, recognized that there was no situation from which capitalism could not escape, find a solution. Crisis might lead to a new capitalism, to socialism, or a new barbarism of mutual destruction. Marx himself reckoned with the possibility: “Barbarism reappears, but created in the lap of civilization itself, and belonging to it, hence leprous barbarism, barbarism as the leprosy of civilization.”

Who are the torchbearers now? Might it again be the working classes?

Today, the missionaries are silent. This could be the plaint of an aging baby boomer. Indeed, my generation (or rather that fragment of it caught up in the turmoil of the ’60s) might have been the last one to believe in the future. In the most basic terms, they were heirs to the New Deal’s reconfiguring of capitalism; 90 percent would earn more than their parents (a percentage that has been halved for subsequent age cohorts, according to Fintan O’Toole in the New York Review of Books).

So the future beckoned. However, the New Left and the wider cultural universe in which it was nurtured was by no means revolutionary, or even socialist, by and large. Still, it felt compelled to imagine some kind of alternative to the bureaucratic-administrative welfare and warfare state, to its apartheid at home and imperialism abroad. Liberalism, and not just Cold War liberalism, was its enemy. Liberalism was not merely an ideology, but a way of life whose understructure was corporate capitalism. (How starkly different from the way things are now, when much of the putative left has spent years defending liberalism, in various forms, from the onslaughts of the Right).

Capitalism won. Even if one grants that upstart “boomers” envisioned a new way, it was a frail one, evanescent, and too enmeshed in the webs of competitive individualism and consumer culture that sustained the prevailing order. Capitalism had helped invent the future. Then it killed it.

The murder did not happen all at once, nor by design, however; it was administered without forethought and functioned more like a slow-acting poison. And if capitalism, in its distinctive neoliberal form, was the culprit, it had many accomplices.

What is commonly referred to as neoliberalism might better be characterized from a materialist standpoint as the era of deindustrialization and disaccumulation, as an asset-bubble economy with little in the way of productive investment. Arguably such a prolonged economic devolution dictated a politics of retrogression.

Deindustrialization was not only destructive but demoralizing. Whole ways of life went under. Industries, unions, towns, churches, fraternal societies, main-street businesses, local hospitals, schoolhouses, community centers, movie theaters, and dozens of social gathering places from restaurants to bowling alleys all died away or lingered on as ghostly remains. Beginning in the late 1990s, what one book has called “deaths of despair” became an epidemic. These fatalities from suicides, or suicides by drugs and alcohol-saturated livers, occurred disproportionately among middle-aged white people, those supposed beneficiaries of Progress: mainly working class, lacking higher education, often out of work, fearful of new information-age technologies, downwardly mobile, coming from failed marriages and broken families and shrinking social support networks.

A shuttered anthracite coal breaker in Ashley, Pennsylvania. ( John Morgan / Wikimedia Commons)

Capacities to resist, the labor movement especially, became defensive, narrow, and withered. Both governing parties did their part to either undermine the labor movement in the case of the Republicans, or to abandon it in favor of the marketplace in the case of the Democrats.

Every other instance of resistance failed as well. What one author has depicted as the “Subversive Seventies,” citing local uprisings from France and Italy to Turkey and Argentina, are barely remembered today. The worldwide demonstrations against the financial and commercial machinations of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization, inaugurated in Seattle in 1999, changed little. So too, the even more massive outcries against the war in Iraq.

Occupy, happening in the shadow of the Great Recession, seemed to signal a global uprising against “the system” (defined as a system of maldistribution). Yet it too expired quickly. True, it left behind an ongoing preoccupation with economic inequality that helped make Bernie Sanders a political icon. Nonetheless, insofar as envisioning a radically new future is concerned, the movement remained a captive of the past, no matter how welcome a serious economic leveling would be. And after all, Sanders lost, while overseas so too did Syriza in Greece, for a while the most exhilarating challenge to the Euro Banktocracy. The neoliberal order stayed the course, weakened, its mandarins perhaps a mite less confident, but upright.

Seattle, Sanders, the meteoric rise of a socialist movement in the United States, and political challenges to the global order elsewhere changed the zeitgeist, however. Anti-capitalism, off the agenda for more than a generation, found a voice. If the future is to come back to life, it may be nourished by energies unleashed by those upsurges, even in their defeats. Still, defeated, they were.

What more decisive way to obliterate any sense of a revolutionary future than to defeat and defeat again every instance of resistance to the way things are? After the June massacre of Parisian workers in 1848, George Sand despaired: “What is there to say? The future looks so dark that I feel a great desire and great need to blow my brains out. . . . I do not believe in the existence of a republic that starts out by killing its proletarians.” Nearly a century later, Bertolt Brecht would echo Sand: “We, too, are disappointed and / uncertain / To see our questions all still / open after fall of curtain.”

How better, through chastening defeat after defeat, to instill a mood of drear surrender to a grim, everlasting present? This would seem to be a rhetorical question. But it’s not. Something even more fatal than defeat infects our current state of affairs. It is rather the normal operations of the neoliberal order itself, apart from its triumphs over any external enemies, that generates a sense of stasis, of “this is the end.”

Famously this was announced by Francis Fukuyama in his The End of History and the Last Man bestseller, published in 1992: an epitaph for the deceased future. His pronouncement included a note of regret for the passing away of all the great passionate worldviews about the transcendent futures to come that had defined the modern West for centuries. It was, he noted with some melancholy, “a very sad time,” the end of worldwide ideological struggles that called for “daring, courage, and imagination.” But pass away they had; emphatically so with the collapse of the Soviet Union shortly before the book came out. Liberal democracy had proved itself the answer to history’s riddle about the fate of humanity.

What questions remained were essentially technical and managerial in nature. All parties could now agree on this, including those one-time bastions of social democracy, like the New Deal Democratic Party in the United States. They were complicit in erecting a political sphere cleansed of disturbing questions about the nature of the social order. Adjustment, stabilization, tinkering with this fiscal mechanism or that monetary flow, raising or lowering the social safety net, took over the substance and language of politics, draining it of any deeper meaning.

President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair talking on telephones at the UK Foreign Ministry, May 18, 1998. (Ralph Alswang / White House Photograph Office via Wikimedia Commons)

Liberalism, as it morphed into neoliberalism, had betrayed itself by abandoning the future. As Christopher Lasch pointed out decades ago, this entailed giving up on its own humanist tradition, its point d’honneur and the basis of its legitimacy in favor of an ill-kept promise to deliver the goods. It had become its own refutation; at once cheering on an extremist individualism, wreaking havoc here, there, and everywhere in the name of freedom, while simultaneously bemoaning the loss of community and the family that its own imperatives made inevitable.

Except for the players in this charade, everyone else took a pass, went AWOL when it came to voting, to say nothing of those less passive forms of political participation. Neoliberal politics was nonpolitical. It had become narrow, mundane, and petty, insisted on change without drama. In a word, it was boring.

And boredom was the least of it. The cultural and psychological ramifications penetrated more intimate realms. Mark Fisher zeroed in on all the dead zones. Irony came to dominate style, tone, and mood, a distancing mechanism freezing critique in the womb. Cynicism trailed in its wake. Nominally at odds with the status quo, the outcome of this knowingness was a passive resignation.

Hip-hop mutated from alienation to incorporation, becoming a mirror image of capitalism’s dog-eat-dog world of winners and losers, brutal as any lean and mean corporate downsizing. The film industry displayed its elasticity, welcoming into its cinematic embrace the rising animosity against the evil corporation; movies made money by gesturing against capitalism. Street wisdom echoed that of the academy, the policy atelier, and the corridors of power; there is no alternative.

Reality itself seemed decayed, old, and senile. Escape could be found in nostalgia, in a yearning for the past, in a pastiche of images and myths that could, maybe, sedate the sense of impotence and loss, the creepy feeling that the future had been canceled. Romantic transcriptions of earlier liberated moments (the ’60s particularly) worked as cathexes dulling the ache of failure. (The Occupy movement at the University of California Santa Cruz campus issued a “communique from an absent future.”)

On the emotional plane, neoliberal undercurrents pervaded the self by feeding on desires that predated its political hegemony. The self-reliant individual, work as redemptive yet unbound from rigid scheduling, frustration with corrupt government, egalitarian anxieties gratified by meritocracy, resentment about freeloaders, primordial yearnings for propertied independence through collateralized mortgages: all this amounting to falling in love with the oppressor perhaps, yet at the same time compelled to succumb to the stresses of cognitive capitalism, its chronic anxiety, fears, fixations on work, its relentless competitive drives, social isolation, and narcissism.

A revivified entrepreneurial ambition powered the neoliberal universe, producing, however, a pervasive sense of risk, of imminent failure that conduced to chronic self-scrutiny and bouts of depression. William Gibson, in his novel Pattern Recognition, aptly observed: “We have no future because our present is too volatile. The only possibility that remains is the management of risk.” If the future existed, it was to be feared.

And in such precarious times, the natural-enough response has been to restore the security of the past (such as it was). Is this the dialectic of our moment, filled as it has become with insurgent revolutionary stirrings on the Left not seen for more than a generation? Is it to be the New Deal 2.0? Marx’s oft-quoted remark from the Eighteenth Brumaire seems to apply:

The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.

Irving Howe, of all people, once characterized the leadership of the old Socialist Party, as it was enfolded by Roosevelt’s New Deal, this way: “Their minds still worked, but their imaginations had closed down.” Some on the Left are content or resigned to be so enfolded; others not so much. What is fondly remembered as the “Sanders bump” channeled an urge for socialism. Is there a transitional platform (to borrow an old notion), a transitional form of social consciousness, an alternative to a comatose belief in Progress that meets that urge?