Changing How the World Thinks

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Rupturing the present

When and how will the future begin?

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If the future is a time that disappears as we approach it, how can we distinguish the future from the present? Only when we see a radical change both in the structures of society and consciousness can we say the future has begun. That change is born of the political tensions already embedded in our societies, argues Gerard Delanty. 


The modern concept of the future is an ‘open future’ - a horizon of possibilities that disappear as we approach them. But, with this conception, how can we decide when the future begins? Has it already started? Or is there no future at all?

We live in the era of the Anthropocene - the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment, generally thought to have begun after the great caesura of 1945. As we look into that horizon of possibilities, beyond the next thirty years, can we know when the next era will begin? Can we think beyond catastrophism?

If the future is not the present, it must be created when radically new interpretations of the present take root. This requires a transformation both of the structures of society and of the structures of consciousness – such a radical change could come about in three scenarios: transition, collapse or transformation.

A radical change through transition suggests that the future will be structurally different from that which has gone before. Think of the optimistic scenario of a post-capitalist future in which technology has freed people from oppressive work and exploitation (Mason 2016), or of a unified world in which the nation-state has vanished. Conversely, radical change through the total collapse of societal systems is dystopian thinking. There is clearly some basis for this - global warming probably will increase by 2 degrees in 30 years while the world’s population will increase by about 2 billion.  But it is doubtful that this will lead to planetary destruction in the next thirty years. The third scenario is the most realistic route to the future. It is neither a new kind of society nor the total collapse of humanity. It is the transformation of current developments. To imagine the future, we therefore need to pay closer attention to the nature and dynamics of current social structures.

To imagine the future, we need to pay closer attention to the nature and dynamics of current social structures.

Ruptures in the Present

So what are the tensions in the present day which could create such a rupture from the present and transport us into the future? We find that there are four tensions embedded in our current societies which have the potential to create such a radical change and to produce their own visions of the future.

Labour vs Capital

The first is the now-familiar conflict between labour and capital, derived from the historical struggles of the 19th century. This conflict was the main political cleavage in many societies for much of the 20th century and it produced the vision of a future society based on social justice. This was the old left versus old conservatism. Since the late 1970s, this conflict has dwindled both as a political and as a social movement, but its vision has not vanished. The struggle for social justice is still very much alive but it has entered into new domains and with very different scripts.

New Right vs New Left

The second societal conflict took shape with the rise of new social movements in the 1970s. The old left was challenged by cultural pluralism and the new questions it presented. At the core of the new left was an imagined future based on personal and collective autonomy. Cultural questions replaced or complicated the older social questions around class (see Fraser and Honneth, 2004). On the other side of the political spectrum, a new right wing emerged with neoliberalism and the new technocratic elites, united by a vision of the expanding free market and of a new, global age based on technocratic politics.

So it came about that, by the 1990s, the relatively sharp conflict between radicals and conservatives was diluted, leading to different expressions of radical and conservative politics. Two kinds of radicals clashed: neoliberal and technocratic elites versus the elites of the new left. The new left was not primarily driven by the old class politics, but by what Boltanski and Chiapello (2006) described as a cultural critique of capitalism. In this new conflict, feminism, human rights and environmentalism took central stage. The unity of the left was lost and, because the elites of the new right and new left shared a belief that globalization could deliver a better world, the old problem of equality was left unaddressed. Neo-nationalism stepped into that vacuum.

Cosmopolitanism vs Neo-nationalism

From the late 1990s, it became clear that a third societal tension was emerging, the conflict between cosmopolitanism and neo-nationalism. This grew over the next decade until, in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, a nativist reaction occurred against cosmopolitanism as well as the so-called establishment. It is now increasingly clear that cosmopolitanism is not only a politics of the new left but is also very attractive to the progressive elements within new right. On the other side, nationalism also cuts across both left and right, as the examples of Brexit and Trump show.

While recent literature often contrasts (right-wing) radical populism with liberal democracy, this leads to the mistaken view that the former is the contrary to democracy when in fact it has mostly been produced by democratic systems. It is best contrasted to cosmopolitanism, not least since this is the main rival of right-wing populism, which, in contrast, defends and defines itself as the protector of the nation against the dangers of the global world and the cosmopolitan elites.

While cosmopolitanism offered a clear vision of bright future, neo-authoritarian nationalism has no such vision. Today, cosmopolitanism, in its older guise at least, has lost its zeal and capacity to bring about major social transformation. There are some signs that neo-authoritarian nationalism, with the support of the alt-right, Putin and radical libertarians, is instead becoming a global force, though the nature of this alliance is such that it lacks a capacity to articulate a global vision of the future – especially now with the end of the Trump presidency. However, there is another way to look at the situation.

By looking into these recent social struggles, we find the forces of transformation which are likely to shape the future beyond the next thirty years

Eco-Politics vs Neo-Right Resistance

It is now becoming clear that there is a fourth societal conflict, one in which cosmopolitanism might again be able to articulate an imagined future. Contemporary Eco-Politics is no longer merely an oppositional political movement: there are signs of Eco-Politics taking on the character of a social movement championing the sustainability of human society itself. But, as climate politics is emerging as a major political force, so is resistance to it. This new societal conflict has Eco-Politics on one side and a re-aligned Neo-Right on the other, supported by climate change denial and the Alt-Right.

Eco-Politics can be seen as an expression of cosmopolitanism, but it presents a new and different vision that goes beyond an appeal to the global. Eco-politics seeks a more far-reaching goal: to re-orient the human, social world to the planetary scale of the earth. In doing so, it meets the resistance of what we can call the Neo-Right, which includes the Neoliberal right and the reactionary, neo-conservative right for whom eco-politics is by far the most radical challenge to the status quo. In fact, a re-alignment of the right can be seen in the alliance of climate change denial, neo-authoritarianism and neoliberalism, as reflected in the supporters of the Trump presidency. The central societal conflict today is not cosmopolitanism versus nationalism, but earth-based Eco-Politics vs the politics of the Neo-Right.

 By looking into these recent social struggles, we find the forces of transformation which are likely to shape the future beyond the next thirty years. These are more than political cleavages: they have the potential to bring about a fundamental transformation in the political and cultural structures of society, to lead to durable change. They are formative social movements with normative visions of the future.

The major social transformations of the present are not singular or predetermined paths. They involve significant struggles, the outcomes of which will shape the future. The current pandemic brings many of these currents together. It is, after all, a global force and one of the key aims for the future will be a more cosmopolitan response. And we already see the beginnings of a global, cosmopolitan response to this crisis, as well as to the ecological crisis, and, as reflected in the BLM movement, to social justice. In the midst of these tensions, perhaps it is the cosmopolitan vision of the future coupled with a new politics of nature which has the most potential to rupture our present era. 


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nancy long 13 January 2021

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Millie 12 January 2021

This gives me new respect for sociology - i think identifying the big moves in our society and the way it thinks is much more useful (and interesting) than granular research.