The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Let Us Speak of Hope for the Future

dawnI am on the record as having very little use for hope. Barack Obama’s campaign cemented my view, with lots of talk of “hope and change,” centered around a politics which was going to be neoliberal centrist at best. And that’s what it was.

Hope, like optimism and pessimism, is not realism. I am hopeful when there is reason to be hopeful, and not when there isn’t reason to be hopeful.

Regular readers know my baseline scenario: We are in for a world of hurt, having failed to deal with climate change until beyond the point of no return. This is added to the radical mismanagement of the economy due to neoliberalism, ecosphere collapse, radical depletion of aquifers, and so on. Technology is enabling (and already has created much of) a radical dystopic panopticon such as the world has never seen.

Nonetheless, I see reasons for hope. Oh, sure, a billion or more, way more, deaths are baked into the cake. They’re going to happen, the only question is how large the number.

But neoliberalism is dying.

I will state that in ten to fifteen years, maximum, almost no states will still be running based on neoliberal policies or ruled by neoliberal parties.

Neoliberalism has failed, and it is seen to have failed, by the younger generations and even much of the older ones. As demographics shift, as the old die and retire, neoliberalism will no longer be viable.

The future belongs to the populist right and left, and to those who are willing to stomp the boot hard. Yes, there’s been boot stomping already, but, in the first world, it has been mild compared to what will be needed to maintain control.

Humans are a wasting asset. As we move to autonomous fighting robots and to other forms of true automation, our lords and masters will be willing to give up much of the consumer society or will run it as a vast welfare gulag.

Do not be surprised to see basic income enacted, and to find that it has made your life little better, but is used as a way to keep customers viable, since our leaders will not know what to do with humans they don’t need to work. Oh, some work will always be available, and, yes, we could transition to other types of work, but I don’t believe our lords and masters have the imagination to manage that.

But there is a window and there is a chance. First, there is a window before the autonomous robots become very effective. Second, there is a chance they will be good for ordinary people: I am not convinced, at all, that autonomous robots are the weapon of the powerful. If micro-robots are easy to make, and I bet they will be, easy enough so that ordinary people can make them, they may turn out to be a vastly democratizing force.

After an era of terror, that is. Defending against small autonomous robots will be almost impossible. They will move too fast for human reflexes; your gun will mean nothing. Even if you manage to kill one or a few, they will come in swarms.

No one will be safe unless they completely bunker down, and maybe not even then.

Ages of assassination are terrible, but they can also lead to ages of mass prosperity. When you can’t physically stop someone from killing you, your only other option is to make it so they don’t want to kill you.

And that means people who are basically happy and enjoy their lives. Hopefully, they have someone in their lives to love. A man or woman in love, who is also prosperous and secure, does not try to assassinate people.

But the age of true automation also offers the possibility of utopia, of a sort. Most jobs suck, and most people would rather not work at sucky jobs. An age of abundant free time, if we can learn to handle the ecological catastrophe we have caused, is definitely possible.

We face great crises and changes, but out of them we have the opportunity to create a new society which is based on abundant free time, where humans are not slaves to jobs they hate. Our demographics and our politics are moving towards a new generation which wants radical change. That change could go very wrong, and in some countries it will, but, equally, it could go very right.

There is hope in the rise of the far left, even as there is fear in the rise of the far right. There is hope in the rise of the new automating technologies, even as there is fear that humans might be made obsolete.

As for the ecological crisis, better we had avoided it, but the right is not wrong: Crises are opportunities. We will have to seize this one and see to it that what emerges from the ashes of our old society is a new one which is able to responsibly use technology to the benefit of all, where “all” includes not just humanity, but all life on Earth.

This is the right thing to morally, but it is also the right thing to do pragmatically.

So hope? Yes, there’s hope, unless we drive ourselves extinct. There’ll be terror and hardship along the way, but that is as it always has been.

The future is unknown and humanity can still choose.

So have hope, just be realistic about it. It’s going to be ugly, but there are possibilities along the way and on the other side.

It’s those that may be worth fighting for.

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  1. V. Arnold

    Hope? No thanks, I’ll pass.
    I lived with hope all my life until March 19, 2003; that is when I realized I’d been fooled and foolish most of my life.
    I’m a pessimist and content in my little corner of a peaceful country.

  2. Greg T

    This is well done. There is a fine line between cynicism and hopelessness on the one hand and excessive optimism on the other. Extremes are not desirable; too much pessimism inhibits action and may bring about that which is most undesirable. To ouch optimism fails to account for the flaws in a system, so the necessary course corrections are ignored.
    Europe is in open revolt against neoliberalism. Americans are too. Elites have no answers for popular grievances. They disregard signals that a functional system would take seriously.

    As more people are excessed from inclusion in this system, the pressures to destroy it will become unbearable. In that failure lies opportunity.

  3. Tom W Harris

    At this point I’m 73 and damn glad of it.

  4. Ian Welsh

    You will likely win the Death bet Tom. 🙂

  5. Mnemosyne

    Thank you, Ian.

    I’d write more in response to this excellent piece, but I had to throw down today while being harassed by three groups of white supremacist Trump supporters: one a group of veterans, the other some ignorant college kids, the last, some neighbors. (If I die anytime soon, this life has certainly been interesting.) A body can only take so much before, you know, it’s had it up to H E R E. At least I’ve left little room for any more misinterpretation of my politics.

    Yo, white people, get it, m’kay: Black Lives Matter. Brown Lives Matter. The end. Do not be an apologist for genocide and white supremacy. Do. Not.

    They are only making me stronger.

    Bless you very much. Hope exists.

  6. As someone who has lost the death bet, it must be nice.

  7. V. Arnold

    What the hell is a death bet?

  8. someofparts

    it means we will die before the bad times arrive

    I can’t think of a time in my life when I wasn’t someone’s stereotype
    No reason my dotage should be any different

    could you and your wife use a dottering housekeeper V. Arnold?
    I speak English with an amusing southern accent

  9. >What the hell is a death bet?

    Shame on you! Ian is still on the 2nd page.

  10. Dan Lynch

    “neoliberalism is dying. I will state that in ten to fifteen years, maximum, almost no states will still be running based on neoliberal policies.”
    Neoliberalism is stronger than ever. It’s working extremely well for the ruling class. Viable? Neoliberalism is viable for the elites, and that’s all that matters. The US is a plutocracy. The average citizen has no meaningful say in policy.
    The ruling class will not simply go away. Change comes only after 1) collapse or 2) war or revolution. If I had to choose the most likely path to change, I would bet on war. But mostly I bet on inertia, that the existing system will continue plodding along.

  11. V. Arnold

    July 13, 2016
    could you and your wife use a dottering housekeeper V. Arnold?

    Oh boy could we. But we can only afford a maid every 2 weeks.
    Do you have a bachelor degree in anything? You can teach English, speaking and listening (no grammar), for a very handsome wage, as a native speaker of English (even with a southern accent).
    Seriously, employment is possible and benefits (cheap health insurance).

  12. The future belongs to the populist right and left? There is no “populist left.” What used to be the populist left is what were called “conservatives” in my politically active days, arguing for maintenance or intensification of the status quo: preservation of Social Security, preservation and expansion of Medicare, a return to cheap/free college education…

    Not that I have any bone to pick with the arguments, but what worked for a population of 150 million is not going to work for a population of 500 million, which is not far away. Original thinking is needed to cope with a whole new paradigm in social construct, and all we can come up with is putting gold trim on systems that were designed three generations ago for a population half the size of today’s.

  13. RJMeyers

    A fictional version of a future where neoliberal technocrats take over the world with robots and universal surveillance amid ecological collapse is Neal Asher’s Owner trilogy. The author has libertarian politics, so his main character and ideal society are pretty crap, but the dystopian world he creates is in line with what you’ve written above.

  14. Sluggo

    I have to agree with Dan Lynch- neoliberalism is as strong as ever. Sure, it’s facing some challengers in Europe, and less so in America, but it’s still the dominant ideology, if you can even call it an ideology.

    Neoliberalism is woven into every institution in America today. The chief empress of neoliberalism is about to be elected. The Democrats are overrun with neoliberals at the top, and its supporters don’t even know what it is but they sure as hell support it. Just because young people gave Bernie a surge, I’m not convinced that translates into future socialism.

    Ian, this is one of your weaker pieces. Generally, you stick to reality, but now you’re sounding a lot like one of those techno libertarian buffoons in San Francisco. Will technology free up work? Yes, but it will leave a huge swath of the population unemployable. Training for new jobs is not going to happen because it never happens and there are not enough upper jobs for the unemployable. Basic minimum income? It will only work if they confiscate the wealth of the wealthy (not going to happen) and make sure it’s large enough to keep people content (approximately $70,000 a person).

    Maybe things will get better, but not before there is a violent struggle for the soul of future humanity. And right now neoliberals are winning and it’s not even close.

  15. XFR

    With hope like this, who needs despair?

  16. Ivory Bill Woodpecker

    XFR wins the thread.

  17. Invictus

    The expansion of the internet of things is part of Hillary Clinton’s platform. Everything will be linked together and there will be no escape from the Hayekian web of control.

    “For years, Hillary has fought to deliver connectivity to all Americans. As President, she will finish the job of connecting every household in America to high-speed broadband, increase internet adoption, and help hook up anchor institutions so they can offer free WiFi to the public. Hillary will also take action to help America widely deploy 5G technology—the next generation wireless service that will not only bring faster internet connections to underserved areas, but will enable the Internet of Things and a host of transformative technologies.”


  18. Ian Welsh

    Lot of people are as determined to believe there is not chance of anything good, as much as many others are determined to believe that the future is grand.

    Who knows, maybe either set is right.

    But, barring stone age/extinction, there’ll probably be some good stuff.

  19. kj1313

    I agree with Ian that there is hope amid the neoliberal Hydra that has enveloped the Western nations. 8 years ago we wanted a progressive savior and but a neoliberal con artist was elected instead and this election cycle is a direct result of that. People are angry and the tone deafness of the elites will only make an untenable situation worse. Right now the young (whom either is/or will be the largest voting block) are still optimistic. Wait a few years when they get angry, then things will get interesting.

  20. Synoia

    All this “robots” and “internet of things” requires two parts, which are not in super abundance:

    1. Electrical Energy (and batteries, and battery material).

    2. Internet speed, universal availability and Security (as in internet security). – Please do not posit Radio as an internet carrier unless you know to what Shannon’s Law refers.

  21. Tony Wikrent

    I can understand the rejection of the idea that there is no hope. But I have to wonder if people who so readily reject any idea of hope are really familiar with history. Reading through the comments, I was reminded of something I wrote back in March 2008, about how the nomination of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 was engineered by David Davis (who Lincoln later appointed to the Supreme Court).

    In particular, I recalled the story told by a delegate from Kansas, where bloody fighting had already been going on for nearly four years. This delegate relates the lat night visits that occurred during the convention The person to focus on is Cassius M. Clay, a planter from Kentucky who became one of the most prominent anti-slavery crusaders in the South before the war. Note that Clay is fully expects the nation to plunge into civil war, and that the cost is going to be terrible. But also note that Clay recognizes that there are certain things that can be done, which will provide hope — HOPE for an eventual victory. I have the same kind of hope today. I tell people I am pessimistic short term, but optimistic long term. Because there will be hundreds of millions who will die over the next decade or so, who did not have to. But humanity has always found a way to survive. And in the inestimable strength of humanity’s urge to survive, I find hope. Conservatives and neo-liberals will be buried under the scorn and opprobrium they deserve st some point. Not sure when, but it is inevitable, simply because humanity will survive only by rejecting their ideas.

    First warning of impending war
    Addison G. Proctor, a delegate from the embattled Territory of Kansas, described how his delegation was visited by “a group of about 30 of as resolute a looking body of men as I had ever seen” from the border states, led by Cassius M. Clay of Kentucky, a captain in the Mexican War, who started an abolitionist newspaper in Lexington, and was beaten and nearly killed in a confrontation with a pro-slavery gang. Clay dramatically told the Kansans, “Gentlemen, we are on the brink of a great civil war and we want you to know that the South is preparing for war. If the man that you nominate should be elected on the platform you have already adopted, the South will attempt the destruction of this Union. On your southern border, stretching from the east coast of Maryland to the Ozarks of Missouri, there stand today a body of resolute men who are determined that this Union shall not be dissolved except at the end of a terrible struggle in resistance.” Noting that “Our homes and all we possess are in peril, we realize just what is before us,” Clay demanded that the Kansans support the nomination of the man “who will inspire our confidence and our courage,” Abraham Lincoln.

    “You give us Lincoln,” Clay declared, “and we will push back your battle lines from the Ohio — right at your doors — back across the Tennessee into the regions where it belongs . . . . Do this for us and let us go home and prepare for the conflict.”

    “Here was a new issue,” Proctor recalled 40 years later, “just at a psychological moment, when everyone realized that something unusual had to happen. Up to this time it had been ‘how shall we keep slavery out of the territories?’ Now it was the question ‘how shall we make sure to preserve this Union?'”


  22. Pllbbth

    Just read this again. Have you read Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last?

    I had nothing at all to do with inspiring her creation of that there spiffy novel. Nothing at all. Really.

    I used to love Twitter.

  23. The people who reject hope have simply finger out they are going to see an of it.

  24. V. Arnold

    Tony Wikrent
    July 14, 2016

    Could it be precisely because of history, that hope is rejected?
    If nothing else, history is cyclic, and it would seem important where, in any given cycle, one finds oneself.
    Today, it would seem we’re in a cycle of decline across the board (on all fronts). And humans are facing the destruction of their environment by their own hand, unlike anything in their relatively short history; and it cannot be emigrated away from, as in, the last ice age.

  25. Mcmike

    I might have gotten excited about the ideo of micro ai robots as a democratizing event, until i realized that was also said of the internet, which turned into a tool for mass surveilance and consumerism.

    Come to think of ir, not even a massively armed if not very well regulated militia turned out to be protection from tyrany

  26. charlie

    Regarding the death bet, things are so bad for some of us now that I believe I will win the death bet. And I’m “only” 49.

    I like to believe there is some hope, and repeatedly attempt to expound on an alternative ideology, but that hope is not for me.

  27. generationclerk

    Possibilities along the way? Kind of like in the movie SPEED where the passengers jump to another vehicle? My cohort is captive on this bus to critical capitalism, wired to detonate by old men that want their money. The only problem is that beyond the door there is no alternative ride. Instead, there is a social services crew running behind the bus with shovels to scrape up jumpers.

  28. Completely bonkers, Ian! How can extermination committed by robots we can’t control lead to mass prosperity? We will all be dead by then.

    I still don’t really know what you mean by ‘neoliberalism’. If you mean the laws of nature subgroup economics then I would have to observe that mankind has never been stronger than nature itself and will never be. Understand and apply it, like technology applies science; don’t fight it. In that regard I recommend Mervyn King’s book ‘The End of Alchemy’.

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