The Revolution is Dead (For Now)

15 03 2011

There aren’t any revolutionaries any more. The closest contemporary figure I can muster from the cloudy reaches of my imagination who might qualify as a revolutionary is Julian Assange. Certainly he’s an original thinker, far more so than most people these days.

But even Assange’s revolution is incremental, if profound. He a seeks to change the landscape of democracy without necessarily wiping the slate clean entirely. His is not a prescriptive vision of a better world, but a solution to the ills of this one, underpinned by a conviction about the particular nature of corruption – or, as he calls it, ‘conspiracy.’

So where are the true revolutionaries? Where are the visionaries with a compelling view of a better world, one for which we ought to fight to bring into reality? Who’s thinking beyond the contingencies of this world to the possibilities of the next?

There was a time, not so long ago, when revolution was in common parlance and bold visions of a new world were talked about openly, debated, fought over and striven for. Only 40 years ago there was talk of building nothing less than a new civilisation.

What happened?

I think one answer is that the Baby Boomers grew up. They had their revolution, they won rights for women, they liberalised society, they threw off the yoke of tradition and stifling community sanction over their every action, they let slip consumer culture on the mainstream.

Then they bought property and simmered right down.

Then the 1980s happened. Postmodernism wrapped its (relatively) many tentacles around our culture, it further loosened the bonds of community commitment. It gutted art.

Art used to be not just a mirror on this world, causing us to reflect on the way our social history shapes our perception – thus subverting those in power who hope to tilt our perception to their own ends. That’s a useful function. But art also used to be a window through to another world.

Artists these days paint (or sculpt, or perform, or install, or whatever) the world as it is in its shocking ‘true’ (irony!) colours. Artists don’t paint the way the world ought to be any more.

Then, in another key twist, after the late-1970s recessions, the Boomers started to make money.

At the same time, the Right backlashed against the social liberalisation of the 1960s and 1970s, and the Regan/Thatcher individualism strolled right through the door opened for it by postmodernism, leading to a perverse unshackled Left liberal/insular Right individualism rolling on to hollow consumerism.

In some ways Fukuyama was right when he declared the End of History around that very time.

Generation X, if I can continue to generalise about entire generations – and I do love to – didn’t help by wearing their (our) apathy on their sleeve as their form of rebellion against those who came before.

A feeling of impotence, if not insouciance spread – inspired by social disintegration in cities in the 1980s (just look at depictions of the future made in the 80s: Back to the Future, Terminator, RoboCop etc – all bleak, riddled by crime and run by gangs), by fear of HIV (remember the grim reaper ad?), by fear of drugs (or fear instilled in us by the hypocritical Boomers who already had their fun), by fear of the hole in the ozone layer, by fear of recessions and lack of jobs, and by an overwhelming sense that politics was no longer serving us.

Generation X were never going to be the activists who’d rise up and change the world. Not that the Boomers would have let them if they tried; unlike X, at least the Boomers outnumbered their forebears.

Generation Y couldn’t give a rats arse about revolution. They were too busy turning inwards, running along the late-Boomers’ achieve-earn-consume-wilt-achieve-earn-consume-wilt hedonic treadmill that was laid out before them. Generation Y are more socially aware, more socially liberal (on some issues, like acceptance of multiculturalism or homosexuality) and more environmentally conscious than previous generations – but they were neck deep in the Right myth of meritocracy, achievement, free market, aspiration and individual-over-community.

Generation Y were never going to be activists.

Also, drugs changed over the last couple of decades. Boomers took drugs for entertainment, but they also took them for insight. LSD is probably the best example. LSD isn’t a thigh-slapper of a drug. It’s a noodle scratcher. It forces you to look at the world through radically different eyes. Yet, uncannily, it leaves your cognitive function largely unimpeded.

And when you return to solid ground, you realise that the way you’ve looked at the world all along – the way the world appears ‘normally’ – is just one way the world can appear to be. Just beyond that normality is a radically different world, with radically different experiences. Yet that’s just as much this world as is the ‘normal’ world.

Drugs today are recreational tools. Generation Y don’t take LSD. They take party drugs. They don’t enter altered states to reflect. They get smashed. And in doing so, they wed themselves to normality.

And so people stopped thinking big.

The only ones thinking about what the future might look like, and how it ought to look, are futurists. That’s a terrifying thought. The last people I want directing the vision of humanity are those who seek to transform humanity into something else to placate their irrational fears of aging and mortality.

Philosophers don’t think about the future. They’re too busy arguing about problems posed by men long dead in a world long past.

Scientists don’t think about the future. They’re told not to be prescriptive, only to describe the world as it is. Let the market and funding bodies decide what research gets done.

No-one else thinks about the future any more.

Take science fiction, that barometer of a culture’s visions of itself projected on its visions of the future. Science fiction in the mid-20th century used to explore the bounds of the possible. It used to experiment with ideas, build worlds unlike ours, but simulacra of our own. It would rarefy one aspect of our culture, society, politics, psychology, and it would drive it to its limits. It would challenge us to look again at our own world.

And possibly most importantly, it would remind us that the world needn’t be the way it is. The world could be many ways, and ours is just one. And we’ve chosen to make it this way. If that’s true, then we can choose to make it another way. LSD lite.

It was like an implicit Overton Window, shifting the realm of the possible and bringing it within the bounds of our imagination, forcing us to place our own ‘normal’ in relief against the ‘possible.’

Then, in the 1980s, science fiction changed. Instead of starting with what we knew and fiddling with what we didn’t to create new plausible worlds, it started buggering around with reality to create impossible worlds. That’s fantasy. And when the bounds of the real no longer apply, it retreats away from challenging us and into sculpting itself so as to push our buttons: action, love, drama, robots.

Science fiction stopped being challenging and became entertaining. The shift from 2001 to Star Wars – or even more pronounced, the shift from the lofty Star Trek to vacuous Star Trek – is profound. They all have spaceships, but they’re entirely different genres.

Our Overton Window today is horrifically narrow. We look at the world and we see it as normal. We look around and think ‘this is the way it is, therefore this is the way it ought to be’. And where we do venture to hope for change – such as around climate change – we’re continually reminded how powerless we are. Thanks largely to Baby Boomers.

After all, it was the Boomers who consumed science fiction in their youth, thought wildly about the way the world could be, then striped science fiction of all its meaning when they became its producers in the ’70s and ’80s.

Where will tomorrow’s revolutionaries come from? Perhaps they’re among us right now. Perhaps the children of the 2000s will look at the world differently. They won’t have the Baby Boomers looming over them in positions of power, squirreling away wealth and property, resisting change, entrenching their now largely complacent worldview.

But they will live with the legacy of the Baby Boomers: crippling debt, depleted natural resources, post-peak oil, unsustainable economics and a changing climate will be constant reminders of the imprint left by the most influential generation of humans the world has ever seen.

Perhaps Generation Z, or whatever they’re called, will be the ones to ask ‘why is the world this way, and not that way?’

Maybe they’ll start taking LSD again.

One thing of which I’m confident is that they’ll be thoroughly unimpressed by the current political spectrum. We’re currently shackled with two 20th century parties – one rooted in socialism and tied to unions, one a fractious coalition of regressive social conservatives and rabid free marketeers – neither of which embraces the new political norm: socially progressive; economically free-market; tempered by socially-aware regulation; and committed to sustainability and combating climate change.

Some time soon, we’ll get 21st century parties. And given the appalling state of party politics in Australia, the United States and Britain at the moment, it could come sooner than we think.

But who’s talking about a new two- or three-party spread? Who’s going to stand up and create the new parties?

I have no doubt there are many visionary people who yearn for a different political spread. But mere mention of starting a new party is struck down with derision more often than embraced.

It’s almost like we’ve forgotten where political parties come from: us. A political party is an institutionalised expression of collective will bundled under a common identity. We can make them however we damn please. Yet we don’t. But that won’t last forever. The Overton Window will be forced open on that notion soon enough.

I can only hope that there’ll be revolutionaries again. That’s not to say I want a revolution in the Marxist sense. I don’t want a blind rush to an unstable utopia. But I do want fresh thinking. Fresh ideas about the way the world could be.

This really isn’t the End of History. We’re only just coming out of the shadow of the 20th century. And the 21st century will end looking radically different from the end of the 20th. We’re not powerless in shaping that world. We just need some revolutionary thinkers to help guide the way.

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6 responses

16 03 2011
Paul

What about neo-misogynists like Roissy in D.C? Isn’t it possible to have a nihilistic hedonism that attempts to ground itself in evolutionary psychology? While it isn’t a political revolution, it might be slowly transforming the relationships between the sexes in the Western world. Neil Patrick Harris basically portrays a character who subscribes to such a worldview in a popular sitcom in the U.S.(How I Met Your Mother). Perhaps there is a slow movement away from egalitarian assumptions, especially in the U.S. as the cultural gap between the upper middle class and the rest widen, with the upper middle class remaining more or less patriarchical in family structure and everyone else in the U.S. becoming matriarchical. An explicitly held belief in the inequality between different humans and different groups of humans would be the natural next step of the meritocracy farce.

16 03 2011
Senexx

Thought I’d check you out since I agree with you on Thorium. I come at it all from a different philosophical angle (hard for me to elucidate) but your point about Science Fiction & particularly Star Trek is well taken. Gene Roddenberry kept up with cutting edge technology. The communicators in TOS & not long after we had mobile/cell phones. That’s exactly what the communicators were based on.

One is Science Fiction, the other is Fantasy. Just as Star Wars was always fantasy, well at least until the holo-phone was really invented.

16 03 2011
Jeremy

Interesting article, but your inclusion of Back To The Future in the list of 1980s movies depicting a grim future is incorrect. Back To The Future 2 (the one that deals with the future) depicts a cool technological advanced society. However after Biff steals the almanac and goes back in time and gives it to himself the movie predicts a grim present, ruled by gangs etc. :P

16 03 2011
Lance Brown

Hi Tim,

Interesting blog post. I think you make a lot of good points about why revolutionary energies have been running low overall during our lifetimes. It’s hard to argue with most of it. I certainly agree that the two-party stranglehold is a critical disability on the road to any sort of real revolution.

But just for the record, I am an actual revolutionary, as per your criteria. (Generation X, for what it’s worth.) It’s listed in my Twitter profile and everything. ;-)

I’m between cycles in terms of actually being out revolutionizing right now–in my last cycle, I ran for president, and fought against the FBI’s Carnivore and the PNAC, among other things–but I’m definitely not done. Just preparing. I even have the pre-seeds of that “21st Century party” you’re talking about (http://greenliberty.org).

So don’t give up hope–or thanks for not entirely giving up hope, I should say. I can’t make any promises myself–once you have a failed presidential campaign, you tend to back off on the huge promises–but I can say that I’m trying. And I know I’m not the only one.

Be well, be free,
Lance Brown

27 03 2011
GTChristie

And now to the point of your post, a comment that falls into the category of Pet Theory rather than analysis:

I am a boomer who (for various reasons) went to University with both my own generation (briefly) and Generation X (extensively). U.S. boomers in our teen years were exposed to a steady drumbeat of “mind-liberating” input: a literary curriculum full of Nietzsche, William Golding, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Catcher in the Rye, Beat poetry, Rousseau’s “natural man,” Existentialism (lite) and a hundred other points of emphasis apparently intended to shake us out of our parents’ middle-class complacency tree (all the more ironic since that “complacency” was rather artificial, perhaps merely a longing for “normalcy” influenced by the traumas of 1930s Depression and WWII). And then we’d go home and watch the Lone Ranger on TV. Schizoid disconnect. In addition, we were very young when JF Kennedy was shot, a little older when ML King and RFK were shot, just old enough to serve in Vietnam, and just old enough to suspect that most of what we were taught to believe about history in general was bullshit. Add to that a Bob Dylan soundtrack, some pot, LSD and a bunch of hormones, and what came out in us (pet theory here) was a generation willing to create a “revolution” consisting mostly of hedonism: sex, drugs, rocknroll, power to the people, question everything, and “be authentic.” The real me is a selfish me and since everything that tells me otherwise is probably bullshit, I’m going to roll another one. Hedonism it was, despite Lasch’s exposition calling us narcissists, which after all is not much different from hedonism anyhow, except more self-conscious. LOL. Now, if our “revolution” went off the rails anywhere, this same hedonism explains that too: after sowing the hugest bunch of wild oats since Adam and Eve begat 6 billion people in 6000 years, we graduated from university and began, belatedly to nest. And by the time we were old enough to actually occupy the offices of power, selfishness ruled the day: I’m getting mine the old-fashioned capitalistic way, my morality is pure sentiment and so is my economics, and may my children be better for it. By contrast, Generation X is an echo of most of this, but more alienated. They do not fall for the commercials, and they really understand bullshit better than we did. Now the Millennials, our children, you will find, are boomlets with the intriguing characteristic that they are fairly good philosophers, don’t take their hedonism too seriously, network like crazy, move the world with a tweet, and are getting ready to stomp the living poop out of complacency, entrenchment, corruption, and piety once and for all. And for illustration, let us simply look at the Arab Spring, which is wound around youth at a depth not seen since the boomer days — I fantasize that this is a movement of Millennials and their teachers … the boomers. I would submit that my generation has learned that our hedonism was (should I say this in an ethics blog?) wrong. The most cynical boomers have raped the system by applying hedonistic “values” to Wall Street and bankrupted the world. And those of us who really were hippies in an age gone by — I mean the real-life commune people who were actually apolitical hedonists back in the day — are seething now and about to vote Green (LOL) instead of “party politics” for the first time in 50 years. Or so my high horse says.

–GC

27 03 2011
Tim Dean

Fascinating insight. Wonderful to hear a boomer perspective that helps shed light on my own Pet Theory.

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