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.
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?
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.