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Living in Dystopian Times

3 Aug

[Prefatory Note: The text below is drawn from a talk given at the Spring Festival of the Arts in Beirut, Lebanon on 15 June 2017. Comments welcome]

 

Living in Dystopian Times

 

How can we understand the present unfolding world order, with special reference to its relevance for developments in the Middle East? In my view a fundamental reversal of political expectations has taken place that calls for a new assessment of what is going on, and where the region and the world seem to be heading. Twenty-five years ago there were three widely held beliefs about future trends on a global level: the assured preeminence of the United States; the continuing globalization of the world economy; and the expanding democratization of national governance arrangements. It was also assumed that these trends were more or less descriptive of regional realities, including the Middle East. Each of these trends that seemed so descriptive 25 years ago now seems to be completely out of touch with what is happening around us that is very disappointing when compared with earlier expectations, no where more so than in the Middle East. These disillusioning changes of perception are contributing to a growing anxiety about what the future portends for all of us.

 

In addition to these changes of expectation as to international behavioral patterns, there exist a cluster of deeper tensions that concern the very nature of the human condition, extending to challenges directed at the sustainability and quality of life on the planet. One unfortunate consequence of the preoccupation with these disturbing recent international political realities is much needed attention is diverted away from these more fundamental issues of an ecological, technological, and cultural character. As an American, I am especially conscious of the enormous and costly diversionary impact that the Trump presidency is having in weakening the understanding and planning needed if humanity is to have any realistic chance of coping with these emerging threats of great magnitude that have never been confronted in the past. The most serious menace posed by Donald Trump, who is most accurately regarded as the first right-wing populist tweeting demagogue of the digital age, is his extraordinary talent to shift the conversation from the awkwardly significant to the banal trivial. He is exerting a great influence on public discourse not only in America but in the world, especially by diluting our perceptions of crucial issues affecting the human species as a whole, including climate change as connected to the related decline of biodiversity, automation, robotics, artificial intelligence, and the destabilizing effects of these technologies of the digital age especially when applied to security arrangements and the broad spectrum of societal policies bearing on individual and collective human wellbeing.

 

Under the weight of these threats it is not surprising that a dystopian moment is beginning to dominate the cultural imagination. It discloses itself through a fascination with post-apocalyptic films and an interest in older literary dystopias such as Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale. These books that imagined a future that is in some respects our present are being widely read and discussed as if guidebooks to a set on conditions that were not anticipated. Within American political space the fragility of American democracy was prefigured in Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here as well in scary premonitions of the imminence of digital age fascism put forward in the recent radical feminist post-apocalyptic novel, The Book of Joan (2017), of Lidia Yuknavitch. Also indicative of the foreboding quality of the prevailing zeitgeist is a bestselling booklet that is a collection of identifying markers of tyranny by the prominent historian, Timothy Snyder, with a deliberately provocative title and a pedagogical rationale, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017).

 

This ‘dystopian moment’ is reinforced by the absence of positive scenarios of the future, and the dismissal of the utopian imagination as worse than irrelevant because it allegedly created receptivity to promises that when translated into political reality produce totalitarian nightmares. In effect, utopias, correctly understood, have themselves become in these dark times a disguised form of dystopia. A recovery of societal confidence is a key precondition of envisioning a better future. Its loss is one dimension of the crisis confronting humanity at this time, and these days such failures of moral and political imagination are generally overlooked in the public sphere that is obsessively focused on the latest daily episode in the Trump political soap opera.

 

Naomi Klein reminds us in a recent interview, “Trump is not the crisis but the symptom of the crisis.” The point is that we must make the effort to grasp the social and political forces that gave rise to Trump and Trumpism. Klein also insisted that the negativity of progressive thinking in recent decades has had little political traction because it fails to present a positive alternative to the angry negativity of right-wing populism that targets the established order. Klein’s new book has the title No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need. Her text impressively couples a necessary critique of Trump’s pernicious leadership with an affirmative vision of how to move the political process in emancipatory directions. Gilad Atzmon’s Being in Time argues we are living in a post-political atmosphere dominated by money and finance that have made neither the political left nor right possessing the capability to reconnect social experience with the most crucial realities of the lifeworld.

 

I am aware that depicting the challenges facing society in this sweeping way will strike many as being out of touch with the more immediate urgencies and concerns of those living here in Beirut, and for that matter, or anywhere among the devastated and collapsing ‘failed states’ of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as many other parts of the world. I acknowledge reflecting my own engagement with the stressful situation in the United States associated with the early months of the Trump presidency, and its wider implication for the future, taking note of its drift toward the apocalyptic precipice of nuclear war on the one side and catastrophic climate change on the other side. Particularly relevant is Trump’s own incoherent worldview that combines a sociopathic and anachronistic nationalism with an arrogantly reckless repudiation of international responsibilities. Of course, such an outlook enjoys a supportive resonance in several parts of the world, including giving rise to a spontaneous bonding dynamic among the growing number of autocratic leaders that govern an increasing number of major countries.

 

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