Transcript| The Unborn Future, Lecture 1: 'Utopic Realism' by Todd Dufresne

Philosopher Todd Dufresne has written a three-part lecture series for IDEAS, entitled: Climate Change and the Unborn Future: Capitalism, Philosophy, and Pandemic Politics. He argues that the way we live needs a stem-to-stern overhaul — and a new philosophy of the Anthropocene to see the world with new eyes.

Part 1 of a 3-part lecture series, Climate Change and the Unborn Future: Capitalism, Philosophy, and Pandemic Politics

Climate change is caused by myriad events in the past, chief among them the way we produce, consume, and exchange wealth. In other words, climate change is in large part driven by economics.  

But when we speak generically of 'economics' we really mean some form of Western capitalism, which includes everything from early industrial capitalism to recent finance capitalism.  

While the many forms of capitalism are often quite different, the thread that links all of them together is something very basic: a commitment to perpetual growth.  Because capitalism is based on profits, and profits are a measure of growth.  This is why we still rely on GDP, or Gross Domestic Product, to measure overall economic health.  

Although the dogma of perpetual growth is today widely associated with political conservatism, it wasn't always so.  In fact, the possibilities of industrialization and mass production were once linked to the now-eclipsed ideals, utopic in many ways, of human freedom and political progressivism.  

As we face serial climate catastrophe today, we are therefore justified in posing a blunt question: how did the West flirt with utopia only to end up, less than 150 years later, with the entire world — all of it — on the verge of its opposite: fascism and ecological collapse? 

To answer this question I'm going to turn to a very particular moment in the recent history of Western economics: a handful of years into the "Long Depression" that began in 1873 and lasted until 1896.  

Originally referred to as the "Great Depression," this  first great international crisis of capitalism had a massive impact on America, Europe, and the United Kingdom. Such a bewildering economic depression was a calamity for working people, who bore the brunt of widespread deprivation, suffering, and death. But the global depression also proved to be a hothouse condition for rethinking everything about the way we live our lives.          

Consider an ideal witness to the industrial and economic conditions of the Long Depression — and to much more besides.  This witness makes a remarkable observation about his own place and time — namely, England about 25 years after the second industrial revolution and a few years in to the Long Depression.  

In a work of 1878, this witness claims that "social production" — loosely, factory work — had brought us to a point hitherto unknown to humanity. "This point," he says (and I'm quoting verbatim here), "now exists for the first time, but it does exist" (308-9). And then, in a footnote, he indicates a ready measure of this point's possibility: the great strides made in, quote: "the total wealth of Great Britain and Ireland." That wealth had quadrupled between 1814 and 1875.  
Now, before I reveal the identity of this ideal witness, I want to underline how easy it is to forget that, until the start of industrialization in the mid 1700s, the experiences of suffering, poverty, and inequality were the fate of much of humanity.  

Consider just one measure: life expectancy. While today the average global life expectancy is 73 years, in 1800 it was — want to guess? It was only 29. There was more than a 30 per cent chance that someone born in 1800 in the UK would die before reaching the age of five. In the United States it was almost 50 per cent. 

The advent of mass production, followed by the expansion of railway, telegraph, and petroleum-based networks after 1850, changed everything about our lives. Westerners began to imagine existence in new terms. Revolutionary terms.  

It's not just that some unpleasant work could be mechanized and automated, thus sparing us its mind-numbing drudgery.  And it's not just that we had achieved the once-unthinkable ability to feed, clothe, and house everyone, thus eliminating crushing, unavoidable poverty.  

It's more profound than that: for the first time in human history, the masses had developed the means to transcend their base existence — the days of their lives reduced to drinking and urinating, eating and defecating, working and sleeping, fornicating and dying — to become contemplative, self-conscious, cultural beings.  

As our ideal witness puts it: "Man finally cuts himself off from the animal world, leaves the conditions of animal existence behind him, and enters conditions which are really human" (309).  The name of our ideal witness is Friedrich Engels, best known for his connection to Karl Marx and to the ideal they championed, communism.  

Engels was not just a friend of Marx's, nor just another malcontent throwing stones from outside the palace walls.  Born the son of a wealthy industrialist, Engels was also a businessman, journalist, scholar, and keen observer of the economy; someone who lived precisely during the transition from the first Industrial Revolution to the second.  In short, he really was an ideal witness.  

So it was that thinkers like Engels could in the 19th century re-imagine the ancient dream of an ideal society as a lived, material, concrete reality.  Or rather, strictly speaking, they could imagine the human conditions of that reality.  

The term 'utopia' was of course coined by Thomas More in the 1500s and means — literally — a 'no-place' — a fiction along the lines of Plato's ideal republic of meritorious reason.  

It's also true that Engels rejected social utopias, from Saint-Simon to Robert Owen, as just more idealistic fantasies.  Yet Engels declares, decisively in italics, that the possibility for a radical new world does exist.  This possibility is real; it has a place and time.  

That's no doubt because it points to a utopia of the everyday, to a materialist utopia in the service of morality, freedom, and collectivism.  It was a point reached, already in 1878, when one could imagine a new society based on mass production and, along with it, a new kind of mass individual.

The timing of such radical optimism was hardly incidental, and not only because incredible wealth generation had made it possible.  Arguably, the very opposite condition — economic collapse — had actually made it necessary.  Throughout the 1800s, the economic boom and bust cycles were experienced by people like clockwork -- clockwork that at last culminated in the original Great Depression of 1873.  

These collective experiences of hardship amid plenty awakened thinkers and, it was presumed, would awaken the masses, too.  For capitalism had demonstrated its amazing capacity to create and destroy in equal measure, and progressive ideals arose precisely as a cry, not only against the inhumanity of it all, but against the irrational wastefulness.  

Hence the tone and substance of Engels' own brand of Enlightenment prescription: scientific socialism.  Such revolutionary thought was, in short, a kind of pearl formed out of decades of mass discontent over the cruel and irrational volatility of early laissez-faire capitalism.    

On the surface, at least, the situation looks rather different 120 years later, as we find ourselves living with a zombie form of finance capitalism and perched on the threshold of a new world order, the Anthropocene.  

Instead of achieving some kind of concrete utopia, we've arrived at a dystopia of the everyday.  Such is the unambiguous result of global economic development after the first, second, and third stages of industrialization.  But we can be a lot more precise about it.  The real trouble for life on the planet dates from the Great Acceleration of the third industrial revolution — from the post-war era in the mid 20th century.  

Carbon emissions since this era account for about 80 per cent of all carbon ever emitted by human beings.  Even more chastening is the fact about 50 per cent of total carbon emissions have occurred in just the last 30 years or so.  That's less than half of one human lifetime as measured against the totality of human history.  So while the causes of climate change aren't exactly new, given the fact that industrialization first began around 1750, the climate emergency is.  

The climate emergency is borne of the stages of industrialization, and is wedded to a capitalism which itself is now in crisis: a frenzied, and perhaps final, form of capitalism that's ripping apart the very conditions of its own existence, cannibalizing government and the public commons, trashing the planet upon which it operates, and utterly disregarding the people it was designed to serve. 

Naturally, apologists for neoliberalism — that school of economic thought that elevates profit and growth to a veritable theological belief — insist that capitalism has been the highly efficient motor of progress and freedom for over 200 years.  And for those of us lucky enough to be born in the West in the 20th century, most especially those of us born in the two or three decades after World War Two, they're at least partly right.  

Thanks to the transformative power of coal, oil, and natural gas, Westerners boast a staggeringly wealthy and powerful "petroculture."  And thanks to what's been called the "great acceleration" of the mid 20th century, when powerful new computer technologies were first introduced, we have multiplied that wealth many times over again.  

Consider three figures for total wealth in the UK at 100 year intervals, all represented in the value of the US dollars today: 

  • In 1760, near the start of industrialization, total wealth was over $22 billion.
  • In 1860, near the start of the second industrial revolution, it was over $146 billion
  • And in 1960, near the start of the third industrial revolution, it was over $845 billion

So by the end of that 200-year period, the total wealth in the UK grew by nearly 40 times what it had been at the outset.

And because Artificial Intelligence technology, which many observers believe constitutes a fourth industrial revolution, the total wealth of the UK by 2018 had risen to almost $2.8 trillion just fifty eight years later.  

So Engels was right — and then some.  The wealth-generation machine called capitalism has been an extraordinary achievement for the UK and, in turn, for the rest of the planet.  

So, yes: it's true that many of us have been able to lead extraordinarily rich, meaningful, urbane, and more or less rational lives — lives that would, in any other century, be judged as effectively and objectively 'utopic'.  However, the distribution of wealth has been incredibly unequal.  Despite unimaginable and even obscene wealth generation, we still haven't eradicated the poverty and homelessness that a better society should or would have addressed over a hundred years ago.  

This point can't be overstated.  That we could have, but in fact refused to eradicate poverty, is arguably the greatest moral failing of human history.  Simply put: we chose cars, TVs, and guns over human dignity.  

As for freedom-generation under capitalism, the results are less complicated.  Despite wealth generation, the masses didn't really become free to think about, advance, or criticize the ideals of civilization, or participate meaningfully in the functioning of the state — measures of real freedom according to thinkers from Aristotle to Immanuel Kant to Hannah Arendt.  

Nor did the masses quite transcend their animality as cultural beings, as Engels had imagined they would. We only became ever more free to shop, to consume; free to become the dutiful subjects of capitalism.  Which, to be fair, isn't nothing – something obvious to anyone lucky enough to have flown in a jet, driven in a car, unloaded a washing machine, sent an email by cell phone, or donned a waterproof jacket in a downpour.  

These regular parts of modern life are key aspects of a remarkable utopia of the everyday, features that make life far easier and more pleasant, too.  In fact, there's no doubt at all.  The efficient mass production of stuff has been utterly transformative since the time of Marx and Engels, and well beyond the individual experiences of comfort and luxury, in at least a few big ways:

  • First: nature has been turned into a thing, a natural resource.
  • Second: politics has been transformed into economics, a financial resource.
  • And third: human beings have been transformed into consumers, an instrumental resource.  

These three changes are the revolutionary flipside, historically significant in every way, of the capitalist ability to produce lots of cheap stuff.  The overall effect is simply this: human beings may not have achieved their humanity as thinking participants in the Enlightenment. 

But they have, en masse, achieved a state of comfortable docility and moral laxity.  Both of which are still a privilege, perhaps the greatest privilege of all — and still a vast improvement over life before industrialization.  For at least we have automated plenty of awful work, live longer and healthier lives, and own lots of stuff.

Marx and Engels are, of course, the boogiemen of everyone who owns, uses, and loves this amazing stuff — or who aspires, one day, to get some of it for themselves.  Their pamphlet, The Communist Manifesto, was published in 1848 at the start of the second Industrial Revolution, and yet still remains one of the most accessible arguments ever written about the dialectics of capitalism.  

But since 'dialectics' means weighing the good against the bad, their analysis isn't the outright rejection of capitalism that people often believe it is. In fact, in its own way the Manifesto is a love letter to capitalism, since the authors could hardly be more flattering about the transformative power of capital.  

"The bourgeoisie," they write, referring to the dominant minority of wealthy owners, had in only one century, quote: "created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together" (7-8).  And while the rich have, in the words of Marx and Engels, 'created a world after their own image' (7), the authors aren't sentimental about it.  

Simply put, Marx and Engels don't regret the passage of history, begrudge the wealthy, or bemoan their present time.  On the contrary.  The future of real freedom — the freedom to transcend our base animality, the freedom to become properly human — is achieved only on the back of the historic suffering of workers under capitalism.  

That work, however exploiting, alienating, and dehumanizing, helps establish the intellectual and material infrastructure of collective human freedom.  The outline of what I'm calling 'utopia of the everyday' is made possible by the combination of new technology and human labour.  And that's why Marx and Engels predicted that the future freedom of the masses could only ever arise in capitalist strongholds like industrial England. 

Clearly it didn't work out that way.  Capitalism, under immense pressure, adapted to worker demands and appropriated the forces of resistance, becoming more cunning and dynamic than anyone expected.  

And so while the Industrial Revolution freed up the possibilities of mass production, making it possible, at least in principle, to feed, clothe, and house the entire world, it didn't really enhance human freedom at all. While free to become capitalist subjects, workers were actually subjected to more discipline, surveillance, exploitation, and alienation than ever before — from the wealthy owners and middle managers to the police and politicians who served and protected their interests.

And this was already true of the interwar period, long before the rise of what is today called "carceral capitalism," something obvious to anyone who has watched Charlie Chaplin's great film of 1936, Modern Times.  

In the 20th century, these economic conditions of being... became a secular religion in the Western world, the values of the rich, powerful, and free doubling as iron laws of nature.  That's why so many of us still believe in fairy tales, laundered through laughably bad science, about masculinity, competition, individualism, and aggression — even as we denigrate the so-called feminine virtues of altruism, cooperation, collectivism, and empathy.  

For these historically contingent values about our so-called human nature are nothing less than the mythic foundation of the neoliberal world order that is collapsing around us today.  But of course there's nothing inevitable, natural, or immutable about these values.  

Similarly, there is nothing inevitable, natural, or immutable about the widespread inequality and suffering of the masses on the one hand, and the widespread normalization of sadism and masochism on the other.  

The truly radical conservatism of the mid to late 20th century, from the Mont Pelerin Society and Ayn Rand to Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump, is quite simply the reductio ad absurdum of this global economic system that we accept as gospel.  What the gospel of greed, perpetual growth, and contempt for people has done to the natural world is worse.  

For catastrophic climate change is yet another reductio ad absurdum of this economic system — a system that has unleashed chaos and death into the natural world.  Let's say it again: what we call neoliberal, late, globalized, and finance capitalism has literally remade the planet, the earth itself, in its own ugly self-image.  

Even as capitalism recreated a world according to the dictates of capital — for example, turning subjects into things — it has in the process created the conditions for the terraforming of the planet.  

It's not only that the costs of excessive production and consumption have been buried in public landfills, pumped into the air we breathe, and externalized in "sacrifice zones" throughout the global south.  It's more alarmingly the case that the very conditions of life itself have been fundamentally altered.  Capitalism has remade the life systems of the entire earth.  All of it.  

This is, finally, what 'globalization' means.  It begins with mining coal and ends with mining bitcoin, with our current system of corrupt financialization and legalized theft of the commons.  It begins with dreams of utopia and ends with the nightmare of dystopia.  Globalization is in these respects a pleasant euphemism for the planetary-wide sacrifice zone created by anthropogenic climate change. 

Friedrich Engels experienced both first and second industrial revolutions, periods of time that reshaped not only the Western world but the conditions for life itself.  During the last 22 years of his life, he witnessed a world depression that put paid to the idea that capitalism was a self-regulating force for good.  

This force, he countered, works "blindly, violently, destructively" (305); his project, scientific in its inspiration, was to transform these forces from being "demoniac masters into willing servants."  In retrospect, the 1870s were a turning point for life in the Holocene, when Engels could witness the damaging effects of capitalism but still imagine utopic outcomes.  We do not.  

We live in the cataclysmic aftermath of that long period of industrialization and, after the great acceleration of the 1950s, of shocking excess and greed.  We live in the first decades of the Anthropocene, which is different from the Holocene – soon to be very different.  

There are, however, still lessons to be gleaned from the history of industrialization and capitalism.  And there are still lessons to be learned from the Enlightenment project to know the world, and tame it, too — and from the history of Western science and technology.  For here we are again, in a third global depression every bit as significant as the two Great Depressions that came before — only worse, much worse, since the dogma of perpetual growth has generated the 6th mass extinction currently under way.  

During that first Great Depression that began in 1873, thinkers like Engels re-imagined a better society on the basis of reason, equality, and freedom.  But eighteen years after the depression ended, we experienced a First World War.  Eleven years after that ended, we entered the Great Depression of 1929.  

Instead of recovering, the world skipped straight into a Second World War in 1939.  In its aftermath, fearing we might slide yet again back into world depression, nations flirted with peace, instituting the United Nations, and in some cases, financed major collective work projects.

For example, in the aftermath of New Deal spending in the U.S. 1930s, a so-called "Golden Age" of capitalism saw the continued building of thousands of schools, hospitals, libraries, bridges, and airports; and almost 640,000 miles of roads were surfaced.  

But we soon doubled down on perpetual war and the military industrial complex (as Eisenhower famously called it), the tail that has wagged the dog of the world economy ever since.  The rise of what Naomi Klein calls disaster capitalism then merged, hand-in-glove, with three dogmas of American frontier thought — individualism, exceptionalism, and structural racism — that paved the way for the murderous and, indeed, the increasingly fascistic neoliberalism of recent times.

The third Great Depression hit us all in 2007 and has abided just below the surface of the massive quantitative easement programs — what we normally call bailouts — initiated by governments everywhere.  Similarly, the COVID-19 pandemic has been managed by printing and then distributing even more money into the economy, sometimes to big business, sometimes to small, and sometimes to individual citizens.

So it's very clear that governments did learn from the radicals of the 1800s that centralized economic controls not only work, but are an essential component of the Western project of reason, control, and management.

But of course the retrograde forces of greed have for decades undermined this project and, with the help of right-wing apparatchiks, demonized it all as socialism, or communism, or postmodernism, or cultural Marxism, or whatever other absurd designation assures that they continue to confuse the masses and preserve their obscene privileges at any cost.

In these respects, they've done what elites have always done: they insist that the conditions that made their power possible should never change.  That they are given, natural, immutable.  As Marx and Engels say in The Communist Manifesto: "The ruling ideas of each age have always been the ideas of its ruling class" (24).  Only the megaphone has changed and, along with it, the means of extracting our stupefied and/or winking compliance. 

In response to all the lies and misinformation, we should be honest with each other about who we are, how we got here, and where we're going.  To these ends, we might set aside some of the least understood labels, because they've been the most corrupted, and simply embrace the beautiful, unimpeachable, universal values of freedom, justice, equality, collectivism, and humanity. 

These values, after all, are also an indelible part of the Western project.  In fact, these values are almost certainly the best, most admirable part of our inheritance.  Let's strive to make them a bigger part.  In the process we might just rediscover the utopic realism we so desperately need and deserve — and escape the judgment of posterity.

For our put-upon descendants will be rightly astonished by what we have done, often quite knowingly, and by what we do or don't do today.  Never before has the call of the future been such a pressing concern to any present.


This particular grace period... is short.  Maybe a few years.  

Maybe two decades.  

We must together, all of us, make it count for something.  


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