In JG Ballard’s novel Cocaine Nights, residents of a utopian Spanish retirement resort commit terrible crimes against one another. They are driven to crime because they need more discomfort. Ballard’s message is that humans will become pathological in utopia. We need a problem, because if there are no problems, how will tomorrow be better than today?
David Graeber, in his book Fragments of Anarchist Anthropology, says “There would appear to be no society which does not see human life as fundamentally a problem”. He might not be quite right, as former missionary Daniel Everett discovered when he went to the Amazon and met a strange tribe. The Piraha people, who believe themselves to be the happiest in the world (that’s what the name Piraha means in the the Piraha language), have no past or future tense in their language. They are the happiest people in the world because they cannot ask, how will tomorrow be better than today?
The quest for a better tomorrow is a much studied phenomena. John Gray concludes that we are doomed to repeat the utopian fantasies of the past, constantly seeking for a better tomorrow without realising that we simply recapitulate the same old problems in new ways. As he points out, utopian regimes of the 20th century, Marxist, Leninist, etc, only succeeded in making tomorrow worse than today.
Gray contends that the reason Western governments ban drugs is because they offer the wrong way of making tomorrow better than today, a way that doesn’t involve ever increasing material consumption. Governments require money-based redemption to keep the economy growing: more GDP to make tomorrow better than today.
I bring up the war on drugs because it seemed like a immovable feature of the landscape when Gray wrote about it in 2003. Now the war on drugs seems to be abating, many states in the US are moving to legalise cannabis and countries across Europe are moving in the same direction. Does that hint at a shift in the collective consciousness, a mutation in the imagined better-tomorrow? Economic thought feels like it’s turning a corner away from money redemption. Millennials are primarily civically minded, apparently. Philosophy offers career advice for ‘doing good better‘. Even a conservative government is partial to the rhetoric of “measuring what matters“.
There is another kind of redemption, which the USA is pioneering; a global militarism where a spectral adversary has to be defeated, a la George Orwell. That’s why the US can’t countenance gun control. As Obama said in an accidental moment of candour, in small town America, where money-redemption seems impossible, they instead “cling to guns and religion”. A watered-down version of nation-state kill-or-be-killed can be seen in the Tories “global race” election rhetoric. We can only hope that this kind of zero-sum better-tomorrow goes away.
Robin Archer of the LSE gave a nice quote at a recent talk: “what a dismal time it has been for those of us on the left… because the unusual plastic state of the public mind which followed the global financial crisis feels like it’s starting to congeal and harden into something quite unsympathetic”. But perhaps a Tory victory is ripple on the surface of a Kondratiev-wave scale reorientation of the global outlook. Political radicalism consequent to the financial crisis didn’t really touch Britain, where the average voter has remained relatively unaffected compared to the devastation in peripheral eurozone countries.
But there is a global, almost post national chattering class, bound together by the web, which could emerge as a new force in politics. Evgeny Morozov thinks they too will be beholden to neoliberal money-redemption, while Cory Doctorow is more of an optimist.
Meanwhile, the diminishing marginal utility of wealth means that increasing GDP might not satisfy us forever, and in any case perhaps economic growth has gone for the foreseeable. Economics professor Ed Glaeser says “the introduction of happiness into economics by Richard Layard and others stops the economists primal sin, which is acting as if money is the be all and end all, which is equivalently foolish as the view that any one thing is the be all and end all.”
Time for a new multidimensional answer to how tomorrow will be better than today? I hope so.