Layers of Optimism and Pessimism about the Future: 2020s and Beyond

January 30, 2020

One Question is a regular series in which leading thinkers are asked to give a brief answer to a single question. This time, at the beginning of 2020, the question is: Are you optimistic about the new decade? Here is my answer. The entire One Question with multiple answers can be found here.

The rational tendential direction of world-history is grounded in our collective human learning, making it possible to solve problems, absent ills and overcome contradictions by means of collective actions and by building better common institutions. The problem is that many processes are self-reinforcing and will follow a set path until something shows in a harsh manner how dangerous or unjustified that path can be. Since Immanuel Kant, a long line of cautiously optimistic progressivists have been rather pessimistic about the human capacity to learn without first experiencing radical suffering. Indeed, the human past seems to suggest that a world-historical turning point takes a shattering crisis, such as a global depression, world war, or environmental catastrophe at a totally unprecedented scale.

Such crises are now in the making. The potentials of the end of the Cold War were wasted as free-marketers seized also that opportunity. Since the 2000s, the leaders of the biggest states and unions have actively undermined existing common institutions, typically even refusing to discuss alternative global institutional arrangements. For instance, in global finance, the underlying super-bubble that has now lasted for four decades has continued to grow, gradually assembling conditions for what is an even bigger crash than 2008-9. The possibility of global military catastrophe is real and increasingly likely as the world has been reverting to nationalist statism, militarized conflicts and arms races. Moreover, the evidence strongly suggests that global warming is now accelerating through multiple self-reinforcing mechanisms; it is occurring much more rapidly than previously thought possible. What is more, climate change is only one aspect of the massive on-going ecological crisis.

However, a rational society is capable of learning also in the absence of a catastrophe or a massive crisis. Although we are living through a period of stasis and regression, the futurized nature of the present has been changing through increasingly reflexive self-regulation of social systems. Anticipations are reflexive and can have effects on the future, whether we are talking about finance, trade, war or climate. Global warming provides perhaps the most striking example. For the first time in world history, mass movements act on the basis of anticipations that cover the entire planet and decades and centuries to come. Human reflexive self-regulation aims now at maintaining sustainable life-friendly biogeochemical, climatic and socio-economic conditions. Whether this is too little too late remains to be seen.

The same temporal transformation is occurring also in other fields. Just consider how critical political economists and central bankers are assessing the possibilities for a new major crisis or atomic scientists are warning about nuclear war. What is perhaps most important in all this is that reflexive self-regulation can contribute to improving the underlying social conditions of our ethico-political learning. Thus I remain cautiously optimistic that a massive catastrophe can be avoided and that the rational tendential direction of world-history will prevail.