“What the bourgeois . . . produces, above all,” Karl Marx wrote in the Manifesto, “is its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.” A century later Nikita Khruschev, ruler of the country which embodied the grave-diggers, told the bourgeois world: “We shall bury you.”
Probably the most persuasive argument on behalf of communism and socialism was that they owned the future. This stimulated and encouraged believers in a way indistinguishable from religious zeal. Everything was understood in advance, all events were predictable.
“There is now an answer to every question,” Arthur Koestler wrote of his conversion to communism, “doubts and conflicts are a matter of the distant past — a past already remote, when one had lived in dismal ignorance in the tasteless, colorless world of those who don’t know.”
To the old-time socialist, the future was the stage for the greatest adventure in human history: the struggle for the revolution and the classless society. “The proletarians,” wrote Marx, “have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.”
It is remarkable to turn from such bold, conquistador-like language to the grim mutterings of present-day socialists.
With the Soviet Union gone and socialist economic theory utterly discredited, socialists today turn Marx’s prediction on its head. While we remain our own grave-diggers, there will be no revolution — only the silence of the grave. Nothing is known, except that the future will be worse in every way. We have a world to lose.
By “socialists” I mean articulate elites more or less Marxist in outlook but united in their loathing of liberal democracy. For categorical clarity, and based on differences in sensibilities rather than ideology, I have nicknamed them Euro-hedonists, culture vandals, and Eco-Luddites. Given the objective failure of their ideas, one might expect these people to change their minds, or at least shift their ground.
But their faith, as I noted in earlier posts, doesn’t depend on objective tests but on moral conviction. Koestler wrote that the “common denominator” for conversions to socialism was “the rapid disintegration of moral values, of the pre-1914 pattern of life in postwar Europe.” The disastrous turn of events for socialists since 1989 has deprived them of a future, but not of their moral rage against the present.
The result has been an attitude that moves far beyond pessimism or fatalism to something between a tantrum and a panic attack when considering the shape of things to come. Without much effort, I drew up a thick list of future developments that frighten the socialists:
Climate change, species extinction, deforestation, demographics, the Americanization of culture, the globalization of labor, transnational corporations, obesity, eating disorders, world hunger, fast food, intolerance, racism, sexism, Eurocentrism, nationalism, consumerism, competition, Islamophobia, the spread of religion, the spread of disease, pharmaceuticals, blogs, cable TV, talk radio, the death of news, Anglo-Saxon attitudes, the rising East, the Middle East, inequality, instability, structural unemployment, Macjobs, lower taxes, high debt.
Each tribe of latter-day socialism clings to its own special nightmare about the future. The Euro-hedonists, for example, are terrified of “flexibility” — a sense that the government, which should protect and cushion them against reality, will some day flip around and make demands. Paris, birthplace of the revolution and the original Commune, now produces university students who riot for the status quo.
The dark premonition of the culture vandals involves a cabal of Jews, fundamentalists, the oil companies, and ordinary beer-swilling Americans, who will abolish science, make virginity a requirement for citizenship, and pack off tenured professors to Guantanamo in hideous orange jumpsuits.
The Eco-Luddites also wish to freeze the status quo — only, in this case, it’s the weather. They fear the day after tomorrow, when the climate will change. This, we are told, is a “planetary emergency” which will “exceed anything we’ve experienced in the history of humankind” — even, one presumes, World War II, the Mongol conquests, and the bubonic plague (not to mention the Last Glacial Maximum). Because we were bad, because capitalism pollutes, we will burn forever.
Since writers and artists love to strike a proletarian pose, popular culture has been infected with future phobia. Old-time science fiction conjured technological utopias, even when aliens turned up to threaten our survival or transform our children into gods. With the novels of Kurt Vonnegut — who believed suicide bombers were “very brave people” and that “the only difference between Hitler and Bush is that Hitler was elected” — science lost importance, while the fiction became angrier and more regressive.
Others followed in Vonnegut’s path. The future was a failure, a dystopia — dog-eat-dog societies populated by stupid, greedy, and self-destructive characters, who live dingy, ugly lives, and deserve nothing better than their marginal existence and eventual extinction.
The same angry vision consumed Hollywood. The last sci fi movie with a progressive outlook was probably 2001. Blade Runner, released during the Reagan administration’s inaugural year, portrayed a grotesque, dystopian future, in which ordinary people lived like paupers and corporate grandees killed their enemies at will. By now the nasty, brutish future has become a movie cliche, the default setting for productions both wildly popular (Terminator, Riddick, Matrix) and obscure (Brazil, They Live, 12 Monkeys).
These are fictional settings — entertainment, nothing more. In the real world, Americans see their future as an continuation of the pursuit of happiness. We are the ultimate products of liberal democracy, which invented the idea of progress, of an endless forward race, of expecting our tomorrows to improve on yesterday. Joseph Schumpeter called it “creative destruction,” but in truth it is permanent revolution in ways undreamed of by professional revolutionaries of the old Marxists school.
Marx himself, however, understood the dynamic restlessness that drove liberalism: “Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeoisie epoch from all others.”
Marx expected socialism to beat liberalism at its own game — to push bourgeois agitation to its logical conclusion, which was the proletarian revolution. His heirs now seem to be taking the opposite tack: to tranquilize and paralyze liberal democracy, like a dangerous animal to be removed from the proximity of man. The strategy is sound, even if success is doubtful here in America. If the model of human relations becomes the nursing home, liberal democracy is finished.
Until that happens, the specter haunting socialists will be the future, with all its change, disruption, and everlasting uncertainty.