I’ve watched the ozone layer disappear, the whole world frying unprotected under the gaze of the sun, all human life lost. I’ve watched a man climb the glacier that used to be New York City, and I’ve watched sentient machines take apart the city of Chicago. I’ve watched society crumble, leaving only a teenager to save us. (I’ve seen this many times.) All of this was done to entertain me.
Mark Fisher, who died earlier this month, said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Certainly it’s more fun. Our imaginations are so overpowered and outmaneuvered by the toxic gravity of the global economy that we are happy to amuse ourselves watching the whole world burn instead of doing anything to keep that from happening.
It seems clear that real life will only inch closer to TV as we consume the apocalyptic spectacles of environmental catastrophe, mass detentions of refugees, drone wars, and a billionaire world order. The confirmation hearings of Donald Trump’s cabinet nominees already look like the set-up for some new superhero movie. Now that we have unleashed an army of mutant ants on the world, only one man can save us, and that man is . . .
But our taste for disaster can’t be entirely reduced to escapism. A staggering number of our political theorists believe that the only way to make the world better is to destroy it. “After the apocalypse, the Kingdom” is how Deborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro sum up this line of thinking in The Ends of the World. First, we must reach this world’s final end; then, we can begin again fresh. We know that this delusion has firmly taken hold of the political right, with nations laying waste to other nations in the hope of paradisaical “rebuilding,” but it also continues to infect the left, with accelerationists aiming to speed up the rate of capitalist and environmental disaster so we can finally get past it.
Are the only people who still put stock in utopia our corporate overlords?
Disaster hawks on both the right and the left forget that when all is lost, people have a tendency to return to what they know, to simply recreate what they once had, like Poland rebuilding its cities after World War II by replacing each brick that had been destroyed with another in the exact same spot. Meanwhile, our greatest engineering minds are working not on levees to protect us from the approaching floods, but on spacecraft to get us to Mars.
It doesn’t help that every time we roll up our sleeves to try to solve the daunting problems we face we are reminded we are dealing not only with our generation’s screw-ups, but those of our parents, and their parents before them. One look at the Paris Agreement—in which participating countries said yes, let’s keep the global temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius—reminds us that no one really has any idea how to achieve that goal, or even if we can. The chaos continues, and indeed accelerates. As Danowski and de Castro note, “We are about to enter . . . a regime of the Earth System that is quite unlike anything we have ever known. The near future becomes unpredictable, if not indeed unimaginable outside the framework of science-fiction scenarios or messianic eschatologies.” That immediate unpredictability is what makes a fertile ground for dystopia, as it turns out. And dystopia seems to be where our imaginations stop.
Whatever happened to the utopians—the ones who believed that there is an inherent goodness in man just waiting for a little societal reorganization to bring it out? Whatever happened to the ones who could imagine beautiful futures, built not from the rubble but from whatever we have available on hand today? Are the only people who still put stock in utopia our corporate overlords, who so blandly chirp, “The Chinese character for crisis is the same as opportunity,” or whatever that overly simplistic mantra is?
Maybe we all just decided it was cooler to be George Orwell (who came from money) than H. G. Wells (who did not)—cooler to be the smirker saying, “Pah, it’ll never work,” than to be the kid chirping, “Here is what we can do.” The H. G. Wells we find profiled in Krishan Kumar’s Utopia and Anti-Utopia in Modern Times was someone who suffered greatly and wanted to help prevent the suffering of future generations. He was someone who cycled through great optimism and great despair, but kept coming back to optimism, believing that equality is possible without totalitarianism. He treated his ideal society—in which property would be held communally, the state would be run by the enlightened, and all would be free to express their eccentricities without being marginalized for it—as neither an impossibility nor an inevitability, but as something that could be willed closer by way of the imagination. Yet his critics, like Orwell and Aldous Huxley, felt free to mischaracterize his work and compare his vision to the vision of the Nazis. You know who has a vision of the future? Those actively working to destroy it.
The Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski was adamant in his conviction that “the Left cannot renounce utopia; it cannot give up goals that are, for the time being, unattainable, but that impart meaning to social changes.” In 1969 he wrote:
Why is utopia a condition of all revolutionary movements? Because much historical experience, more or less buried in the social consciousness, tells us that goals unattainable now will never be reached unless they are articulated when they are still unattainable. It may well be that the impossible at a given moment can become possible only by being stated at a time when it is impossible. The existence of a utopia is the necessary prerequisite for its eventually ceasing to be a utopia.
In other words, giving a voice to the impossible, the impractical, and the fantastical makes it all the more possible. Aiming high, rather than resigning yourself to what is practical and reasonable, is the important thing. In Greek mythology, Ouranos was the sky god, the god of ideas, the god of all that was possible. His son was Kronos, the god of time, the god of limits. Kronos castrated Ouranos, because that is what reality does to potential: it removes some of its power. Ouranos’s testicles were thrown into the sea, the realm of Poseidon, the realm of the imagination, and from that interaction was birthed Aphrodite, the goddess of art, beauty, and love.
Donald Trump, with his characteristic desire to reduce anything of rich complexity to a footnote in his next ghostwritten memoir, is currently making a play to annex the imagination, threatening to suck it into his regime of propagandistic “alternative facts.” Meanwhile, the left is working to distance itself from fake news by backing away from anything that smells like creativity. But when we move to reject imagination itself, we risk overcompensating. We shouldn’t cede the ground. Maybe it’s time for us to put thanatos away for now, if only to defy Trump’s deadening propaganda, and remember eros instead. Prophets and geniuses see potential in this world. Without their hysterical imaginings, we would be stuck with Kronos alone. Then, there would be no beauty, no love—just the god of limits bringing down the sickle.