Sunday, January 04, 2015

2030

Since a couple of days, we are closer to 2030 than 2000. To me, that is a sobering thought. As we are sleepwalking deeper into the future, our nightmares are no less haunting than they were a decade ago, yet the vacuum of positive visions has become ever more pressing. The stronghold that the combination of Malthusian and Marxist thinking holds over academia remains essentially unchallenged (with the exception of a few millenarian neoliberals and a tiny stream of ecomodernists). Every year, hundred thousands of new students worldwide are educated to believe that capitalism is only possible through exploitation and that the global poor does not want to live like you and me but want to continue with subsistence farming in “flourishing local communities”. At home, xenophobia and anti-feminism are again on the rise. While nothing of this prevents ecological elites from indulging in the most blatant forms of hedonism (I will never forget the sumptuous wine tasting that I took part in together with some of the leading academics who preach the need for material sacrifice and frugality), the general public remains equally sceptical to calls for degrowth as to accelerated forms of globalization.

The EU project has left many uncertain about the benefits of political and economic integration even as it has only underscored what was always true in politics, namely that at same point the chicken comes home to roost. If you organize your society along rigid conservative principles, suppress the young and the female, fail to make adequate social investments and keep supporting ailing but ultimately doomed sunset industries, then at some point, the market will tell you that your social model is unsustainable. It is not more difficult than that. If anything, membership in the Eurozone has delayed what would in any case be necessary and made possible temporary construction sprees (such as in Spain) at the expense of lasting social investments.

Looking forward, I have come to believe that the single most important political objective is to break the gloom of secular stagnation and put the mature economies back on a high-growth trajectory. The key to achieving this is surprisingly simple, namely to stop seeing the unemployed and the marginalized as the “problem” and instead realize that lasting growth can only come about by lifting the poor and unlocking their creative potential. Instead of trickling down economics we need bottom-up growth through broad education, rapidly rising (minimum) salaries, and accelerated global market integration.

As hundred millions of people across the OECD have become wedded to the idea of living out the last decades of their lives as a “leisure class”, failure to deliver such strong growth would make sure that the financing of retirement schemes will overshadow all other political questions for the coming decades. Only if the financial sustainability of retirement plans can be guaranteed will it be possible to build the political momentum necessary for investing in breakthrough technologies and to avoid different political blame games (for instance, it does not take a political genius to realize that xenophobic parties will blame any future breakdowns of retirement schemes on the “immigrants”). Strong growth driven by rising salaries (rather than, as today, low interest rates and speculation) will also in itself bring back the sense of shared opportunity and optimism that will be necessary to overcome the (irrational yet real) fears that many harbour when faced with an ever more globalized world.

With economic growth in place, we will have the political space necessary to make the kind of risky mistakes that we must make in order to survive as a species. We need to return to the spirit of the Apollo Project, to believe in the transformative capacity of our dreams and overcome our current risk-aversive obsession with “safety”. We cannot let Malthusian fears win out of the rights of billions to finally taste the fruits of modernity. Looking towards the deep future, this will of course not be possible on a single finite planet, nor should it be. Ultimately, H.G. Wells got it absolutely right, that our only real choice “is the universe or nothing”. Long-term human survival hinges on that we become a multi-planet species and that we learn how to protect ourselves from asteroids and other cosmic risks.

In the words of Bruno Latour: “it appears totally implausible to ask the heirs of the emancipatory tradition to convert suddenly to an attitude of abstinence, caution, and asceticism – especially when billions of other people still aspire to a minimum of decent existence and comfort”. Yet, to move forward, it is not enough to not go backwards, we need to supercharge the Enlightenment programme, to capture the political momentum and to simultaneously challenge both the passivity of neoliberalism and the misanthropism of Malthusianism.

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