The Double Wall Before the Future

We are dancing on a volcano.

Narcisse Achille,
Comte de Salvandy (1830)

[Editors’ Note: We are delighted to publish this essay by one of our favorite historians, ARTHUR MITZMAN. This is essay is the introduction to Professor Mitzman’s excellent new book, Prometheus Revisited: The Quest for Global Justice in the 21st Century. JSC/AC]

Visions of the future today are more likely to be dystopian than utopian, closer to the horrors of George Orwell’s 1984 and of the films Soylent Green and Clockwork Orange than to the benign nineteenth-century optimism of Robert Owen’s New View of Society or Charles Fourier’s Nouveau Monde Amoureux. Indeed, we live in dangerous times. Well before September 11, our world had become ecologically and socially so unpredictable that a book titled Risk Society had been written to describe it. Since then, there has been increasing awareness at the highest levels of society of the dangers we live in. But it is doubtful that such awareness will improve matters without a powerful impulse for change from below.

The author of Risk Society, Ulrich Beck, has called the attack on the World Trade Center “the Chernobyl of globalization,” exposing “the false promise of neoliberalism” just as the Ukrainian catastrophe of 1986 “undermined our faith in nuclear energy.” Viewing the shoddy privatized airline security as partly responsible for the suicide bombings, Beck saw in the pictures of the World Trade Center inferno “an as yet undecoded message: a state can neoliberalise itself to death.” He decried “the capitalist fundamentalists’ unswerving faith in the redeeming power of the market” as “a dangerous illusion,” and called for a reinvigoration of the state. “We need,” he wrote, “to combine economic integration with cosmopolitan politics. Human dignity, cultural identity and otherness must be taken more seriously in the future. Since September 11, the gulf between the world of those who profit from globalization and the world of those who feel threatened by it has been closed. Helping those who have been excluded is no longer a humanitarian task. It is in the west’s own interest: the key to its security.”

Note that Beck did not consider terrorism to be the world’s principal problem. Without denying its significance, he realized, as did many other thinking people, that the dimensions of the danger were being inflated by a U.S. government eager, in September 2001, to rally an increasingly hostile public to its support and to distract its citizens from the ecological and social concerns underlying the growing protest movements of the previous two years. As Paul Krugman has written, “at least as far as domestic policy is concerned, the administration views terrorism as another useful crisis.” Beck understands that the enormous risks we face at the beginning of the twenty-first century have more to do with the ideological fundamentalism of neoliberal capitalism than with that of Islamic terror networks. In fact, there is a considerably greater danger to the world in general and to American formal democracy in particular of a prolonged and unnecessary state of war between the West and Islam than of renewed terrorism.

Nonetheless, despite the Bush administration’s evident desire to parlay Americans’ fear of new attacks into a decades-long “war on terrorism” and the wish of its more hawkish members to expand the war beyond Iraq, the chance is great that European doves and Washington realists will prevail, and that such expansion will not occur. In that case we return to the problems flowing from global capitalism itself. Indeed, just two months after the attacks on New York and Washington, bipartisan support for Bush’s domestic program was vanishing, as congressional Democrats returned to the offensive against the administration’s handling of the economic crisis. These problems are perhaps more serious than even Beck believes them to be. For the ecological and social damage done to humankind by the savage globalization of recent decades has long been noticed, and had met with determined resistance well before the famous “battle of Seattle.” A glance at the record, however, shows that this resistance has been of little avail.

In the autumn of 1998, “El Niño,” a huge recurrent storm cycle whose violence, scientists said, was exacerbated by environmental pollution, tormented the earth’s atmosphere, breeding storms and floods in Asia and Latin America, leaving thousands of dead and millions of homeless people in its wake. Less than two years later, scientists were appalled to discover that global warming had melted a kilometer-wide gap in the ice cap at the North Pole. Since this drastic worsening of our ecological condition was known much earlier, the United States had by then already agreed to the Kyoto protocol of 1997, which pledged each nation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 7 percent in relation to their 1990 level, an agreement which was revoked in 2001 by the accession to the U.S. presidency of the world’s most celebrated denier of man-made climate change. Four months before that accession, however, on August 21, 2000, the conservative Financial Times pointed out that, halfway through the twenty-two-year period within which the nations of the world had agreed to such limitations, the pace of industrial growth had outstripped environmental measures to such a degree that “a 30 per cent cut would now be needed to meet the commitment” in the United States, and a 14 percent reduction in Europe. The FT’s editorialist described the prospects for cutting back greenhouse gases as “dismal,” and warned that “if the danger of global warming is to be confronted seriously, sustained and probably painful measures will be needed over many decades.” The same issue carried an article headlined “Chile Chokes on Its Economic Growth.”

Twenty one months later, the United Nations World Food Programme warned that torrential rain in Nicaragua, which left 1000 people homeless in Managua, heralded the return of El Niño to the Western hemisphere in the second half of 2002. At roughly the same time, meteorologists were establishing an increase in Alaska’s average temperature of seven degrees over the previous three decades, and extreme heat, drought and high winds in wooded areas of the West and Southwest United States were creating enormous wildfires. Excoriating George W. Bush’s indifference to global warming, Bob Herbert, a New York Times columnist, exclaimed: “We’re speeding toward a wall and the president is not only refusing to step on the brake, he’s accelerating.”

Meanwhile, we have discovered another reason for choking. In the course of recent years, one food scandal after another has rocked the European continent, most of them the result of profit-oriented applications of industrial technologies to agriculture. Europeans discovered that Mad Cow Disease, transmittable to humans, resulted from feeding the carcasses of dead bovines to living ones, so as to increase their weight and profitability — practice long widespread in the United States as well. Genetically modified foods and beef with hormone additives, pushed by agro-industry as a panacea for food shortages and blandly accepted in the United States, encountered import prohibitions in environmentally aware European nations, which consider genetically modified organisms an incalculable danger to all forms of life.

Outside Europe, from the summer of 1997 on, financial and equity markets crashed in distant places, creating new hordes of paupers and unemployed among those nations considered only a year earlier the “tigers” of the world economy; three years later, recovery was still distant in many Asian countries. The effects of these crashes were echoed in Russia and South America, stimulating concern among Euro-American elites that, despite the windfall profits of recent decades, their belief in unregulated circulation of capital and commodities as the path to salubrious, unceasing growth might be at least partly responsible for the economic malaise. In Europe itself, starkly contrasting with such profits, unemployment climbed above 10 percent, while real hourly wages in the United States and Europe continued a decline that had begun around 1975, creating an ever sharper division between rich and poor. At the moment I write (June 2002), the United States seems to be dragging much of the world into prolonged recession.

Whether or not the economic malaise deepens, the ecological problem is bound to worsen. And in either case, large numbers of wageworkers, small shopkeepers, farmers, and unemployed will continue to be trapped in a downward trajectory that engenders bitterness against the propertied minority receiving unprecedented salaries and dividends. In Europe, the struggle against this widening gulf between the wealth of the top and the insecurity and misery of the rest has been going on since the mid-nineties. From 1995 on, in key nations of the European Union, “downsized” employees, their income, status, and hopes diminished by corporations competing for investments and by governments privatizing to cut budget deficits, reacted angrily to being treated as industrial waste. Accused (by establishment spokesmen) of an archaic, corporatist mentality, they first demonstrated their militant opposition to privatizations and welfare cuts during the French strikes of December 1995. Innovative, radically democratic trade unions, supported by a revitalized Green movement and by movements of artists and intellectuals recently organized to help immigrants without papers and fellow citizens without jobs or homes, parlayed popular hostility to proposed “reforms” of pensions and social security into a month-long general strike of government workers, a strike that paralyzed the Gaullist regime and led to its downfall eighteen months later. That denouement paralleled the voting out of office of governments committed to supporting conservative capitalism in Germany, Italy, England, and Belgium. In the French-German heart of the European Union, red-green coalitions were empowered by the electorate to reduce unemployment by governmental stimulus of the economy, redistribute wealth, and end the worst abuses of the environment.

Humankind thus, tardily, appeared to react against environmental and economic disasters triggered by the gospel of progress. Bringing them to an end, however, was to be no simple matter, as the incapacity of the new regimes to curb the fetishism of growth at any price, to lessen unemployment, and to curtail neoliberal greed demonstrated. The fact that the social-democratic regimes which took over the reins of power in a large part of Europe were unable to break with the neoliberal policies of their predecessors suggests that the swelling opposition to global capitalism needs to discuss radically new perspectives, ones that the Left — including the Left which since the sixties has called itself “new” — has been too timid or too trapped in traditional ideologies to formulate.

Coming after a century of unheard-of violence and social transformation, the incapacity to change free-market policies — even of governments born of popular disgust with neoliberalism — has profound roots in the ideologies and mentalities through which Western societies have conceptualized nature, progress, and themselves since the Renaissance. Closely tied to such self-conceptualizations, the problems of impending ecological catastrophe and social-economic malaise loom before us as a double wall blocking the future, noxious waste products of the unsustainable productivity created by instrumental reason in the last century and a half.

Environmentally, our spoliation of the earth’s resources and our poisoning of air, earth, and water may have led us to a point of no return. The results of a social order founded on technological hubris and on individual and collective avarice are already being felt: the steady destruction of the earth’s rain forests by huge lumber and agricultural combines, the acid rain denuding woodlands throughout Europe, and the warming trend which, if unreversed, will probably lead to the inundation of the earth’s coastal areas and the death or homelessness of hundreds of millions of people by the middle of the present century. In the enormous land mass of the former Soviet Union, nuclear and other varieties of pollution have diminished life expectancy by ten years in the last generation, proof that the state capitalist rape of nature can be as traumatic as the private capitalist variety.

A recent quantitative study of our relationship to our biological environment-the 2002 Living Planet Report of the World Wildlife Fund-underscores our perilous condition. The report states that a continuation of humankind’s current pillaging of the earth’s natural resources will lead, by the year 2030, to an unavoidable decline in human welfare, as measured by average life expectancy, educational level, and world economic product. The report measures our “ecological footprint” by calculating the land area required to sustain consumption of the total human population at current levels. This averages about 2.3 hectares for each of the six billion people on the planet. The “biological capacity” of the earth, however-the level of exploitation consistent with replenishment of resources-is equal to just 1.9 hectares per person. Having passed the point of sustainable use of resources in the 1980s, we now consume annually about 20 percent more of the earth’s biological capacity than we restore, and given current trends we will be consuming about 50 percent more by the year 2050. The report indicates that the ecological footprint is much deeper in North America and Europe-9.6 and 5 hectares per person respectively-than in Asia and Africa, where the use of resources is estimated at 1.4 hectares per person.

Politically, the danger of fueling a world economy on unsustainable energy resources is perhaps more immediate than the ecological hazard. The more affluent societies have enjoyed a free lunch until now on the basis of fossil fuel supplies — oil, gas, and coal — which, apart from their destructive effects on air, land, and water, will be largely exhausted before the end of this century. In the case of oil, given the steady decline in the discovery of new reserves, educated predictions are that output will peak between 2004 and 2008, a peak that will be followed by declining production and a rapid rise in the price of oil-based fuel; the latter will drastically increase the cost of transporting persons and goods. We have already seen the violent reactions from auto-addicted Europeans and Americans to sudden increases in gas pump prices. The Report of the National Energy Policy Development Group, signed by the American vice-president and most of the cabinet in May 2001, blandly forecasted an increase in U.S. energy needs of 32 percent in the next two decades. While they indicated where they hoped to procure it (in part, the Caspian Sea), the authors mentioned neither the probable rapid increase in the price of oil nor the political turmoil this was likely to create toward the end of George W. Bush’s present term of office. But it is not unreasonable to speculate that the military adventurism in central Asia and the Middle East of an American government headed by oil barons may be motivated by more than the hunt for an elusive gang of terrorists.

Socially and economically, the global expansion of capitalist markets has been fueled by the development of an information technology that makes most traditional production jobs as well as many third sector employments obsolete. In the 1990s neoliberal globalization combined with computerization led to two equally dangerous phenomena. One was a runaway speculation in financial capital and technology shares which, though slowing down for a presumed “soft landing” in 2000, dangerously destabilized the world economy. Starting with the summer of 1999, European commentators expressed repeated fears of a world crash equivalent to that of 1929. The other was a redistribution of world income in favor of the 20 percent of the world’s population which possessed either capital or the high-level education in the manipulation of abstractions that is necessary for information technology. For the majority of ordinary mortals, particularly in those large parts of our planet where modernization and industrialization have replaced religious notions of a hereafter with the tangible prospect of ever-increasing material welfare, the recent downturn in expectations has had a serious impact on self-esteem and identity. It has been hundreds of years since an adult generation in the Euro-American heartland of “progress” realistically expected a harder, instead of an easier, life for its children.

These worsening, seemingly insoluble, ecological and social problems result from the persistence of institutions and ideologies that have become totally inadequate to our situation. I am convinced that if we cannot question, or at least consider modifying, these institutions and ideologies, we are going to vanish like sparrows flying into a jetliner. It is, in other words, imperative that we step back and take a longer perspective on the course of human history as well as on the resources for changing that course. More than the post-September 11 threats of war and terrorism, the crises of environmental decay and economic malaise that I shall discuss in this book cast a shadow on the future of humanity, leading many of us into an unreal kind of living for the moment, an almost psychotic egoism. How we arrived at this dark passage and how we might get beyond it are the themes of this book.

While I am aware that we are in desperate straits and am apprehensive about the future, I nonetheless am convinced that the most powerful “realism” today is the utopian imagination. The forces we have created and that currently shape our thinking about the future have a contradictory character. When applied in appropriate dosage they can cure rather than kill. Think of the mix of social and individual forces at work in the creation of modern society. Historians, anthropologists, and sociologists understand the dependence of healthy individuality on strong social settings that encourage it, as evidenced in the first flowering of classical culture in the Greek polis, or in its later blooming in the Italian Renaissance. In the modern world, the hypertrophy of individualism unleashed by ideologies that have abandoned the social nexus has produced anomic criminality as well as the avarice and financial power of the superwealthy, but in a more humane social context, modern individualism could also find expression in the sonnets of Shakespeare, the operas of Mozart, the novels of Zola, and the art of Picasso. Similarly, the social impulse is maleficent only when it loses sight of individual needs. If it has led to the creation of totalitarian empires, bureaucratic tyrannies, the techno-corporate monstrosities of contemporary capitalism, and the opposed terrorisms of Western and Eastern fundamentalisms, it has also powered revolutions demanding social justice for oppressed masses. At a more local scale, social bonding may have created lynch mobs and pogroms, but it also nurtured neighborhood friendships, romantic love, idealistic brother bands in art and politics, and communal self-help.

The Western cultural tradition has for nearly three millennia evoked these opposed potentialities — the dark sides of human existence as well as the cures for present and future ills — in the figure of the Greek god Prometheus. The importance of the myth of Prometheus has increased rather than decreased in the modern era, epitomizing the innovative economic and social force of modernity expressed by most ideologies of the last two centuries. Other myths, sometimes competing with and sometimes supplementing the Promethean one, have of course also served as seedbeds of modern ideologies. Individuals and groups in contemporary society continue to believe in the salvationist myth of Christ. Others revere the devotion to aesthetic perfection associated with the myths of Orpheus and Apollo, or the demonic productivity of Faust or the intoxicated descent into instinctual life associated with Dionysos. Insofar as the Promethean ethos is a myth of heroic creation and sacrifice, however, I believe it has been the principal inspiration of the continual transformations of our world, the dominant myth of the modern age. In Freudian terms, it has defined the principal link between rational ego, moral will, and instinctual impulse in our world, for the better in the democratic revolutions to which we are the heirs, for the worse in the catastrophic scenarios to which uncontrolled nationalism and industrialism, by-products of those revolutions, led in the twentieth century. The complexities of the Promethean tradition are the complexities of the contemporary world; the faces of modern Prometheanism are as multiple and contradictory as those of modernity itself.

This book, in contrast to the prevailing interpretation of Prometheanism, has as its point of departure a vision of the Titan God that may nurture hope rather than terror of the future.

ARTHUR MITZMAN is emeritus professor of modern history at the University of Amsterdam. His previous books include The Iron Cage: An Historical Interpretation of Max Weber and Michelet, Historian: Rebirth and Romanticism in Nineteenth-Century France. He can be reached at: