What kind of societies have any hope of reaching the Tenth Millennium? This is perhaps the first question facing any future ascenturian, an adherent to a wholly fictitious philosophy that seeks to ensure that humanity, in all its contemporary diversity, survives to the one hundredth century after civilisation began. More than a thought experiment, ascenturian philosophy is a collective science fiction story that we can discover how to write only by sharing our fragmentary ideas and fantasies about what might be entailed in the next 4,800 years of human history.
From the very premise of this imaginary movement, one thing should be clear: an ascenturian has to be able to think differently about time. Since the return of the ancient ideal of democracy during the Enlightenment, we have been divided into two prevailing political relationships towards time: on the one hand, those rooted in tradition (the political right) act in the memory of times past; while on the other side, those seeking to build a better world (the political left) act in the hope of a time to come where the social problems of today have been transcended. The last couple of centuries have been characterised by this apparent conflict between two political stances that are, in principle at least, wholly compatible.
Indeed, if we take this left-right divide as originating in 1789, when the French national assembly seated delegates in favour of change on the left, and those in favour of traditional order on the right, we will find that for the first century following this new arrangement, it was broadly recognised as beneficial. Writing in 1859, John Stuart Mill remarked:
In politics... it is almost a commonplace, that a party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life... Each of these modes of thinking derives its utility from the deficiencies of the other; but it is in a great measure the opposition of the other that keeps each within the limits of reason and sanity.
Why did this arrangement break down? To a fair approximation, we can say that it could not survive the collapse of dialogue between these opposing political stances. As long as debate between these diametrically opposed positions was possible, their tension provided a workable engine for balancing change with stability. But once partisan politics gave up the process of debate, it crumbled into a new system whereby rather than a balancing co-operation, the party divide became ever more adversarial, with each faction seeking nothing from their opponents but defeat in the next election. We have seen this most clearly in the United States, where bipartisan discussions have become rarer and rarer, and the country lurches between vastly incompatible political visions that alternate between enacting and dismantling, as each administration bulldozes whatever the previous one tried to build.
What our fictional ascenturians need from us isn't necessarily a path back to the balance of power maintained by debate between opposing political sensibilities. Nonetheless, they perhaps will need a principle whereby recovering that equilibrium is possible - and ideally, a principle that leaves open the possibility that there are other ways of maintaining both a link to the past and a path to the future. All that might be needed is a temporal principle, something that captures what was once taken for granted in the left-right political divide without shackling these imaginary people to a state of affairs bereft of opportunities to innovate or adapt. This principle need offer nothing more than a synthesis of the temporal relationships of the old left and right:
Act in the memory of time past and the knowledge of time to come
This feels too simplistic to do any work at all! And yet it also rules out organising the entirety of society in such a way that either the past or the future can be ignored or forgotten. If accepted, this is a principle that negates the most unhinged aspects of contemporary political life by revealing them to be either destructive to the continuity of knowledge by angrily razing the past to ashes, or unable to think about the future as anything but a continuation of the past.
The traditional right always suffered a certain preposterousness in its way of insisting upon the timelessness of traditions that had, upon any reasonable historical examination, constantly renewed and renovated themselves. If we look at the twenty centuries of Christianity, the twenty six centuries of Buddhism, or the forty centuries of the Hindu traditions, we will not find anything like a consistent set of practices running across that entire span of time. But what these religions (and indeed, all other traditional religions) achieved was a capacity to reimagine their practices in a way that preserved key aspects of their community of practice over time.
The traditional left, however, is perpetually at risk of a revisionism that sees all traditions as either obsolete or outright evil. As a result, it drifts into viewing religion as something that must be eliminated. True, certain 'outsider' religions have been nominally supported as a matter of diversity, but the left has remained resolute in its opposition to traditional Christianity, viewed under inescapable suspicion as the 'majority religion' and thus a principal political foe. Yet contrary to the ubiquitous knee-jerk critiques of religions, it is precisely the adaptability of established religions that has preserved their practices over time. This is not something we should seek to downplay.
Our imagined ascenturians need commit to no religion as such, yet neither do they require any prohibition against religion. Indeed, given the adaptability and longevity of religious practice, we should expect religion to be some part of what the fictional ascenturians live with. We do not need to resolve any of the details of how this might work (it could work in countless different ways!) as long as we accept that this openness to different practices for living would need to be part of any ascenturian society. Furthermore, we should be able to see that it is not enough for there to be an acceptance of 'a religion', the door needs to be kept open for any and all religions capable of being sustained in an ascenturian world.
It is not clear that any religious community need be excluded on this basis. The Amish Mennonites form what might be called a 'bubble culture', separated from the conditions of life experienced by almost everyone else living around them. But their chosen isolation and maintenance of seemingly 'older' forms of religious practice does not exclude them from being part of the wider social collectives of the United States, the national framework they live within. To our imaginary ascenturians, the Amish are yet another source of adaptability and diversity - their apparent displacement in time from a contemporary perspective is neither here nor there. Neither is their apparent rejection of 'the future' problematic. On the contrary: reflect upon the situation of the Amish carefully and it becomes clear that they do not reject their future at all. They have chosen to preserve it. It is we 'English' who have chosen a way of living that is anathematic to having a future.
This example hopefully illuminates an important point about the suggested temporal principle: it is not a problem for people to form their own bubble cultures inside collective society, but it would be disastrous to impose such a bubble culture as the entirety of social existence. The recent tendency of young protestors to seek to tear down certain statues, to reject and eliminate certain books, and to generally attempt to sanitise the past is exceptionally problematic from the point of view of creating an adaptable 'future-proof' culture. It is one thing to form a bubble culture for your own purposes, as the Amish do. It is quite another to attempt to enforce this bubble culture on everyone, especially if the attempt entails severing our links to the past. This expressly violates the temporal principle proposed above, and thus cannot be part of any imagined ascenturian philosophy as I am laying it out.
Numerous objections might be anticipated at this point, justifications for why the sins of the past must be washed away in the purge of the present. But it is simply unnecessary to deal with the past in this manner. The circumstances of other cultures (past or present) are frequently disturbing or horrific to those who dwell within different sensibilities. But a knowledge of the future must draw against the memory of times past or else risk making the same mistakes over and over again. We can allow anyone who wishes to reject encounters with the past to form a 'bubble culture' that isolates them from engaging in unpleasant confrontation with what once was, perhaps. But we must not make the error of attempting to deny our histories to whoever wants or needs them.
The present is more than just a way station to the future, where we can tear up the tracks we have already travelled upon as extraneous... the present is the only vantage point we have to view the landscape of human time, and the relative visibility of the past when compared to the inherent unknowability of the future makes it a valuable source of adaptability and diversity that defends the future through the very act of remembering. This remembrance cannot be sanitised without the risk of forgetting the lessons of history... yet that history is never fixed, never static. Like religion, history is always capable of being adapted to the present, and this does not require us to cast out what was previously said or thought. On the contrary, each successive version of history within any given culture contributes to the greater whole of our collective understandings of the past.
The proposed temporal principle is not enough to complete the science fiction story of the ascenturians. They need to be empowered to accept diversity, for it is in that diversity that adaptability thrives. But this cannot be achieved by creating a catalogue of identities that are henceforth approved and permitted, and then demonising dissent from this (the 'intolerant tolerance' I criticised in Chaos Ethics). On the contrary, even our understandings of diversity must be diverse. To hold together any fictional society, something more than a coalition of bubble cultures is required. There must be some capacity for a social framework between those cultures or, equivalently, there must be broader, more inclusive bubble cultures that can span between them.
This suggests the basis for a social principle that supports the temporal principle, and the most necessary aspect of this principle must be that it is ambiguous as to what kind of cultural bubbles can be collected together. What we require is a plurality of collectives, founded on the reciprocal relationships between their members. The members of any such collective belong to one another, rather than being merely a bag of individuals unrelated by anything except identity characteristics. This reciprocity is implied in the whole concept of a 'collective' anyway, but it does not hurt to make it clear that a collective of unrelated individuals is inherently contradictory.
These collectives need also to be collected, and as a result we can surmise that at least some proportion of them must either behave in an inclusive manner to other collectives, or else be able to stand in solidarity with them despite their disagreements. Just as the temporal principle can be seen as descending from the historical 'left-right' split, this social principle can also draw against a political legacy: the rightful condition (Recht in German philosophy), the foundation of contemporary democracy, where citizens share in legal rights that secure their mutual freedom. Our promises to uphold 'human rights' and defend 'civil rights' began as a rethinking of the rule of monarchy by the Enlightenment thinkers, and was perhaps their greatest success. Sadly, after less than a century, these rights have ended up being trashed by the 'right' (who do not wish to extend rights to those declared their military enemies) and are now also dismissed by the 'left' (who do not wish to extend rights to those declared their medical enemies).
Although the least popular of the Star Wars movies, the prequels do an excellent job of exploring the fragility of our commitments to democracy and the rightful condition, and the dangers of falling into imperial dogmatism. Who can have missed the biting satire entailed in the future Emperor making his 'emergency powers' speech to the Galactic Senate in Episode II: Attack of the Clones (pictured above)? Palpatine declares with mock-modesty:
It is with great reluctance that I have agreed to this calling. I love democracy... I love the Republic. But I am mild by nature, and I do not desire to see the destruction of democracy. The power you give me I will lay down when this crisis has abated, I promise you.
Lucas was lampooning the military imperialism of the 'right', but this critique applies just as well to the medical imperialism of the 'left' - and to much more besides. Whenever our democracy fails, we are all eligible to share in the guilt. Yet rather than seeking to hide from our chosen side's failure to uphold civil rights, rather than resorting to excuses about what was militarily or medically 'necessary', perhaps we can take this opportunity to recognise that when it comes to defending rights, we all failed together. It is all too easy to let the invocation of a crisis weaken the foundations of civil society when fear distracts us from our ideals. As Lucas recognised, and before him Asimov and Herbert too, the decline and fall of the Roman Empire still holds important lessons for us today.
In the challenge of upholding our promises of human rights, we failed. But that doesn't mean we cannot try again. We do not necessarily need to restore the rights agreements of the mid-twentieth century - more inclusive promises could be made instead - but the ascenturians need some framework for promising solidarity. What is required is some principle that permits us to assemble different cultures, different values, different histories, different medicines, different sciences into a collective, or a set of collectives. This may look shockingly like giving up on truth, but this free expression of difference entails no such thing: it is merely an invitation to recognise that our access to truth is conditioned by where we stand - and clearly we do not all stand in the same place.
We should reject 'alternative facts' - a weak excuse for inventing fables of convenience - and abandon 'post-truth' fatalism, which implies no access to the truth whatsoever. We simply need to acknowledge that since you can only stand in one place, you can only see the truth from one angle. We thus require discourse with others stood elsewhere in order to assemble the truth with any degree of accuracy. The sciences are not some magical exception to this crucible of viewpoints: every successful scientific investigation has depended upon the participation of community perspectives for its validation. It is only by engaging with different interpretations of the evidence that the truth can be investigated, and we dogmatically enforce any scientific claim at our peril.
As an imaginary principle of assembly for ascenturians I suggest this modest proposition:
Assemble a plurality of reciprocal collectives of any viable kind.
Perhaps this principle also needs to entail a requirement of inclusiveness, but such inclusiveness is hard to codify without it risking collapsing the plurality required to ensure diversity and adaptability. Rather, it seems as if the purpose of 'assembling a plurality' already expects that some element of inclusion will be required, without having to set out the conditions under which it must occur. Precisely the problem with the movements that have followed in the wake of 'the left' is that the conditions of inclusion have been set as mandatory. We do not need and should not want this kind of narrow-minded 'inclusion', which is always an invitation to hate those excluded because they do not include as we do. Rather, the forms of inclusion our fictional ascenturians require can be of 'any viable kind'. It is not for us to dictate to them the conditions by which their society of societies and culture of cultures can be assembled.
These two principles - the temporal principle, and the principle of assembly - provide a starting point for the fictional world of the ascenturians, a fictitious people capable of undertaking the imaginary second leg of the journey of human civilisation towards the Tenth Millennium. But to give them any hope of completing that adventure, they need more than this. To have some hope of success, they must be capable of defending themselves from those threats they make for themselves, and that requires something that is utterly unthinkable for us humans today: sustainable technology.
Next week: Sustaining the Present