The end of the 60s is now

Brian Eno, giving his prediction for 2009/the future in general, focusses not on a scientific, technological, political or economic breakthrough, but essentially, the end of optimism as being the default of the west. Unlike Bono’s blethering mass of words in the New York Times, it’s eloquently put, if briskly bleak:

“Human development thus far has been fueled and guided by the feeling that things could be, and are probably going to be, better. The world was rich compared to its human population; there were new lands to conquer, new thoughts to nurture, and new resources to fuel it all. The great migrations of human history grew from the feeling that there was a better place, and the institutions of civilisation grew out of the feeling that checks on pure individual selfishness would produce a better world for everyone involved in the long term.

What if this feeling changes? What if it comes to feel like there isn’t a long term—or not one to look forward to? What if, instead of feeling that we are standing at the edge of a wild new continent full of promise and hazard, we start to feel that we’re on an overcrowded lifeboat in hostile waters, fighting to stay on board, prepared to kill for the last scraps of food and water? Many of us grew up among the reverberations of the 1960’s. At that time there was a feeling that the world could be a better place, and that our responsibility was to make it real by living it. But suppose the feeling changes: that people start to anticipate the future world… as something more closely resembling [a] nightmare of desperation, fear and suspicion. What happens then?

The following: Humans fragment into tighter, more selfish bands. Big institutions, because they operate on longer time-scales and require structures of social trust, don’t cohere. There isn’t time for them. Long term projects are abandoned—their payoffs are too remote… Survivalism rules. Might will be right.”

3 thoughts on “The end of the 60s is now

  1. Actually, I’ve always understood concepts of progress to be relatively modern, essentially a product of the Enlightenment (the term “optimism” was coined in 1710, by Liebniz). The medieval mind tended to understand change as cyclical rather than linear (life and death, the seasons, etc), and insofar as it could perceive linearity it did so in terms of decay, from an imagined “golden age” (arguably the metanarrative of the Old Testament, of course). Indeed you could argue that modernity is DEFINED by its understanding of, and belief in, progress, and then postmodernity by challenges to this belief. So, much as Brian Eno’s saying, but you could find such challenges at least as far back as the First World War, and ultimately faith in the human capacity to overcome has always prevailed.

  2. Absolutely, I agree that this idea of improvement – particularly material improvement is a modern notion (the Victorians, I think, probably were the first to get hold of the ideas of ‘bettering oneself’ and the power of science and progress, but even in the 1800s I doubt many working class people expected, after 20 years of labour, to be middle class.

    Perhaps the lack of postmodernity’s success outside of universities and theory is due to the fact that challenging progress is not really, at the end of the 20th c. a tenable position – see how quickly Francis Fukuyama retracted from his ‘End of History’ idea.

  3. Hmmmmmm, well I would definitely take the concept of progress back into the eighteenth century (see, for example, the idealism underpinning the American and French Revolutions – indeed the very concept of “revolution” is impossible without an understanding of progress), and there are antecedents in patterns of thought that emerged with the Renaissance, and then the Scientific Revolution. However, you’re absolutely right that belief in the potential to progress reached its zenith under the Victorians. And then I guess what brought the concept of progress out of the coffee houses and into the minds of ordinary people will have been firstly industrialisation, which lifted large numbers of people out of a world governed by nature and dropped them into one governed by man, and a powerful, capable man at that, and then ultimately compulsory education, guided by the progressive state.

    Maybe the same time-lag in transmitting modern concepts from intellectual elites to masses will exist for postmodern ones. Or maybe postmodern concepts are less wholeheartedly accepted even amongst intellectuals. Indeed, MOST people would not assert, in the way the Victorians did, that our culture is “best”, to be aspired to by other societies around the world. Well this is an example of a postmodern thought, widely accepted. Francis Fukuyama is an interesting one, because he was saying that things aren’t going to continue to improve not because they’re going to start to deteriorate, but because they’re already “ideal”. Except was he saying that? Or was he just saying that we’ve now achieved an ideal SYSTEM, within which we can continue to develop technologically and culturally.

    It’s interesting what you say about notions of the potential of the INDIVIDUAL to progress. I wonder how closely this is related to belief in broader societal progression? Because of course social status is purely relative – in most respects the bottom 10% of society today live better than the top 10% of society 300 years ago. However in the nineteenth century the working class were PARTICULARLY keen on self-improvement. This has now largely disappeared, and who knows, maybe that’s a touch of postmodernity! 😀 Of course the right, when examining today’s “underclass”, attribute the change to the appearance of the overly supportive external presence of the welfare state. I wonder if it might not be something much simpler, namely that all the genetic potential locked into the nineteenth-century working class has been released into today’s middle class and beyond, and what’s left, this “underclass”, is genetically incapable of social mobility.

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