Goodbye 20th century, it was good to know you

Prospect Magazine did a survey for this month’s mag. This was the question they asked, and their sense of the response they got:

“We asked 100 writers and thinkers to answer the following question: Left and right defined the 20th century. What's next? The pessimism of their responses is striking: almost nobody expects the world to get better in the coming decades, and many think it will get worse.”

Admittedly, the thinkers they asked seemed somewhat random. David Brooks gets his say, and Joe Boyd, a music producer, gets his, and apparently what qualifies one to have a view of the next one hundred years best is to work for a bank or business or write an opinion column. There were no H.G. Wells, that’s for sure, and few seemed to disagree with the premise of the question. LI, however, thinks the premise is wrong. Left and right did not define the twentieth century. The century was defined, in our view, by two things: first, the treadmill of production – that system which is falsely defined as capitalist because one of its surface characteristics is the market system – which emerged in Europe in the 17th and 18th century, followed out its logic in all systems (communist, fascist, liberal capitalist) on a world wide basis, having laid the foundations in the 19th century (the development, for instance, of the terror famine in Ireland and India by the British was surely the model for Stalin's agricultural policy) and collapsed the agriculture-based culture that humans had lived under for the past 12,000 years. That was surely the most significant thing that happened in the 20th century, and no ideology led it, no ideology opposed it, and no ideology even envisioned it. The anxiety naturally attendant on the end of civilization created a macro feature, which I’d call the dialectic of vulnerability – basically, that process by which populations, feeling ever more vulnerable even as they became ever more affluent developed systems meant to render them invulnerable – that is, an ever more threatening war culture, with an ever greater destructive reach – which, of course, rendered them ever more vulnerable, an irony that was not rhetorical, but systematic. 9/11 was, in part, a moment in which the nakedness of the system was revealed – a system that could, theoretically, respond to ICBMs traveling over the poles, couldn’t respond to 19 half educated men with box cutters and homemade bombs. And… of course it couldn’t. Defense is a collective fiction, which is its function – being a fiction, there is never a limit on the amount of money one can spend on it. It is, theoretically, inifinitely expensive, while its payoff, as a defense system against all threats, is nearly zero – it will never defend against all threats. That’s ever, with a big fucking E.

The intersection between the treadmill of production and the war culture shaped the 20th century. The division between the right and the left were epiphenomena of that dynamic. It is, of course, impossible to predict the next five years … but in a sense it is probably easier to predict the next 100, since prediction here isn’t about particulars but long, long trends. H.G. Wells was so great because he had a novelist’s instinct for the life of those trends. LI doesn’t – in 1985, when we entered Grad school, we would never have predicted the cultural triumph of Reaganism, for instance. It would have seemed utterly implausible that the combination of endebtedness, meanness, and libertarian logic that flew in the face of reality would ever survive the end of the Gipper. From our inability to see what was in front of our nose, we took a lesson: never underestimate the Death Wish of a culture. It strikes us as, frankly, insane to frame the next hundred years in terms of terrorism or the “battle of civilizations” between Islam and the west. For one thing, among threatening issues, terrorism ranks way below, I don’t know, highway safety as a real issue. But given the need to feed the war culture, terrorism is an invention that has no enemies – it is a win win for all participants, giving an excuse to the war culture’s governors to continue doing what they want to continue doing anyway, and thus guaranteeing that a little place will always be set aside for terrorists – sort of like in Network, where the tv network discovers the audience pull of terrorism, and puts the unorganized groups of guerillas on a business basis. As for Islam, again, the use value of Islam is not in Islam per se, but the way it operates as a wonderful two-fer – dark skins that aren’t Christian! Is there a more perfect enemy? Really, Milosovic should be hailed as a prophet – his ideology has now become standard on the Right, and will no doubt be more and more embedded in the policy of the American state as we drift from disaster to disaster. There is nothing like having a vicious, dark skinned enemy to slaughter – Keynes’ “animal spirits” get all stirred up and shit. But LI will never get our brain around the fact that this might be the future. This is because we don’t want to commit suicide right away – we do want a reason to hang around a bit longer. So we will not believe what seems to be happening right before our eyes as a matter of spiritual health. Otherwise – somebody get me a rusty razor!


roger said…
PS - For a nice look at one of those minor Reagan policies that shifted the economic advantage decisively to the wealthy, see this terribly amusing article about the Alternative minimum tax:

The tax was born out of one war - Vietnam - adjusted to fall upon the upper middle class in the middle of another war - Reagan's cold war - and now exists solely to finance the Bush economy's feeding of the wealthy in the midst of a third war. It was designed, originally, to make sure no rich person evaded all taxes. Here's the last graf:

Meanwhile the stated goal of the original tax is not being met under the successor tax enacted 21 years ago. A far greater number of well-off families still pay only small amounts of tax. More than 41,000 taxpayers with incomes of $200,000 or more in 2003, the last year for which figures are available, paid less than 10 percent of their income in individual income taxes. And the number of untaxed high-income families — once 155 — grew to 2,824.

Makes you feel good to live in a society where the wealthy can be lucky ducks, just like the poor!
Scruggs said…
Oh, go ahead and believe it, Roger. It won't hurt, nor change a thing, for better or worse, and there's certainly no need for the razor. The vigilance committee endures through all philosophical and societal meltdowns. Coping is the baseline ideology. To that end, I've nominated you for Hetman. It's a new office, with no responsibilites and no power, but significant prestige.
Amie said…
LI, er, I have a really ridiculous question, so lame that I don't even quite know how to pose it!
It's about the 20th century defined by and as 'production'. It's hard to contest this ( though I do think they were quite a few in the 20th century who did ), and broadly speaking, the 'right' and 'left' might have had divergent ways of thinking production, but in either case the bottom line remained production.
So here's my bald and dumb question : why must everything - tout court - be about, put in terms of, production?
and what the hell is production anyway, this be and end all that defines everything yet is hard to define itself!?
Now I know this is not simply a 'theoretical' question, as one steps of the treadmill at the risk of breaking one's neck or plummeting into a bottomless hole, but doesn't that make it all the more necessary to somehow put it into question? and to address and respond to the crazies - the sages and the buffoons - of the 20th C who did not quite buy into production?
roger said…
it is a great question, but uh, it is a little big to answer in a comment box to a blog!

One of the cool things, I think, about Derrida's work is that it poses the question of the product in such a way that it converges, to my mind - or maybe this is all in my head! - with the ecological critique - that continual forgetting of environmental cost that is inscribed in the very definition of what is produced and what isn't. This is what motivated Karl Polanyi to talk about 'fictional commodities" - by which he meant land and labor. And to which we can add air and water.

This, at least, is how I'd begin, right off the top of my head.