The missing future and its consequences

Part One: A Conceptual Outline

Without a clear and positive future, increasingly “deviant behavior” becomes “normal.” To understand it, we must dust off the conceptual schemes of classical sociology.

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Reader, please imagine the description of death given by a dead person – something impossible except in fantastic literature. It would not be Hamlet´s monologue, Prince of Denmark, but that of Yorick, the skull. I would say something like this: “I don’t want to overwhelm you with the unpleasant details: the blood loss, the fever, the persistent cough, the final choking. Though, I was able to die in my bed. During my agony a priest came. Even though I was never a believer, I let it happen, because in the end, who knows what’s next? He brought a box of ointments and a prayer book. My family accompanied me. At 20:11 at last I was freed. My heart stopped. Outside there was a downpour, as in the poem by Cesar Vallejo.[1]. That year there were a million deaths in my country alone. The virus that killed me originated in Xian in northwest China, with poor stinking chickens that became pestiferous.”

Don’t worry kind reader. The announcement of such a pandemic death in the mouth of a deceased is a fantastic exaggeration. There is, for the moment, no truthful testimony from the afterlife. No one, as far as I know, crossed the threshold backwards. There is no choice but to live to tell it, as García Márquez wrote. Marcus Aurelius (whose Meditations I recommend) said that we only have the present to take advantage of or to lose. We have already lost the past, and the future does not yet exist. However, past and future are indispensable in every present of living, between nothingness (individual) before birth and nothingness (individual) after death.

With the advent of modernity, humanity (first in the West) believed in the promise of a happy and attainable future. It was a novelty. Today, all that is in crisis. Let me explain.

The future is one of the indispensable reference points to exist. We need it because, as Sartre said, to live is to project, to launch oneself forward, even if in the end passion is useless. Now, what happens when the future blurs, disappears, or appears as a horizon of black clouds? The reference points of action (individual and collective) all tremble, and we are presented with different possibilities of adaptation that we must examine.

This mismatch or scrapie of norms is what classical sociology called anomie. In the 19th century, the first to study it was the French sociologist Emile Durkheim in his studies on suicide as a social phenomenon. In the 20th century, the concept was elaborated by the American sociologist Robert K. Merton, in his studies on the tension caused by the contradictions of the cultural system and the tension between the norms of a culture and the obstacles to its realization that come from the social structure. I think that today, in the 21st century, we must return to that concept and adapt it to the moral or normative situation in which the world finds itself. Hence its geopolitical relevance.[2]

Anticipating what is to come, it is licit, common, and necessary, and is called prediction. We do it with tomorrow’s weather, in meteorology, and more and more accurately. We also do it with the times to come, that is, with individual and collective life. Though, in this field, accuracy is lower. Every prediction arouses both hope and fear.

Predicting is confused with projecting. Modernity celebrates uncertainty, typical of science and technological progress. For a modern enthusiast, without the uncertainty of change, the world would be one of unbearable boredom, or terrifying fatalism. “Project” has two meanings. One is Sartre’s: between Being and Nothingness, we have to Do. The other is Freud’s (modified by Borges): when designing the future, we trace only the sketch of our own nose.

In young countries, or recently settled (such as USA, Argentina, Australia), the future projection is generally optimistic (example: the “American dream”). Despite the uncertainty inherent with modernity, the future in these cultures is generally positive: moving forward, everything is more and better. Prediction errors (some cardinal errors and others quite comical) do not matter.

Thus, we are left with Oscar Wilde’s reflection: “prediction is a difficult art; especially the prediction of the future.” The future is hopelessly a function of our action in the present, but without guarantees. Wisdom, on the other hand, is the same uncertainty seen upside down. It is hopelessly retrospective. That is why Hegel said that Minerva’s owl takes flight at dusk. In good criollo: by the time you realize it, it’s too late. Let us look at some past futures and consider the shortness of their foresight.

In 1940, American demographers made an estimate of population growth in that country for the following twenty years. They based their calculations on the projection of existing birth and death rates (discounting the War). But they did not foresee the possibility that, with the end of hostilities and the rise of a new prosperity, a real copulative enthusiasm would be unleashed. However, that is what happened, and it was called the “baby boom.” They fell short of a hundred million.

When William Graham Bell invented the telephone, the mayor of an American city celebrated it with a speech and made a prediction: “I can already see the day,” he said, “when every city in our country will have one of these devices.”

The world did not end in the year one thousand or the year two thousand. The computer confusion we had projected did not occur with the advent of Y2K. The Cold War did not lead to a nuclear holocaust. Neither Bonaparte nor Hitler conquered Russia. Communism did not bury capitalism. Despite his youthful certainty in other times, a revolutionary in old age already knows that history did not absolve him. Between the concrete end of each and the final end of everything, there are no firmly pre-established ends. There are desires, projects, constraints, successes and mistakes, lessons from the past and prudential rules.

Let us not deprive ourselves of these three gifts, which are the other side of our uncertainty: freedom, hope, and the will to act. Ah… I forgot a fourth gift: sense of humor. With these tools, I propose to return to the scheme of the aforementioned Robert Merton in his studies on anomie and social structure, this time in a geopolitical key. Classical sociology must be dusted off.

For Merton, anomie is “Like the breakdown of the cultural structure, which takes place in particular when there is an acute disjunction between cultural norms and goals and the socially structured capacities of individuals in the group to act in accordance with them.” (Social Theory and Social Structure 1964:170).

From a geopolitical point of view, I dare argue that, first with globalization and then with the opposite assumption – deglobalization – the world experiences multiple breakdowns of cultural structures and also a breakdown in the capacities of individuals and groups to act with any kind of cultural norms and objectives, old or new.

Of course, the probability of falling into anomie differs between individuals due to the social structure where they live, making some more likely than others. Anomie spreads in the strata where the possibilities to access the ends prescribed by culture and society in general are scarce. In this way, without being able to find the means to the ends, the individual is forced or in necessity – if he wants to fulfill the duties and ends imposed culturally – to seek illicit solutions to reach his goal. In addition, the goals themselves (e.g., wealth or fame) are sometimes blurred. Mafias, human trafficking, drug trafficking, street or organized crime, violent nihilism and hacking are examples of this situation.

We know that there are societies (there are fewer and fewer) where there is a certain balance between objectives and the ability to reach them, which could be a society with a caste system (e.g., traditional India that is disappearing) which could restrict objectives that would be catalysts for a state of anomie. In modern societies, only those with small, prosperous, and culturally compact populations contain anomic tendencies (Scandinavia is an example). At the other extreme, a heterogeneous, capitalist and democratic society (not only in the political sense but in the social sense) in the middle, for example, of an economic crisis, is a great breeding ground for anomic behavior.

Merton proposed several categories to understand anomie. These categories “refer to behavior that corresponds to social role in specific types of situations, not personality. They are types of more or less lasting reactions, not types of personality organization.” They are as follows:

  1. Conformity: It is the most common adaptation among the privileged, where both cultural goals and institutional means are accepted. It is the “normal” non-deviant form of behavior.
  2.  Innovation: It is when individuals accept the established goals, but not the means to reach them. Technology is the most cited field of innovation, but so is crime.
  3. Ritualism: It is characteristic of individuals who do not take risks or accept to make a decision where they do not have all the guarantees and, in addition, they are completely sure that they will get what they want. In a dynamic and modern society, they are left behind.
  4. Withdrawal: It is not an adaptation but perhaps a maladjustment to the environment, since they have neither the goals nor the means to realize the objectives proposed culturally. It is characteristic of lazy, autistic, alcoholics among others. Today in some strata of American society, suicidal behavior out of desperation (e.g., opioid crisis) spreads.
  5. Rebellion: People who disagree with both the means and the ends. Their objective is to create a new society or radically modify the current one by another. It has been characteristic of revolutionary attitudes. Swedish activist Greta Thunberg falls into this category.

In most societies today, the most salient modes of behavior are #1 the innovation (in its two meanings normal and criminal) and #4 the Withdrawal. These two categories offer us a sociological interpretation of the marked (and much mentioned) inequality nationally and globally. The great innovators (the heroes of invention like Bill Gates or Elon Musk) and the great criminals (Bernard Madoff among the financiers, or Joaquín “el Chapo” Guzmán among the Narcos) have taken over the ends of society, that is, its future, while large sectors of the population are not only left behind but see the future not as a promise of happiness but as a threat to their own survival. This loss of future seems to me unprecedented and very important. In my next article, I will try to analyze its consequences and outline a path for its possible overcoming.

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[1]              I will die in Paris with a downpour,
a day of which I already have the memory.
I will die in Paris – and I do not run –
maybe on a Thursday, as it is today, in autumn.
Thursday will be, because today, Thursday, such prose
these verses, the humerus I have put
poorly and, never like today, I have turned,
with all my way, to see myself alone.
César Vallejo has died, they beat him
everybody without him doing anything to them;
they gave him hard with a stick and hard also
with a rope; they are witnesses
on Thursday days and the humerus bones,
the loneliness, the rain, the roads …

[2] On geopolitical instability read https://www.nytimes.com/2023/06/26/science/3-body-problem-nuclear-china.html

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