They keep…doing it. Over and over again. Not you, dear readers. I mean…people I talk to. In a professional context. Wearing my economist slash Top 50 Thinkers in the World hat.
They keep asking me for...hope.
And I keep looking at them, frowning, a little…perplexed.
They—and this means everyone from boardroom titans to companies to editors and publishers and so on, let’s just call them People With Power—think of it as my job…these days...to give them hope. Is it my job? I sort of chuckle. Not in an arrogant way, which is how that sounds, but…let’s talk about it.
The issue of Hope in an Age of Collapse. The question of it, to be more precise.
When people like this ask me for “hope,” they mean a certain thing that they don’t know they mean. A form of it, particular, precise, singular, and in a way, unique.
I’m practically a Catholic. Take me to Mass, and I’m thrilled. You wouldn’t have to drag me kicking and screaming to an exorcism, either. I can’t quite say why, especially for someone who’s not really religious, like me. And in its context, hope means something very, very particular. Hope is a virtue, and despair is a sin. There’s a hope, in this sense, for life after the horizon of death.
When People With Power ask me for hope, that’s not what they mean at all. I bring that up for a reason, though: that is what hope meant for a very, very long time, millennia, much longer than it’s meant what it means now.
There’s another kind of hope, too, that matters, in, for example, again the Catholic context, but in a wider one, too. Hope in the sense of not giving up on your fellow person, man, woman. In their essential and innate goodness, if you like. The possibility that all can be redeemed, and it doesn’t have to be by the Cross, in this sense, but by…whatever you want to call it: humanity, conscience, morality, decency, a lot of words that especially Americans use to avoid the central one, love. But it’s not this kind of hope that People in Power ask me for, either.
Yet, again, it’s this form of hope that was meant historically, for most of the human journey. Until...
The modern form of hope hadn’t developed at all, yet. What’s this form of the thing called hope? Think about, for example, being a peasant, or worse, a slave. Anywhere on earth. At any point in history. Before the dawn of modernity. What didn’t you have? Hope. In the modern sense—the emancipatory one, the liberational one, that better things could materially happen, which we’ll soon develop a finer definition of. You might have had a desperate desire for it, sure, but you understood that history, such as it was, wasn’t going anywhere. You’d have had to have been a radical or revolutionary to have believed that the chains and fetters of history could have been thrown off.
In a more formal sense, social structure—and economic growth—was stable. There were slaves, above them peasants, and above them nobles, and finally kings. The stratum you were born into was everything. Sure, there were a few exceptions, like Roman slaves being able to “win” their freedom, but they were few and far between, really—would you like to have been made a slave in Rome? So hope in these times, pre-modern ones, was about our first two definitions of it—what you might call its spiritual aspects. The modern notion of it hadn’t developed at all, really.
That modern notion is now much easier to see, since I’ve set it in stark contrast to its predecessors. “Hope” went from spiritual to secular, like so much else in culture, society, and life. And now it began to mean…upward motion. Progress, if you like, though I think that’s a little crude. The idea began to mean that maybe these old forms of social strata weren’t eternal. That you didn’t have to be a peasant, anymore, and maybe you could take a voyage from your impoverished European village to bustling New York City, and become…something else. That maybe by sheer work, a little bit of luck, and with indefatigable determination, you could rise from subsistence worker to merchant. And so on.
Hope itself underwent a kind of metamorphosis, inside the human mind. As the old structures stopped being eternal. A slave or a peasant a thousand years ago? If you’d told them that maybe one day people born in their shoes wouldn’t have to just end up that way…would have been baffled. They’d probably have thought you were crazy. But how would we be anything else? Doesn’t this idiot know that a lord or Samurai or Maharaja or what have you can literally chop our heads off without even thinking twice about it? How’s all that going to change?
So. When People in Power ask a guy like me for “hope,” desperately, a little too fervently, overly nervously, sweating while they grin, they mean something by it. And their emotions, do, too.
They’re asking me to resurrect the upwards trajectory of modernity itself.
Can I do that? Should I do that? Imagine you went to the doctor, begging for hope, knowing, in your heart of hearts, that you were seriously ill. A good doctor…would probably gently try and support you while she delivered a body blow of bad news. A bad doctor, on the other hand, might just…you get my point, perhaps, a little bit.
The upwards trajectory of modernity itself. They’re asking me to bring the future back from the grave. But I don’t have magic powers. I joke that I’m a vampire—yes, the light really can kill me, it’s a rare genetic condition, my blood turns to dust, imagine what that feels like, that’s what it feels like—but even being one doesn’t give me the power to raise the dead. I don’t know if anyone has that power, or more to the point, if anyone should.
The trajectory of human progress really has come to a great turning point. That’s not my opinion, it’s an empirical fact. The UN warns we’re off track towards meeting its goals. Democracy’s in steep decline. Our economies have ground to a halt. Inequality’s rife. Violence and conflict are spreading. People are traumatized, wounded, terrified, even if we don’t talk about it enough. None of this is a joke. It means something. However you look at the situation, empirically, that very line of upwards motion is now stalling out and beginning to go into freefall.
There’s a certain kind of person—The Contrarian Dude—who’ll want to “debate” that. It’s not up for debate. We are talking about facts from bodies like the UN, IMF, World Bank, and many more. If you want to question them, be my guest, and maybe you can be Russell Brand’s too, because that’s where this form of not-quite thinking leads. For the rest of us? Who should believe in little things called facts? Reality? This is where we actually are.
So when People in Power ask me for hope, they’re asking me for…a lot of things. They’re asking to refute every fact we have about where we are, as a civilization, more or less, at the moment, from economics to society to politics. They’re asking me to raise the dead, and somehow, with a swift firm kick, using my Magic Powers, put the broken line of progress back where they think it should be.
And I think they know it. Not consciously, often, but unconsciously, to be sure. Because this kind of conversation is always tense. Not on my end, on theirs. They grin, while they plead, their eyes shine a little too much, there’s an electric charge nervous tension lingering in the air. You could cut the atmosphere with a knife. They don’t want to talk about it the way I do, and they don’t want me to talk about it the way I do. They don’t want to admit this, grasp this, feel this.
The tension? It’s about defense mechanisms rising like goosebumps the height of the Great Wall of China. No no no no no. I don’t want to face this! Just…perform an exorcism! Raise the corpse!! Bring it all back to life!! Give me…some…goddamn…hope!! It goes deeper still. When People in Power ask me for Hope, desperately, in that pleading sort of way, they’re not…let me put it another way.
Here’s the world. Do you really think that over the next decade, for example, any of the following are going to happen? What are the chances? A large scale transfer of wealth back from the ultra mega giga rich to the average person. A world no longer eerily mirroring old lines of empire and “race,” that still dictate the wealth, opportunities, and GDP of nations, not to mention people. Something as a simple a carbon tax. The right for all of us to live on a planet that’s not a cinder. I could go on. Just choose something…that we all know should happen…oh, hi Andrew Tate…not you…I mean the rest of us…and tell me: do you really think it’s going to happen?
Of course not. Right now? There’s not the faintest glimmer that any of the above is going to happen. Let’s take an even more mundane, yet bone-chilling example. We’re on course for 2.6 degrees of warming, which is beyond the threshold that every climate tipping point we know of is hit, triggering quite possibly runaway warming, at the very least, taking us to a much hotter world than even that. Do you seriously think we’re going to do enough about it fast enough to avoid it? What could change that? Is it right or wrong to give "hope" in that case? Counterproductive or...
I don’t ask that in a confrontational way, which it might come across as. I mean it a genuine way. "Do you really think that"….not hope. Think. There's a difference, and it matters, and you're probably annoyed at me right now, but I'm going to come to my point.
That brings me to the final wrinkle, or the last two, anyways.
When People With Power ask Guys Like Me for a thing Called Hope, even they don’t mean it seriously. All the above, I grant you, is what we should hope for. But they, like the rest of us, know it’s not going to happen, or at least, the chances are slender enough that you’d hardly bet the house on it, would you. So what they really mean is…give me examples of something that can just…hey…allay these awful feelings I have that I’m trying to Repress By Any Means Necessary…That Everything Isn’t Going Down the Tubes at Light-Speed.
So they mean, for example—maybe there’s this awesome new startup that could, I don’t know, decrease the Fall of Civilization by 0.004%! Or maybe it could be true that AI girlfriends will make all those Sad Guys less lonely—right? Right? Bueller? Or: hey, look, isn’t this app a nice way to shop? And isn’t that great, wonderful, progress? Sure, all those things and nice, and some of them are even wonderful and cool and interesting and promising.
But we’re talking here at the micro micro scale. Not the macro scale. And we’re talking about means, not ends. You see, to have discussions like that—LinkedIn level fodder, basically—is to concede that we all really know the Big Picture is a) dire b) not going to change much and c) more or less set in stone.
So what they’re really asking me for, in this desperate quest for even the most tiny, mundane examples of something, anything, is just to…feel a little better…just to have something to cling to…another Brick in the Wall of Defenses to Repress the Bad Feelings that Arise When We All Think About the Future and…
Go ahead. You see? It’s OK to admit it. I wrote this long, turgid essay to share something. So that we could all share something. A thing we’re all trying not to. Desperately, frantically, manically.
Thinking about the future makes us panic. Three ways demonstrate it beyond a shadow of a doubt. The People in Power pleading with me to give them Even the Tiniest Example to Disprove it All. The Contrarian Guy who always wants to “argue” but won’t look at the facts—he’s trying not to panic, too, of course, which is the inner purpose of the whole schtick. And everybody else, who’s sort of alternately doom-scrolling and frantically banality-swiping-right in this numb loop of Oh My God I’m Terrified Let me Look at Some Cats Pets Dates Sunglasses.
I think we have to begin at the beginning. You see, these conversations used to annoy me. Now, I think of them as bittersweet. I get what they’re looking for. But I don’t have magical powers. None of us do. And it’s not right for me to abuse my position either, like the Bad Doctor, and tell you everything’s going to be OK, when I can see a lump sticking out of your neck that’s practically the size of a Venetian Gondola. You know who can raise the dead? Nobody.
We have to begin at the beginning. There’s a thing called history. There’s a thing called the future. What did we learn, over the last half millennium? You can break the fetters and chains of history. That in itself is astonishing, breathtaking, miraculous—because almost nobody would have believed it in deep time. But today? We’re learning something different, the inverse of that lesson, the Shadow of the Great Lesson of History. Yes, you can break the chains and fetters of history.
But you can break the future too.
By taking it for granted. By neglecting it. By treating it with contempt, as just another consumerist commodity. With anger, rage, scorn, and hate. Through demagoguery and scapegoating. With underinvestment and malinvestment.
You can break the future too. You can put those fetters and chains back on, back on each other, and that way? Lie all the tragedies, follies, and catastrophes of the human journey. A whirlpool of them, with a savage gravity, a roaring, spinning, chasm, plunging and raging down into the depths.
That’s the lesson of now. And it's just as important and epochal as History's First Great Lesson, that you can Break it Fetters and Chains. Nobody can raise the dead. What we can do, our only human power? Honor the dead. To, in grief, through mourning, gain wisdom. This is our task now, too. That might sound funereal. Is it? The future isn’t gone in the hardest of senses—no, it’s not all over tomorrow, the Grand Finale, the meteor strike, the alien invasion, the Hollywood movie. But it is withering. Shrinking. Diminishing. Dying. And what is true that yesterday’s paradigms are dying now, and nobody can resurrect them ever again, from the old model of growth, to the emptiness of why we pursued it, to our numb role in it, to the shattered politics it created, to the troubled world it made. Paradigmatic transformation, on every level.
Now we have to outgrow...all that. Mature. Past humanity’s broken childhood, and tumultuous adolescence. Now we have to understand who we are, why we’re here, and what matters about life itself. Is it just…a tiny handful of people having more money than they can ever spend…while the rest of us are left with fascism spreading on a dying planet? Is it just war, conflict, hate, and rage? Or is the purpose of life the expansion and fruition of life itself? Big Questions.
The dead are never gone. They stay with us, in our souls. We learned that the fetters and chains of history can be broken: History’s First Great Lesson. The thing called a future was born. Humanity grew past childhood, into adolescence. Now we are learning History’s Second Great Lesson: the future can be broken, too. So now we must mature and grow past adolescence, into maturity, just like a little person must: my parent can be hurt, too, and I can be the one to hurt them. From this grows all adult morality, power, and reason.
This is our task in the 21st century.
I said “learning,” but I lied. Right now? We’re trying not to learn that lesson. Because it’s painful. It hurts, in the deepest way a truth can hurt, just as it does for a child. And so I have these conversations with People in Power, which are about trying not to to learn the lesson. I chuckle. They’re bittersweet moments. I know how much it hurts. I feel it, too. We all do. But I don’t have magic powers. None of us do. And the moment a child learns that about themselves, and their parents—that instant is the dawn of true maturity. Now there's self-determination, grace, responsibility, courage, purpose. And isn't that precisely what we're missing these days?
This is where we are, my friends. Be gentle. The road before us winds through the valley of the shadow of death. Say a prayer, if you must. That’s for hope. But what keeps us walking? Is only one thing, and has only ever been. There’s no way back. Only forward. Orpheus looked back. Do you remember what happened? Eurydice was trapped by Hades, in the underworld. He broke his promise to death. Let us keep ours.
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