Stuck in the present with you: political change in an era of pessimism

Battle of Ideas festival 2021, Sunday 10 October, Church House, London


‘Why should I be studying for a future that soon may be no more, when no one is doing anything to save that future?’
Greta Thunberg COP24 climate talks, Poland, December 2018

‘The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say – we will never forgive you.’
Greta Thunberg, UN Climate Summit, New York, 2019.

As Greta’s denunciations illustrate, it seems clear that today’s activists face a gloomy dilemma with no apparent way out: historic actions have created this mess and the most we can hope for in the future is survival. This outlook threatens to leave society unmoored and stuck in the present, just as much as drivers have been regularly stuck in protest-created traffic jams on the M25.

In the past, political change was future-orientated and optimistic, full of hope at the possibility of improving lives. Today, the tone seems more pessimistic, even millenarian. There is a widespread assumption that today’s young people and future generations will be worse off than their parents. Young political activists accuse their elders of leaving a rotten legacy of a wrecked planet, institutional bigotry and economic chaos.

In turn, adult society seems haunted by its responsibility for the alleged sins of the past. For example, in the name of future generations, the spectre of ecological catastrophe is now shaping policy and institutional priorities. While the need to reduce CO2 emissions may provide a mission for a world otherwise shorn of moral certainties, it’s underlying message seems debilitating. ‘Code Red’ warnings of a grim future caused by irresponsible human action in the past capture an increasing alienation from both the past and the future.

A driving force of political action today is to disavow what were seen as the gains of the past. For example, environmentalists decry the huge strides made for humanity on the back of the Industrial Revolution, which are now seen as creating today’s problems. Social and economic changes, hard fought for as the by-products of modernity, resulting in decreasing child mortality, extended life expectancy, the wonders of modern sanitation, agriculture, prosperity, energy and transport are now catastrophised as evidence of humanity being inherently destructive. Today’s ‘net zero’ targets are, by implication, necessary reparations for historic wrongdoing.

More broadly, debates rage with unmatched intensity about history. What purports to be a newly enlightened focus on social injustice in the here and now actually seems preoccupied with indicting past wrongs. Holding historical figures and events to contemporary standards has created a toxic battleground over statues, museums, ‘dead white men’ and past injustices. It seems as if every major institution is engaged in examining its past for traces of slavery and racism, and purging such links from its image today.

But where does it leave society if its history is constantly treated as a hostile inheritance? Many are now worried about the fragmentary and demoralising outcomes of stigmatising historical figures as bigots. More than 40 senior UK and ‘Anglosphere’ academics recently launched History Reclaimed, concerned about the way the culture wars have overtaken their field. They claim that recent campaigns to rewrite the histories of Western democracies have undermined ‘their solidarity as communities, their sense of achievement, even their basic legitimacy’.

What are we to base our values on today if a community’s achievements of the past are constantly questioned and humanity’s past achievements are demonised as shameful? Is political change even possible without finding something of value in the actions of our ancestors? Conversely, if the future is characterised as a dark and scary place, how can such a fatalistic pessimism inspire positive political action? If we are alienated from both history and the future, do we risk becoming stuck in the same endless present? Can we save history from nihilism? Can we become active agents once more in shaping the future?

Aaron Bastani
co-founder, Novara Media; author, Fully Automated Luxury Communism: a manifesto

Lord Maurice Glasman
Labour life peer; director, the Common Good Foundation; author, Unnecessary Suffering: Managing Market Utopia

Jacob Reynolds
partnerships manager, Academy of Ideas

Baroness Stowell
Conservative peer, House of Lords; former leader of the House of Lords; former head of corporate affairs, BBC

Robert Tombs
emeritus professor of French history, Cambridge University; author, This Sovereign Isle: Britain In and Out of Europe

Claire Fox
director, Academy of Ideas; independent peer, House of Lords; author, I STILL Find That Offensive!