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The Presidential Election Season: Envisioning the Future

Neoliberalism makes the 2012 election an election unconcerned with the brief we should be making. It cannot therefore be consequential as a beginning toward a corrective future.

Joseph Natoli

"The Singularity is a common matter of discussion in transhumanist circles. There is no clear definition, but usually the Singularity is meant as a future time when societal, scientific and economic change is so fast we cannot even imagine what will happen from our present perspective, and when humanity will become posthumanity. Another definition is used in the Extropians FAQ, where it denotes the singular time when technological development will be at its fastest. Of course, there are some who think the whole idea is just technocalyptic dreaming"

Present and Future

It appears that the neoliberal/American conservative position is reaching hyperbolic, warp-drive levels of representation while the liberal position is heading for a "back in the day" extinction, soon to join the remnants of the left.

There is in fact much besides liberal ideology that is moving to a "back in the day" extinction, including humanity as we now know it. "Transhumanist circles" are now filled with the promises of a glorious future when "technological development will be at its fastest." Our Wiki Oracle describes "Extropianism" as "a pragmatic consilience of transhumanist thought guided by a proactionary approach to human evolution and progress." My purpose is not to satirize this as "technocalyptic dreaming" of an opaque jargon type because I take all dreaming within the American cultural imaginary as significant but suspicion that like all dreaming a lurking irrationality abides.

Future dreaming in which "exponentially expanding technologies" will resolve all problems, including the political, has an impact on a present day politics, including this association of the liberal as past use like a roll of Kodak film or an IBM Selectric or a paper and boards book.

A political ideology forced to question the unbridled rapaciousness of Wall Street gets on the wrong side in the American mass psyche because it appears to be slowing down the inevitability of a future that holds such amazing evolutionary transformation. The questioning has been timid, both Congressionally and presidentially, because liberals and neoliberals share the view that improved quality of life is the result of wealth creation which is itself a result of continuous economic growth. The "Big Narrative" of a future America is not emerging from Obama because liberal "Big Government" has already been successfully labeled as a retardant to growth, which now always means growth through an unquestioned and unimpeded technology. But just as importantly, it is not emerging because liberal ideology can't provide the counterpoints needed nor if it were, would President Obama be ready to adopt them.

Quite simply, if any ideology's "Big Narrative" of the future challenges the notion of "growing" the economy and draws back toward sustainability and equitability, this becomes at once in the American mass psyche a drawing back from our technocalyptic dreaming and its rosy future. This sort of drawing back is of course unworkable as a liberal "Big Narrative" because liberals don't hold with a drawing back, even the slightest movement toward "degrowth." But what's been needed for the past forty years is precisely a drawing back from our zero sum based race to a Finish line in which indeed much is finished off. Instead of taking on this absurd and out of control economics, liberals have remained on the battleground they've chosen since the `60s: fighting the culture wars, everything from abortion and racism to gay rights and ethnic identity politics. On the battleground of economics, the left has tried to ignite a politics based upon values and priorities neoliberalism has mocked, surplanted or successfully pronounced obsolete. The leftist is the new "invisible man," not Ralph Ellison's black man, though chanting that President Obama is a socialist is what I call a "psychic conflation."

Response to the Great and Ongoing Recession, ongoing at least to many, has therefore understandably been a reluctant and reticent one on the part of both President Obama and his liberal constituency. Tea Partiers and Congressional Republicans, however, have pointed a finger at "Big Government" and the dependent "give me a hand out" class it has created and not at a reckless capitalism. The surprising logic here is surely deep, multi-faceted and confounding. Not so confounding, however, when you consider that the present is enveloped in an optimistic future dreaming that the neoliberal/American conservatives can as easily attach themselves to as to an unbridled free market economy. Liberals, however, distinguish themselves from a bipartisan power elite only by urging some restraint, as now in the financial sector. But because, as I have said, this restraint is at core antithetical to the liberal's own ideology, the liberal cannot present to the American people a tutorial on the wellsprings of its call for restraint of any sector.

This is an authoritarian "NO!" in the American mass psyche that cannot answer the question "WHY?" Even though liberals might have an answer, it would have no positive valence in a psyche in which liberals and "Big Government" have already been lined up as a drag on the momentum of entrepreneurship in the areas of technology and media innovation and its dependence upon unrestrained flows of speculative capital. On psychic terrain, liberal ideology is at odds with a "proactionary approach to human evolution and progress" while any leftist critique is as detrimental to that progress as an Al Qaeda attack.

Back to Present "Conditions on the Ground"

The dire economic details of the present are not limited to the present but invade the future in terms of job availability and job security for a new generation, security of retirement, affordability of health care, increasing environmental disaster, and for some, a class divide that turns democracy into plutocracy. Fears of the future are many and of greater clarity than any understanding of the present which remains both shallow and fiercely divided.

What the present offers is the possibility that in the 2012 election a majority of voting Americans will turn to an ideology that has punished them and will continue to do so. What that ideology offers, however, is an uplifting future, a vision of the future so powerful that it detours its own culpability in the 2008 debacle away from itself. Nothing about an economic system that promises to deliver an amazing hi-tech future can be seen as punishing anyone in the present. Even our latest form of "wild west" capitalism is so much a part of an uplifting hi-tech future that every act of greed, of environmental destruction, of degradation of worker and consumer well-being is exonerated and cleansed by association.

A present so desperately in need of a technocalyptic future is indeed desperate because it is a present riddled with dire economic realities. But regardless of how dire, these economic realities are no more than a delivery system to a future, which I hold is an Extropian future, one whose ownership in the American mass psyche belongs to neoliberals, although in reality liberals do not depart from that Extropian future vision. Liberals do not own some different but equally magnetizing future vision nor are they seeking a rewiring of technology from profit to people and planet.

As David Bromwich pointed out in the London Review of Books ("Diary,", 5 July 2012), "the Obama presidency has gone far to complete the destruction of New Deal politics which began when Bill Clinton brought Wall Street into the White House." You could say that stock dividends, capital gains and offshore accounts reached liberals as well as neoliberals and created a mutuality of interests that has diluted liberal critique and pushed it further from any substantial critique of our economic system. All this amounts to a muddling of both present position and future vision on the part of liberals, a muddling not shared by a free market ideology which axiomatically drives toward its clear vision of a technocalyptic future.

What is not muddled are the material and objective conditions on the ground, dire economic problems which require foundational changes. The transparent obviousness of the 2008 looting, the uninterrupted prosperity of the perpetrators, the slow dissolution of the middle class, and the crushing impoverishment of the bottom 40% muddle the total, undivided victory of an ideology that offers only market relief, or, a continuation of the economics at fault. The 20012 presidential election is promising to be a 2000 chad election, a close, even divided election, not because liberals and Obama have mounted a fetching "Big Narrative" of the future but because neoliberals can't get everyone to look at the hand pointing to a brilliant future while the other hand is dragging them into a sinkhole. We need to look more closely at the ways in which our confused responses to the woes of the present are tied to our acquiescence in the ways in which global capitalism owns and directs hi-tech and implants future optimism in a hi-tech apocalyptic transformation, thus confirming an "exponentially expanding" capitalism in our future.

Repetition and Volume, As Karl Rove Advocates

Neoliberal economics and politics have brought the middle class to their knees while leaving the bottom 40% in a feudal peasant stupor. But if fingers are pointing anywhere they are pointing at a bloated "Big Government," a socialist-leaning president, a biased liberal press, welfare programs created by the "Nanny" state, unions that force price increases, frivolous lawsuits fueled by contingency payments, illegal aliens taking American jobs, an "Obamacare" that is taking away your right to choose, and a smorgasbord of "Big Government" efforts to take away your personal civil liberties. And your gun.

Perhaps because it has greater complexity and opaqueness, rather like SWOPS and derivatives, less personality you might say, a wayward economic system that has been played every which way by Wall Street magicians rarely makes the culprit list. Wall Street financial tricks propagate faster than any regulatory agency can keep up with. Wall Street "fat cats bankers," as President Obama referred to them, won't have their faces on a deck of cards as the key Al Qaeda players did. You can't do a sufficiently mean and low-down mug shot of Jamie Dimon or Lloyd Blankstein or Kenneth Lewis. Those are not mug shot that have any place in the American mass psyche because there they always appear as Winners whose exalted circle you or yours will one day join. We have admiration and awe for our risk taking rascals, our Gordon Gekkoes, our Donald Trumps and Jack Welchs, and so mere finger pointing on the part of the Occupy Wall Street protesters just isn't enough to vilify that crowd and ignite a revolt against the plutocrats.

At best, there is an even divide between those who believe that Big Government somehow fouled up the elegant functioning of the market and caused the 2008 financial collapse and those who believe a rapacious, and "gone wild" functioning of the financial sector caused the collapse. That being said, I wouldn't want to bet that any citizen chosen at random and asked the question "Who or what caused the Great Recession?" wouldn't point a finger at insolvent home buyers whose addiction to "freebies" wasn't the cause. When you do this sort of random poll, you wonder where the 99% might be.

Occupy Wall Street claims to represent about 99% of the U.S. population who have not been well served by the chicanery of Wall Street. Statistics, however, show that at least 20% of the population has done well and continues to do quite well since Reagan announced a "New Morning in America." Losses of the wealthy amounted to 14.9 % in 2008 but bounced back to 17.1% in 2009. No such recuperation for the "bottom" 80% who must seize the moral opportunity and venture into a "start up" app.

No politician seeking any office in any party has come out and said that a computer enhanced global financial wizardry worked into capitalism's "swindle-when-you-can" side resulted in what continues to be a "New Nightmare in America" for the Many and a "how sweet it is" morning for the Few. 80% of Americans deeply mired in confusion, frustration and anger are more liable to criticize the Occupiers as whiners in search of handouts from the government or as radicals seeking to undermine American power than as spot-on critics of Wall Street looting.

Creating confusion has always been a useful strategy to both prophets and politicians. When you hear a politician offering to make something "perfectly clear," you can either suspect that the issue is as clear as mud or the speaker is about to confound logic, common sense and intuition. Karl Rove, once again, declared that it wasn't necessary to refute anyone's argument but merely introduce something that would muddy the waters.

No politician is prepared to track the chicanery of Wall Street players to problems that occur when market rule replaces democratic rule. Perhaps President Obama's own stepping back from Wall Street prosecutions after the 2008 crash established this unfortunate precedent of not bringing the guilty to justice. This negligence allowed neoliberals to present their own prosecution of Obama, Democrats and "Big Government." That indictment filled a vacuum, a vacuum that should not have existed had Obama not hung back from following his prosecution to Wall Street and then on to the out of hand brand of capitalism in play.

During this 2012 presidential campaign, Obama has not been hesitant in critiquing Romney's role at Bain Capital, a critique that Rick Perry in the Republic primary had begun by referring to what Bain did as not a "good" capitalism but a "vulture" capitalism. The jury is out on how well Obama's hedging toward such a critique will play with those who should want to know what happened because they suffered and continue to suffer because of what happened.

Rather than interrogations, investigations, indictments, and prosecutions -- or in the absence of government to pursue all of these -- we have filling this vacuum all manner of self-destructive and deluded response, including the condemnation of politics itself as corrupt and at best pointless. The condemnation of all politics and all politicians is like an angry, beaten man's last stand, a clenched fist at humanity, God or the gods, a Lear in the storm curse upon all. In place of a critically operating reason there is a cabalistic web of conspiracy in which all are implicated.

Back to our Extropian Future

You could explain the almost even divide between Democrats and Republicans, a divide that will put the 2012 election on the same game board as the 2000 election, by saying that cultural memes counterbalance economic realities. I made such a case in "The Presidential Election Season: When Memes Rule", in Reader Supported News, July 28, 2012. Memes that envision a bright future or a future in which the gridlock of obstinate human nature is transcended have incredible magnetic power on the present stage of the American mass psyche. Hi-tech, mobile tech, cyber-tech rule our American culture memes and will probably continue to do so not only because they are a ready-to-hand opiate that takes us to private realms of release but because we cannot conceive of the future without them. William Blake referred to this as a kind of single vision that imposes the supremacy of what is in fact quite restrictive. Humanity conceives itself in limited or distorted guises just as we conceive technology within capitalism's design and in exaggerated roles in terms of the future of "quality of life" of both people and planet.

The perceived supremacy of technology here is due to one simple fact: technology, which, to repeat, has a heroic role in the American mass psyche, is always good. Because technology's road is always the future, the future is filled with that goodness and that optimism. Poverty, unemployment, homelessness, starvation, genocide,Congressional gridlock, environmental threats, lurking terrorism and so on may own the present, darken it and leave us wondering our fate. But technology in its hi-tech apotheosis brightens the future.

If you have doubts, enroll in Singularity University whose mission is to "facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies and apply, focus and guide these tools to address humanity’s grand challenges."

While "exponentially advancing technologies" engender optimism, any reference to "economic realities" of course spurs an over-heated and divided debate. What Occupy Wall Street has done in its "show and not tell a whole hell of a lot" protest is focus on the wealth gap statistics. The top 1% of the population owns 40% of the wealth while the bottom 80% owns 7%. That's an economic reality but what story comes out of it spurs a divided debate. Because the cultural meme for Americans, regardless of how poorly situated they are, is that they personally will at any moment join that top 1%, the "economic reality" is not harmful to neoliberalism. Joined with this is the meme that turns away from any mention of a Have and Have Not society as a form of communist/socialist/leftist driven "class warfare."

Thusly, the whole debate over "economic realities" bends to the strength of inculcated cultural memes, of an imaginary disposition or narrative framing of any political or economic debate. And paramount among these memes, the strongest player in the American cultural imaginary, is our "exponentially advancing technologies."

While jobs, homes, savings, health, security have all been lost, cyber-tech continues to put out new products, new generations of gizmos that have become indispensables. While austerity measures seem to dampen the future for the Many for many years to come, hi-tech fills the future with the promise of greater personal design in cyberspace. Steve Jobs's death was mourned like any great avatar of the future we were not ready to lose because we had entwined his destiny with our own. His destiny was to make the future, our future, technologically brilliant. Repetition and Volume here: liberals would be ideologically bound to dissent if they were bound to an ideology willing and able to challenge already well-entrenched cultural memes, especially in regard to the wondrous posthumanity future awaiting us all. Even if they were so inclined and had the courage to tap into a ready-to-hand socialist critique of market capitalism, they yet cannot do so without appearing to dissent from the mantra of "free markets" or, more difficult yet, appearing to restrain the optimism of our "exponentially advancing technologies."

Contemporaneously, a growing number of people across the globe are slowly beginning to recognize that the planet cannot support an "exponentially advancing" of anything, except perhaps environmental preserving efforts, including renewal energy technology. There are many signs indicating that we have already advanced beyond our exponential limit in regard to the planet's resources and health. From this perspective, it fofllows that what vision of the future we need in this presidential election season is a vision of a green future, of a politics of long term interests and goals, the paramount one being saving the planet. This includes everything from backing off from nuclear power in any form to extricating air, water, and food from the shareholder profit requirements and establishing the requirements of people and planet.

While Green parties exist all over the world they cannot make a foothold in the U.S. (2012 Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein lacks national name recognition and therefore cannot join in televised presidential debates) because in the present climate of dramatic short term return on investment environmental protections that may saves us from possible catastrophes at some time beyond the lifespan of the investor have no play at all. And technological innovation that does not serve profit but promises to replace profit with technology of minimum or no cost to the consumer also has no play at all.

When we confine technological advance to what serves the interests of globalized techno-capitalism, which is our present state of affairs, the future is bright because of such advance. Only one party can put forth an "All Engines Ahead!" and "Go For It!" narrative while the other must take the fussy and unsexy role of Huck Finn's restraining guardian, the Widow Douglas.

It is possible then to understand why President Obama, who has only begun to point out the disasters of our wealth divide but has done so without indicting its root tenets and its destructive axiomatic advance to increased profit, has given no roadmap of the future but has kept his focus on the present. Hi-tech promises a sparkling future through exponential growth; capitalism's own growth of profit is tied to hi-tech's growth and it is the neoliberals who have tied themselves to both.

President Obama, like every liberal candidate for presidency since Carter, is tied to a co-opted ideology, at best, and a totally platitudinous one at worst. In Obama's case there seems to be no determinate foundation to any viewpoint and this means that all sides must be treated equally, that the aim of politics is to be cool headed about all takes, to rise above them and not allow their purported consequences to get in the way of getting something done. But history shows us that "getting something done" is rather different than "doing the right thing," especially when there is some urgency in discovering what's going to help and what's going to hurt, what's going to further impoverish the many and what's going to continue to enrich the few.

When we look back at our own American history, we can see that there was no even divide in rational or moral terms in regard to removal of Native Americans, enslavement of African blacks, women's right to vote and hold office, child labor laws, workers' right to organize, civil rights for blacks, rights for those not heterosexual, the dangers of nuclear power, human related global warming, and so on. Yet, of course, there were and are debates which bring matters to an even divide, a gridlock state. Although it's illusionary to believe we can judge from some Archimedean point outside a fray, it's madness to believe that equal rationality and moral worth, equal harm and benefit lie on both sides of any matter. There was a glaring reality to the enslavement of fellow humans not born white, just as there is a glaring reality to 400 Americans owning as much as 150 million other Americans. We can learn from history and do not have to wait to see the egregious inequities of the present.

The attempt to "do the right thing" and expose and extinguish the wrong thing cannot go on if one is already disposed to believing in equally guilty offenders, or, conversely, equally innocent defenders. We can only achieve something like what all three compromises regarding slavery achieved: the War Between the States. Liberal capitulating to the increasing aggressiveness of casino capitalism has placed us in a long drawn out period heading toward something that is not unlike the long period of debate and compromise before the Southern secession.

Even if President Obama were philosophically disposed to connect the dots between technology, capitalism and a politics of reform, he could not fully narrate this and hope to win an election. For one thing, neoliberals already own the signifier "reform" which they have attached to not only a continuation of what suits the very few but a further augmenting of that privilege.

A Re-imagined Future

The future we are heading for is one emerging from the economic inequities of the present and the disastrous effects wrought by plutocracy on democratic principles. Optimism that is not falsely hyped and that all can share can never rise from such conditions but only from their reversal. The future must be imagined differently and that is no easy task when exponentially advancing technologies and exponentially advancing global capitalism appear to bring so much ease to the present and promise so much more in the future.

What our new imaging of the future might be and what new role both technology and capitalism might play in it and what strategy of renewed -- in the sense of differently narrated -- optimism President Obama might apply in this presidential election season is beyond an interpretation of how each -- capitalism, technology, politics -- lay before us like a text to be interpreted. It's beyond the scope of this essay but not our own imagining if we can detach ourselves from what a seriously lopsided economic system has already imagined for us.

To a great extent, the vision of a re-imagined future is already available, partially, here and there, not only in U.S. history but world history. For a new imagining to develop, we must surely begin with a brief, a case against the present that is not offered by an insatiable drive for profit, a hi-tech that augments that profit for a few while distracting the many, and a future conjured by both.

I see no sign of liberal ideology either escaping the extinction neoliberalism has scheduled for it or attaching itself to a substantive, leftist critical foundation. This, to my mind, makes the 2012 election an election unconcerned with the brief we should be making. It cannot therefore be consequential as a beginning toward a corrective future. But the brief, nonetheless, can go on and move toward elections that will be corrective and consequential. And there is a political strategy in that whose appeal is like a steady persistence of what is despite what it is hyped to be or will be.

August 3, 2012

Joseph Natoli's Kindle book Occupying Here & Now: The New Class Warfare is available at Amazon

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