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Editor’s Note: This essay is adapted with permission from Nature, Action and the Future: Political Thought and the Environment, edited by Katrina Forrester and Sophie Smith, Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Whether you are an optimist or a pessimist is not just a question of personal temperament. It is also, increasingly, a question of politics. The divide between the optimists and the pessimists is as acute as any in contemporary politics and like many others—the generational divide between old and young, the educational divide between people who did and didn’t go to college—it cuts across left and right. There are left pessimists and right pessimists; left optimists and right optimists. What there isn’t is much common ground between them. Competing views about whether the world is getting better or worse has become another dialogue of the deaf.
Steven Pinker’s new book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress—along with its critical reception—illustrates how dug in the two sides are. Pinker argues that most people have lost sight of the incredible benefits that liberal democratic values continue to deliver because too many of us have a bias in favour of bad news. He blames the things he doesn’t like—including Donald Trump’s presidency—on this innate and deeply misguided pessimism about the possibility of progress. “The most consistent predictor of Trump support,” he writes, “was pessimism.” He accuses these pessimists of fatalism, because they assume that any good news they hear is essentially fake news. They discount progress because of their deep faith in the inexorable pull of the worst that modern societies have to offer. He thinks that the pessimists have effectively given up on the capacity of human beings to make a better future.
Steven Pinker’s blithe assurance that he is on the right side of history betrays him for what he really is: an optimism snob.
Pinker is at pains to insist that there is nothing fatalistic about his own conception of progress. The point of his polemic is to warn that we will toss it all away if we give up on progressive values. No one should take progress for granted. As Pinker says, “a belief that things will always get better is no more rational than a belief that things will always get worse.” Yet his many critics aren’t buying it. What drives people mad about Pinker’s argument is his blithe assurance that liberalism is the default mode of modernity. He is so smug, so condescending, so sure he is on the right side of history. He is such an optimism snob.
In fact, there is a deep tension running through Pinker’s argument, which illustrates the enduring puzzle of the relationship between optimism, pessimism and fatalism. Enlightenment Now has two goals: to persuade us that our pessimism is wrong because things keep getting better; and to persuade us that our pessimism is dangerous because things might get worse. These aims are at odds with each other. Pinker needs us to see that progress is the default condition of recent history so that we recognise what it is we keep missing. He bombards his readers with evidence that things really do keep getting better. But if it is the default, then it gives his readers latitude to sit on their hands and enjoy the benefits.
Lying behind Pinker’s account is the suggestion that the main thing we can do to progress is screw it up with our stupid pessimism. It is better on this account to ignore bad news than to overreact to it. That attitude is not the same as fatalism, but it is innately passive. It is fatalism light.
There is another conundrum. Pinker contrasts the innate pessimism of human beings with the overwhelming evidence that this attitude is wrong—people keep fearing the worst yet continued progress keeps confounding them. What that means, however, is that progress is on some level not merely consistent with pessimism but possibly contingent on it. Societies full of doomsters are the ones that have been delivering the goods. The world has been getting better while we think it has been getting worse. Of course, such societies also contain some optimists, enthusiasts and visionaries. But Pinker wants to covert us all to the cause of optimism. What good would that do? On the historical evidence, there is nothing to suggest that such societies would succeed because no such societies have ever existed. A society of optimists might well be a disaster.
Pinker’s previous book, The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), was a more tightly argued account of progress across a particular domain—the relative decline of violence over both the long and the short term. It provoked a similar reaction—readers divided on the basis of their prior convictions about the state of the world. They read the evidence according to what they thought should be true, rather than adjusting what they thought was true in the light of the evidence. Optimists see acts of violence as the exception not the rule; pessimists see them as the rule not the exception. When a terrible act of violence takes place, we tend to filter it through the stories we tell ourselves about the possibility of progress. On the one hand, we can argue that it shouldn’t derail the good news; on the other, we can argue that it makes a mockery of the good news. Either way, we can be left with a feeling of helplessness.
The recent Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida, like many previous horrors, illustrated this, but it also illustrated something else: the possibility of a space between the twin fatalisms of the optimists and the pessimists. Gun control in the United States is a classic example of an issue that can be captured by fatalism on both sides. It is tempting to think there is nothing to be done, because the divided worldview of the two sides is too great to bridge.
The trouble with all fatalisms—optimistic and pessimistic, ardent and resigned—is that they preclude alternative futures.
But there is an alternative to discounting the horror as a blip against the wider story of progress and also to treating it as evidence that progressive values are a lie. When something terrible happens, we can seek to use it as evidence of the need for change. This is what the pupils at Stoneman Douglas and their supporters have been doing. Change is possible when people stop treating what happens in the world as confirmation of their view of the direction of travel of the world and instead start trying to see it for what it is: the consequence of particular political choices and therefore subject to further political choices.
It is possible to see things like this. But it is also incredibly difficult, especially in an age when the pull of fatalistic narratives on both sides of our political divides is so strong. Worse, it is hard enough with cases of violence, but it is even harder when dealing with issues that lack the same sense of immediacy. There often appears to be a close relationship, for instance, between environmental politics and a sense of fatalism. Environmental threats can leave people feeling powerless. It is a small step from feelings of powerlessness to shoulder-shrugging resignation: if we believe there is little we can do to remedy a situation, then there is little point in trying to remedy it.
Fatalism is one of the permanent temptations of modern politics, but the history of modern political thought—particularly the work of Alexis de Tocqueville and Friedrich Hayek—can help us better understand the varieties of fatalism and how the lines between optimistic and pessimistic fatalism are blurry and easily crossed.
No one wants to be a fatalist, after all. Pinker is typical in his insistence that fatalism is the enemy of progress, but he is also typical in that he is far nearer to the state of mind he is trying to confront than he appears to realise. By applying some of Tocqueville and Hayek’s insights to the challenge of, say, environmental politics, we can better highlight the risks that optimistic fatalism poses alongside the more pessimistic kind.
Tocqueville thought that a pervading sense of fatalism—what he called “the doctrine of fatalité”—represented one of the most serious threats to modern, democratic societies. This fatalism was closely tied to an idea of providence. Democracy was, as Tocqueville depicted it, God’s providential plan for the universe, so that to oppose its inexorable spread “would then appear to be a struggle against God himself.”
However, democratic fatalism was not simply, or even primarily, a religious phenomenon. The evidence for the inevitable coming of the democratic age was supplied by social science: it was a conclusion that could be drawn from a scientific study of the “pattern of events” and by tracing their historical causes and effects. Democratic fatalism was not spread by preachers. Rather, it was the preserve of historians and political scientists, who treated the future as explicable only in terms of the patterns of the past. “It is not enough for them to show how the facts have come about,” Tocqueville wrote. “They also take pleasure in making one see that it could not have happened in any other way.”
Tocqueville did not believe that democratic social science could foretell the future in such a way as to serve as a guide to human action: it did not perform an overtly predictive function. Rather, it provided the backdrop to human decision-making and it pervaded those decisions by inculcating a general sense that human agency was subject to forces beyond its immediate power to control. Democratic fatalism arose out of a belief that the future belonged to democracy, in contrast to a belief that the future lay open for any democracy to shape to its own ends.
Fatalism in this sense has a number of distinctive features. First, it is not far removed from the essential sense of confidence in democracy that Tocqueville believed was required for its successful functioning, especially as he had encountered it in the United States.
Gun control in the United States is a classic example of an issue that can be captured by fatalism on both sides.
Democracy in America worked because Americans believed in their democracy. Their faith enabled them to persevere with a form of politics that appeared from day to day to be dysfunctional, divisive, and superficial. It was a long-run bet on a system that suffered from a widespread set of short-term weaknesses (including a pre-occupation with elections and electoral cycles at the expense of more far-sighted decision-making). The strengths of democracy, Tocqueville believed, reveal themselves only over time (which is one reason why they are eventually perceived by historians and political scientists).
Yet faith in long-run advantages that are not visible from moment to moment can slide into a fatalistic assumption that the future will take care of itself. The line between essential confidence and unwarranted faith is a fine one. It can be very difficult to tell when it has been crossed.
Second, not only is this kind of faith a secular extension of religious ideas of providence, it may also come to stand in opposition to forms of religious faith. Tocqueville thought that American confidence in the democratic future needed to be undercut by American religiosity in regard to personal experience and personal responsibility, in order to give individuals a sense that their destiny was not simply bound up in their collective fate. This was primarily a Protestant sensibility, and it was one of the advantages of American society that its democratic citizens were often also individualists in a religious sense.
Such individualism does not map in a straightforward way onto democratic habits of mind; in many cases, it confounds them, by making individuals personally responsible for their ultimate fate. So, from Tocqueville’s perspective, it was not a case of democracy countering religious fatalism; it was a case of religion countering democratic fatalism. One of the future challenges for democracy, Tocqueville believed, was whether it could achieve the same results in predominantly Catholic countries, including his own, France.
Finally, democratic fatalism does not simply engender a passive mode of politics. Fatalism is usually described, as I described it above, as a form of resignation: the fatalist, knowing there is nothing to be done about the future, does nothing. Tocqueville, by contrast, noticed that democratic fatalism was consistent with the restless and impatient quality of American political life. One of the reasons that American democracy delivered results in the long run was that it was so adaptable: the energy that ran through American society generated a changeable, erratic, impatient political culture that rarely stopped to reflect on what it was doing.
American democracy, as Tocqueville remarked, makes more mistakes than other systems of government but it corrects more mistakes as well. To put it another way, its changeability meant that it rarely got stuck with the mistakes that it made. At any given moment it might look like it was not working, but if you persisted with it, something else would come along soon (as they say about the weather in various parts of the United States: if you don’t like it, just stick around for a few hours). So faith in the future might not merely be consistent with, but in large part derive its security from the mindless energy of the present.
Techno-optimism can present itself as anti-fatalistic.
Furthermore, faith in the future is consistent with recklessness as well as restlessness. That is one of the hallmarks of optimistic fatalism: if the future can be left to take care of itself, then it liberates the inhabitants of the present to take risks, since their mistakes will not have lasting consequences. This is a form of moral hazard. Of course, it is not simply an American or a democratic mode of thought. Many moderns have embraced restlessness and recklessness of this kind. Lenin, for instance, was an optimistic fatalist in this sense: he believed that the revelations of Marxist social science had liberated enlightened political agents in the present to take their chances, since they could hardly wreck the future; all they could do was either hinder or accelerate it. Lenin’s faith in the future was ideological and his perspective was a grandiose and self-aggrandizing one.
Tocqueville observed a reckless fatalism that was far more pragmatic and prosaic. He gave an example of what he had in mind when he told the story of his encounter with some steamboat builders during his travels around the United States. American steamboats of the period (the early 1830s) were notoriously rickety and unreliable; Tocqueville nearly drowned when one he was travelling on sank during a trip down the Ohio River. Why weren’t they sturdier, he wanted to know. He was told by the people who built them that the speed of technological progress in the United States meant it was not worth their while updating the existing crafts when new, improved models were always just around the corner. Better to take their chances in the present than to try to second-guess the future.
But is this sort of recklessness really a form of fatalism? No, if fatalism entails a belief that the future has been mapped out in advance, so that there is a pre-determined pattern to unfolding events. Blind faith in technological progress does not suppose that future developments can be known before they happen: they are often the products of chance, even if their cumulative effect is to reconcile democracy with God’s providential plan for the universe.
Nonetheless, this kind of faith in progress shares with more conventional fatalism a sense that the future has a momentum of its own that curtails the capacity of human beings to shape their own destiny. Our destiny is not within our power to control even though we can be confident that it will ultimately serve our interests. Of course, this mindset would be entirely self-defeating if everyone was conditioned by it in the same way: a nation of shipbuilders who each persisted with their rickety vessels while waiting for someone else to come up with something better would make no progress at all. But it would not take much to entice a few of them to tinker with their own crafts if no one else was doing it, and a little tinkering can generate a lot of change.
As Tocqueville said: the condition of democratic life is that more mistakes get made and more mistakes get corrected. What is significant is that a move from waiting for others to do the tinkering to doing the tinkering yourself does not require a huge shift in outlook. Faith in progress can make you passive or it can make you twitchy; depending on your circumstances (both of temperament and of opportunity) it might make you move from one state of mind to the other quite quickly. Each can be a manifestation of a form of fatalistic recklessness.
In a series of exchanges with his friend John Stuart Mill, Tocqueville discussed the varieties of fatalism. Mill distinguished between what he called “pure” fatalism and what he described as the prevailing “modified” version. Pure fatalism was a belief that the future had already been decided. It made its adherents either stupefied or serene; in either case they were accepting of the path that was chosen for them. It was almost always a manifestation of a set of religious or traditional beliefs and Mill associated it with the philosophy of the Far East.
Modified fatalism was a more modern and Western phenomenon. It derived from an understanding that individuals are the product of social and economic forces beyond their power to control; it could be reinforced by social science (including the new science of psychology). Modified fatalists might be passive and resigned as a result of a sense of their powerlessness. But just as likely they would become impatient, complaining, dissatisfied. The impersonal forces that conditioned their fate might be a provocation to rail against it. Equally they might become complacent, happy to count their blessings.
But complacency could also make modified fatalists willful and reckless, believing that their fate gave them license to abdicate personal responsibility for their actions. Modified fatalism, Mill thought, was an essentially childish state of mind.
Passivity and activity in the face of the future are not necessarily opposed to each other.
Democratic fatalism was far closer to the modified than the pure version. It was not serene. It was alternately impatient and complacent, or as Tocqueville put it, “ardent and resigned.” Indeed, one of the distinguishing characteristics of a democratic society was how nearly related to each other these states of mind were. Passivity and activity in the face of the future were not necessarily opposed to each other. They were, if anything, two sides of the same coin, the twin conditions of a social state that both enabled and encouraged its inhabitants to see themselves as being swept along by the rapid tide of historical progress.
Active modern citizens were not the tide itself; they were simply riding it, some with pleasure, some with abandon, some with fear and some with indifference. Democracy promoted modified fatalism because it made individuals feel small in the face of the crowd, because it encouraged them to discount the short-term failings of their political system for the sake of a future that would ameliorate them, because it made them impatient for rewards that were always somewhere out of reach.
The result was that democratic citizens had a tendency to relapse into a condition of childishness, sometimes blithely cheerful, sometimes sullenly resentful, sometimes wildly angry, but rarely if ever believing that the future was theirs to make for themselves. Someone or something else would take care of it for them.
Neither Tocqueville nor Mill believed that this characterization of democracy was either inevitable or universal. They were both antifatalists. They hoped that democratic societies, starting with the United States, might learn to dispense with modified fatalism: it ought to be possible for them to grow up and thereby grow out of it. This would be achieved by political education, by the accumulation of experience and above all by the knowledge that comes with making and learning from mistakes. Children grow up when they discover that that their actions have consequences; the same, both Mill and Tocqueville hoped, would be true of democracies, as their inhabitants discovered that the future is made out of their accumulated actions in the present.
Although we cannot choose the future we want we can be sure that the future we get will be the result of the routine choices we make. That ought to be enough to make us take our choices seriously. However, the risk remained that problems of complexity and scale would overwhelm democracies and leave them trapped in their fatalism. One reason this risk was real was that such fatalism can be hard to distinguish from the energetic impulses that are required to counter it. A lot of activity in the present, far from safeguarding against fatalism, can mask a slide into it.
Contemporary environmental politics in Western democracies seems to chime with many of these fears. It has no single face. It appears intermittently frightened, indifferent, and blithely optimistic. It chops and changes, responding to short-term triggers and avoiding long-term commitments. Political arguments about climate change rarely arrive at the question of our shared responsibility. More often they are about apportioning blame and identifying culprits, whether these are countries or individuals, corporations or pressure groups, politicians or the public.
The impatience manifests itself as an intolerance of complexity; the recklessness as an assumption that time is on our side. It is not, of course, all passivity and resignation. There is a lot of frenetic activity, from activists on the one hand and from innovators and techno-enthusiasts on the other. Few of these people think of themselves as fatalists, or if they do they are also doing their best to resist the passivity that is often assumed to accompany that state of mind (some environmental campaigners perhaps believe that what they are doing is futile in the face of overwhelming odds but persist anyway in order to position themselves against the prevailing fatalism of the age).
So much is evident in the case of environmental activists who are working franticly to wake democracies up to the scale of the problem. But it is equally true of those who believe that the best bet for finding a way out is to pin our faith on the ingenuity and adaptability of open societies. From this perspective it is always a mistake to try to second-guess the future, because we can have no idea what resources will be available to us in the future to meet the challenges we will face. After all, who saw the Internet coming?
As the case of environmental politics in contemporary democracies shows, our politics are not as violent as nineteenth-century American politics, but they are just as confrontational.
This kind of faith in technological progress often presents itself as explicitly anti-fatalistic. It is the doomsters (including the environmental activists) who are derided as the prisoners of fatalism, seeking to bind our political choices in the present to a future whose imperatives they believe they can judge in advance.
Techno-optimism can present itself as anti-fatalistic in two respects. First, it presupposes a future that remains open to human input: how it will turn out depends on what we come up with. Second, it goes along with a series of active political commitments in the present. If innovation depends on free markets and the free exchange of ideas, then we need to hold our nerve and limit our impulse to use the power of the state to interfere with these innately creative forces. A “green” politics that takes the present state of knowledge as the best guide to the future and utilizes the power of the state to control it, through taxation, market regulation and injunctions to personal behavior, will, according to its critics, result in the inevitable curtailment of our future options. Better to curtail our present impulse to interfere in order to leave the future open. That means a political choice to set limits to political interference.
The impulse to tie the hands of politicians can paint itself as anti-fatalistic because it imagines two possible futures: one in which we hold our nerve and ride the wave of innovation; and one in which we lose our nerve and stifle it. Which future we get is down to us.
A significant intellectual source for this line of thinking is Hayek. In this context Hayek is revered both as an anti-fatalist and as an optimist who understood that the human potential for creative innovation always outstrips the capacity of human beings to wreck their future, so long as we have the courage to embrace the uncertainty of the future in the choices we make in the present.
Hayek is celebrated as the thinker who identified spontaneity, not pre-emption, as our best hope for a safe and prosperous continuation of the species. That, for instance, is the role he plays in Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (2010), a book that largely dismisses the threat posed by climate change and captures this line of thinking. Ridley believes that the real threat comes from present anxieties producing pre-emptive political action that stifles innovation and the free exchange of ideas (“When I look at the politics of emission reduction,” he writes, “my optimism wobbles”).
However, Hayek himself is a more complex figure, grappling with a more ambivalent intellectual heritage, than the enthusiasm of his present champions would indicate. Hayek does not simply stand for optimistic anti-fatalism over pessimistic fatalism and for spontaneity over pre-emption. He also reveals the ways in which fatalism and anti-fatalism can slide into each other, with the result that creative activity and passive indifference become hard to tell apart. The roots of these ambivalences and uncertainties lie in the ideas of Tocqueville.
Tocqueville was one of Hayek’s intellectual heroes. The gathering of economists and political thinkers that Hayek initiated in 1947 to discuss the threat posed by state planning and majoritarian politics to human creativity and freedom was originally to be called the “Tocqueville-Acton Society,” after the two thinkers Hayek considered the greatest nineteenth-century defenders of the freedom of the individual in the face of the coming age of democracy. (The group eventually got named after its meeting place and became what it is today, the “Mont Pelerin Society”; too many participants thought Hayek’s preferred title made it sound like a Catholic debating society.)
Tocqueville, in Hayek’s eyes, understood better than anyone the risk posed to modern democracy by a putative “tyranny of the majority,” which would sacrifice spontaneity for the false security of government control. Hayek took the title of his 1944 book The Road to Serfdom from the closing pages of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, where Tocqueville had mapped out the possibility of a democratic future in which ordinary citizens, fearful of uncertain and unpredictable outcomes, hand over power to tutelary states that promise to control the future for them.
A commitment to an open future requires that we limit our impulse in the present to guard against the worst that might happen in the future.
In the aftermath of World War II, Hayek’s fear was that the battle-scarred citizens of Europe, tired of the privations they had endured, would demand a safer future in which much less was left to chance. Worse, their politicians would give it to them, in the form of extensive welfare states, high taxation, and nationalized industries. The result would be the death of freedom.
Hayek saw all this as a form of democratic fatalism: politicians, in thrall to the idea that they were powerless to resist what the majority wanted, were drifting along with their fate. Letting the people choose the future they preferred ultimately meant stripping them of the capacity to make meaningful choices. This was the road to serfdom.
Hayek regarded the Mont Pelerin Society as a vanguard attempt to inculcate the virtues of anti-fatalism in a fatalistic age. He wanted everyone, voters and intellectuals alike, to understand that state control was not the only future available and there was no reason to suppose that politicians were powerless in the face of the demands of the present. But it would take courage and determination to resist those demands. The defense of freedom required faith in a future that was beyond anyone’s capacity to control.
Hayek saw a pressing need to defend a way of thinking that “regards with reverence those spontaneous social forces though which the individual creates things greater than he knows,” as he put it in a speech marking the launch of his new society. There were various institutional measures that could be adopted to preserve spontaneity, and Hayek spent much of the rest of his life promoting them through his political writings. These included constitutional limits on the power of the majority to control political decision-making, robust protection for an independent judiciary, reform of electoral processes to limit the influence of interest groups and the promotion of market reforms across areas of creeping governmental control. But he never deviated from his central aim in the mid- to late 1940s: to defend and celebrate a conception of the future that was reliably resistant to political interference, and to encourage human beings to put their trust in it.
This is certainly optimistic. But is it anti-fatalistic? Not entirely. It is a mode of thought that has links, both temperamentally and intellectually, to some of the forms of fatalism that Tocqueville identified. A commitment to an open future is not simply an embrace of adaptability over constraint. It is also a form of binding: it requires that we limit our impulse in the present to guard against the worst that might happen in the future and in doing so we rule out our ability to pre-empt it.
Ruling out pre-emption ties the present to the idea of an open future in such a way as to ensure that the future is impervious to our best guesses in the present about what it might contain. It makes precautionary thinking impossible. To put it another way, it is a form of faith, not simply a form of rationalism. This is a faith that has its basis in rationalism, as Tocqueville recognized. It is a secular product of modern social science: the study of cause and effect and the expectation that the future will continue to follow the patterns of the past.
Hayek was a Catholic but he was primarily speaking as an economist. Having confidence in the creative capacity of spontaneous social forces may be a reasonable expectation. But it still requires a leap of faith (or “reverence,” as Hayek put it).
In the aftermath of World War II, Hayek’s fear was that the battle-scarred citizens of Europe, tired of the privations they had endured, would demand a safer future in which much less was left to chance.
Trusting in a future that we cannot control is consistent with the full range of fatalistic inclinations that Tocqueville identified, from resignation to reckless energy. A lot of social and economic activity might look like the sort of energetic and ingenious experimentation that is needed to counter the assumption that the world is drifting towards a miserable fate (for instance, that it is drifting towards runaway climate change whose effects we will be unable to deal with). But it is hard to tell apart from the sort of mindless activity that imagines something will always come along to rescue us in the end so long as we keep moving. How can we be sure that something will come along in time? The truth is that we can’t. We just have to put our faith in it.
Rationally speaking it must be possible that pre-emption is sometimes a better bet than experimentation, if we are to assume that the future truly lies open. Why rule out the option that acting on our present fears will prevent the worst from happening? If it is because experimentation has been the better bet up until now—Ridley’s book, for example, makes a lot of play of the wolf-crying features of past environmental scares, from population explosions to global cooling, which had they been heeded would have left us far worse off than we are now—then this looks like a more conventional kind of determinism that treats the future as pre-determined by the patterns of the past.
In the case of environmental scare stories, thinking that the future will be like the past is certainly optimistic but it is not obviously rational. There is no reason to suppose that acting on our present fears is always wrong just because it has tended to be wrong in the past. This time may be different (because some time is bound to be different). Rational optimism has an inherent tendency to slide into optimistic fatalism.
It is also a mistake to assume that majoritarian tyranny invariably comes down on the side of security and governmental control. That was Hayek’s assumption and he thought he had warrant for it from Tocqueville. But Tocqueville understood that there was more than one way the tyranny of the majority could play out.
Majoritarian politics can certainly be passive and risk averse, resulting in what he called the “mild despotism” of public opinion, which stifles innovation and generates a cautious political culture that defers to state control. But it can also be wild and reckless, resulting in impatience with all forms of officialdom and contempt for expert opinion.
Alongside the road to serfdom runs the road to anarchic populism, which is fueled by an impatience that discounts caution for the sake of immediate pay-offs. When Tocqueville talks about the tyranny of the majority he describes lynching and race riots, war fever and witch hunts, not just sheep-like acquiescence in the death of freedom.
Of course lynching and race riots, war fever and witch hunts are destructive of freedom as well, but they reflect the chaotic and untutored side of democratic life, where blind frustration collides with state control. Democratic publics, as well as wanting to control the future, intensely dislike anyone who makes them wait for it to arrive. Anger bubbles over and violence ensues.
Hayek was fixated on only one side of democratic fatalism as Tocqueville had understood it: the drift into servility. He did not take enough account of the other side: the willfulness of the present. Willfulness does not look like fatalism because it is active and energetic. But the sort of willful energy that disregards the future consequences of present actions in favor of momentary satisfactions is entirely consistent with a belief that the future will take care of itself. Indeed, such a belief can fuel much of the anger and irritation, which gets directed at those who appear to be standing in the way of the unfolding future and holding it up.
Techno-optimism is ultimately self-defeating, because it locks us in to a mindset that becomes blind to its own shrunken horizons.
Hayek saw little risk of this in 1947. He was far more worried that after a generation of wild and reckless politics—from World War I through the Great Depression and then on to World War II—the instincts of the majority would all be the other way. Voters would be shepherded into the grip of politicians who promised to nail down the future so that it could not break free and wreak more havoc. Hayek wanted them to know they had a choice. They could choose to leave the future open. If they did not, they would end up trapped in a future they could not control because their freedom of choice would have been lost to them.
Hayek thought that the desire to control the future produced blinkered politics and constrained options. But so does the impulse to leave the future open. It makes for a cramped and bitty politics, in which most political energy is directed against short-term provocations. Arguments go round in circles since no one is in a position to nail anything down. The possibility of meaningful discussion about long-term choices is dramatically curtailed.
This is a recognizable description of democratic politics, both in Tocqueville’s time and in our own. It is democracy in frenetic, irritable mode, frothing over with surface activity that serves as an outlet for political frustrations that have nowhere else to go. It does not look fatalistic because it is so full of sound and noise. But it is fatalistic, because most of it is just noise.
2017 is not 1947. The balance of risk has changed. If we are trapped, it is not by servile instincts towards governments that know best. It is by a relentless and reckless skepticism directed against governments that are assumed not to know what they are doing and against forms of expert authority that presume to know better than we do what the future has in store.
This anarchic populism is more pronounced in some places that others—more pronounced in the United States than in some parts of Western Europe, more pronounced on the right than on the left. But it is present everywhere—on the left as well as on the right—and it is spreading. Its spread has been greatly accelerated by the new information technology, which makes it far easier for irritations and frustrations to find an outlet. It also makes it easier for witch hunts and other forms of mob rule to gather a head of steam.
Pinker is right: ours is a far less violent world than it was in the last century, never mind in the century before that. But the tyranny of the majority in the twenty-first century has more in common with the intemperate passions of Tocqueville’s America of the early 1830s than with the exhausted fears of Hayek’s Europe of the late 1940s. It is ardent, not resigned, and it makes it very hard for elected politicians to do anything that might rouse its anger. Indeed, as the case of environmental politics in contemporary democracies shows, our politics are not as violent as nineteenth-century American politics, but they are just as confrontational.
If the balance of risk has changed, then the choice before us is not as Hayek described it. He thought we needed to defeat fatalism by choosing to put our faith in an open future. But if we think that by leaving the future open we have shrugged off fatalism, then we are mistaken. It risks leaving us stuck with a politics that lacks the resources to move out of frenetic, resentful mode and into something more durable and reflective.
So it is not a straight choice between fatalism and freedom. We need to find a way between the fatalism that gives up on personal freedom and the fatalism that can’t give up on it even when it needs to. The reason that Hayekian confidence in an open future is fatalistic is that it precludes the possibility of a future in which this turns out to be the wrong approach because the risk of disaster is too great. Likewise, the reason Pinkerian faith in progress opens the door to fatalism is because it assumes that present problems are just future solutions waiting to happen. But what if some of our present problems end up making future solutions impossible?
A truly open future must include the possibility of circumstances in which failure to plan for the future proves catastrophic. Indeed, it moves from a possibility to a probability to a racing certainty the longer the future lasts: at some point pre-emption will turn out to be a better bet than innovation, if only because nothing lasts forever. The fact that it is very hard to know when that point has been reached is not sufficient reason to stop looking for it. Techno-optimism is not self-fulfilling. It is ultimately self-defeating, because it locks us in to a mindset that becomes blind to its own shrunken horizons.
Pinkerian faith in progress assumes that present problems are just future solutions waiting to happen. But what if our present problems make future solutions impossible?
The trouble with all fatalisms—optimistic and pessimistic, ardent and resigned—is that they preclude alternative futures. The particular trouble with optimistic fatalists such as Hayek and Pinker is that they tend to reject this characterization of themselves, because they think of themselves as anti-fatalists.
This is also one of the fundamental difficulties of environmental politics—the degree to which the skeptics have come to see themselves as free-thinking and open-minded, breaking the chains of conventional wisdom and group think. They have bought into the Hayekian contrast between freedom and fatalism. But this kind of open-mindedness is its own form of close-mindedness, because a commitment to an open future closes down our options in the present. It is insufficiently sensitive to the full range of future possibilities. It is also insufficiently sensitive to the ways that contrarian skepticism does not confront the tyranny of the majority so much as feed off it.
When climate skeptics, for instance, impugn the motives of climate scientists, they are not bravely fighting against the fatalistic and fearful tide of majoritarian opinion, as Hayek believed he was doing in 1947; if anything, they are riding it, in its active rather than passive mode. The politics of climate change stokes the resentful and angry side of democracy, through which public opinion acts as an easily roused vehicle of irritation and impatience.
Tocqueville was right to think that one of the fundamental challenges of democracy is to find a way between these competing fatalisms. It is possible to get trapped in myopic and relentless activity just as it is in cowed and risk-averse passivity. To be an anti-fatalist, then, is to be alive to the risks that come from the full range of fatalisms, optimistic and pessimistic, experimental and preemptive. For both Mill and Tocqueville the surest way to discover these risks was through the widest possible range of lived experience and above all the experience of making mistakes: that was how human beings learned that the future, for all its imperviousness to human control, still depended on the choices that they make in the present.
The difficulty with that model of anti-fatalism when it comes to the environmental challenges of the twenty-first century is the familiar one of their complexity and scale. It is far harder to learn from your mistakes when individual mistakes get lost in the morass of collective action and collective mistakes take years or even decades to reveal themselves. Under those circumstances, some planning for an uncertain future is required if we are not to get trapped in the mindset that assumes the free exchange of ideas will always produce the resources we need when we need them.
Optimistic fatalists imagine that there is no mistake that cannot be corrected in time so long as we leave the future open. One reason for pessimism in the present is that the optimistic fatalists appear to have the upper hand. In this respect, their fatalism might yet be self-fulfilling. Climate change raises the risk of getting trapped in a future whose effects, while presently unknown, will be bad enough to trump the capacity of human ingenuity to ameliorate them. This is what makes the politics of environmental catastrophe different and it is the reason why all forms of fatalism are worth resisting while we can.
David Runciman is professor of politics at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Trinity Hall. His books include The Politics of Good Intentions and Political Hypocrisy (both Princeton). He writes regularly about politics for the London Review of Books.
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