On Sunday the 3rd November 2019, the Academy of Ideas asked whether, in the face of uncertainty, we have lost our faith in progress.
Today’s political culture seems obsessed with dark, apocalyptic visions. From young people staging “die-ins” to talk of an “insect apocalypse”, fears and threats loom large. Activists from Extinction Rebellion argue the threat of catastrophe means it is imperative to reject growth and progress in favour of a new eco-austerity. Fifty years on from the moon landings, a stark contrast emerges between the implied promise of a future of space travel and luxury and today’s vision of climate emergencies and ageing populations. Perhaps, therefore, it is unsurprising that dystopias like The Handmaid’s Tale or Nineteen Eighty-Four (published 70 years ago) are such a prominent part of our culture. But, perhaps as shown by the success of the hit series Chernobyl, it is not just the dangerous future that’s imagined, but our present or recent past, too.
Of course, imagining a dark future is not necessarily a new development. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1818, was a famous early dramatisation of unease about the Enlightenment, science-driven future. Nonetheless, and in stark contrast to today, such works gained colour from the contrast they posed to the optimistic belief in progress associated with the period. Few people today would identify with the idea of unending progress. Even where an idea of progress does exist, such as among Silicon Valley technologists, it is often presented as the development of new technologies designed humanity from its inherently sinful ways. Indeed, even debates about artificial intelligence are subject to numerous doom-laden scenarios.
Perhaps one question to ask is what our attitudes about the future tell us about the present. Are people who dream of big new ideas more confident about themselves and do we, therefore, live in relatively insecure times? What is the cause of our contemporary insecurity? Whatever the roots of this insecurity, it is certainly profound. As some have noted, there is a current tendency to turn technical problems – such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions or developing clean energy sources – into existential crises.
Naturally, rare voices occasionally attempt a defence of progress. However, such polemics are usually focused on showing how progress has happened in the past, not on how we can expect it to continue. Their implicit message seems to be: “You’ve never had it so good, so stop complaining”. Even left-wing defenders of a new, technologically-powered socialism seem interested in singing the praises of technology only to avoid what they see as total environmental catastrophe.
Where, therefore, have the defenders of progress gone? When the World Economic Forum broadcasts a catastrophic vision of the future, is it a sign that our leaders have lost confidence in themselves and our society? What can we learn about the present from our attitude to the future? Do we need to recover our faith in the future – and by extension, ourselves?
Shahrar Ali - Home Affairs Spokesperson, Green Party
Shahrar Ali is the Green Party's home affairs spokesperson and its former deputy leader.
For many years, he has been a prominent and outspoken campaigner for civil liberties, campaigning on issues from the detention of UK residents in Guantanamo and the fatal shooting of de Menezes to the Islamophobic effects of the Prevent programme and the controversial issue of the IHRA definition of antisemitism and its relationship to free speech on Israel.
A philosopher by training, Shahrar Ali was awarded a PhD from University College London on the morality of lies and deception, with special reference to public life. He teaches moral philosophy at the London School of Philosophy and works as a manager of health science education at the Queen Mary University of London.
He is also the author of two popular books on green politics, most recently Why Vote Green (2015 Biteback), and a popular public speaker who has given a Ted talk on the climate change emergency.
Gregory Claeys - Prof. of the History of Political Thought at Royal Holloway, Uni. of London
Gregory Claeys (PhD, Cambridge, 1983) has taught in Canada, Germany and the US and has been a professor of the history of political thought at Royal Holloway, University of London since 1992. He is also currently the chair of the Utopian Studies Society.
Gregory Claeys is the author of nine books, including Searching for Utopia: the History of an Idea (Thames & Hudson, 2011; German, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese editions), Dystopia: A Natural History (Oxford University Press, 2016), and Marx and Marxism (Penguin Books, 2018) (Chinese, Greek, Italian translations). He has also been the editor of, inter alia, The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature (Cambridge University Press, 2010; Turkish edn., 2017) and (with Gareth Stedman Jones) The Cambridge History of Nineteenth Century Political Thought (Cambridge University Press, 2011; Chinese edition, 2018).
In 2015, Claeys was elected to the Academia Europaea/The Academy of Europe, History Section. In 2019, he was elected to be a fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce. He has held visiting posts at the History of Ideas Unit, Australian National University, Canberra (1993), Keio University, Tokyo (1995), the University of Hanoi (2008) and the School of Government, Peking University (2009, 2011). He was awarded the Cantemir Prize in 2018 (for Dystopia: A Natural History) for contributions to humanistic scholarship, has spoken twice at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and, in 2019, he gave a TEDx talk, entitled My Road to Utopia.
Ashley Frawley - Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy, Swansea University
Ashley Frawley is originally from Canada and a member of Nipissing First Nation. She currently works as a senior lecturer in sociology and social policy at Swansea University in Wales.
Ashley lectures on the sociology of health, mental health and illness, social problems, social movements and the economics of social policy. Her research explores the rising importance attributed to emotions and behaviour in the so-called era of no alternative to capitalism and she is particularly interested in constructions of vulnerability for human subjects within the rhetoric of new social problems. She is the author of Semiotics of Happiness: Rhetorical Beginnings of a Public Problem (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015) and the forthcoming Significant Emotions (2020), which explores the seemingly never-ending rise and fall of new emotional panaceas for social problems.
Brendan O’Neill - Editor, spiked
Brendan O’Neill is the editor of spiked. He is also a columnist for Penthouse and a writer for The Sun and The Spectator. The Guardian calls him the Danny Dyer of journalism while Andrew Bolt of the Australian Daily Telegraph says he is "one of the world’s funniest, fiercest critics of groupthink".
He is also the host of The Brendan O’Neill Show, a fortnightly podcast published on spiked and has had a collection of his essays, entitled A Duty to Offend, published by Connor Court.
Production & moderation:
Jacob Reynolds - Partnerships Manager, Academy of Ideas
Jacob Reynolds is the Academy of Ideas' partnerships manager. He also works as a co-convenor for the Academy of Ideas organisations, Living Freedom, The Academy and the boi charity.
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This discussion forms part of 2019’s Battle of Ideas festival of debate. This is the 15th year of the annual debate platform organised by the Academy of Ideas, which, in its own words, seeks to provide a space for interrogating ideas, open discussion and civilised debate.
To find out more about this year’s Battle of Ideas, visit the festival website at https://www.battleofideas.org.uk/why-battle-ideas/.
This Battle of Ideas Keynote Controversies discussion has been organised by: