In premodern times, humans lifted their gaze skyward, seeking revelation: handed down from above, from the highest heavens, they were given the transcendent Truth that promised redemption, saving them from the immutable misery of earthly existence. Progress, social ladders, turning dimes into dollars: none of those concepts were familiar to them. Their only hope of a better existence was in the promised afterlife.
In modern times, humans cast their gaze downwards, plunging their shovel into the sand: down below, in the earthly reality, was where the objective Truth could be found. The metaphysical became the physical and the sacred became the scientific: if modern humans were to dig deep enough, the facts would be unearthed. The Enlightenment exchanged hope of Redemption for faith in Progress. The promise of an afterlife was replaced by the potential of a better world for future generations.
In postmodern times, finally, humans turned their gaze inwards, looking at themselves in the mirror: in there, inside the subjective experience of reality, the constructed Truth was created. They renounced the metaphysical, the objective and even Truth with a capital T altogether: the time of Great Narratives ended, and individual freedom, creativity and self-fulfilment became the new Holy Grail.
But what about us, the post-postmodern humans?
We peer out into the wide, wide world through our binoculars, a shopping bag dangling from our arm, our gaze shielded by the blinders of the nation state.
The binoculars are the information revolution. Humankind has never before been able to see as far into the world as we can now. Just 60 years ago, the boundaries of our perceived existence were still limited to family, denomination and country. Today, it has expanded permanently to the farthest reaches of the globe with just a click of the button.
The emergence of 24 hour news, the internet, and increasingly accessible schools and higher education have produced a generation that has access to more information than the collective sum available to all the generations before.
Those binoculars not only broaden the scope of our worldview but also help us see the consequences of our actions, revealing insights that would have been inconceivable just two generations ago.
The binoculars helped us see the consequences of our actions, revealing insights that were inconceivable two generations ago
For instance, we now know that our CO2 emissions have drastic consequences for our planet as a whole. Every time we get into a car, board a plane, or grill a steak, we are confronted with the fact: this ride, flight or meal is putting yet another polar bear, coral reef or harvest in jeopardy somewhere in the world.
The same holds true for our more mundane consumer behaviours. We now know that what we buy can have disastrous effects on other people thousands of kilometres away.
The clothes we wear sustain sweatshops all over the world, creating conditions for modern-day slavery. The foods we eat keep people below a living wage and ruin complete ecosystems at the same time. The electronics we buy effectively jail people in factories, with nets outside their rooms to catch them if they try to kill themselves. And even if we’re not buying anything, our savings and retirement plans fund weapons and wars.
Almost everywhere that we, post-postmodern humans, go – fashion stores, supermarkets, the Apple Store or the nearby airport – we carry with us a previously non-existent sense of guilt.
That awareness of guilt, however, has not automatically been accompanied by a growing and proportionate sense of responsibility.
We have known that the earth is warming because of us for over 40 years now, but have failed to make sufficient strides "greening" our energy supply. We know that our jeans and mobile phones are maintaining modern slavery, but have not collectively switched to fair-trade alternatives. We know that our economic system facilitates blatant inequality, but have not yet shut down the biggest tax havens and reduced the size of the financial sector. We know that the bank balance on our savings accounts is going into drones and fighter jets, but we aren’t organising protests outside the bank’s doors.
And that’s largely because of the shopping bag dangling from our arm.
The shopping bag
The shopping bag is contemporary capitalism. Sociologist Willem Schinkel perfectly describes this economic system as an "amnesia machine": it places injustice just far away from us to forget it even exists. Viewed through the binoculars of our information supply, the world is closer than ever - but simultaneously further away than ever due to our economic system.
We don’t know exactly how the food we buy from the major supermarket chains is produced. We don’t know exactly how the financial markets and their complex, high-risk products work. We don’t know exactly how the clothing factories in India look on the inside. We don’t know exactly what gross domestic product (GDP) is or what it consists of. We don’t know exactly how multinationals manage to evade paying tax on their profits.
Global capitalism has outsourced economic inequality and social injustice, packaged it in pretty jargon that conceals its true nature, veiled it in the protective mists of PR and marketing, hidden it behind impenetrable tangles of legalese – and transformed it into a remote and seemingly irrelevant concept.
In doing so, Schinkel argues, capitalism facilitates a permanent form of amnesia: as concerned citizens, we may object to injustice (cultural memory), but as consumers we disregard it entirely (economic amnesia).
Global capitalism has outsourced economic and social injustice
As Schinkel puts it: "While we emphasise that Muslims oppress women (cultural memory), we fail to see that girls in India are exploited for cheap textiles (economic amnesia). While we pride ourselves on our efforts to defend human rights (cultural memory), we fail to consider the scarred hands of the cashew pickers when we shop for nuts in the supermarket (economic amnesia). And while we proudly proclaim our tradition of tolerance and democracy (cultural memory), we put petrol in our car without any awareness of the racism and dictatorship behind oil production (economic amnesia)."
Our economic amnesia has a huge impact, since our role as consumers has superseded our role as citizens. In other words, even our citizenship has been consumerised
When we vote, we decide who to vote for as consumers – with our wallet at the back of our mind, demanding economic growth, more jobs and higher purchasing power. And yes, even when we support an ideal or charitable cause, we do so as consumers, similar to how we leave reviews for books and hotel rooms: we visit the website or Facebook page of our chosen protest and like or share the link – #dogood, #bebest.
Our role as consumers has superseded our role as citizens. As consumers, we not only practise economic amnesia but live economic lives – with satisfying our needs as our most important moral compass.
That’s why we want renewable energy, but not if it hurts the GDP. That’s why we want fairer products, but not if it means sacrificing convenience or paying more. That’s why we want social equality, but not if it is accompanied by higher insurance premiums or less purchasing power. That’s why we want less war and fewer weapons, but not if that translates into lower interest rates and dividends. And that’s why we want to eat sustainable foods, but not if it means giving up bulk discounts or cash rebates.
The crucial question, then, is: why aren’t we constantly plagued by guilt as a result? Why do we seem to be just fine with the fact that we are allowing actual progress to slip away in our shopping bag?
We can find the answer to that question in the contemporary function of the nation state.
The nation state is the blinders that shield our gaze, keeping us from seeing the connections between the problems in the world and our own actions. This 19th century construct, once set up as a model of solidarity that transcends regions and provinces, has become a limiting factor on the level of global solidarity that the 21st century demands.
GDP never asks if growth is hurting the Arctic ice floes
The nation state reduces all political issues to the level of local politics by limiting them to national borders. GDP, the cornerstone of modern politics, never asks if economic growth is hurting the Arctic ice floes, the factory workers across the globe, or people living in poverty thousands of miles away – GDP is about domestic product, after all. Equally, our politicians never have to answer to the people who are beyond the scope of their electorate, excluded by the fictitious borders of their nation. They represent the national population, and the national population only.
In limiting our field of vision, the nation state helps post-postmodern humans to deny their guilt, and thus to abrogate their responsibility for the global problems which can increasingly be placed on their doorstep. As a result, the status quo is maintained. The nation state turns consumers and their global actions in political provincials, whose responsibility ends at the borders of their homeland.
Moreover, the nation state creates the conditions not only for denying guilt but also for shifting responsibility to others. It is only by the grace of that domestic interior that we can cherish the illusion of an "exterior" on which we can project our guilt: the people responsible for the problems are "them" out there – the immigrant, the foreign culture, the foreign religion, the multinational, the bureaucrats in Brussels, the global elite – and not "us", the people who were born here, on this guilt-free corner of land.
How can we break the post-postmodern stalemate?
Such is the state of post-postmodern humans: aware of everything, willing to change nothing.
Our binoculars show the world and make us realise: our actions reach further than ever. But our shopping bag makes us forget about the injustice they cause, inducing economic amnesia: we are citizens second, consumers first. The potential sense of guilt, then, is defused by the nation state, which enables us to restrict our moral ties to the world to the borders of our homeland.
How can we break this stalemate? We could fill a library with books on that topic. But allow me to venture an initial attempt.
1. Don’t underestimate your own influence
First, it is crucial not to underestimate our impact as individuals. News, politics, the world’s problems: viewed through the binoculars, they often seem to be a theatrical performance staged for our entertainment, casting us firmly in the role of an observing audience. But nothing could be further from the truth: we are the viewers, the actors and the director all in one.
Actually, we are the play.
The binoculars showcase the suffering caused by our actions, downplaying the progress that they also set in motion
That means: as far as our actions can reach in a negative sense, our actions can potentially also reach just as far in a positive sense.
The problem is, the binoculars showcase the suffering caused by our actions, and seriously downplay the progress that they also set in motion. This makes us despondent and leads us to chronically underestimate what we are capable of. "What can I do about that, as a single individual?" is a constant refrain in the back of our mind.
When that happens, we underestimate the peripheral influence of our actions. We look at the direct consequences, but forget to consider the indirect impact. Let’s say you install a solar panel on your roof. You’re not just lowering your own power bill. You’re also reducing total CO2 emissions slightly, supporting the renewable energy sector, reducing the influence of the fossil industry, and making solar just a little more competitive all at once. Did you know putting solar panels on your roof is actually contagious – prompting neighbours to do the same?
Here’s another way of seeing this. You may think of garbage collectors as merely picking up our trash. But when, in the 1960s, garbage collectors in New York went on strike, crime went up, diseases spread, healthcare costs skyrocketed – and a state of emergency had to be declared after only a week. Just because a seemingly simple job wasn’t fulfilled.
The point being: whether you’re a teacher, entrepreneur or the president of the country, the effects of your actions go way beyond what you imagine.
2. Don’t wait until you have absolute certainty
It’s important not to fall prey to the paralysing doubt that often accompanies a surfeit of information. Since time immemorial, it has been an established fact: the more you know, the more you’re aware that you don’t know anything at all.
And that’s where we start doubting the accuracy of what we know: is climate research really irrefutable? Is biodiversity loss really such a huge problem? Are the proposed solutions actually going to solve anything?
You could ask the same questions about any problem and consistently arrive at the same conclusion: we can’t know anything with absolute certainty.
That uncertainty makes us passive if we cling to the concept that certainty and consensus are necessary prerequisites for action. Fortunately, this is not the case: even if we do not establish certainty and achieve consensus about problems and solutions, a better world is still within our grasp.
But it will require us to stop thinking exclusively in terms of problems and solutions, and start thinking in terms of ideals as well: what kind of world would we want to live in, regardless of the differing opinions inherently present in the problems that we assert or dispute?
Slavery as it existed in the 19th century would never have been abolished if it had been viewed exclusively as a "problem" for which we needed to find a "solution". On the contrary, for some, slavery was an exceedingly attractive economic system in many ways: hundreds of thousands of unpaid human hands keeping the economy running. Abolishing slavery would have represented a huge step backwards for the status quo of those times.
Slavery as it existed in the 19th century would never have been abolished if it had been viewed exclusively as a ‘problem’ for which we needed to find a ‘solution’
The fact that slavery was abolished can be attributed to people of vision and ideals: people who were not put off by the "problem" of slavery and the dissension about the “solutions” ("Who will build our railways if we don’t have any slaves?"). People who had bigger ideas about how the world could be fairer and more just – regardless of the prevailing opinions or the status quo.
The same holds true for the problems of today: even if you aren’t convinced that the world is heating up or that oil reserves are running out, you can still see a renewables-based economy as a better alternative. Inexhaustible, less polluting, more democratic energy sources are a step forward from the finite, polluting, dictator-dominated sources we have now, no matter what. Even a climate sceptic could agree.
What we need, in other words, is inspiring vistas that allow us to envision the world as it could be, rather than getting bogged down in the impossibilities that inherently accompany any problem.
3. Move beyond the dictates of the ‘domestic’ product
Finally, it’s important to slowly but surely pull off the blinders of the nation state. Politics should be just as global as our personal actions are now. The way we are currently trying to globalise our perspective is anything but effective: we have outsourced international politics to supranational bodies like the European Union or the World Trade Organization, where the various nations defend their own national interests.
Rather than making national politics more international, we have nationalised our international politics.
If politicians are truly going to be able to curb the effects of globalisation, that will need to be reversed. Such a lofty goal is no small undertaking: after 200 years, an established construct like the nation state will not be replaced overnight by a new political entity. But we can come up with ways to slowly but surely move in that direction.
We could transition from GDP to Gross International Wellbeing, which also incorporates happiness, solidarity and environmental impact
An important first step could be moving away from GDP as a core dogma of government policy and introducing a criterion that extends beyond national economic growth. We could adopt a Gross International Product, which not only calculates the economic effects on our own country but also incorporates the effects on the economies around us. A next step could be transitioning to Gross International Wellbeing, which would incorporate factors like environmental impact and inequality as well.
Such a radical cultural transformation sounds unattainable now. It would effectively mean that we would have to step away from the political processes that we have grown accustomed to over the past century and longer. But abolishing slavery, introducing women’s suffrage, even democracy itself were once considered just as radical. True progress is having the courage to look far into the potential future.
We already have the binoculars. Now all we need is the mindset.
This piece first appeared on De Correspondent. It was translated from the Dutch by Joy Phillips.