So, I just came across some short articles written in 2000 by fellow linguist Mark Rosenfelder, or Zompist. One in particular, titled The last century: What the heck was that? is a veritable jubilee of congratulatory horn blowing for the successes of liberalism. It was a delightful distraction, the sort of well informed romp you rarely see nowadays.
Let me summarize the article as I understand it. Contrary to everyone’s expectations, liberalism won every single one of its battles in the 20th century. While newfangled “scientific” theories like communism failed to pan out, the organic, dynamic, and balanced liberal system of the United States and its allies oversaw astounding economic and social progress. Conservatives, especially “Randian” dogmatists, have caused some severe problems since the 70s, but ultimately those issues are a temporary fluctuation in the ultimate trajectory of liberalism.
So what is liberalism? Zompist defines it in a few different ways. Liberalism means equality of opportunity, but not of results. Liberals believe in government regulation and welfare to reign in the excesses of capitalism and lay a foundation for a successful society. Liberals believe in civil rights, feminism, multiculturalism, and gay rights. Liberals are not progressives: they want to reform the government, not replace it. Liberals are reasonable, and consider extremists like Marxists and followers of Ayn Rand tedious and dangerous. Basically, liberalism represents the prevailing center position of the United States.
I see this as a form of Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” argument. After the fall of the USSR, western liberal democracy apparently won the war over ideology and proved itself superior to any other form of political system. Of course, there are still struggles to be had, but they ultimately acknowledge the supremacy of liberal ideology. Sure, conservatives are acting anti-government now, but once they settle into the reigns of power, they’ll learn they like to govern and become regular old liberals. Sure, the unprecedented augmentation of productivity has only been benefiting the ruling class since the 70s, but that’s because of Reaganism. Capitalism is the best way to grow the pie, and once we manage to course correct and return to liberalism then everybody will finally get their piece. There will always be fluctuations, but if we just return to good old fashioned liberalism, things will be okay forever.
This article was published when I was three years old. As someone who grew up in the aftermath of the “end of history”, his arguments feel more than a little bankrupt. The right didn’t stop being anti-government, they actually tried to overthrow it a few months ago. Obama, one of the staunchest liberals you could possibly ask for, did almost nothing to change the trend of stagnant wages. Zompist’s predictions on the technology front actually seem rather tame in retrospect, but our incredible technological progress hasn’t translated into an ability to solve basic problems like homelessness, hunger, and slavery. Apparently, our tech giant supermen are more keen on building life boats for themselves than trying to prevent the environmental apocalypse.
Blaming this entirely on “the right” stinks to me of the same thinking that drives bolshevik die-hards to pin all of the USSR’s problems on the dastardly “revisionists”. We need to admit to ourselves that there are fundamental problems with our system. We need to learn from our experience with the pandemic and environmental catastrophes that we can’t just produce our way out of every problem. 9/11 and the wars that came after should have taught us that defecating in someone else’s backyard has consequences, and that forcing our economic system on other nations leads to instability and death, not prosperity. Leaving power to those who are the best at accumulating wealth has led us to paralyzation in the face of crisis after crisis. People are noticing, and they are beginning to grasp at the ideologies that liberalism “defeated”.
Can we really blame those who are desperate, and see no other way out? They see the writing on the wall. The ship is sinking, the crew is arguing over what color sails to use, and we are all stuck in the lower decks as the water slowly creeps up our ankles. Some of us are already submerged.
I propose we build something new. What exactly, I do not know. Nobody can know. What is important is that we start building. Our current system based on the accumulation of wealth and power is going to destroy us, and we cannot idly stand by. We have so much to look forward to. For the first time in our history, most human beings on the planet are connected to each other through a form of instant communication that allows us to learn, collaborate, and cooperate with human beings from every location and culture at the speed of light. Despite massive pessimism around the incoherency of our discourse, in reality humanity has access to intelligence that transcends anything before by overwhelming orders of magnitude.
We can do this. As we speak, people from Russia are laughing and playing with Filipinos and Guatemalans and Ethiopians. That’s solidarity that would have been inconceivable a hundred years ago. Maybe even twenty. The amount of jaw dropping talent online is astounding, to the point I feel as if the prodigies of fifty years ago might come off as almost mundane if they came out now. Human potential is reaching capacities we cannot possibly anticipate. We are becoming blasé about the fact we have whole libraries at our fingertips. When the extraordinary is mundane, it’s only logical to expect the extraordinary.
If there’s one thing I agree with Zompist on, it’s that the future is organic. Who knows where the future lies? Maybe it’s on a farm in Kenya. Maybe it’s on a video game message board. Maybe it’ll arise from the ashes of a war torn country. Maybe it’ll start as an experimental community in the suburbs.
What’s important is that we facilitate an environment that is encouraging as possible of positive change. This means building strong communities, disseminating knowledge, and experimenting with new ways of being. This means buying time for our future: preserving our environment and improving social conditions as best we can within our liberal system. This means promoting peace and preventing unnecessary violence. It means we keep doing what we’ve been doing: helping, agitating, and communicating.
When a whale dies and its body sinks to the bottom of the ocean, a wellspring of life emerges to feed on the treasure. Life always finds a way. We too, will find our own way. Ultimately, we decide collectively how we get there and where we end up landing.
There’s an important piece of philosophy you learn in driver school. You tend to head towards whatever you’re looking at. I believe that we’ve built up a habit of looking towards the doldrums and ditches around us. Maybe we ought to try looking somewhere bright and beautiful for a change. It’s not like we’re at the end of history after all.
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