55 Voices for Democracy: Timothy Snyder

55 Voices for Democracy: Timothy Snyder


Whatever happened to the future? Have you noticed that the future has gone away? This I think is the most striking thing
about our politics today whether it’s America or Europe or much of the rest of
the world. That there’s no future anymore. For the past couple hundred years from
the French Revolution forward, what democratic politics has generally been
about is the future. We’ve been very good at producing different competing
versions about what the future would be and then democracy was about precisely
deciding which of these versions of the future would come about. If there’s one thing I think that’s essential to, which is most
characteristic of the problem of democracy today, it’s that the future is
gone. If we don’t have a sense of the future, if we don’t have various ideas
about what might be coming and which of these versions is better, it’s very hard
for people to feel involved. It’s very hard for people to feel that they should
vote. Democracy in that sense needs the future. But interestingly, the connection is
deeper: Democracy also produces the future. Because if you believe that your
vote matters, if you believe your participation matters, if you believe
that the little things you do have consequences, then you’re also in your
own mind and even in politics and society, you’re creating the future. So
there’s a relationship, a back and forth between democracy and the future. But what I’d like to suggest today is, that if we want our democracy back or if we want our
democracy to work, we have to start by thinking about the future, thinking our
way into the future and thinking about how to bring the future back
into politics. Where does the trouble begin? The trouble begins I think not
with the various dictators and authoritarians, who we have now. The
problem begins about a generation ago, it begins in 1989. It begins with the
idea that history is over or that there are no alternatives. This view of the
world, the idea that only one thing is really possible and that thing is good
and that thing is going to come about automatically is what I think of as the
politics of inevitability. The politics of inevitability says: “there are things
in the world and they’re going to mechanically automatically bring about
other good things in the world.” So for example, capitalism is good, it’s going to
automatically bring about democracy. Or “technology is good, it’s going to
automatically make us all more enlightened.” In this story from the 1990s,
early 2000s maybe, we come to the conclusion that everyone is going to
become more like us. We’re going to become more like ourselves. Democracy is simply inevitable. The people who held this view thought of themselves as
realists. This is the way the world really is. Nothing else can really happen.
The odd thing about this form of realism is that it leaves aside entirely reality.
That is it leaves aside the natural world. Because 1989 after all was also
the time – and I’ll come back to why this is so important – is also the time when it
became clear that something like global warming was happening. So the politics of inevitability has now crashed. We are now, all of us, again whether it’s America or
Europe or much of the world into something else. Clearly people no longer
believe that democracy is inevitable. In general democracy is losing. Here and
elsewhere people feel that they can make arguments against democracy and win
elections that way and that’s actually happening. The kind of
timelessness, this dread moment that we have now, where no one can really
talk about the future, where everyone is at everyone else’s throats, where we’re
kind of stuck in a present of ‘us and them’ all the time, is what I call the
politics of eternity. Where do we get to the politics of eternity? We get to
the politics of eternity because the politics of inevitability is wrong. The
politics of inevitability says “capitalism is good.” Capitalism is good for many things but if you just let it on its own you’re
going to get dramatic inequality as you have in the U.S and Britain. And that will
make people dissatisfied and lead them to vote in ways that perhaps you don’t
like. If you think technology is automatically enlightening then you
don’t recognize that the Internet, in fact generally plays on our emotions and
that the rise of the Internet is actually correlated, unfortunately, with
the decline in human capacity and a decline in human intelligence. And if you
haven’t noticed this, well that in itself unfortunately raises some
questions. Most importantly maybe the politics of inevitability always leads
to some kind of shock. We realize at a certain point that it’s not true and
then we become vulnerable to those politicians who say “look of course
there’s no progress, of course there’s no future.” Everything is about us and them,
everything is about restoring a past where we were always innocent and they
were always guilty. And this is now the dominant form of politics all around the
world. To put in a different way: What has happened is we’ve gone from having one
idea of the future, capitalism has to bring democracy, technology has to bring
enlightenment, to zero ideas of the future. We no longer talk about the
future at all and of course in all of this the fundamental problem is a
problem of responsibility. If you think that capitalism has to bring democracy,
if larger forces have to bring democracy, then you as a citizen don’t have to do
anything. If you think that it doesn’t matter what you do there’s no future.
Then again you have no sense of responsibility. The next place we’re moving could be pretty dark. We have a choice between two possibilities. One of them is dark and one of them is actually very inviting
and positive. The next thing that could be coming along, in fact which we already
see, is a kind of politics of catastrophe. Where the future is there but the future
is only dark. And of course here I have in mind global warming. One of the problems with the politicians of eternity is, that in
turning us away from the future they also turn us away from the reality that
there are things in the future that we absolutely have to deal with. And one of
them is global warming. If we don’t deal with
global warming then a future reappears but only a negative future, only a dark
future. Then we move into a catastrophic mood which makes democracy
unfortunately impossible. So that’s one alternative, that’s one way the politics
of time can go and you could say it’s one way that the politics of time is
already going. It’s politicians of eternity tend to be climate change
deniers or people who think the climate change is a good thing and are moving us
in that direction. Okay, enough of the bad news. There is actually some good news at the end of this. Because if it’s true that the future is important to
democracy and if it’s true that the future is the thing that we have lost
then we can see, conceptually what we need to do to get democracy back. Or at
least one big thing we have to do to get democracy back and that is to restore a
sense of the future and this is what I call the politics of responsibility. If
it’s true that the future has gone away for reasons that means that we can think
of policy that might bring a sensitive sense of the future back. If it’s true
that, for example, inequality creates hopelessness then it would make sense
that a rejuvenated welfare state which brings social mobility will also bring a
sense of the future. If it’s true that the internet pins us down and traps us
with our emotions, which it does, then revising how social platforms work or
just spending less time with the internet can make us more energetic and
more alive to various ideas of future. And if it’s true that the fear of climate change keeps people from looking into the future then
aggressive, interesting, innovative steps to address climate can also make us more hopeful. All of those things are true. This means that there’s hope, in fact
there’s double or even triple hope because if we can see our way into the
future conceptually with policy, this also means we can imagine that we could
do something about the future. Make the future a better place and as soon as we
start to think about that, as soon as we start to think: “Okay, the future could not
only be different than the present, it could
actually be much better than the present.” Then we’re on our way towards thinking
ourselves back towards democracy. Because of course the things that I’m talking
about are not only necessary, they’re also generally quite popular. So one
could imagine a future, one can imagine ourselves into a future where we care
about these things. Where we make progress on these things and then
there’s a positive feedback. Where these things then give us a sense that the
future is coming again and that the future might be a good one. In other
words things are horrible but in a certain respect they’re not as bad as
they seem. There really is a future and getting to
that future and making it a good future may not be quite as hard as it seems. The
mood that we’re in, the politics of eternity moving into catastrophic time
convinces us that there’s nothing we can do, that we’re in a rut. But a few small
victories, a few changes could convince us again, I think, that democracy is
precisely a way forward. Thank you very much.

2 thoughts on “55 Voices for Democracy: Timothy Snyder

  1. Democracy is the polity of false choice; it’s an elitist oligarchy which pretends to have sovereignty by allowing us plebeians to choose which wealthy elite will pander to us as he breaks his promises and holds no accountability for doing so. Majority rule is a joke and it’s obvious why the media has made a religion out of a political system.

    Vote from the rooftops.

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