The scene is Tahrir Square during the heart of the Arab Spring: A BBC reporter pulls a celebrating young man aside and asks “What’s next for Egypt? What comes after Mubarak’s government falls?” The man, with a wild gleam in his eye, turns to the reporter and giddily responds that he doesn’t know. The revolution is leaderless, there is no programme, no one is commandeering the future. He answers as if this could persist indefinitely, as if Egypt would be better off having entered eternal springtime, a golden age of permanent change.
The word “change” traditionally refers to a transformation from one state to another, whether it is from ice to water or slavery to freedom. Think about Sam Cooke’s song ‘A Change is Gonna Come’. Change was once a means-to-and-end; as we venture into the 21st century it is quickly becoming an end-in-itself.
The revolutionaries in Tahrir Square were a strange reflection of the technophile crowd at something like a TEDtalk: both hypnotized by the next best thing without stopping for a moment to ask whether their political or technological movements and changes are engendering a good, humaine future.
Rather than treating change as good in-itself (as an end-in-itself), we must be in a position to determine the good changes from bad changes. Otherwise we will, no doubt, slip into the whirlpool where the emancipatory promise of change becomes an impossibility, and eventually a forgotten possibility.
The most important lesson we do not appear to have learned in our revolutionary world is that the next thing is not always the next best thing. This unqualified trust in the Future, as if it were a benevolent goddess guiding History by the hand, is our defining pathology. It leads to the position that what is good is what has yet to come, and that the world we should look forward to is one that has no end other than permanent revolution and change. We’re on the right track, so long as we’re always changing, insofar as we kneel at the altar of Nietzsche as obedient, perpetually chaotic “dancing stars”. The slogan of the new century is shaping up to be the iconic sneaker slogan “Just do it”.
This is the legacy that modernity has bequeathed to us, that has transformed us into nihilist “dancing stars”: “willing for the sake of willing”, as Canadian George Grant put it, is the activity fit perfectly for an individual who has unwavering faith in Change and the Future. This nihilism has slithered in to all facets of 21st century life, from the political to the scientific to the religious. In a fitting epigraph to his essay on the contemporary “hyperactive man”, philosopher Paul Virilio quotes St. Nietzsche “What matters most to modern man is no longer pleasure or displeasure, but excitement”.
Advertisers, politicians and religious fundamentalists all have realized that the promise of change resonates with today’s “hyperactive man”. In a strange way, we are seeing that Barack Obama’s slogan “Change we can believe in!” really spells out the Modern creed “We can believe in change!” Whatever exists is tainted with having been permanent. “The word Establishment” according to historian Jacques Barzun “torn from it’s precise meaning, now denotes any institution, even benevolent (such as the fire department), which is tainted with having existed prior to the mood of protest.” Across the world, from the large-scale rebel war against Gaddafi in Libya to the small-scale war to change the left-leaning city council here in Toronto, the drums of change are beating. All the world – Left and Right, Liberal and Conservative, Religious and Athiest – is caught up in this futurist dance. It is a fact that today’s “hyperactive men” will parade around like the rats of Hamelin if the magic pipe of change is played loud enough.
Julian Benda, one of Nietzsche’s early readers, observed in The Treason of the Intellectuals (1928), a book neglected today at our own peril, that “Formerly man was divine because he had been able to acquire the concept of justice, the idea of law, the sense of God; to-day he is divine because he has been able to create an equipment which makes him the master of matter…” Benda’s observation was dead on. Our values today are driven by our integration into the spiralling whirlpool of new and newer technologies. Since the 17th century scientific revolution declared that what is “latest is truest” (Barzun) this obsession with technological flux has reached gargantuan proportions.
There is a curious lesson that our generation – obsessed with the future – may never have the chance to learn: the branches of the present have their roots in the past. A future that severs itself from the past will whither, shrivel and eventually die. Giovanni Reale, a scholar of antiquity, warned the colourful revolutionaries in ‘68 that “if the past is eliminated, so also with the very same stroke is the future. In fact, the past is like the roots of a large tree. If the roots are cut and pulled out because they are underground and do not bring forth any flower or fruit (which are of value to the present) and hence the tree is useless, the loss of the roots rapidly destroys the tree in the future.”
It goes without saying that there are times where radical changes are warranted. However, the belief that the Egyptian revolutionaries could indefinitely occupy Tahrir Square without a plan, a leader and an end in mind, was not only an absurdity, but risked handing over a seething mass of raw biological material into the cold hands of anti-revolutionaries brimming with plans and ends.
As you can see, this is not a veiled call for conservativism against progressivism, or stability against change, but a reminder that swinging too far to one end of the pendulum is folly.
Lewis Mumford once wrote that “Those who understand the nature of life itself will not … see reality in terms of change alone and dismiss the fixed and static as otiose; neither will they … regard flux and movement and time as unreal or illusory and seek truth only in the unchangeable.” It is up to us, surrounded by the ever-widening whirlpool of political and social change, to discover a way between the lessons of the past and the hypnotic possibilities the future will bring. But this way between will never become clear, unless we can take a deep breath and ‘hyperactive man’ can stop “just doing it”.