The Future, or The Society of Looting

Give me back the Berlin Wall
Give me Stalin and St. Paul
I’ve seen the future, brother:
It is murder
— Leonard Cohen

That has long been one of my favorite quotations, and I’m convinced that it becomes truer by the day. We have all seen the future, because the horizon of the future is closer than ever before — in fact, I am unaware of an individual or institution that seems able to project any kind of future further than about two years at the very most.

This works in two ways. First, any planning for something that will prove beneficial beyond the future horizon is so radically impossible as to be basically unthought. On the other hand, any potential (negative) outcome that could obtain at some distant point of the future must be dealt with immediately. This latter dynamic is clearest in government, where the budget deficit must be dealt with now lest bond traders start pushing up interest rates at some indefinite future point or where Social Security must be fixed now because there are projections under which it might run a deficit forty years into the future.

The first dynamic, however, is everywhere, and the primary culprit seems to be the corporate world, where investors seem incapable of looking past a quarterly time horizon and companies do their bidding — laying off workers now to boost net income and keep the share price up rather than riding out the economic storm and preserving “human capital” for the next upturn, for example. Yet the attitude has pervaded every aspect of society, so that momentary shortfalls are always a sign that permanent and radical changes — the omnipresent “cuts” — are necessary without delay.

This horizon of the future is the ultimate horizon of reality, and as in Freud, this reality principle is all about limits. “We can’t afford that,” “we don’t have room in the budget for that unfortunately,” etc., etc. — such context-free proclamations are routinely accepted as the final word, almost as a declaration of God himself. And strangely, the budget never expands, it only becomes tighter and tighter, constraining our options further, until life becomes an exercise in what to “cut.”

We live at the beck and call of numbers, of percentages — we “cut” to the appropriate level first and ask questions later. We must “cut” discretionary spending by 10%! We must “cut” health care costs or we’ll go bankrupt! We must “cut” — and here’s the kicker — taxes!

The two of course do go together in the straightforward budgetary sense, but I think there’s a deeper conceptual link. We passively accept “cuts” in everything else because of the “cut” represented by the tax “cut” — the “cut” that would “cut us loose” from shared responsibility, from anything that would challenge the ever-more-dominant attitude of “I got mine, and you can go fuck yourself.” Are you being foreclosed on? Fuck you, you fucking bum — I pay my bills. Are you out of work? Find a job, you lazy fuck — I work hard.

The result is a society based on the premise of looting. We are all “cashing out,” taking whatever we can hold onto — because fuck you, I’ve earned it. The CEOs are the most visible offenders, rigging companies to give themselves insane bonuses worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year, but isn’t that the model for everyone? The dream of homeownership: I’ll live in my own little detached box and go to my job in my own little individual box as well, and everyone will have to leave me the fuck alone. I’ve got mine, so leave me the fuck alone — did it ever occur to you to get a fucking job like I did? Did it ever occur to you to work hard like I did? Obviously not, if you don’t have what I have — so fuck you. Don’t ask me for a hand-out, you stupid fuck.

The society of looting, the society of go fuck yourself — we live in the society of trying to pretend that we don’t have a society. But we do and we have to — in order to do anything meaningful or worthwhile, we have to join together in pursuit of a common goal. If we all do nothing but try to claim our share, we’ll build nothing and destroy everything. This is not a moral ideal but an objective fact. By building a society on the principle of go fuck yourself, we literally are fucking ourselves, every day, up the ass — no mean feat! It required advanced technology and thousands of years of cultural development to get us to the point where we can fuck ourselves so thoroughly, and man, are we ever fucking going at it.

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29 Responses to “The Future, or The Society of Looting”

  1. Mark William Westmoreland Says:

    Adam, would you agree with the following?

    In late capitalism, at which point monetary value has been the highest, most privileged value and standard by which we measure all other things, we now see ourselves as something to be quantified, something of instrumental use? I agree, unfortunately, that we live at the beck and call of numbers and percentages. Perhaps we ourselves have become mere statistics. It seems to me that many of our contemporary systemic problems have emerged out of a failed anthropology. Furthermore, the notion that our future horizon is closer than ever today is interesting. Perhaps simulacra has become our reality. We’ve replaced our future horizon (Freud: the limit of the death drive; Heidegger: being-toward-death, etc.), with something constructed (“this, here, now;” false nees; these numbers, this cut, this expenditure) out of the system by which we are fucking ourselves. In other words, we have chosen to fuck ourselves to the point that people assume this is actually a good way to be human. I’m not suggesting a return to a prior epoch or something along those lines. I’d suggest that we find ways to de-territorialize our present condition and create new spaces from which we can extend our horizon more than, say, two years.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I agree that a failed anthropology is at work here, and that’s part of the reason that so much of my scholarly writing has been focused on pushing against individualism and highlighting the irreducibly social element in human existence — even the apparently jokey Awkwardness is geared toward this question.

  3. Mark William Westmoreland Says:

    Right, I agree. And I’ll be reading _Awkwardness_ over the winter break. By “pushing against,” do you mean that you critique individualism or that you suggest ways of actually dismantling it or both?

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I guess both? You’ll have to judge for yourself.

  5. Thomas J Bridges Says:

    I like the diagnosis of “looting.”

    Looting at Duke University (and those mocking it):

    http://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2010-10/other-duke-list

  6. Alex Says:

    I think my work too has been always orientated towards talking about the irreducibly social nature of humanity. My point has always been to some extent that not only is individualism a false ethics and politics, but that it is strictly socio-ontologically impossible, as that individual even while being individualist is socially constructed. Even in capitalism, supposedly individualistic, what is valued is itself socially constructed – individualists do what they do for social recognition!

    Perhaps this attention is something that unites all AUFS authors? It’s always seemed to me a kindred with Adam’s work anyway.

  7. Brad Johnson Says:

    For some reason, this post reminds me of the final paragraph of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities:

    The Inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of hell, are not hell, then make them endure, give them space.

  8. Hill Says:

    Kotsko 2012

  9. erin Says:

    …”the society of trying to pretend that we don’t have a society”

    great phrase. I am guilty.
    I see your thesis confirmed in the last elections. the rhetoric shifted from the “audacity of hope” to the tea party, um, group.

  10. Michael Jimenez Says:

    Great post! Being from California, your post made me immediately think of one of the scapegoats of this looting: illegal immigrants! I think a lot of what you said can be further extended to any perceived Other that is after our stuff… Life is tough in X, well, who cares; get outta my home; that doesn’t give you the right to take my stuff, etc.

  11. On Getting Pissed About the Right Things « theophiliacs Says:

    [...] I just read this piece by Adam Kotsko which I think hits right on the mark and I was about to post a link to it until I [...]

  12. david cl driedger Says:

    The second half of that post is pretty much my constant internal refrain when I see some dude driving a massively over-sized pick-up truck.

  13. Robert Says:

    Adam,
    You write like a Communist. God bless you. I think the quote below recognizes the same fucking-to-get-fucked logic that you managed to grab hold of in your post.

    “The more this labor power produces, the relatively less the power of labor; the more this labor power produces, the proportionately less is returned to the laborers; the more this labor power produces, the less the need, use, production and reproduction of labor makes up the value of the products; the more this labor power produces, the more the surplus labor, the surplus product, the surplus value, the overproduction is converted into the property of the capitalist; the more this labor power produces, the more the capital displaces, outweighs labor power in the process of reproduction; the more this labor power produces, the more the productivity of labor is consumed by and converted into the overproduction of capital.”

    -S. Artesian

  14. Guido Nius Says:

    I’m all for pointing out the irreducible social nature of human individuality. But I fail to see where the cultural pessimism is coming in. Sure, there are bastards, but the past is certainly not more economical bastard-wise. After all there also is the irreducible individualist component to any sociality. Negating that (as in extreme modernism) is certainly not better. Well, not better unless you think slavery is better than looting.

    If there is an irreducible social nature to humanity, then this seems a cause for cultural optimism. As much as some loot – they will never be able to outloot the natural desire to get a solid social foundation. Call me naïve.

  15. Matthew Frost Says:

    In my own little world, the ELCA’s figures indicate that in just over ten years, we’ll have massive pastoral retirements, on the order of 500/year. At the moment, however, in this economy, folks are delaying retirement longer — which serves to reinforce that bulge in the curve. And yet today, right now, it seems popularly like we’re producing seminary graduates to no purpose. So why have seminaries, when all they produce is surplus? We don’t need more pastors today; why have eight seminaries? And we’ve been in this mode for years!

    It’s a very interesting variant on “we’ve got ours,” and the first of your two effects of the near horizon. There is an underlying notion that product can simply be had on demand, and that production is likewise an instantaneous process that you can “TiVo” — pausing the live process when inconvenient, and being able to resume it as though nothing intervened when you need or want it again. And at the same time, capital campaigns all over are based on some level of the second effect, the knowledge of the eventual exigency creating the need to prove a present exigency. They feed one another — the permanent-short-term view makes it necessary to frame the longer-term future needs in terms of a foreshortened crisis it can understand. And at the same time, the cycle is self-defeating — permanent states of crisis build cynicism, and get bounced out of the permanent-short-term view as they are “proved false”.

    All for a lack of a sense of the organic…

  16. Evan Says:

    Thanks for the post, and also Thomas for drawing my attention to the information about Duke… here’s a quote from one of the articles linked by CC, basically offering word-for-word the sort of justification that Adam critiques:

    Dzau said his compensation is based on a number of factors intended to measure the progress of DUHS. He added that he is “hurt that people accuse [him] of things they don’t understand,” and that he feels he is a man of integrity who receives money as stipulated by prior contractual agreements.

    “I don’t think I want to escalate this,” Dzau said. “I have a job to do—why escalate this?”

  17. Ken Surin Says:

    I’m from Duke, and have no doubt that Victor Dzau is a decent individual. The problem here is systemic, in that every chancellor of an American university health system receives stratospherically high levels of compensation compared to lesser mortals. Dzau also serves on several corporate boards, including Pepsi (renowned for producing beverages with health-enhancing properties!), for which he is very handsomely rewarded– these corporations typically give their directors $100,000 for every board meeting they attend. Dzau has an MD degree, but the system requires people in his position to operate like CEOs.

    I recall reading during the Vietnam war that the salary of the North Vietnamese minister of health was only twice that of a nurse. Now that Vietnam has become capitalist I’m pretty certain it’s not like that anymore, but the then North Vietnamese situation conveys some important lessons about the compensation of those who run health systems.

  18. Bruce Rosenstock Says:

    The primatologist Paul Garber offers support to the Kotsko thesis about human sociality. He offers a critical review of prior primatology work and concludes that the amount of time spent doing cooperative activities is far greater than the amount of time engaged in aggressive behavior, though the primatologists mostly stressed the aggressive behavior. They created a false picture of the animals they were studying, and failed to see what was in front of them: cooperative behavior is the norm. And he showed that the cooperative ties also felt good, that is, they generated the same high ocytocin levels that are observed in mothers tending the young. The big question then, is: how did the evolutionary basis for sociality get so fucked up?

  19. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I really love that no one challenged my notion that two years seemed to be the ultimate planning horizon.

  20. Thomas J Bridges Says:

    Bruce:

    Your comment reminds me of Bergson’s Two Sources of Morality and Religion, in which he lays out his typology of the open and closed societies (and dynamic and static religion): it is uniquely human (amongst creatures in the process of evolution) to be able to break free from the “necessity of obligation,” i.e., to somehow deviate from the mold of the species/social group. A society may start like a beehive, in which everyone does his or her assigned duty, without question—this society operates in instinct. But, when intelligence is present, he argues, social progress is made when an individual has an impulse to break free. This “mystic” may open a society—to other human societies, to plants, to animals, or whatever. But when “progress” is made along the way, an open society may become hardened (my language) once again. It seems that from a Bergsonian perspective that one could judge much of the “progress” that lead to our cultural and economic individualism was not without its good (I am stating the obvious, of course, e.g., in the recognition of the value of each person, regardless of gender, race or social class), but that in breaking away from more beehive-ish societies, it has become hardened in an individualistic mode.

    I am just toying with ideas here, in response to your question, “how did the evolutionary basis for sociality get so fucked up?” I am likely a fool to speak of Bergson around people who know his work much better than I do.

  21. Clayton Crockett Says:

    I’m just reading this thread, so late to respond as usual, but I wanted to echo that it’s a great post and comments.

    Re: shorter and shorter term and impossibility of planning more than two years out, I just think we are hitting the wall in terms of physical resources and cheap energy supplies. Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies in instructive here–at some point we overrun and outstrip our resource base and then things have to reset. Peak oil was 2005 and we are grappling with the effects of this, including the financial devastation it touched off.

    This can be more or less dramatic and apocalyptic, but I think we are flailing about, consuming more and more of our seed-corn in a desperate attempt to prolong the way we are currently doing things and avoid seriously reconstructing the way the human societies will have to function in a world without growth in material terms.

  22. Viktor Friedmann Says:

    Great post.
    This, I think, is relevant to the “looting” theme:

    “Disaggregation, in corporate law terms, represents a peculiar kind of management-led leveraged buyout of the state by its leading expert elites, who then see the opportunity to break up its cohering power centers, in order to free up the value of political power in their hands, and for their benefit. To the polity as a whole, the whole of an ordered state power in service to ordered liberty is greater than the sum of the parts; to Globalized New Class elites, break-up frees up value for them in parts – for a while. Until the commons are over-fished and the available political power dissipated and monetized. Christopher Lasch had it right when he called it the “revolt of the elites.””
    From: http://opiniojuris.org/2010/11/08/obama-endorses-india-to-join-security-council-as-permanent-member-and-a-note-on-state-disaggregation-and-the-global-new-class/

  23. Guido Nius Says:

    2 years??? You mean 8 quarters, I presume.

  24. Adam Kotsko Says:

    When you put it like that, it does seem like an impossibly long time.

  25. Joe Says:

    So, your argument is that history ended at the last past moment when you were happy. I lived in teh DDR behind the Berlin wall, and no, I don’t want it back. It didn’t represent unselfishness, it was an instrument of authoritarian tyranny, and the power of a paranoid state that though it had to subsume individuals because they could not be trusted – for fear of them “cashing in” as you say, or saving and building for the future as anyone with the range of desires and emotions concidered conventional to humans might say.

    The premise of this wisdom by our “betters” decrying as “getters” a desire to NOT SHARE some little part of their labor with others is signified not by them wanting to be generous with others’ resources, so much as it’s founded on the idea that hating happy, normal people somehow makes them feel smart.

    So, let me ask you this: may I give someone else your shoes? Because I certainly think that they need them, and I judge you to be of an undeserving class for shoes, what with some apparent resemblance to some past figure we hold in contempt. Oh, and do please declare me generous and thank me for my selfless expression of compassion with your shoes as well.

  26. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I didn’t realize that people weren’t allowed to own shoes in the DDR. This is a mistake people make constantly — the Marxist critique of “private property” is a critique of the idea that individuals can own the means of production, not of the idea that individuals can have “stuff.”

  27. AUFS 2010 Wrap-up « An und für sich Says:

    [...] The Future, or The Society of Looting by Adam Kotsko — as Dan Barber pointed out in an email, this post is basically the commentary I didn’t provide on the long quote about panic I recently posted. [...]


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