We live our lives for an imagined future that never comes
Every one of us has become preoccupied with the future. We learn from our childhood that we must work hard to secure a better future. Even amidst the pandemic we have heard politicians, businesspeople, and academicians talking about pathways to make the future better.
In a way, the propositions are not new but they direct us towards the age-old rhetoric of economic growth, creation of more jobs, distribution of wealth, universal access to the basic rights, and so on.
Thinking retrospectively, all the things that are being sought after for a post-pandemic world were somewhat achieved in the pre-pandemic world. Even then, we were hit hard by pandemic and many loopholes in our socio-economic system became apparent.
But today, I am not writing about the generic loopholes that continue inequalities in this world, but rather directing our attention to what our future orientation has robbed us of.
What is the future, and why does the future matter so much to us? Philosopher Fredric Jameson provides an answer: The idea of the future is a narrative fantasy. Within such “narrative” or “fantasy,” we interrogate our fate and reach either hope or dread. Fredric Jameson also suggested that any future construction is preceded by others that created particular historical settings.
We can thus claim that the narratives of a future are representational of an imagined world -- they prepare people for change and function as a shock absorbing mechanism. For example, economic analysts are now predicting a future where many would lose jobs or income as such, and we are saving money and/or getting ready to work harder in that uncertain “future.”
However, in many cases futures turn out to be merely one moment and become a past in no time at all. Therefore, the idea of the future is like Ernst Bloch’s idea of the “not-yet” consciousness. At the very moment something is achieved, another milestone appears before us. The future-reality is always a state of “not-yet.” Thus, we take initiatives to figure out the “not-yet” in mundane ways based on our cultural/ideological stance.
So, we are stuck in a circle of futures -- there is no end to it. If we reflect on our lives, we will realize that we have always been pushed or pulled towards futures. When we were studying in a school, we all imagined a post-Secondary School Certificate situation and thought of a fun college life.
We could not have enough of it and shifted our focus to another future -- university life. Unfortunately, it was not enough either, and we thought once we entered a professional career, we would enjoy everything and fulfil all of our wishes.
But can we live that imagined future life peacefully? Not really. We all have more targets for the upcoming future; we are seeking better jobs, better cars, better houses, and the list goes on.
Why can’t we escape this never-ending circle of the “fantasy of a future?” It can be approached with one of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s best known maxims: “Man’s desire is the desire of the Other.” Fundamentally, Lacan proposes: Our desires are always, in a certain sense, the “Other’s desire.”
This “other” can be any other person, or our virtues, morals, or ideals. What Lacan emphasizes is that we never fully know exactly what the “Other” desires. Desire is thus a constant/continual process in our lives. This explanation could fit the way we are oriented towards “future” as an essential part of life.
From the very beginning of our lives, we must make decisions aiming towards the future. Many of our decisions are dependent on or influenced by the other’s choices. The driving force behind our worries about future is the pressure society puts on us. But why and how has a concern with the future become damaging for humanity? Primarily, the menace started when the “future” claim became a political agenda.
The contemporary capitalist world is established on many forms of future claims. Yuval Harari recently stated: We are always in a rush to secure our future. Every agenda of the state is future oriented. Additionally, every vision of the future is growth oriented. We all want to grow our income and secure a future with the rising income and resources. This tendency is evident from the individual to the global level.
This growth mindset is the backbone of capitalism, and we are all forced to do things having faith in the promise of a future return. In this regard, Walter Benjamin has argued: Capitalism acts as a form of religion. We invest money because in the future we will get more in return, we buy land because the price of the land will continue rising, we choose to educate ourselves because in the future “such and such” skills will be more in demand, etc.
We are afraid of diverting from the notions of “good” constructed by the capitalist society. With our future orientation -- in the capitalist world -- we are all being guided towards becoming a commodity that we all apparently need. Everything is produced as a commodity to be exchanged and consumed, which ironically reduces “a shared feeling” among the people.
For example, workers of the corporate sector are expected to work even after designated work hours. Even if a meeting is proposed after work hours, everyone hesitates to point out that our families are deprived. Rather, working late has become a measure of our dedication to work and our commitment to the organization -- we tend to believe it could possibly lead to a promotion in the future when we would get more time for our own sake.
With this imagined/promised future -- labouring humans are ripped off from any possibility of shared action. If we were not so “concerned” about our futures -- as a person, a company, a class, or a state -- we could make more out of our lives.
Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka. Currently, he is working as a research fellow at the International Institute of Asian Studies (IIAS), Leiden University, the Netherlands.