The Future and Its Enemies: In Defense of Political Hope

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Humans may be the only creatures conscious of having a future, but all too often we would rather not think about it. Likewise, our societies, unable to deal with radical uncertainty, do not make policies with a view to the long term. Instead, we suffer from a sense of powerlessness, collective irrationality, and perennial political discontent.

In The Future and Its Enemies, Spanish philosopher Daniel Innerarity makes a plea for a new social contract that would commit us to moral and political responsibility with respect to future generations. He urges us to become advocates for the future in the face of enemies who, oblivious to the costs of modernization, press for endless and unproductive acceleration. His accessible book proposes a new way of confronting the unknown—one grounded in the calculation of risk. Declaring the classical right-left divide to be redundant, Innerarity presents his hopes for a renewed democracy and a politics that would find convincing ways to mediate between the priorities of the present, the heritage of the past, and the challenges that lie ahead.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Innerarity offers a practical alternative to the model that ignores the past. By treating the past as past, he asks us to recognize that there are real problems we can deal with now that might be rooted in that unchangeable history and, most importantly, that the future of our functioning democracies depends responsibly addressing these issues."—George Fourlas, Philosophy and Social Criticism

"Innerarity is the sole thinker to date, who is attuned to the futurity of actually exisiting democracies. . . [H]e masterfully combines the insights of a seasoned philosopher with the hands-on analyses of a political scientist or a sociologist. The conclusions of every chapter provide us with invaluable tools for coping with the complexity of our world without either simplifying or getting lost in it. At its best, The Future and Its Enemies maintains alive the very future of political philosophy."—Michael Marder, TELOS: Journal of Critical Social Thought

"To Innerarity, modern societies ignore the future by treating it as a mere accumulation of small decisions in an endless present. . . Although belief in automatic progress has dissipated, Innerarity hopes individuals will now take responsibility for an open future with its character dependent on a leading role for civil society. . . Recommended."—E. R. Gill, CHOICE

"Thanks to its clear analyses and its multiple avenues of inquiry, this essay points the way to a new democratic lucidity."—Pierre Rosanvallon, Libération

"The future no longer holds meaning for societies in thrall to the present. And in this present devoid of meaning, we have as much trouble accepting the legacy of the past as we do envisaging collective action that would take us beyond ourselves. We're obsessed by the here and now and incapable of making plans that would engage us and the future of society as a whole. Without a vision of what is yet to come, and without the will to endow it with meaning, we are reduced to the insignificance of our moment, that of a present ignorant of both its past and future."—Dominique Schnapper, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, member of the French Constitutional Council (2001-2010)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780804775571
  • Publisher: Stanford University Press
  • Publication date: 7/25/2012
  • Series: Cultural Memory in the Present Series
  • Pages: 152
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Daniel Innerarity holds the "Ikerbasque" Chair in Social and Political Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country, where he directs the Institute for Democratic Governance. His recent books include the prizewinningTransformation of Politics (2010) and La Sociedad invisible (2004). In 2005,Le Nouvel Observateur profiled him in its special issue dedicated to "25 Intellectual Leaders of the Contemporary World."
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Read an Excerpt


In Defense of Political Hope
By Daniel Innerarity


Copyright © 2009 Daniel Innerarity
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-7556-4

Chapter One

The Future of democratic societies

A Theory of Intergenerational Justice

Human beings must establish a working relationship with the future in order to carry out projects that go beyond the present moment. The same is true for societies, which must be able to interact intelligently with the future if they wish to articulate collective criteria such as forecasting and predictions or group emotions such as hope and fear, desire and expectations, in a reasonable manner. The struggles confronting society when it tries to think about its purpose and collective promise make it abundantly clear that we do not take good care of the future. This is especially true of the less immediate, less accessible future, that is to say, the future in the strictest sense. But if there is a justification for politics that distinguishes it from simple management, it is that politics attempts to govern the less visible but no less real future where that which is most important is at play. The decisive question is whether our democracies are capable of predicting future possibilities in a context of great uncertainty, whether they are positioned to carry out projects and constrict social time, to communicate across generations, acting in the "shadow of the future" (Axelrod 1984, 124) with legitimacy and responsibility.

The difficulty of establishing an effective relationship with the future is one of the reasons for the current triumph of banality and our media-saturated democracies' persistent distraction by the short term. It could be that a reintegration of the future into political activity will bring about a pioneering transformation of democratic life.

The Tyranny of the Present

One of the consequences of the oft-proclaimed crisis of the idea of progress is that the future becomes problematic and the present is rendered absolute. We find ourselves in a regime of historicity where the present is lord and master. This is the tyranny of the present, in other words, the tyranny of the current legislature, of the short term, consumerism, our generation, proximity, etc. This is the economy that privileges the financial sector, profits over investments, cost reductions over company cohesion. We practice an imperialism that is no longer related to space but to time, an imperialism of the present that colonizes everything. There is a colonization of the future that consists of living at its expense and an imperialism of the present that absorbs the future and feeds off it parasitically. Bertman (1998) calls it "the power of the now," the present that is not invested in any other dimension of time. This present replaces the long term with the short term, duration with immediacy, permanence with transience, memory with sensation, vision with impulse.

The future's loss of relevance and the intensification of the present are correlative phenomena. We demand from the present that which we are not prepared to await from the future. The "society of instant gratification" (Schulze 1992) imposes a short-term perspective. This "presentism" is made visible in all aspects of culture, including politics, which races after the immediacy of the polls, making use of a just-in-time logic taken from consumerism, publicity, and the media.

There exists a reasonable suspicion that democratic political systems are systematically and problematically fixated on the present. What are the reasons for this autistic focus? When summarized, we see that the causes are structural and derive from the acceleration of social time, electoral periodization, the reign of public opinion research, the behavior of the electorate, demographic tendencies, and organized pressure from interest groups.

From the outset, all democratic societies have structural difficulties when it comes to taking the future into account because the acceleration of social time challenges their ability to perceive and predict it. Any increase in velocity is accompanied by a proportional decrease in the scope of vision. Acceleration produces the seductive feeling of getting closer to the future while in fact eliminating it as a strategically malleable dimension. To the extent that acceleration tends to eliminate wait time and opportunities for thinking and reflecting, long-term strategies are rendered impossible. Thought and transformative action are based on the certainty that our actions can shape the future. That being said, with the establishment of global instantaneity and simultaneity, this type of future is displaced by a rapid present understood as a focal point exclusively dedicated to gratification and self-interest. This is one of the reasons for the dissociation between two futures: the one we should bear in mind and the one that we actually factor into our considerations. While the repercussions of our actions reach even very distant futures, our perspective and activities continue to be reduced to the scope of operations in the present.

Another reason for this reduction in the scope of our attention stems from the fact that the units of time in representative democracies are structured by electoral cycles. The rules that confer power on governments do so for a fixed period of time. Democratic competitions that determine winners and losers are generally held every four years. This elemental rhythm tends to make political strategists focus on the goal of achieving or holding onto power and thus limits the political playing field by insisting that problems be dealt with according to the legislature's temporal time frame. Problems are managed in such a way that they improve—or at least do not decrease—the likelihood of governing in the next legislative session. Problems that do not adapt to these circumstances are postponed or confronted only when there is no other alternative.

This attitude reduces public interest to the scale of voters' interests and narrows political power to the realm of the electors. Public interest is not merely the concrete will of the voters, but also an intertemporal reality, the only justification for long-term planning. It is comprised of measures that are not meant to resolve but to shape, treaties or structural agreements, large-scale projects in areas such as education, infrastructure, pension plans, energy policies, government reform, etc. In order to properly attend to these types of issues, a different configuration of political willpower is required along with a new temporal register that will complement electoral rhythms.

We can observe other causes for the tyranny of the present in the very nature of public opinion research and electoral behavior. Human beings (and voters, of course) have the tendency to disregard the future when weighing options. Issues affecting the here and now are considered important, yet that importance is mitigated the further we get from the immediate present. It is not completely irrational to disregard the future when we consider our double uncertainty about it: the future is unfamiliar, and our continued existence in it is uncertain.

Voters tend to discount the future twice over: first, because it is the future and is therefore not present; and second, because (and to the extent that) it belongs to other people. This double disregard inexorably prevails. Democratic elections are a competition for approval by those who vote in the present, not by those who may do so in the future, although those unrepresented voters may be the ones most affected. That being said, if democratic institutions have any purpose, it is precisely to expand the range of our considerations by introducing some type of reference to the absent future. Democratic institutions must highlight the fact that, given the intense temporal interconnectedness that characterizes a dynamic society, our calculations do not even gauge the present accurately when they disregard the future. Just as globalization has abolished the self-sufficiency of space, it has also deabsolutized the self-sufficiency of time.

There are also demographic causes for the tyranny of the present. The number of senior citizen voters is continually on the rise; in coming decades, this group will wield a dominant voice in the electorate. As voters, senior citizens tend to focus on the size and security of their pensions. Their orientation toward the future does not lead to an awareness of responsibility that would encourage them to privilege other peoples' rights over the demands of the present.

One last reason for our focus on the present stems from the very configuration of democratic space and the pressures exerted by interested parties. There are no strict rules of legitimacy that limit participation in democratic processes to the electorate and the elected. Democratic spaces are open to any social force that is strong enough to assert itself; in other words, they are particularly open to interests that are organized and capable of generating conflict. The fact is that contemporary democracies are especially vulnerable to pressure groups. Habitual political practice, which focuses on accommodating the interests of particular clients instead of addressing large social reforms, tends to make its decisions based on immediate pressures. There are no political lobbies to articulate the interests of those who are absent, including, of course, the interests of the future.

Is the current situation inevitable or are there signs that our present-focused model of politics is running its course? It is true that there is now increased sensitivity toward the problems of the future and toward intergenerational justice. One clear indication of this shift is the spectacular staying power of the notion of "sustainability." In some sense, the force field of pluralistic societies has been modified by this new sensitivity that has burst onto the scene and has already given rise to new groups that are fighting for a desirable future. Even so, the political system continues to insist on solutions that unburden the present and overburden the future. We can see evidence of this in budgetary policy, social policy, and environmental policy.

In budgetary policy, there is still a tendency to finance a large portion of our expenses not through taxes but through debt. To counteract this tendency, there have been attempts at balancing our budgets, such as the rules of stability that were accepted by the member states of the European Union when the euro was adopted as a unified currency. There has been a clear change of mentality, but this does not mean that the democratic nations are prepared to develop a politics of responsibility toward the future in the area of budgetary policy. In the field of social policy, we still struggle to apply guidelines for social justice when weighing goals and expectations regarding the pensions of those who are currently retired or about to retire against the need to assure the future of the general pension system; in other words, against the rights of those who will retire tomorrow and even of those who cannot yet vote. Environmental policy provides the clearest indication that the political system has become more sensitive to the future. But upon examination, we find that environmental policy decisions are adopted when and to the extent that threats and dangers surface. Committing to these types of policy decisions is more difficult when sacrifices are required in the present to avoid consequences that will only become visible in the future.

In view of all that, it makes sense to wonder whether democracy in its present form is capable of developing sufficient consciousness of the future to avoid situations that are dangerous but still distant. Long-term thought and action, carried out with "adequate forecasting into the future" (Birnbacher 1988), seems to contradict the short-term objectives of individual consumers or governability as determined by the ups and downs of opinion polls and the tactics of the immediate short term.

The logical consequence of the tyranny of the present is that the future remains untended; no one is paying attention to it. The "urgency of deadlines" (Luhmann) renders us incapable of contemplating the non-immediate horizon because we must address the powerful weight of that which needs to be resolved today. The distant future is no longer relevant to politics and social action, not only because of our disregard for planning procedures or the totalitarian corruption of those procedures, but because we are blinded by the urgency of more acute problems. That which is too present impedes the perception of latent or anticipatable realities that can often be more real than that which is currently dominating the political arena. In other words, is it logical to pay so much attention to present threats that we stop perceiving future risks? Should we afford ourselves the luxury of sacrificing long-term plans on the altar of the short term? What is more real, climate change or this summer's heat wave? Are we truly prepared to allow present possibilities to destroy future expectations?

The Coalition of the Living

Our fixation on the present leads us toward a more uncomfortable question: do we have more rights than our descendants? Is it fair to create a "temporal preference for those who are currently living"? Would this not be a temporal version of the privilege that some people want to establish in space, a type of time-based colonialism? In both cases, a complicity of "us" is established at the expense of a third party: if the third party in spatial exclusivism was the outsider, in temporal imperialism, it is the next generation that pays the price for our preference. This is precisely what happens when the temporal horizon is narrowed: a sort of "coalition of the living" tends to form that constitutes a true dominion of the present generation over future generations. The surprise that Kant felt when he observed how previous generations work so arduously on behalf of later ones has now been reversed. The opposite seems to hold true today: by making present time absolute, we make future generations work involuntarily in our favor.

The theme of generational conflict has a long history, and I am going to mention only one historical precedent that may serve as a counterpoint to the current situation. Revolutionary ideals supported the principle of "generational self-determination" that could be wielded against the dead. Condorcet, Jefferson, and Paine, for example, wrote glorious pages in which they refuted the idea that one generation had the right to condition the lives of subsequent generations. The codification of civil rights around 1800 set in motion an enormous debate about the rights of inheritance and the transfer of property. This was one part of a larger battle against the power of tradition. The first half of the nineteenth century produced a series of narratives questioning the tradition of trusteeships and the rights of the first-born (Hoffmann, Arnim, Balzac, Stifter). The concern about a lack of generational balance focused on the influence that previous generations wielded over the current generation, the privilege of the dead versus the freedom of the living (Parnes, Vedder, and Willer 2008).

Today it could be that we, the currently living, are the ones who are exercising an influence over the future that is analogous to what the revolutionaries were trying to prevent. What was then a continuation of tradition is now simply theft from the future. The externalization of present-day effects on a future that does not concern us becomes organized irresponsibility (Beck 2002). We enjoy a type of impunity in the temporal zone of the future where we can recklessly deplete other people's time or expropriate other people's future. We are "squatters" on future turf. We are performing what Alexander Kluge has called "the assault of the present on the rest of time." The more we live for our present, the less capable we will be of under standing and respecting the "nows" of other people. When the consequences of actions are extended through space until they affect people on the other side of the world and through time until they condition the future of people near and far, then a good many ideas and practices require profound revision. Both spatial and temporal interconnectedness should be taken into thoughtful consideration: anything that implicitly conditions the future should be made transparent and the object of democratic processes. A broadening of our temporal horizon is one of our most basic moral and political imperatives. In summary, this means we can no longer think of the future as the garbage collector of the present, as an "unloading zone" (Koselleck), a place where unresolved problems are sent so as to free the present of them.


Excerpted from THE FUTURE AND ITS ENEMIES by Daniel Innerarity Copyright © 2009 by Daniel Innerarity . Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Introduction: The Future Taken seriously....................1
1. The Future of Democratic Societies: A Theory of Intergenerational Justice....................7
2. The Temporal Landscape of Contemporary Society: A Theory of Acceleration....................23
3. How Do We Know the Future? A Theory of Future Studies....................34
4. How Is the Future Decided? A Theory of Decision....................49
5. Who Is in Charge of the Future? A Theory of Responsibility....................64
6. Chronopolitics: A Theory of Social Rhythm....................77
7. Politics in a Post-Heroic Society: A Theory of Political Contingency....................90
8. The Political Construction of Collective Hope....................108
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