The Great Cosmopolitan Stagnation

The Marriage of Technological Pessimism with Geopolitical Optimism

To the extent that the American elite shares a consensus, it is a combination of pessimism about technology and optimism about politics—particularly world politics. In my view this synthesis provides a picture that is the opposite of reality, in which amazing technological progress will continue to take place on a planet whose politics is characterized by national and sub-national conflict, irrationality, and ignorance. This seems so obvious to me that I don’t understand why most educated and thoughtful people in the U.S. and the world generally hold perceptions that are exactly opposite mine. In the words of the eighteenth-century British poet Christopher Smart, who was confined to London’s infamous Bedlam asylum: “I said they were mad, and they said I was mad, and damn them, they outvoted me.”

Let’s start with technological pessimism. The story of how Malthusian doomsayers, from the 1970s onward, have been repeatedly proven wrong about impending global famines, natural resource depletion and energy scarcity is well known. Even in the case of anthropogenic global warming, the reality of which always-tentative science supports, environmentalists have tended to engage in apocalyptic exaggeration.

Fashionable environmental pessimism has now been joined by fashionable pessimism about technology. The economist Tyler Cowen’s claim that we are living in an “innovation drought” was widely and respectfully discussed by a chattering class that welcomes gloomy views, at least in the areas of technology and the economy. And yet, in this supposed “innovation drought,” the radical new technologies that are moving from the laboratory to military or commercial applications include brain-computer interfaces, quantum computing, robotic manufacturing, robot cars and trucks, drones, and in vitro food production. Where in all that innovation is the drought?

For reasons I don’t understand, pessimism about the potential for technology-driven economic progress tends to be accompanied, among the bien pensant, by naïve optimism about the potential for cooperation and harmony in world politics. Following the Cold War, there was widespread hope that at last world governance under the UN Security Council would be realized. When gridlock on the Security Council outlived the Cold War, most of the bipartisan establishment bought into other utopian visions.

One was the idea of “globalization” as an irresistible force that would eliminate all national barriers to trade, investment and mass immigration. Another, more nationalistic version of utopia was the idea of indefinite American global hegemony, with the U.S. welcomed as the world’s police officer. Amazingly, both utopias have survived the Great Recession and botched American wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, and continue to shape the assumptions of the typical American foreign policy apparatchik. In the same way, Marxist-Leninist nonsense about the contradictions of capitalism and inter-imperialist rivalries shaped the mindset of Soviet careerists, long after reality had shredded that particular ideology.

So here we are, in a country whose politicians and opinion leaders tend to be equally surprised when technological advances like fracking radically increase energy supplies and when the downfall of tyrants in the Arab world does not lead to the rise of Arab liberal democrats who embrace Israel and revere America.

To the extent that the mainstream worldview of technological pessimism/geopolitical optimism has been challenged, it has been from the Right. But that is only because the right has its own alternate utopias, not because it understands the world any better than the centrist-liberal mainstream.

In the last half-century, conservative and libertarian “cornucopians” who argued that technological progress would refute Malthusian pessimism have been right more than they have been wrong. Unfortunately, they have been right for the wrong reason. They are right to be optimistic about technology, but their account of technology as being generated spontaneously by entrepreneurs and small groups of investors in free markets is at odds with reality, in which public sector investment, large-scale corporate R&D and development and nonprofit, mostly university-based R&D have been essential to technological innovation. Libertarians are pro-market, not pro-technology.

What is more, the libertarians are rivals of the other group on the right that has dissented from the establishment’s technological pessimism and geopolitical optimism—the neoconservatives. While the conventional wisdom has downplayed the possibility of world conflict too much, the neocons have specialized in hysterical threat inflation. Remember the claims by Eliot Cohen and Norman Podhoretz that jihadist terrorism was “World War IV?” The truth is that most of the neocons—I say this as a former neocon—are nostalgic for the excitement of the titanic struggles against Hitler and Stalin, and inflate both real and imagined national security threats so they can act out their personal psychodramas as the heroic Paul Reveres who will alert an unprepared nation.

If the Right’s challenges to the deluded mainstream consensus merely reflect equally deluded libertarian and neoconservative ideologies, rather than a better grasp on reality, then there is no major opinion group at all that challenges the consensus of technological pessimism and geopolitical optimism, much less accepts my diametrically opposite view that nobody is likely to lose money betting for long-term technological progress or against perpetual global peace and harmony. Which leads us back to the mystery, without resolving it: why do so many thoughtful, well-informed Americans combine Malthusian pessimism about technology and economic growth with Wilsonian optimism about world peace and international cooperation?

Photo by swamysk on Flickr.