In this article from The Baffler, anthropologist/author/anarchist David Graeber makes the point that a “successful revolution” has less to do with protestors taking over the government, and more to do with previously fringe/radical ideas becoming common sense, within a short period of time. The article’s powerful closing line:
And the moment any significant number of people simultaneously shake off the shackles that have been placed on that collective imagination, even our most deeply inculcated assumptions about what is and is not politically possible have been known to crumble overnight.
This got me thinking, what was considered fringe thinking ten or twenty years ago, but is currently entering mainstream thought? The following probably seem like common sense/conventional wisdom to a person in their twenties, but anyone holding these ideals in the “greed is good” 80’s was definitely outside of the zeitgeist.
- gay people should have equal rights
- intelligent animals (dolphins, whales, elephants, apes) should not be used as slaves or slaughtered for body parts/meat
- environmental/ecological collapse is possible if our natural environments are treated as economic externalities
- the national security apparatus has more to do with control of citizens than it does with the protection of citizens
- food, shelter, healthcare, and education should be basic human rights, and not conditional privileges to be granted based on hard work, morality, cleverness, inborn traits like ethnicity, etc.
- the value of work should be based on how much it benefits other people and humanity, not on profitability
- extreme income inequality erodes social trust and pits the poor against the (shrinking) middle class
- mass incarceration creates more criminals and does not increase public safety in the long run
Attitudes vary by country. The U.S. is fairly enlightened when it comes to gay rights, but is behind on healthcare as a basic right (Obamacare is a small step in the right direction, but saddles middle-class families with unaffordable premiums). In terms of mass incarceration the United States is in a league of its own (not in a good way). Japan is behind on cetacean rights; Thailand is behind on elephant right; China is behind on environmental regulation, and so on. But none of the ideas are “fringe” — Americans who visit England and happen to break a leg are pleasantly surprised when they get no bill for services, and wonder “Why not in the U.S.”?
So what ideas are currently fringe/radical, but might enter the mainstream in ten or twenty or one hundred years? I would suggest the following are plausible:
- animals with any sort of conscious awareness (insects and some fish probably excepted) should not be used as slaves or slaughtered for body parts/meat
- depopulation is more of a risk to civilization than overpopulation
- extra-terrestrial communities (moon base, Mars base, orbiting artificial worlds) should be established as quickly as possible to improve humanity’s survival chances
- machines that are probably conscious-aware should have legal rights
- state benefits should not be means-based, but universal (allowing societies to share wealth without violating Murray’s law)
We can see Steven Pinker’s expanding circle of empathy taking humanity to places that seem strange now, but may make perfect sense later.
Of course, even if the long-term trend is towards more cooperation and compassion, short-term collapse and cultural regression is just as likely. Consider the millions of starvation deaths that resulted from the Chinese Cultural Revolution, or the political and economic events (and xenophobic attitudes), that led up to the Holocaust.
Still, there are hopeful ripples in the way human beings are thinking about alternatives to consumer capitalism, which is Graeber’s main topic. Not every detail of the “sharing economy” vision is worked out, but green shoots are visible. Wage slavery and the ruthless exploitation of human labor no longer make sense to most of us. The tide is turning.