The Future is History

“We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.” – A Soviet joke

The Future is History by Masha Gessen is in someways the flip-side of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. While The Origins of Totalitarianism explains exactly that, how societies lose themselves to totalitarian ideology, The Future is History deals with the lingering after-effects of totalitarian regimes. The Future is History is a detailed view of Russian society, interspersing contemporary academic thought with historical research, and, most poignantly, with true-life accounts of the lives of several unrelated young Russians who came of age on the other side of the fall of the Iron curtain, yet were never quite able to escape their political heritage. The author lost contact with one of the young men who’s stories are told in the pages mid-way through the project; this unfinished, unhappy story made more of an impact on me than anything else in the book. Not that The Future is History is short on impact or ideas.

Below, I have selected a few quotes that resonated with my view of the world, both inside and outside of Russia today. May we heed the warnings of other peoples lives an other nations mistakes so we do not sleep-walk into a history without a future of our own.

“A state born of protest against inequality had created one of the most intricate and rigid systems of privilege the world had ever seen.”

Alas, is this not usually the case? What we think we are asking for and what we get are, like the Genie’s wishes in the Arabian Nights tails, not what we thought we were asking for at all.

“To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancel out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic.”

Ah -how well do we know these tactics today, in our world where nothing is real and everything is possible?

“…every totalitarian regime forms a type off human being on whom it relies for its stability. The shaping of the New Man is the regime’s explicit project, but its product is not so much a vessel for the regime’s ideology so much as it is a person best equipped to survive a given society. The regime in turn, comes to depend on this newly shaped person for its survival.”

We think we can control a bureaucracy. We think we can control our populist leaders. Yet, they end up changing us into their own image.

“What distinguishes a totalitarian ideology is its utterly insular quality. It purports to explain the entire world and everything in it. There is no gap between totalitarian ideology and reality because totalitarian ideology contains all of reality within itself.”

This reminds me so much of intersectional ideology, critical theories and various other flavours of post-modernism, which leave no room for dissenting views. Can the unfalsifiable theory be a theory at all?

” A totalitarian regime demands participation: if you do not march the march and sing the songs, then you are not a loyal citizen. An authoritarian regime on the other hand, tries to convince subjects to stay home. Whoever marches too energetically, or sings too loudly is suspect, regardless of the ideological content of the songs and the direction of the march.”

I loved this distinction between authoritarianism and totalitarianism. But, again, how much does this reflect the fierce debate between non-racialism and anti-racialism in the West today?

“The boundaries are ever-shifting… totalitarian societies as producing a constant flux and inconsistency – and this requires the population to be ever-vigilant in order to stay abreast of the shifts. A hypersensitivity of signals is essential for survival.”

How like our own world, where not knowing the currently correct word to describe someone’s race or gender can get you fired from your place of work?

“Liberalism does not have to be combined with democracy. It can simply mean free trade, market mechanisms, which as we know can exist perfectly well in the strictest of authoritarian regimes, even in almost totalitarian ones.”

Modern China and its “venture communism” approach would agree.

“…”collective hostage taking,” what was once known as krygovaya pork – literally “circular bail.” For centuries, entire communities could be geld responsible for taxes owed or crimes committed by any individual. If a resident failed to pay taxes, the property of any of his neighbours could be seized.”

How alike this mentality is with the calls we hear daily for innocent children to pay retributions for the historical crimes of their long-dead great grandparents – the only difference is the apportioning of guilt to the innocent across time rather than space.

“Russians had agreed to live under a sort of dictatorship in exchange for stability.”

Don’t we all? Is not all politics a choice between freedom on one hand and free stuff (including safety and security) in the other? – The more we have of one, the less we have of the other.

“We are afraid of freedom. We don’t know what to do with it.”

And is that not the most chilling of all? It is chilling because it is true.

“…divided newfound freedom into two parts, “freedom to” and “freedom from”. If the former was positive, the latter could cause unbearable anxiety: “The world has become limitless and at the same time threatening…” By losing his fixed place in a closed world man loses the answer to the meaning of his life; the result is that doubt has befallen him concerning himself and the aim of his life.”

Indeed, therapists working in Kosovo in 2000, found people who had for years been victimised by being told what to do, now longed to be told what to do.

Freedom is a terrible thing because it allows freedom from everything other than your own responsibilities for the consequences of your own actions. The Future is History has given me more sympathy for  the sympathy survivors of totalitarianism show towards totalitarianism; and it has also made me more afraid that the rest of us, the lucky ones who were born into freedom do not value our birthright.

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