Propheteering has no Future

Corona Diary

The economist Nouriel Roubini has written with absolute confidence that a “Greater Depression” is on the horizon, the wealth gap will grow, deglobalization is a fait accompli, and inevitable automation will “further [fan] the flames of populism, nationalism, and xenophobia,” resulting in more “balkanisation and fragmentation.” Laurie Garrett, a science journalist recently dubbed the “Cassandra” of the covid-19 pandemic, has laconically predicted “massive political disruption” to come. It now seems as though the best way to be heard above the din of catastrophic musings is to talk our problems into something bigger, more deeply structural, and more longstanding than as described by other commentators. There’s a competition going on to determine who can divide the world up into conceptual categories rigid and clever enough to withstand the most determined onslaught of optimism, not to mention the meekest interjection of affirmation, or even simply a brief halt to the mood of spiraling despair.

There is reason for sadness, frustration, and fear. And it is of utmost importance to document and protest the unjust and horrific things that are happening every day. But the performative propheteering of some recent commentary serves quite another purpose. Like Francis Fukuyama (“end of history”) and Samuel Huntington (“clash of civilizations”) before them, Roubini, Garrett, and others like them want to run the narrative about what is happening, unconcerned about whether their confident insistence in multiple venues across the media that “I see the future, and it is worse than you thought!” actually makes it so.

What we say now matters. What matters even more is whether we remain open to alternative outcomes or wish simply to close down the course of events by assuming an Olympian certainty, an expedient against our true state of not being able to know for sure. Such certainty comes at the expense of the future itself. Philosopher of science Karl Popper wrote in 1944 that the problem with prophecy is “the interconnection of predictions with predicted events,” because “predictions may influence predicted events. The story of King Oedipus is a cautionary tale against taking prophetic statements seriously. “A prediction,” after all, can “even cause the happening it predicts,” Popper wrote.

In 1940, the young historian Peter Viereck was completing his dissertation at Harvard, soon to be published as Meta-Politics: The Roots of the Nazi Mind (1941). In the Viereck papers at Columbia University, alongside the book manuscript of Meta-Politics, is a packet of typewritten pages titled “The Coming American National Socialism,” which bears an epigraph taken from Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels: “Nothing will be easier than to unleash a bloody revolution in North America. No country in the world has so many racial and social frictions. In just over thirty pages, Viereck predicted that an American variety of national socialism could emerge to dominate the political landscape of the US, and explained why and how it could happen.

Yet Viereck’s essay was never published, and the archive leaves little indication as to why. One wonders if it was because someone—an editor, Viereck himself, or a person close to him—felt that making such a prediction might render his predicted outcome more likely. As Popper wrote, “The interaction of the social scientist’s pronouncements and social life almost invariably creates situations in which we have not only to consider the truth of such pronouncements but also their actual influence on future developments. The social scientist may be striving to find the truth; but, at the same time, he always exerts a definite influence upon society. The very fact that his pronouncements do exert an influence destroys their objectivity.

While eager to make “bold” and “novel contributions,” figures like Garrett and Roubini are actually driving their carts in a rut that every subsequent wheel simply makes deeper, as if there were no path other than the one we have been on and will continue to be on. The French writer and poet Paul Valéry, writing in 1931, characterized this tendency as follows: “When men or assemblies, faced with pressing or embarrassing circumstances, find themselves constrained to act, they do not in their deliberations consider the actual state of affairs as something that has never occurred before, but rather they consult their imaginary memories. Obeying a kind of law of least action, unwilling to create that is, to answer the originality of the situation by invention, their hesitant thought tends toward automatism; it looks for precedents, yields to the spirit of history, which bids it first of all to remember, even when the case is an entirely new one." As the Germanist Paul North put it more recently, “In the wake of the terrible event, we write it back into the story of how things inevitably were going to go.”

Recognizing the here-and-now-ness of the situation is nonetheless essential to keeping the future open. Historian Arnold Toynbee understood the value of unpredictability as only a person who had just spent more than two decades writing a twelve-volume Study of History could. When his magnum opus was nearly finished in 1955, he offered his own modest view on how history works. “[T]here are some things in human affairs,” he wrote, “that have no pattern because they are not subject to scientific laws. One such thing, I believe, is an encounter between two or more human beings. I believe that the outcome of such an encounter would not be predictable, even if we had a complete knowledge of all the antecedent facts.”

Uncertainty about the future is difficult to live with, but it is also our greatest hope, especially when the current state of affairs is already a nightmare. Good politics must accommodate some degree of uncertainty, concerning itself primarily with what is and how to address it, rather than rushing to predict the worst in hopes of being able to declare “I told you so!” over a heap of rubble. Good politics is open to witnessing and acting upon that which fits no ready-made frame, towards a better future we could not possibly have predicted.

Karl Popper, “The Poverty of Historicism, I.” Economica, New Series, Vol. 11, No. 42 (May, 1944): 86-103, p. 89.

Karl Popper, “The Poverty of Historicism, I.” Economica, New Series, Vol. 11, No. 42 (May, 1944): 86-103, p. 90.

Peter Viereck Papers; Box and Folder; Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Library, “The Coming American National Socialism,” Box 23. Special thanks to Micah Rosen for bringing this text to my attention.

Karl Popper, “The Poverty of Historicism, I.” Economica, New Series, Vol. 11, No. 42 (May, 1944): 86-103, p. 90.

Paul Valéry, The Outlook for Intelligence (New York and Evanston: Harper & Row, 1962), pp. 7-8.