Futurism, Sandbox, and Political Potency
Over 20 years ago, in 1983, the distinguished futurist, Dr. Michael Marien, founder and editor of World Future Society's Future Survey, wrote a paper entitled "The Transformation as Sandbox Syndrome [http://www.ghandchi.com/iranscope/Anthology/mm/sandbox]." In my opinion, that paper was one of the most concise and accurate descriptions of beliefs entertained in the "New Age" movement of early 80s.
The main student of pioneering futurist R. Buckminster Fuller, namely Marilyn Ferguson, in 1980, published a book entitled The Aquarian Conspiracy, and although she did not use the term "New Age," but her book became the de facto reference of the activists of that movement. Michael Marien's Sandbox paper was written as a critique of the ideas that were expounded in the "New Age" movement in general, and Ferguson's book in particular. However, Michael Marien's discussion of Sandbox, was more praiseworthy than just being a commentary on the "New Age" movement, and I think any discussion of futurism and political potency of the last three decades, can start by carefully reading this outstanding paper.
Before I expound on the concept Sandbox in Marien's paper, a term he had chosen as a humorous analogy, I would like to note that the last 20 years showed, the main reason for the split of what went under the umbrella of "New Age," from what stayed as "Futurism," was not essentially the sandbox illusions of the "New Age" groups, although many of them are trapped in their sandbox. The real issue of "New Age" movement, as I have discussed in details, in my paper "The Futurist Vision [http://www.ghandchi.com/401-FuturistVisionEng.htm]", was that the "New Age" groups, in negating the industrial society and its ethos, did not care whether in this negation, they end up in a post-industrial society, or land in a pre-industrial Medieval world, and in effect they descended to pre-industrial modes of thought that were more readily available, without taking the efforts needed to invent new futuristic visions.
Twenty years ago, the "New Age" movement's retrogression to the past, was not this clear, but as time passed, the retrogression resulted in the complete separation of the "New Age" from the Futurist traditions. As Marien notes very aptly, the "New Age" authors used "loose talk of paradigm change," which in effect meant reintroducing the Medieval modes of thought, in contexts that not only lacked rigor, but as noted by Marien, for many of them, beyond science, meant anti-science.
Marien writes the following which captures the whole religion-making of the "New Age" movement.
"We need reasonable hopes, of course. But making a religion out of social change--developing a body of unquestioned belief, derived from concern for the human condition and hope for a better world--only serves to deflect energies away from the hard work that must be done."
Of course, Marien thought of the problem, as showing goals to be equivalent to results, loose talk of paradigm shift without rigorous scientific work, and giving people quick transformation hopes, when all the illusions perpetuated by the "New Age" movement were towards creating "new" religions, as one can see today in Eckankar, Scientology, and a host of psychology-based semi-religious orders like EST. If the modern society had focused on the realm of politics, the "New Age" movement, by contradicting the modern society, headed for Medieval religious community of people.
It is important to note that despite Marien's resolute critic of "New Age" movement, he was very clear to emphasize his support of ideals of humanity even though rejecting the Sandbox Syndrome. At the beginning of his paper he wrote the following which vividly shows his views on the social issues of our times, which needs no further elaboration. He states that "at the outset, I want to emphasize three beliefs that I share with many others:"
"- Peace, freedom, equality, justice, community, love, truth, health, beauty, frugality, self-reliance, and self-fulfillment--despite frequent conflicts with each other--are all worthy goals, and should be pursued for all people worldwide.
-The old paradigms or ways of thought are obbsolete; new and broader paradigms offer more promise for the intelligent conduct of human affairs.
-Hyper-industrialized societies are in deep trouble, as are "developing" countries seeking to follow their example; major changes will be necessary if we are to survive in any dignified fashion."
I have discussed the "New Age" tradition in "A Futurist Vision", and it is not the topic of my discussion here. My interest here in discussing Michael Marien's work, is actually his analysis of sandbox syndrome, which I think is a very important issue for us futurists today. Four years ago, the first major crisis of post-industrial society, showed itself at the heart of the new economic upheaval, Silicon Valley of California, and the futurists have hardly made any impact on this disaster, and one needs to go back and ask the questions that Michael Marien was asking the "New Age" groups in 1983, but this time to ask ourselves, the futurists, and ask why after over 20 years, in this first challenge of the post-industrial development, the futurist were not able, to be effective. Why haven't the futurists had the political potency, which Marien correctly notes when writing his critic of "New Age" groups? The political potency which is needed, to be able to have a program and to put it into action, to effectively address the four-year old crisis of post-industrial development in the U.S.!
Let's go back to Michael Marien's Sandbox paper and see what he wrote over 20 years ago. He used the term Sandbox, as something humorous, but it is a very accurate analogy. He was saying let's assume a CIA agent will find out about all the goals of futurist movement and wants to destroy it? He says dealing with this "Menace" in our times can be easily handled, by simply letting the movement to be in its sandbox, the same way kids play in a sandbox, where parents like it because they will not be disturbed and the kids like it because they are having fun. This way the CIA agent achieves his goal without publicly fighting the specter of the "Menace".
Then Marien introduces a counteragent who is genuinely interested in a "sustainable, decentralized, human-needs-oriented society-the Jeffersonian vision of America as the real American way of life, rather than the Hamiltonian, corporate view?," wanting to work for genuine eco-decentralism. The counteragent will not remain in the sandbox, and will not mistake goals with results, and of course will not be content with illusions and will be active to bring about the transformation. In one word, the counteragent will be politically potent, whereas the pseudo-transformation supported by the mythical CIA agent will be the political impotence of those, daydreaming in their sandbox, with hardly any impact on the real society. In fact, Marien even criticizes the Rene Dubos' slogan "think globally and act locally," which was popularized in those days, and correctly says one should act also with global impact and changes it to "think globally and act effectively."
So it is very clear for Marien that the distraction of "New Age" movement, in becoming a new religion, with false hopes, can end up in disappointment, and quick gratifications by drugs, etc. So the dissatisfaction with the political world of the time, when people were tired of US-Soviet politics, and the danger of a nuclear end to the world, did not deceive Michael Marien, and he clearly stated the need to call for political potency. He does not believe that one being good personally, is enough to avoid social disasters. He writes "understand that there are many sources of problems in both individuals and society, that the two are interactive, and that individuals are often not at all responsible for their problems", and sees the need for political potency, and even gives examples of some futurist groups in Europe being wooed by main stream political groups.
With all this knowledge and excellent critic of the lack of political potency in the "New Age" movement, one wonders why the Futurists themselves avoided politics all these years and did not create a political party in the U.S.!
I think the problem was that the Sandbox Syndrome was not really discussed among the Futurists, even with regards to the "New Age" groups. The main publications of the futurists avoided even to publish critics of "New Age" movement in the areas of philosophy, economics, etc. and wanted not to the ones stirring conflict. It is amazing how aware Michael Marien has been about the reality of the existing old social structure in the society, and that it will not just change by itself, and the need to change these structures, with the real transformation which he calls as T-II, in contrast to the pseudo-Transformation of "New Age" groups that he calls T-I. Nonetheless discussion of these topics, which clearly entails the issues of social justice and political program, hardly showed up in futurist publications all these years. Not only he criticizes T-I for "middle-class egalitarian blinders that ignore the growing gap between rich and poor", Marien even writes that "the old ways of thinking are still very much in power," and enumerates them:
"(a) One-dimensional, flat-earth politics, restricting all possibilities to "the" left-right political spectrum of liberals and conservatives, still prevails in our political analysis.
(b) One-eyed economics, ignoring the informal or household economy, continues to define "the" economy.
(c) One-directional social evolution, involving more economic growth and a service society, continues to be the only definition of progress.
(d) One-time education, assuming that an individual has completed learning upon leaving school or college, continues to inhibit adults from discovering ignorance and learning needs."
And he continues that "to improve on these paradigms in power, there must be widespread and genuine debate and discussion, rather than smug isolation and loose talk of paradigm change." Nonetheless despite his emphasis on political potency and action, he never proposes a futurist party. Why?
I think the futurists wanted to keep their unity and allow one to be in Republican or Democratic Party and still be part of the futurist movement. In fact, even futurists like the ones who started magazines like "Wired", who went their own way, proved that even avoiding politics, could not ensure the "one-ness" of the futurist movement. Creating a political party, would surely meant futurist parties, and not just one party, and there was no need to fear that, even though the perception, at that time, was that the futurist movement was not growing. Political activity would help it grow more, even if there were multiple futurist parties. Even someone like Marien, with his dedication to neo-Jeffersonian ideals, surely knew the emphasis Jefferson placed on creating a new party, reflecting the ideals he strived for, when mapping the future he saw unfolding.
I think the "New Age" split of the Futurist movement, and the relative silence about it in the futurist circles, and the US-USSR issues of the time, distracted the Futurist movement from a serious work to build a political party, and the futurists are still avoiding to take serious steps about this important task. The first crisis of post-industrial economy four years ago, and the programs of both Democratic and Republican parties, showed that the parties of the old industrial society, cannot address the needs of the post-industrial economy. Nobody would want to stop the Greens or others who also look at themselves as futurist, to call themselves differently, but the futurists who want to lead building the post-industrial society, need to create a political party with this clear vision and platform [http://www.ghandchi.com/348-HezbeAyandehnegarEng.htm], before the post-industrial development is damaged more. Just like the corporations, when all futurists agreed on the need to reinvent them, and supported creating new companies for making microchips, rather than hoping the old firms to lead such efforts, the political parties need also to be reinvented in the post-industrial society, and old ones cannot achieve the results that Marien had in mind.
Marien criticizes Tofflers and Naisbitt for their false hopes and optimisms, and although he sees the value of their works, recommends to avoid the sandbox. Fortunately authors like them, popularized the futurist thinking, even if Marien proves to be right that "we can say that Naisbitt is a good read, for people who like their nonfiction on the light side, with sugar." And true that substantial work of what those authors popularized, can be seen in rigorous works of people like Daniel Bell. But I can say with confidence that why we futurists ourselves have stayed in the sandbox in the last 20 years was not because of Tofflers and Naisbitt, rather I should say that the futurist activists worked in every realm of life, from media to business corporation, and to even working in existing political parties of the industrial society, but neglected to build a futurist party.
In the real world, just as in economics, where the economic activity is still done by corporations, and a corporation focused on information technology, is the one driving the work in the post-industrial sector, in the area of social change, the real political and social decisions, are still driven by political parties, and a political party focused on post-industrial society, will be needed to drive the post-industrial vision and needs, to borrow Marien's words, to achieve results, and not just state goals.
In a way, the "New Age" cults actually choose to stay in the sandbox, because as Eric Fromm would say, their constituency wants the so-called sandbox, meaning their own cult, to "Escape from Freedom", but we the futurists, stayed in the sandbox, all these years, because of making a mistake, in not understanding the significance of having our own party, and this is why when the crisis of post-industrial economy happened, there is hardly a futurist voting block, to have the least impact on what policies the government has chosen and what it will choose. Futurists acting as consultants for other political parties, have not done really acted effectively, whether living in the U.S. or in Iran!
Sam Ghandchi, Editor/Publisher
April 29, 2005