Last month, at long last, we enjoyed Back to the Future Day — the day to which Marty McFly travels in 1989’s Back to the Future Part II. It’s a kind of death sentence for our era: we’re all living in the future now; the time in which things might have changed has passed, and all the possibilities that once populated the void in front of us have faded away into a 2015 that’s drearily, crushingly actual. And this time, there’s no getting back.
This might be why so many people complain that our future doesn’t look futuristic enough. Where are the flying cars? Where are the flying skateboards? Where are the household fusion generators?
But there are also a few who comment on the supposed prescience of the film: it shows us a dystopian 2015 in which an outward futuristic glossiness conceals widespread social decay; where a callously efficient justice system allows someone to be arrested, tried, and sentenced in a single day; and where the young have all turned into snarling cybergoth nihilists or drooling dupes transfixed by a pervasive computerized spectacle. And, well, here we are.
Past predictions of the future are always fascinating. Some of the best are those from the turn of the twentieth century, the ones that fill the sky with flying bicycles and sometimes even distantly glimpse the Internet, while failing to predict that one day women might be able to vote.
But to consider these past prognostications entirely in terms of how accurate they are misses the point. Prophecy doesn’t stand apart from the dialectic of history, but constitutes it; to some extent, all prophecies are self-fulfilling.
Back to the Future Day demonstrated this perfectly. Nike revealed a pair of self-lacing shoes, just like in the movie; Pepsi revealed a new collectible bottle, shaped just like the one in the movie; Hendo revealed a working hoverboard, just like in the movie. Sinister taxi app Lyft unleashed fleets of DeLoreans into our cities; USA Today plastered its front page with its own filmic simulacrum.
It’s almost like something out of Borges: present-day reality is reconstituting itself to look more like a fantasy artifact from the past. A vision of a dystopian future paid for and promoted by Nike and Pepsi melds almost seamlessly into an actual dystopian present paid for and promoted by Nike and Pepsi.
Time travel narratives tend to just make overt a sensation that already glowers at the fringes of experience — the sense that capitalism has done something unpleasant to time. Nothing is entirely contemporaneous to itself. You can feel it in the despotic regime of the post-Fordist clock, the precision-slicing of hours and minutes into units that don’t measure the unfolding of human life but only chart your productivity.
There’s the queasy sense of a time that has come out of joint in the ideology of time management, the soppily insidious insistence that today is the first day of the rest of your life, but that you should live it as if it were your last day on earth.
From there it uncoils into something vast and timeless. Capital scavenges from the past and cannibalizes its own future; it spends resources it doesn’t have yet backed by assets it lost a long time ago. Everyone, even the most ardent supporters of capitalist production, will (however grudgingly) admit that its program of constant and unconstrainable expansion is creating an as-yet-unfulfilled environmental apocalypse right before our eyes.
We’re already changing the future: like the photo of Marty McFly and his siblings, our stock of time is fading in front of us. This might be why the demands of the Left often coalesce around the call for a future, any future. But what does the demand for a future even mean when, as Back to the Future Day demonstrates, the future is now something that’s already happened?
In the original Back to the Future movie, the 1955 version of Doc Brown continually warns Marty not to tell him anything about what might happen to the future — not because it will affect the integrity of objective time, but because of what any image of a possible future might do to the human experience of the present.
In this, he might as well be referencing Walter Benjamin’s “Central Park,” a philosophical discussion of the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, cleaved from the larger Arcades Project. Benjamin writes that Baudelaire “is no pessimist. And he is not, because for him there is a taboo on the future. It is this which distinguishes his heroism from that of Nietzsche. In Baudelaire’s work there are no reflections on the future of bourgeois society.”
Baudelaire’s spleen is a “dam against pessimism.” Here the present time is not a link between past and future, but immediate, stinking, and visceral: the flash of a stranger’s gaze falling away into the crowd, or the sight of a human carcass on the street.
To see the catastrophe looming over us from the future is pessimism, but for Baudelaire and his melancholia it’s already here. Experience has been hollowed out, and there’s no way of thinking or writing outside of this impoverishment. This is why the dystopian sci-fi genre is always inherently reactionary, however outwardly progressive any example of the genre claims to be.
The present world might be rotting and empty, but our reality becomes a paradise when compared with the bad future, even if that future is just a caricature of what we already have. Dystopia lets the present off the hook: it takes all the worst things about actually existing society and displaces them into the future; horrors that really do press on us from all sides instead become an imaginative fantasy. The trouble with pessimism about the future is that, in the end, it just isn’t pessimistic enough; it refuses to smell the corpses.
There’s an obvious socialist critique of the Back to the Future films: the “correct” timeline is always the one in which the McFlys are happy and prosperous in a stratified class society, while any timeline in which the uppity proletarian antagonist Biff doesn’t end up sufficiently downtrodden is a false one. Fredric Jameson notes that Back to the Future is “constructed at a uniquely regressive moment in American history.”
The Reaganite present is bolstered by a return to the conservative 1950s and a vision of a solidly capitalist twenty-first century: wherever Marty McFly lands there’s some brief culture shock, but it has more to do with the way he plays his guitar than any actual social change in the intervening years. Which is, more or less, fairly accurate.
The films are still popular today because they embody certain central values that haven’t changed since they were first made: vicious class spite, the pursuit of private wealth, and male assertiveness within the Oedipal nuclear family. (It’s notable that in the initial film, the future depends on male ability to successfully channel and coerce female sexuality.)
To paraphrase Philip K. Dick, that other great time-travel prophet, the 1980s never ended. A central motif throughout is that of a clock that hasn’t moved since a lightning strike in 1955; for all their jumping around through alternate timelines the films are still fixed in the suffocating instant of postwar social repression. And we’re frozen with them, running in tightening circles in a future that’s nothing more than the endless recurrence of the same.
But if there’s a lesson from Back to the Future Day, it’s that the future can’t save us. We’re there already, we always were, and it’s shit. A better task to collectively abandon the future altogether. From where we stand, already in an awful sci-fi nightmare, anything good that might yet happen can only be seen as a vast and unknowable Not-This. As is often the case, the crazy jabbering Libyan nationalists in Back to the Future had the right idea: forget the future, shoot the mad scientist, and build a good big bomb for the here and now.
But this doesn’t mean we should collapse back into the defeatism that attends the collapse of the future: abandoning politics for mere charity, or hope for nihilistic violence.
In fact, the refusal to consider the future might be called Utopia — the only Utopia that’s still possible. Famously, the word “utopia” means both “good place” and “no place.”
Marx and Engels critique the utopian socialists of the nineteenth century for being transcendental and idealist, for constructing ideal societies to be inhabited by abstract rational citizens, for disparaging the actually existing world in terms that eerily recall the disappointment of our own shabby future — of a Back to the Future fan, facing a world without mass-market hoverboards: “Compared with the splendid promises of the philosophers, the social and political institutions born of the ‘triumph of reason’ were bitterly disappointing caricatures.”
Scientific socialism, by contrast, is grounded in the actual present-day experience of workers. A materialist Utopianism would be one that recognizes that the gaze of reason does not stand outside of time. There is no wormhole-jumping DeLorean into which we can pack the entire proletariat. Utopia is a no-place: as Theodor Adorno observed, from within our damaged world we have no way of conceptualizing what the good life might look like. All we know is that it’s not like this.