Symptoms of dysfunctional millennialism in assessing future scenarios

Some critics denigrate Utopian, millennial, and apocalyptic impulses, both religious and secular, seeing them as irrational at best, and potentially murderous and totalitarian at worst. They certainly can manifest in the dangerous and irrational ways as I have catalogued in this essay. But they are also an unavoidable accompaniment to public consideration of catastrophic risks and techno-utopian possibilities. We may aspire to a purely rational, technocratic analysis, calmly balancing the likelihoods of futures without disease, hunger, work or death, on the one hand, against the likelihoods of worlds destroyed by war, plagues or asteroids, but few will be immune to millennial biases, positive or negative, fatalist or messianic. Some of these effects can be positive. These mythopoetic interpretations of the historical moment provide hope and meaning to the alienated and lost. Millennialist energies can overcome social inertia and inspire necessary prophylaxis and force recalcitrant institutions to necessary action and reform. In assessing the prospects for catastrophic risks, and potentially revolutionary social and technological progress, can we embrace millennialism and harness its power without giving in to magical thinking, sectarianism, and overly optimistic or pessimistic cognitive biases?

I believe so; understanding the history and manifestations of the millennial impulse, and scrutinizing even our most purportedly scientific and rational ideas for their signs, should provide some correction for their downsides. Based on the discussion so far, I would identify four dysfunctional manifestations of millennialism to watch for. The first two are the manic and depressive errors of millennialism, tendencies to Utopian optimism and apocalyptic pessimism. The other two dysfunctions have to do with the role of human agency, a tendency towards fatalist passivity on the one hand, believing that human action can have no effect on the inevitable millennial or apocalyptic outcomes, and the messianic tendency on the other hand, the conviction that specific individuals, groups, or projects have a unique historical role to play in securing the Millennium.

Of course, one may acknowledge these four types of millennialist biases without agreeing whether a particular assessment or strategy reflects them. A realistic assessment may in fact give us reasons for great optimism or great pessimism. Apocalyptic anxiety during the 1962 Cuban missile confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union was entirely warranted, whereas historical optimism about a New World Order was understandable during the 1989-1991 collapse of the Cold War. Sometimes specific individuals (Gandhis, Einsteins, Hitlers, etc.) do have a unique role to play in history, and sometimes (extinction from gamma-ray bursts from colliding neutron stars or black holes) humanity is completely powerless in the face of external events. The best those who ponder catastrophic risks can do is practise a form of historically informed cognitive therapy, interrogating our responses to see if we are ignoring counterfactuals and alternative analyses that might undermine our manic, depressive, fatalist, or messianic reactions.

One symptom of dysfunctional millennialism is often dismissal of the possibility that political engagement and state action could affect the outcome of future events. Although there may be some trends or cataclysms that are beyond all human actions, all four millennialist biases - Utopian, apocalyptic, fatalist, and messianic - underestimate the potential and importance of collective action to bring about the Millennium or prevent apocalypse. Even messianists are only interested in public approbation of their own messianic mission, not winning popular support for a policy. So it is always incumbent on us to ask how engaging with the political process, inspiring collective action, and changing state policy could steer the course of history. The flip side of undervaluing political engagement as too uncertain, slow, or ineffectual is a readiness to embrace authoritarian leadership and millenarian violence in order to achieve quick, decisive, and far-sighted action.

Millennialists also tend to reduce the complex socio-moral universe into those who believe in the eschatological worldview and those who do not, which also contributes to political withdrawal, authoritarianism and violence. For millennialists society collapses into friends and enemies of the Singularity, the Risen Christ, or the Mahdi, and their enemies may be condemning themselves or all of humanity to eternal suffering. Given the stakes on the table -the future of humanity - enemies of the Ordo Novum must be swept aside. Apostates and the peddlers of mistaken versions of the salvifk faith are even more dangerous than outright enemies, since they can fatally weaken and mislead the righteous in their battle against Evil. So the tendency to demonize those who deviate can unnecessarily alienate potential allies and lead to tragic violence. The Jones Town suicides, the Oklahoma City bombing, Al Qaeda, and Aum Shinrikyo are contemporary examples of a millennial logic in which the murder is required to fight evil and heresies, and wake complacent populations to imminent millennial threats or promises (Hall, 2000; Mason, 2002; Whitsel, 1998). Whenever contemporary millenarians identify particular scientists, politicians, firms, or agencies as playing a special role in their eschatologies, as specific engineers did for the Unabomber, we can expect similar violence in the future. A more systemic and politically engaged analysis, on the other hand, would focus on regulatory approaches addressed at entire fields of technological endeavours rather than specific actors, and on the potential for any scientist, firm, or agency to contribute to both positive and negative outcomes.

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