Social age does not coincide with physiological age. But the degree of the discrepancy varies according to historical period, including its social context and the other collective circumstances surrounding it. The same applies to societies. The industrialized world in which we now live began to age rapidly during the 1980s.
In your personal life, aging depends less on physiological than on social age. Social age is inversely proportional to your capacity to think of, feel, and live the new as future, as a task, as still-to-be-experienced present. You’re as young as your capacity to live life as if it were an experience of constant new beginnings, leading not to repetitions of the past, but rather to futures — maps waiting to be explored and roads waiting to be travelled, always ready to take risks, admit ignorances and respond to new challenges.
I speak of the future as anticipation, as the “not yet”, as latency or potency. Seeing as you are aware that you never live but in the present, the future is always the incomplete present, a present as task, as an event, for which you are personally accountable. To have a future is to be the owner of your present. Conversely, the more you live your life in the belief that the world has already decided what you’re supposed to expect and, consequently, that the future is closed off to you, the older you are. Thus, aging is living on repetition or in repetition, as if each repetition were unique and unrepeatable. It is passing away your days as if it were the days themselves that were passing, in their mindless daily stroll.
Repetition can be lived in three different ways: 1) as if the past were an eternal present that daily routines, institutions and the news all but confirm (aging by living death); 2) as if the past had passed and left in its wake an ungraspable void for which only card games, television or ailment talk can offer an escape (aging by dead living); and finally, 3) as if both the past and the future were equally remote and inaccessible, causing an insurmountable panic for which only an excessive wasting of the body by alcohol, drugs, gym, church or therapy can offer an escape (aging by life without death).
In our societies of manufactured and computerized bodies, both public and private services have been created to provide assistance to those who encounter serious difficulties in coping with the repetition of repetition. Ultimately, we’re talking about the normalizing of decay. Aging, in these societies, is always the result of a chronic depletion of energy, either spent or still unspent. It consists in displaying with conviction the sold-out sign on the door of the theater of life, even if no play has been staged there in a long time or if it hasn’t ever even seen a first rehearsal.
As far as the first two forms of aging are concerned, the goal is to invest in the past as if it had never really passed. It increasingly consists in the marketing of co-aging services. They tend to be effective, because the invention of repetition cunningly conceals the repetition of invention. The underlying idea is that, no matter how unbearable, the experience of aging is always more bearable when it is shared. As for the third form of aging, what is sought is not the omnipresence of the past, but rather the omni-absence of the past, an eternal present whereby the future is relieved of having to haunt the living with the not-yet-here bad news. These are the techniques for aging through rejuvenation. They amount to a modified version of the metaphor behind the movie ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’, based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story of the same title, whose protagonist is born an old man and then grows increasingly younger until he dies an infant. According to the techniques for aging through rejuvenation, the clock in the railroad station of the small town in the American South stops instead of moving backwards, and with it time stops as well.
As I said above, the industrialized world in which we now live began to age rapidly during the 1980s. All of a sudden the future was closed off, and the new common sense that said that there was no alternative to the unjust, racist and sexist capitalist society in which we lived entered our homes faster than pizza delivery or Uber Eats, spread through the news, the emerging social networks, and punditocracy’s ready-made wisdom. Novel experiments and expectations of collective life had been discredited for good, the world was intrinsically unjust, the rich were rich because they deserved it and the poor were poor in everything, but especially in judgment, you had to live with imperfection, even if you were able to mitigate it by replacing market rationality with the irrationality of the state at whose expense those least able to make it in a competitive society were made to live. Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister, was second to none in pronouncing the death of the future: “There is no Alternative” – the infamous TINA. Then Francis Fukuyama turned that death into the ultimate triumph of Western society — “the end of history” — benefitting from the fact that Friedrich Hegel, dead since 1831, could not protest such an obtuse interpretation of his philosophy of history. The reinforced concrete torn down with the fall of the Berlin Wall was rereinforced in the thousand cemeteries of the future that were built throughout the world. And indeed many were necessary to bury so much future.
Nowadays this major procedure for ageing the world is predominantly represented by the first form of aging mentioned above, that of aging by living death. But the two other forms of aging are present as well. Aging by dead living is the preferred form of aging of religious fundamentalisms, which work on the void left by the past and promise to revive it in the form of a glorious future in another world. For the promoters of this aging, our present living is dead and will not resurrect until the clocks of history start to move backward or all clocks begin to strike in unison eternity’s last hour. No social responsibility is taken for injustice. There is only guilt for suffering it, the only solution being to expiate that guilt.
The third form of aging (aging by life without death) is the dominant form among millennials, born at the beginning of the period when the theater of the world lowered the curtain on a different and better future. This was a generation condemned to be born old. They were born deprived of the past of the future, because by then the notion of an alternative had vanished from the horizon. Therefore, it never occurred to them to topple the unjust system that robbed them of the hope of a different and better future. Their goal was to attain personal success within the confines of the system. They sacrificed time, rights, leisure and pleasure in the hope of a triumph that, for the vast majority, was never to arrive. They wanted to beat the system from within the system. That was all the system wanted to beat them all the more effectively. This generation is now predominant in the third form of aging (life without death).
The geopolitics of aging strategies deserves to be analyzed in detail, but this is not the place to do it. Let it suffice for now to keep in mind that the world has not aged uniformly, nor have the various forms of aging spread evenly across the planet. It was mostly in the so-called global north that people paradoxically began to wish to live longer without being viewed as old. The point I wish to make here is that clear signs are emerging that the world’s aging process is anything but irreversible. I’m not talking about rejuvenation, which, as I said above, is a way to cheat aging. I’m talking about de-aging, that is, of going back to believing in a different future and the capacity to fight for it. I’m talking about rejecting the infinite repetition of the present, for repetition is pulling us inexorably into the abyss. There emerges a longing for newness, one that has nothing to do with barbarism, for barbarism is where we already are.
All across the world people of every physiological age are rising, because, as I’ve noted before, physiological differences are of no consequence when it comes to the aging or de-aging of the world. Consider, from Chile to Italy to Lebanon and India, the gathering of young and old alike, filling the world’s streets and public squares against the politics of repetition and repeat politicians. They are the new insurgents, those who say No to the imminent ecological catastrophe, the scandalous concentration of wealth, the hijacking of democratic institutions by anti-democrats, the irrationality of so-called rational markets, the gigantic stealing of our privacy and intimacy by the new robber barons Google, Facebook, Amazon or Alibaba, the gross indifference to the suffering of immigrants and refugees killed at sea, in the jungle or the desert, or otherwise kept in concentration camps, as if Auschwitz were just some cruel memory, now behind us thanks to the victory of good over evil.
The political forces on the right, which have always fed off the aging of the world, are crying out in fright at what they call an effrontery, as if everything that had caused the young and old alike to take to the streets in order to de-age were not an effrontery as well. Those same forces argue that there are no proposals — in other words, no repetitions, which is the only newness they recognize. But the truth is that there are proposals. From India to Chile, the forces of repression and the political parties are being confronted with the sense of outrage that is moving the de-aged against the dead letter of such an abundance of constitutional writ. They are being confronted with proposals for plurinational popular constituent assemblies. They are being confronted with proposals for efficient and free public transport services as an exercise in nature-friendly economy. But first and foremost, they are being confronted with the celebration of national, cultural, religious and sexual diversity, with the search for local alternatives freed from capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy, and with the search for peasant, indigenous, family, feminist and cooperative forms of community-based economy.
The more the world de-ages, the more the powers that have produced the aging of the world and turned it into the industry that ensures their perpetuation will find themselves confronted with the effrontery to which their own effrontery has given rise. Will they ever age?
Boaventura de Sousa Santos is Professor of Sociology at the School of Economics, University of Coimbra (Portugal), Distinguished Legal Scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School and Global Legal Scholar at the University of Warwick.