[Editor’s note: In “The Cost Of Procrastination: America’s Broken Economy,” I compared the haphazard character of the country’s overnight economic rethink, prompted by the pandemic, to the panicked transition to clean energy. In both cases, waiting too long consigned us to slapdash policymaking conducive to suboptimal, and unpredictable, outcomes. A rethink of the capital-labor relationship was decades overdue in America, as was a reevaluation and overhaul of the country’s embarrassingly inadequate social safety net. But much as the global transition to clean energy is proving to be just as disorderly as it is urgent, America’s reckoning with an unsustainable economic model is manifesting in rolling blackouts and acute disruptions which, in extreme cases, render businesses completely unable to function. It’s with that in mind that I’m reprising the piece below for New Year’s Eve. It was originally published in 2020 by the incomparable NOTES FROM DISGRACELAND, who you can follow here and on Twitter.]
The Unconditional Moments as Portals of Social Change
We generally like to surround ourselves with intelligent people, people with whom we can discuss a variety of topics and problems and whose intellect and judgments we value. However, in situations of extreme stress and acute collective anxieties, situations that require intellectual honesty and courage, unconventional thinking, and stepping out of one’s comfort zone, we invariably discover that the number of people whose intellect continues to function turns out to be disappointingly small.
A large segment of nominally intelligent people (with high IQ, sharp intellect and cognitive skills) can reason only within a limited space inside well-defined boundaries. These intellectual boundaries designate both the habitual forms and attitudes of their mental apparatus, and the experiences of the mind and recognize these attitudes as falsely objectivized. Crossing those boundaries shuts off their cognitive capabilities and ability to reason. Outside of the deep waters of their intellectual comfort zone they are like stranded whales.
What happens to our thinking process in situations that expose our cognitive and intellectual incapacities, when extrapolations of our knowledge and experiences fail to provide meaningful guidance? How do we respond to a confrontation with the reality of failure — an absolute failure, which we cannot fail to recognize? Setting foot on intellectual terra incognita can be only managed by coming to terms with those incapacities.
Karl Jaspers recognized the singularity of these inflection points of reason, the Limit situations (Grenzsituationen), as the moments when intelligence boundaries are crossed. During the times of acute anxiety triggered by death, guilt, war, pandemics, or uncertainty of the world, the human mind confronts the restrictions and pathological narrowness of its existing forms and allows itself to abandon the security of its limitedness, and enters a new realm of self-consciousness. These are situations that require creation of a new set of values and standards and a new picture of the world and one’s sense of self in it. There is no turning back; the whole system of values must change .
Limit situation are unconditional moments of human existence in which reason is drawn by intense impulses, which impel it to expose itself to the limits of its consciousness and seek higher, more reflexive modes of knowledge. The unconditional (das Unbedingte) is an inflection point of reason in which reason encounters itself as conditional or limited and desires to transcend the limits of this form .
The unconditional moment is now. What is happening at the moment is not a financial crisis or an economic downturn caused by the endogenous workings and self-sabotage of the capitalist system. Rather, the present crisis is a reaction to an exogenous shock to the system with a compromised immunity, which is now unable to defend itself due to decades of self-abuse. This is not an economic crisis with social consequences, but a social crisis with economic consequences. While all previous recoveries were engineered around economic measures and financed by social deficits, the response to the present crisis requires a genuine social change — an entirely new value system and a novel way of thinking.
For decades now, the intrinsic incompatibility of capitalism and democracy has been the key driver of social change in the developed West. The most significant consequence of this tension has been a gradual but systematic transition of politics from free choice to free selection as a way of maintaining the status quo.
The American political system, defined by the selection between two dominant parties has not been a democracy and expression of free will, but the realization of a dilemma ahead of selection between two alternatives: Drowning in the flood of arbitrariness or getting on board of the Ark of fools. People subjected to this principle of choice (who still defend this mode of political functioning as a democracy that is worth preserving) resemble people who consider it an outstanding privilege to choose whether they will jump through the window from the third floor or wait for the fifth .
Persistence of this mode of political participation and its streamlining in the last decade has led to a reshaping of the social landscape and, when seen in a wider context, history. Hegelian interpretation, which is appropriate for this particular moment, sees history as the process of moving toward the realization of human freedom, brought to life by the interaction of subjective consciousness and an objective sequence of events and their mutual influence on each other. In this framework, history is directional – there is an improvement from a more primitive condition of humanity to a more advanced (not only materially, but culturally and morally) .
Contradictions generated at one level are overcome or transcended at the next, and incorporated in a radically new form in the subsequent social change. Human freedom is one of the main parameters which determines the direction of history. History is seen as the realization of freedom by means of a series of successive enslavements to different kinds of necessity.
There is a distinct point of culmination where a higher level of society is achieved. That is the point at which history stops: Society has reached its apex beyond which further improvement is not possible. This is not a static configuration — time does not stop here. This is a dynamic configuration, which requires consistent maintenance and rebalancing. For Hegel, this was German Protestant society, for Marx it was communism .
We are now witnessing the beginning of the end of the Hegelian historical continuum. Free selection is now being reduced down to one option and we are free to embrace it or reject it. Downward distribution, universal basic income, comprehensive healthcare for all, widespread social welfare programs, government subsidies and empathy — all those things that have faced decades of coordinated resistance, and have been on the verge of extinction, are now being endorsed and about to be distributed in size by their most vocal opponents of yesterday. We have finally achieved true freedom because true freedom is having no choice. This is the highest act of freedom — freely assuming what is otherwise necessary.
This is a realization of the Unconditional in its purest — a true transideological moment when, faced with the absurdity and obsolescence of the existing ideology, political subjects transcend their ideological confines and abandon the safety of ideology as they realize its imminent demise due to self-destruction.
What we learned in the last five decades of neoliberalism is that no change can happen without making serious concessions to those whose wrongdoings that change is supposed to correct. Every change has been one step forward and two steps back. The system absorbs each change, mutates, and emerges stronger and more resistant. Change triggers a quicksand effect. So, as long as change occurs in small steps — as long as a quasi-stationary state is maintained — change becomes impossible.
However, a real change is possible, but it cannot happen without a crisis, it must be triggered by an exogenous shock of substantial magnitude. The shock creates an Unconditional moment, which forces a paradigm shift and allows the system to self-destruct and die from an overdose of itself.
You can negotiate with reality, but not with the Real. When you encounter the Real, you act.
 Karl Jaspers: Basic Philosophical Writings, E. Ehrlich, L. H. Ehrlich and G. B. Pepper (ed.), Humanity Press NJ (1986)
 Borislav Pekic, How to Quiet a Vampire: A Sotie, Northwestern University Press (2003)
 Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Hegel’s philosophy of history, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/history/