The future defines a temporal relation to the other. Whereas the past, as what has passed, refers intrinsically to the present, the future is other to the present as what is yet to pass. While the present dissolves into the evanescence of the past, the future perpetrates a temporal continuum of immanence and alienation, intimacy and the void.

To speak of the void is to recall something of the timeless: that which does not dissipate, but which persists through the perpetuation of a lack, the endurance of a pressure that withstands no relief. The void, as a kind of pressure, pregnant with demand, is the source of a drive: a drive which demands satisfaction. What constitutes its source? This is a question. Better stated, the source is itself a question: the question of the other, the void in need of a response, the source that is also the object of the drive.

Questioning into the drive, its source and its object, yields a shift in focus: from the modal analysis of time to the all-too-human genesis of all-too-human time, the lived temporality of human experience and the instauration of a drive which impels us toward the future. In contemplating the statement, “there is no future without openness to the other,” the metaphysical question of time gives way to an anthropological question with an unmistakable political inflection. In what sense does our collective future depend upon our openness to the other?

The future is a collective future insofar as it belongs to “us,” whomever “we” may be. It is the future that we anticipate, even if we anticipate it for purely individual reasons: for reasons that belong to each of us in the most radically personal sense—the sense in which each of us is destined to die our own death. To say, “there is no future without openness to the other” is, therefore, to suggest that our collective future depends upon our openness to the other: the other of life. In opening ourselves to death, we acknowledge death as a possibility, a biological inevitability. For each of us, the future is undoubtedly a death; indeed, the possibility of a collective death to which we are blind without openness to the other.

Death is accordingly the negation of the future, yet the future persists even after death. More mysterious than death, which is known with certainty for each of us, there lies the future, which is unknown to all.

Spoken from the standpoint of “today,” our collective future depends upon our openness to the other: to that which is most alien to us. In what sense do we endanger our collective future when the standpoint of “today” is defined by closure to the other?

Standing resolutely against the other implies the exigency of a decision: to remain entrenched in the present or to retreat into the past; perhaps to wish for immortality, to lodge the past permanently in the present. In these ways, our political future is decided by our temporal orientation to the other. Closure against the other is intrinsically closure against the future. It implies closure against what is foreign, and the future approaches as what is foreign to us.

In retreating from the future, we may wish for the comforts of the past. Yet recorded history is roundly broken, if not distorted or forgotten. Facing the unknown, we often turn to myth for guidance.

Myths function to relieve anxiety, to guard against the dangerous, to tell us what to fear, to explain what eludes explanation. True to their purpose, myths surround death, the other of life; just as myths surround the stranger, the other of the familiar. Translated into political terms, the other is the other of the political association, which must be founded upon some sense of belonging, some sense of collective familiarity—sometimes blood or land, sometimes ritual or law. The myths we tell about our neighbors tend to betray our ignorance.

By definition, the stranger does not share the common elements that bind the political association. For this reason, the stranger is not simply foreign, but is possibly an enemy: one who might destroy the ties that bind the political collective. Not every stranger is an enemy, and not every enemy is a stranger; but the stranger may be garbed in the appearance of an enemy, either by mistake or by design, as propaganda spread like wildfire.

However innocuous or dangerous, the stranger and the enemy approach the political association from the future. Yet they also approach it from the past, as the recollection of the possible and sometimes real destruction of the polity, which knows the history of its self-defense. For this reason, the stranger and the enemy evoke a time before the institution of the polity: a visceral time, as the founding of the political collective marks the beginning of its need to defend against its disappearance. The otherness of the other is therefore the presentation of a threat, or the possibility of a threat, in many cases fueled by myth; and this draws the political association to bind itself ever tighter, often to divisive and exclusionary ends. Thus, the non-existence of the future points to a past of non-existence. The other approaches from a future that recalls a past, however legendary; and this past evokes a time before the institution of the polity as it knows itself or seeks to know itself.

The political association knows itself through the way it binds itself together, assembled as a unity. The act of binding presupposes the possibility of unbinding, of loosening, of loss and imminent destruction. The political enemy is therefore the enemy of a unity—that which the stranger threatens to the familiar ties that bind.

Take as an example the attack on America of September 11, 2001, when four airplanes were hijacked by members of the Islamist terrorist group al-Qaeda. Two planes were flown into the Twin Towers of the World Trade center in Manhattan. Another was crashed into the Pentagon building. Yet another was flown into a Pennsylvania field when courageous passengers mounted a resistance. The United States has not healed itself from these attacks. Today, the country is tearing itself apart.

Increasing xenophobia, intensifying right-wing populism, the public rise of white nationalism, the exchange of civil rights for the promise of security—the direction of the country trades on fear: fear of the other, fear of the future. The slogan of the Executive Office is emblazoned on red baseball caps, the sport of America’s pastime: “Make America Great Again.” This statement says: “Retreat from the future. Retreat from the other.” To make America great again is to proclaim a great return. But this greatness is confused with cowardice. It is the kind of greatness which appears as such only from the standpoint of humiliation. It draws strength in closure to the other.

The humiliation in having its institutions of economic and political power attacked so brazenly may best explain the collective trauma America continues to endure. In the psychoanalytic theorizing of Jean Laplanche, it takes at least two traumas to make a trauma. Because the meaning of an event may escape mastery through understanding, its real traumatic force emerges only later, as the après-coup or aftereffect of a second associated trauma. In the present case, the first event may consist in the incomprehensible trauma of September 11; the second, in the imminent threat of further invasion—by the Muslim who is all-too-quickly assimilated into a cast of villains that includes, but is in no way limited to, the Mexican, the African American, the immigrant, and the Jew. Each one threatens to repeat the trauma of a collective humiliation. They are each the other who usurps the power of “What Made America Great.” In the precise obscenity of the birther movement, the repetition of a trauma was the direct effect upon a population who saw night after night on television the personage of Barak Obama cast as a foreign-born Muslim, the definition of the enemy living in the White House. Such humiliation does not go unpunished.

In response to the violent trauma of the other, we have brought upon ourselves all manner of self-flagellation. Not only the expansion of technologically-enhanced surveillance, but also increasing restrictions on speech, the imbalance of speech by the power of money, the excesses of political correctness and its reactionary counter-movements, attacks on civil liberties in the name of religious freedoms, increasing economic inequality through the shifting of tax burdens onto those with less advantage, the denigration of women and minority populations, the draining of social welfare and public education, the overwhelming disregard of climate science for free market profiteering.

Meanwhile, borders are more treacherous to cross, cynicism corrodes trust among international allies, and walls are demanded to be built and paid for by the same people they are meant to keep from entry. Making matters worse today, a viral pandemic intensifies the politics of identity and class. Kleptocrats gorge on necropolitics, Wall Street soars, the multitude fails, and we edge ever closer to a neoliberal war of each against all.[1] Every day it seems the nation repeats as if by compulsion the trauma of its own destruction: a trauma from which it seeks relief through strategies of division, suppression, and elimination. There can be no collective future under such conditions.

The old Freudian notion of the death drive presumed some internal impetus toward destruction embedded within the biological nature of animate beings. The destructive drive resulting from the trauma of the other suggests something altogether different. The source of our destructiveness is not endogenous to our being. It is rather the consequence of an intrusion, organized around a rupture, a void in the political association, and the repetition of this trauma as a series of traumas, which we are driven to repeat as if by compulsion for the very reason that we have failed to master them. The figure of the stranger appears as both the source and the object of America’s agitations.

How does a nation heal itself from such collective trauma when its institutions are increasingly corrupted by the forces of nativism, neo-fascism, and authoritarian disregard for facts, truth, and the rule of law? This, to be sure, is no easy task. But one thing at least is certain. To answer this question, we shall have to project ourselves into the future—into that which is foreign and unknown to us. At last, there is no future without openness to the other. The alternative is a retreat into the closures of the past.

Lucas Fain is a philosopher and visiting scholar in the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies at Boston University. He is the author of Primal Philosophy: Rousseau with Laplanche, forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield International.

[1] See Byung-Chul Han, Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power, trans. Erik Butler (Verso, 2017): “Neoliberalism represents a highly efficient, indeed an intelligent, system for exploiting freedom” (3). Necropolitics reigns in America when reopening the economy is an alibi for cutting the social safety net. Workers are compelled to choose between jobs that force them to risk infection or physical isolation without the means to procure an income. Neoliberalism is the name of an economic system that exploits the so-called freedom of this decision.