This essay is inspired by Adam Curtis interviews and conversations with Michael, who generously helped me edit it :)
We gave up on all the old ideologies of the 20th century, and we have no replacement.
In the 80s Thatcher and Reagan broke down trade barriers and ceded government power to banks and corporations. This created a consumer world driven by debt, where everything was assessed by utility. Politics essentially “became a wing of management, saying that it could stop bad things from happening instead of imagining how things could be better.”
Now politics feels like pantomime, with both parties bickering over social issues while neither has the political will to meaningfully affect the economy. Curtis: “Online psychodramas create waves of hysteria that make it feel like the world is transforming. In fact, nothing actually changed in the last four years. Trump made himself a pantomime villain, and we booed rather than imagine an alternative.”
Money became our religion, and now money is starting to run dry, as the world’s largest economies slow in their growth. Both democracies and dictatorships are in a moment of crisis.
Purchasing power hasn’t changed in the past 40 years, according to the Pew Institute: “Today’s real average wage (that is, the wage after accounting for inflation) has about the same purchasing power it did 40 years ago. And what wage gains there have been have mostly flowed to the highest-paid tier of workers.” The reason why wage stagnation is occurring is highly debated—probably some mix of 1) globalization, 2) technology enabling some degree of automation, and 3) labor-market concentration (fewer employers competing for employees).
All meritocratic platforms are winner-take-all, with the top 1% of performers collecting a vastly disproportionate share of rewards. Look at Substack and Onlyfans. This is not a conspiracy engineered by anyone: when anyone is allowed to compete, a small percentage of people tend to capture most of the profit. The platforms themselves aren’t incentivized to provide statistics, but everything I’ve seen suggests the median person on Etsy or Patreon makes a negligible amount of money (probably around $100/month). The media paints a narrative of villainous tech CEOs masterminding the takeover of the world. The reality is that most of these founders are just really good engineers who stumbled upon a idea. Consumer desire for the idea blew it up. Then they tried to stay competitive in the market.
The American dream, the idea that anybody could make a good living for themselves and their family through nothing but hard work, has become far less realistic. You know the Steinbeck line about how Americans think they’re temporarily embarrassed millionaires instead of exploited proletariat. But they don’t believe that anymore, do they?
American society is driven by hyperindividualism: we are all free and independent individuals who can choose to do pretty much what we want.
This clearly isn’t true, since people obviously aren’t free: they’re controlled by socioeconomic circumstances. I think most people feel like it’s impossible for them succeed in today’s world (“I will never be able to buy a house”), which leads to widespread depression, lack of interest in having children, and turning to things like meme stocks and crypto speculation as a “cope” to try to keep the American dream alive.
This is evident even in the crisis feminism is going through today: the failure of neoliberalism “girlbosses” is really about the way that the economy fails almost everybody today, the way that labor has become hyperspecialized and therefore alienated from meaning. I think that’s also why people resent tech so much: because so much money flows through tech, and people outside the industry perceive the people inside it as undeserving.
People have become anti-work because work used to be a source of meaning and prosperity, and now it isn’t. But meaningful work is the one of the only sources of meaning along with family and religion. If we lose it, we only have nihilism. Freddie deBoer on why the left is a labor movement. From David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs: “Perhaps the reason the liberal middle-class is so pessimistic is because a lot of them suspect that what they do adds little or no value to the economy around them, and that because of AI or another recession, there will be some kind of reckoning when we realise that our economy has turned millions of workers into superfluous people.”
People are conflicted about capitalism. You have to make money, compete, provide for your family, etc. But if you’re too good at capitalism you’re a monster. We pressure people to be competitive and we resent the people who compete successfully. We say, young people are so spoiled, if you want a good standard of living why don’t you just move to the middle of Minnesota and go to trade school and you can make 90k per year. But our society has conditioned us to believe that consumption and status are the only things that provide happiness: the smartest children of our generation are going to Stanford and MIT to join Goldman Sachs, McKinsey and FAANG. Fisher on how Zizek believes that we use an ironic distance from capitalism to allow us to keep engaging in it: “Cynical distance is just one way ... to blind ourselves to the structural power of ideological fantasy: even if we do not take things seriously, even if we keep an ironical distance, we are still doing them.”
We yearn for radicalism, for inventism. This is why the right is doing better politically than left, because they have the language of nationalism. The left is offering nothing except management and consolation. The left has failed by refusing to produce imaginative politicians who can tell a compelling story of who we are and where we’re going.
Curtis believes the two important types of people in our society are “revolutionaries, who want to change the world, [and] engineers, who want to stabilize and control human society with the help of machines.”
Terrence McKenna: “I think the real test of psychedelics is what you do with them when you're not on them, what kind of culture you build, what kind of art, what kind of technologies... What's lacking in the Western mind is the sense of connectivity and relatedness to the rest of life, the atmosphere, the ecosystem, the past, our children's future. If we were feeling those things we would not be practicing culture as we are.” Curtis: “If you live in a world driven by individualism, what it doesn’t answer is what goes on when you die. I made a film about that arch-individualist Ayn Rand. She was interviewed towards the end of her life by an American television journalist who asked her what she thought would happen when she died and she said: “I won’t die. The world will die”. It sounds silly, but what she actually means is true if you are an arch-individualist. If you are complete within yourself and don’t owe anything to anything else, then the whole world is in your head, and when you die it will go. I often think that one of the reasons why there is so much pessimism around, especially among the baby-boomer generation, is that they cannot face the terrible fact of their own mortality. So what they have to do is project that onto the whole planet.”
25% people take psychiatric drugs in the US because they are suffering from the decline in quality of life for the average person. They’re told to vote and “participate in democracy,” but they sense on some level that all politicians do is manage and placate as life gets worse. Personal enlightenment is a way to make a broken world bearable. Mark Fisher: “In the 1960s and 1970s, radical theory and politics (Laing, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, etc.) coalesced around extreme mental conditions such as schizophrenia, arguing, for instance, that madness was not a natural, but a political, category. But what is needed now is a politicization of much more common disorders. Indeed, it is their very commonness which is the issue: in Britain, depression is now the condition that is most treated by the NHS.”
The three most lucrative things to be obsessed with are money, technology and people. Similarly, understanding the modern condition involves understanding what’s going on with technocapital, the economy, and culture. Everybody feels the effects of the problem, relatively few people understand what’s going on.
The world is controlled by people with the skillset to succeed under capitalism, so it’s hard for them to understand other people’s despair because the system has been perfectly fine for them. Most people who say they dream of socialism are humanities-oriented and aren’t economists and technologists. Politicians either advocate for actions that obviously ignore market forces (“All you have to do shop small and don’t buy from Amazon”) or reference the “pulling-yourself-by-your-bootstraps” rhetoric that no longer applies to the economy that we live in today. If you possess an unusual degree of personal charisma, sexual capital, an aptitude towards STEM, you’re probably pretty happy with how the world works. Otherwise, you can’t compete.
We are nihilistic because we feel, as Fisher puts it, “reflexively impotent.” David Graeber: “The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make and could just as easily make differently.” Fisher: “[Capitalist realism] is the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” Hence: acceleration, hedonism, destruction, freedom. But accelerationism feels like the acceptance that no one is at the wheel (God is dead. Long live technocapital). How can the world get better if no one is steering?
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I can’t dispute the salience of most of these observations, prognostications. Indeed, as both secular and religious ideologies of the past collapse (ie become less useful to the pursuit a meaningful life), our immense inability to influence and contextualize global megapolicital systems becomes increasingly explicit and demoralizing. Curtis succinctly pierces the heart of this societal disquiet in his film “Oh Dear.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wcy8uLjRHPM)
His suggestion / CTA that journalists come to the rescue and reimagine the world is somewhat compelling, on the right track. Our species yearns for new both ontological and secular maps (though I think leaving it to the press is fucking nuts).
I’m quite passionate about this topic; I spent about three years developing an episodic TV project as an investigation into and attempted antidote to this malaise. (Another story). In doing so, I’ve found what works for me:
IMO, the foremost antidote to this malaise is epistemological humility; the inherent complexity and incomprehensibility of the world is nothing new, it’s just that in a world of perceived objectivity, the sophistication is glaring and more explicit. We’re bombarded with despairing infographic declarations of our insignificance and impending demise. Americans are maximally aware of the dystopian wealth disparity between the stalling middle class and the beneficiaries of allegedly exploitative, ecologically-destructive megacorporations. We can simultaneously explain so much, and yet so, so little. Clown world. 🤡🌎
However I believe that to confess our helplessness in both understanding and influencing the geo-techno-eco-sociopolitical megastructure is liberating, and renders us more effective epistemic and servo-agents within it…
One can make a strong, rational argument for the anti-natalist perspective: that we are inevitably a long-suffering bacteria doomed to ride the black dog into hell. And all the same, while maintaining this nihilistic premise, it makes /rational/ sense to subscribe to some polly-annacish, faith-based, ontological narrative of the world, because it will actually make our final walk into the sunset slightly less miserable.
Further, as Curtis suggests, I think it’s more possible to formulate a secular map of the world order that’s actually hopeful, imaginative, and well-reasoned. At the very least, we can non-retrospectively brand the current era in a way that is functionally accurate and useful… Or at least not laden with languor. “Roman Representative Democracy,” “Agrarian Bands,” and “Feudalism” were all decent approximations of various epochs of the Western world order.
In “The Sovereign Individual,” James Dale Davidson posits a megapolitical transformation in the 21st century, via westfallian collapse and monetary reset. The basic argument is that over the centuries, emergent technologies catalyze ecological change (pertaining especially to the dynamics of violence). Today, as state-monopolized force becomes inefficacious for the seizure (of now primarily digital) assets, individuals (beginning with the elite minority) become sovereign agents. Custodians of the managerial oligarchy will be rendered obsolete by microprocessing, forcing governments to compete for customers, rather than bureaucratically coerce them. Global financial collapse will restore a deflationary pricing mechanism, hopefully catalyzing a more Austrian-principled global economic system, driven forward by savings and innovation (vs. state constructed artificial supply, ie debt).
Personally, I’m betting, (not claiming), this outlook is accurate, (time window inexact). I personally subscribe to both the practice of essentially religious faith and the embrace of this market-driven-prosperity narrative.
BUT, I don’t write all this to simply declare “hey, I’m a quasi-Christian with Bitcoin-nutcase leanings,” nor “here is my map of the world and I believe it is a-priori capital-T True, and you should too.” Nor do I mean to trivialize the palpable immensity of modern malaise….
Psychedelics and mindfulness taught me that our imagistic representations of the world and ourselves are ultimately illusory. But living and necessity have taught me that some stories are better (ie more useful) than others. And some are way, way better. Deducing new cartography from the trenches of my (post)modern moodiness ultimately proved demoralizing and dysfunctional for me. (I spent 36 months doing this pretty much full time.) Now I assume a naive, humanistic telos and pick and prune my delusions accordingly. And it’s working.
Maybe I’m just saying “look away.” I don’t know. But maybe, just maybe, it all makes sense and everything’s good, man. No one's steering, isn't that kind of cool?
(HMU for my 40-page TV show treatment on all this lmao.)
This was a switch-up from your usual writings and equally thought-provoking to read.