What if this ongoing fear of ‘collapse’ … is a narrative designed to quell a worse fear: that things might not collapse, but continue like this? That the Earth’s final wild frontiers may be tamed and diluted, ravaged and destroyed, and that we would not care much because we were too busy following the logic of our narrative to its endpoint, becoming our machines – our little creations, made in our own image, sent out to rule the world with our culture’s poison in their silicon veins?Paul Kingsnorth
The Covid pandemic has created a profound and prolonged feeling of disorientation, a kind of disembodied sense of wide-awake but perennially-exhausted sleepwalking. Normally optimistic people now have a nagging, creeping, inchoate premonition of dread. Dread at the collapsing ecosystem, where floods and fires and virus variants have the upper hand. Dread over American political polarization and disintegration, where each approaching election cycle promises more shouting, violence, and eventual procedural gridlock. Dread over the unrepairable and unrecoverable gap in our childrens’ and young adults’ lives, where crucial steps in social and mental growth have been stunted or missed altogether. Dread that the economy has now reached a state of permanent precariousness, where there will never be a recovery to any kind of ‘new normal’ that might furnish dignity and opportunity to the bulk of our citizens.
Covid has ripped the bandaids off of our wounded society, exposing it as ecologically reckless, economically unstable, and psychologically fragile, if not totally bankrupt. But perhaps the biggest damage done by the cruel, spiky virus has been to our highly illusory visions for the future. These visions have been thrown into high relief as utterly incapable of leading us to any kind of sane, realistic landscape for the next chapter in the American experiment. Trumpism was an early warning sign that these blueprints for the future were failing, and then Covid came in like a wrecking ball and demolished any naive hopefulness that remained.
We’re now caught in this strange Neverland limbo, where we experience multiple clashing personalities inside our culture and ourselves. This creates an expanding, cosmic sphere of cognitive dissonance, so that we feel caught in a dim, hazy waystation, on the way to nowhere and disaster at the same time. The first of these clashing personalities is the optimism and and easiness of buying and consuming, which makes up about two-thirds of the American economy. We know, because our high priests of advertising and consumer confidence tell us, that we have to recover and enact this joyful purchasing positivity, if we are to ever get back to full-steam-ahead life.
And yet a second personality lurks, the long-tail fear of Covid, which has become stupidly and lethally politicized. Some tell us to just live with it, or that it’s really just a disease of the old and/or unfit, and shouldn’t derail a confident nation. But still, still…we have a nagging sense that we need to start paying attention again to the death numbers, the steady parade of burnt-out health care professionals, and the places and settings we shouldn’t go to any more. And all the while, there is the continuing mental exhaustion, piled on top of now-sedimentary layers of previous exhaustion, stress, and depression, which have become hardened in our psyches like a jurassic mosquito in amber.
A third personality also struts around our fragmented personal and national selves: the specters of Trump and Trumpism. This is the revenge project left unfinished from January 6th. Conservatives around the country are shutting down voting for the urban and non-white, ensuring that the usual tumult and flipflop of a midterm election will be augmented and enhanced, likely resulting in split government, which of course spells more gridlock in Washington. With the Supreme Court now firmly conservative, and states like Texas enacting Stage 2 of the Handmaid’s Tale, turning citizens into North Korean purity police who spy on their neighbors, we now cannot escape the reality that tens of millions of Americans harbor proto-fascist (and sometimes not so proto) desires, where the country is a theological battleground between worthy people aligned with God and Thomas Kinkade, and the unworthy evildoers (libs, dark people, wokesters, and other assorted sexual deviants).
Behind this discordant schizophrenia that swims in our individual brains and our cultural discourse is the deepest anxiety of all, a knowledge that can’t be spoken. It is the knowledge that our overall human presence and impact on the planet is catastrophically too big — that beyond global heating (we need to move away from ‘climate change’ and go in the other direction of truthfulness, maybe ‘global roasting’), every other major natural support system on the planet is in decline, often steeply so. Ocean acidification (dying coral reefs), collapsing biodiversity, deforestation, chemical pollution, plastic and micro-plastic contamination, aerosol-loading, fresh water decline, nitrogen overload. These are the global signals of a single primate species run amok, destroying its only home. And millions of us know this, deep down. But there is no acceptable matrix in which to talk about things of this magnitude, beyond the limited framework of electric cars, carbon cap trading, and maybe some green jobs building solar panels and wind turbines. Sure, there’s a lot of Green New Deal talk out there, but beyond the unlikeliness of its implementation (in the US) is the deeper problem of its limitations. Almost no eco-talk, Green New Deal included, posits that we need to radically reshape our lives at the household level, as a prerequisite for any wider infrastructure changes that would also need to happen.
RUNNING ON EMPTY
But I’m getting ahead of myself. For now, we need to just reiterate that all of these conflicting personalities have created an overwhelming sense of cognitive dissonance in most people, an all-encompassing, all-consuming feeling of exhaustion, depression, stress, and anxiety. And this cosmic ponderance is highly infertile ground for all of our current candidates for a realistic future-vision of America. Our already-shaky delusions about the likely destination of our civilization have been no match for the serial body blows of Trumpism, Covid, and the accelerating signals of planetary ecocide.
What has been undeniably demonstrated is just how fragile our American system is. We’ve seen that a “great economy” doesn’t actually mean stability, dignity, and comfort for regular people. We have seen that superficial diversity projects don’t fix systemic sexism, racism, and other forms of entrenched oppression, especially if no changes are made to housing policy, criminal justice, career development, access to education, and domestic workload patterns. Our national fragility has also been highlighted by the weaponization of cultural and political polarization, where historical divisions between race and region have been exploited by the wealthy and the powerful to create a toxic internal civil war, where millions of Americans now view millions of other Americans via a good-vs-evil, apocalyptic story line, where the warriors of light battle the forces of darkness (I left the racial terms here on purpose, to highlight the thing itself).
Amidst these rolling reminders of how precarious and paper-thin the American Experiment has become, our currently competing visions of the future come off as laughable yet terrifying, as quaint yet remote, as inevitable but out-of-reach. These visions are locked into our social imaginations, but they seem increasingly surreal and fantastical, which is, needless to say, an issue. And the biggest problem with these unreal visions is that they shut off our ability to really talk about our future at all. Think of it as a kind of subset of our information silo predicament, where people increasingly don’t consume any of the same knowledge products. And yet, it is actually a super-set of this problem — if we can’t talk to our fellow citizens about Black Lives Matter, abortion, mail-in voting, and Nancy Pelosi, then we’re really not going to be talking about each side’s vision for the future. These discussions are far out of the realm of the possible, not just because we think our opponents won’t understand us, but because we ourselves don’t really believe our own delusions any more. There is no possibility of a shared future if we all know, deep down, that our hoped-for state of affairs is disconnected from reality.
The truth behind and underneath our collapsed sense of the future is both simpler to understand but much harder to face. The reality is that our foundational way of life has failed. Specifically, the basic building block of American society, the Job-Per-Person, Family-Per-Dwelling arrangement, has become dysfunctional in three major ways: it is ecologically destructive, economically unstable, and pyschologically crippling. These three elements of failure are intertwined and self-reinforcing. Economic precariousness makes us work longer hours, thus over-purchasing things we no longer have the time or energy to create ourselves. Psychological anxiety and stress keep us buying more stuff we don’t need, to make up for emotional loneliness and depression. The fragmented nature of American households keeps consumption much higher than it needs to be, which in turn impacts the planet, our individual finances, and the psychological pressure to preserve high ‘living-standards.’ Economic instability in the household, as the labor market continues to hollow out, makes it very difficult to plan for the future, which then exacerbates psychological stressors, when then feeds more consumption-as-therapy, etc. The whole package is just not working.
It is extremely difficult to see this fundamental failure of our basic social building block, because literally everything in our culture speaks to its inevitability and permanence: the way we organize our physical spaces, our property and zoning laws, our gender and social roles, the popular media, and the constant background advertising and propaganda which equates maximum consumption with maximum freedom. All of these forces tell us that, “Of course the Job-Per-Person and Family-Per-Dwelling setup is the way things are! What else could they be? Our way of life is completely natural, and there’s no other way, right?”
To give us some distance that might help answer that question (‘How else could we arrange things?’), let’s quickly look at two things. First, we need to remember the deep past. Human beings are social primates, and have inherited millions of years of evolutionary software, software that wires us to be most ‘at-home’ in larger tribal groupings. A raft of studies demonstrates that people feel healthier and happier when they are in groups ranging from 50-150 (our brains max out at about 150 people with whom we can have meaningful relationships). In the big picture, the American emphasis on the nuclear family and the isolated individual is highly unusual, and has arisen in the blink of an eye, in evolutionary terms. Even for completely modern humans, the vast majority of our tenure on the planet has been spent in the tribal format.
The second way to see the failure of the current way of life in relation to a potentially-different arrangement brings us back to the current American visions of the future, and how delusional and unreal these competing visions have become. We need to give them longer treatment now.
CHOOSE YOUR DELUSION
The first candidate for a vision of the American future can be described as a Capitalist Techno-Utopia (the capitalist and techno elements could easily be separated, as they have somewhat different specific content, but for our current discussion, they can be lumped together). This vision of the future sees some form of capitalism solving our problems, both despite and because of its creatively destructive power. The free market will respond to changing conditions in the most nimble way, continuing to provide for our needs and wants. Green products and electric vehicles will respond to market forces, eventually solving the “environmental problem.” Innovations in medical technology will have us all living for a couple hundred years, maybe even forever if we can download our brains into the cloud. Crypto-currencies will eliminate all of the needless frictions and inefficiencies that come with taxes and governments and all that. In this vision, we never really have to explicitly reckon with massive ecological collapse, systemic inequality and racism, sexism, political polarization, the decline of labor value, etc. While all of these ‘problems’ sound important, ultimately our economic and technological progress will fix everything, some sooner, some later. The important thing is to not upset the apple cart of capitalism, as it will be our deliverer.
The lack of detail and utterly fantastical nature of this approach to the future should be obvious. This vision is really more of a grand marketing slogan for the power brokers of the business world than it is a realistic plan for the future. We don’t really need to spend too much more time on it, as its non-seriousness is evident, which is what you would expect from any basic ad campaign. If you buy into this vision of non-action, then there’s probably not a lot more for us to talk about anyway. In fact, the most interesting aspect of this Capitalist Techno-Utopia is its inadequacy in satisfying the imaginations of regular people, which is a major element fueling the other two competing visions that follow below.
The second candidate for a future-vision is Trumpism. There is not a lot of exegesis that needs to happen here either, as its goals are fairly straightforward. The future should be a return to the simpler formations of the past: America needs to be whiter again; the uppity marginalized groups (women, blacks, other ‘non-white’ types, gays) need to either get back in the shadows or out of the country altogether; no more PC-woke bullshit, which will get the ‘deserving’ folks back on top, both culturally and economically; the world of work and money needs to be more honest and manual again (more factories and mines, less journalism, computer shit, and advanced degree shenanigans, which only fuel the Deep State and the liberal elite).
Trumpism is not particularly difficult to understand. It fits in with other right-wing movements around the world, and it follows the basic historical pattern of fascism: formerly middle class and culturally-dominant people being left behind by economic and demographic change; that discontent is weaponized by authoritarian demagogues who promise to return these people to their rightful superiority by exploiting, suppressing, and crushing the impure, non-native, and inferior. This is not a complicated vision of the future, but it shouldn’t be hard to see how dangerous and reckless this ‘plan’ is. January 6th was just a precursor to Trumpism’s destructive potential, and it is made more dangerous by its having no actual substantive program for the future, beyond crushing enemies and heaping more power on the already-powerful. In practice, Trumpism means tax cuts and deregulation for the plutocrats, and symbolic cultural demonization of the weakest members of society and their ‘enablers.’ It is a Money-Upward-While-Punching-Downward type of scheme. Again, this is very dangerous, but is obviously a delusional and sociopathic vision for the future. It is not surprising that Trumpism appears utterly crazy to tens of millions of Americans, and likely billions of others around the globe.
Finally, we get to our third contending vision of the American future: Liberalism. For lack of a better unifying word, I am using ‘liberal’ here in a fairly loose sense, to gather up Democrats, progressives, and other left-of-center types. I am aware that there is a huge schism in this camp between mainstream Democrats and the more radical, proto-socialist types. I get it. But as far as grand visions of the future go, visions with substantial followings, there is really just one leftish type viewpoint out there that has any real estate in the general discourse. More radical, socialist visions do not command public attention on an ongoing basis, mainly because of the unequal, top-down control of the powerful over our electoral mechanics and our corporate media. Yes, these are the very things that radicals want to overthrow in the first place, but it is still very difficult to dismantle the king’s house when you don’t have any of the king’s tools. In any case, my interpretation of the liberal vision of the future will become more evident below.
The failure of the liberal map of the future is the most troubling of all, because it started as the most realistic and achievable of our societal visions. Lacking both the easy optimism of the Capitalist Techno-Utopia approach and the sociopathic frenzy of Trumpism, liberals have been trying to plot out a plausible path to the future, taking historical injustice seriously and proposing actual programs designed to help regular people (increased minimum wages, affordable college, job retraining, day care assistance, etc.). But even before Covid, the liberal vision was in trouble. The realities of collapsing labor value were already shredding the promise of the liberal emphasis on education, as student debt piled up and career advancement dried up (see here for more details). Originally-virtuous commitments to diversity had devolved into symbolic cultural battles over identity, as the actual systems of economic and political power proved to be 100% resistant to actual change. And the foundational flaws in the American political structure (winner-take-all elections, lack of proportional representation, the Senate itself, and money’s access to the entirety of the political process) made Democrats unable to escape the massive influence of the plutocracy. This entrenchment of wealth and power is what created the political polarization complex in the first place, as cultural organs became idea-launderers for the oligarchic classes, and the system became virtually impregnable (thus the need for what I call a Transparent Trojan Horse).
As a result of these developments, the liberal vision of the future, which started as the most realistic, has now also become exposed as delusional. Liberalism is now a greened-up, diversity-laden version of the Capitalist Techno-Utopian scheme. For liberals, the main problem is simply the recalcitrance of the Trumpists, a mirror image of their enemy’s lib-hatred. For many liberals, if the Trumpists can just be defeated, then we’ll be in good shape. There is really nothing fundamentally wrong with the system itself. We just need to get more people to college, get some daycare help for parents, and then upgrade everyone else’s job skills so that they can work in the wondrous green industries of the future. Sure, we’ll fix some systemic sexism, racism, and homophobia along the way, but those are more procedural hurdles on our way to a glittering future of fantastic jobs and vibrant community involvement. It’s a kind of Lake Wobegon world, where we’re all above average, but also working on social justice and other activist causes in our spare time. And if you’re not quite buying this particular flavor, then liberals will also throw in some other stuff about re-empowering labor unions and establishing stakeholder-centric business culture, so that less-upskilled folks can get more money for their less-glamourous jobs.
In different times, this liberal vision resonated, at least to some. But ecological implosion and Covid catastrophe have crushed this project like Quint’s can of Naragansett.
These three American visions of the future (Capitalist Techno-Utopia, Trumpism, and Liberalism) have all become fantastical and unreal, ultimately because the foundational unit of American society has failed. The Job-Per-Person, Family-Per-Dwelling scheme that forms the backbone of the American Dream has been exposed as unsustainable, unsatisfying, and endlessly precarious. And because the concrete way of life that we have built has become so terrifyingly uncertain, our prospects for the future have floated away into a surrealistic realm of tragic and zombie-like performance art. As Daniel Quinn put it: “The important thing to note is that the vision grew out of the lifestyle, the lifestyle didn’t grow out of the vision.”
What we are left with, above all, is a crisis over what kind of future is possible. If we look forward and only see delusions, then our present also becomes detached from reality…. detached from our loved ones, our fellow citizens, our natural environment, and from our own souls. In this condition, the only thing we can do is to create a new lifestyle FIRST, and let a new vision grow out of that lifestyle.
Next time: A deeper dive into our delusional visions of the future: Trumpism, Liberalism, and Capitalist Techno-Utopia.