Month: November 2016

The World at Emergency’s Edge: A Hypothesis-Allegory in 24 Not-so-Easy Steps

1. A rocket is preparing to take off. Only a very few people will manage to get aboard it. 

2. Those who do manage to get aboard, will become the new lords of the world. 

3. They will enjoy a level of prominence and supremacy over the rest of humanity of which even the billionaires and statesmen of today are but precursors and foreshadowings. 

4. It’s not a literal rocket, although SpaceX, BlueOrigin and Virgin Galactic—all pet projects of billionaires, not coincidentally—are surely advance echoes of the idea. 

5. For these enterprises, strangely impractical in themselves, show that there is already an urgency among the elites to leave this world behind. 

6. Their urgency comes not because the barrenness of space, of meteor-strewn wastelands, truly allures them; rather, it is because they see the cracks and tremors beginning on the earth.

7. The earth has grown old even as the elites have strained to pronounce it new: the frontiers have been shut, there are no virgin continents to explore and exploit.

8. The animal spirits of the economy, having been reared on dreams of infinity, find themselves circling inside the surly bounds of geography, trapped within a world-sized cage, growing ever more restless and perhaps desperate. 

9. They yearn for other worlds because they sense their ambitions can no longer be met here; they tire of contriving fictions of wealth out of fountains of numbers.

10. And so, when this world begins to fall apart more and more obviously, when the old becomes too obvious to ignore under the veneer of the new, a strange fear will grip them and there will be a rush to find a place aboard the rocket. 

11. Most of humanity either will have no knowledge of the rocket, or will accept helplessly that they have no chance of getting aboard, or will exhaust themselves in revolts against false enemies in the vague hope of getting aboard. 

12. Many of the professionals and the semi-rich, however, will know of the rocket, first because their education will allow them to see it taking shape, and second because the elites will have required their help to build it. 

13. Gradually, it will become apparent to most of the professionals and the semi-rich that the plan is for nearly all of them to be left behind, and so they too will revolt. 

14. There will be a grave struggle as the professionals and the semi-rich gather round the rocket and scramble for a place on board.

15. A very few of the professionals and the semi-rich will in fact make it aboard; a very few of the elites, in turn, will be cast out (or even, in a quixotic form of sainthood, give up their seats). 

16. The rocket will fire up and may, or may not, lift off. If it does, it will most likely be carrying fewer than it was intended to. 

17. Those who remain behind will be scorched by the liftoff, or become peasants living short harsh lives, vying over what remains as the earth grows strange and inhospitable. 

18. There will be stillness upon the earth, punctuated by chaos. There will be the quiet warmth of the peasantry, days passed in a shocking humbleness, days without structure, wealth or rule, in short days without hope–punctuated by an occasional access of passion or plunder between rival bands.

19. Eventually the elites will return to the world. On landing, they will find the world quieted and the peasants in disarray—ripe for domination. Some of the peasants will see them as god-like; others will remember them as people from an earlier time yet still awe-inspiring.

20. Using riches and technologies from the past world that were cached aboard the rocket, the elites will go forth and carve out slices of the new world, win over peasants to their side by bribery and force, and establish their own realms, fiefs, and so on. 

21. At that moment, they will no longer be “elites”, simply because other names will fit them far better: lords, emperors, sultans, kings. 

22. The world of old will resume in the midst of the new: masters over mastered, few over many, ruthless over meek; stasis and war, cruelty and fate.  The game of thrones will be far more than an escapist’s fiction.

23. Technology will exist, but it will signify the old world more than the new. Many will forget how to use it, or see it as inhuman or indistinguishable from magic. Small amounts of it will be kept by the elites and their new professionals, who will maintain the skills needed to sustain the technology and thus reinforce their rule.

24. Like the moon, gods will ascend and watch it all with strange unmoving gaze—until the time again comes for yet another world to begin. 

We Are the Cabin In the Woods

So the thing has happened. Donald Trump is president-elect. In what seems like a vast cyclone of collective Thanatos, the electorate of the USA (through the egregious distorting prism of the Electoral College) handed down perhaps the strangest, most unsettling victory in this nation’s history. Though I’m no general fan of the New York Times, the following passage sums it up pretty well:

“Mr. Trump is the most unprepared president-elect in modern history. We know that by words and actions, he has shown himself to be temperamentally unfit to lead a diverse nation of 320 million people. We know he has threatened to prosecute and jail his political opponents, and he has said he would curtail the freedom of the press. We know he lies without compunction.”

Though I wasn’t completely convinced by the polls that all idiotically suggested Clinton was likely to win, it’s still not exactly easy to process. Around 4am, after the announcement of Clinton’s concession, after reading about 100 uniformly dread-soaked news articles from around the world on how the unthinkable had now become real and the global order would never be the same, I found myself taking a shot of rum, staring at the wall, and fighting back bitter laughter at the sheer spectacle of history; when the furnace clicked on, it seemed like soft drumrolls out in the darkness, and I kept imagining a stark torch-lit military review marching down a distant street. There was a dawning sense of the unreal close at hand, cold, thrilling and terrifying; it now returns, more mutedly, whenever I read and hear the phrase “President-Elect Donald Trump”.

The next day, protests broke out on campuses and big cities, but as of this writing they seemed contained, a few thousand angry students here and there venting their self-righteous angst before they go back to classes with an obedient grumble. As I have said before, there is still little real will in this country to put skin in the game to oppose fascism, oligarchy, or any other such madnesses, though this election showed a deeply confused willingness to entertain all of these things. As Aldous Huxley once said,

“Almost all of us long for peace and freedom; but very few of us have much enthusiasm for the thoughts, feelings and actions that make for peace and freedom. Conversely almost nobody wants war or tyranny; but a great many people find an intense pleasure in the thoughts, feelings and actions that make for war and tyranny.”

Perhaps it is because deep down we suspected that madness was the only alternative anyway. Perhaps it is because we already know we are complicit, that our own blindness and Thanatos desired this. Perhaps it is because we are too tame and self-absorbed to take the risk. Perhaps it is because the social contexts that would have allowed people to build movements and sacrifice for a cause have been ground to a fine powder of electronic anomie. Perhaps it is all of the above.

There is blame to go around, although in another sense it seems hopeless to seek out things like causes or reasons at all for an event such as this; what is happening outdistances all ratiocination, leaves it slouching shamefacedly at the starting-line. Certainly rage at Obama’s phony recovery, his utter failure to confront root causes of 2008, must have played a huge part, as well as seething age-old forces of racism and reaction. The failures of “big data”, as embodied in modern polling, political strategizing, and statistics, were also legion and self-reinforcing (news flash: people don’t talk to pollsters, or else they lie constantly to them—accept it).

I am constantly stayed from most of the tearful histrionics with which many liberals have greeted this result, by remembering that both major-party choices were simply abysmal. Had it instead been Clinton sewing up the 279 electoral votes, I imagine that instead of this chilling sense of apocalyptic unreality, I would be writing of a vast grayness, the dull and depressing triumph of even more of the same smug, dysfunctional, dynastic, oligarchic, earth-destroying, financially fraudulent arrangements, dragging us slowly towards a leaden thud of ecologic collapse, energy depletion, and neo-feudalism, a heat-death of total meaninglessness.

Indeed, for running perhaps the most lackluster, arrogant and uninspiring campaign in modern presidential history; for their facile corruption and their contempt for the working classes that once placed their trust in them and made them great; and for their fraudulent efforts to scuttle the much more viable Bernie Sanders, I stand wholeheartedly with Thomas Frank and others in the view that Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the Democratic Party did their level best to heartily deserve this outcome. The political system utterly failed to challenge the corrosive precedents set durin the Clinton and Bush Jr. administrations, nor did it provide a sane, viable, forward-looking voice—in fact, it aggressively marginalized all such voices (Sanders). The madness was in place for all to see well before the conventions, and well before Trump’s nomination and election tacked a huge red exclamation point on it.

I don’t suppose it will seem too out of place if I mention that since that strange moment when the outcome became undeniable, I have found my mind revolving on horror movies—and one particular horror movie at that, Joss Whedon’s 2012 “The Cabin In the Woods”.

To sum the plot up briefly, it begins as a traditional horror-slasher flick, with five lighthearted young people heading out to an ominous cabin far from civilization for a wild weekend together. More and more ominous developments appear right on cue, signs of murder, zombies, etc. Meanwhile, at an extremely high-tech facility underground, we watch as groups of mysterious but basically milquetoast technocrats gather, watching the youngsters on huge screens like germs in a Petri dish.

It is revealed that the “hauntedness” of the cabin itself is completely fabricated using electronics and drug mists controlled by the technocrats, who watch and manipulate the youngsters’ every move, goading them towards their own destruction. Even more shockingly, we come to understand that the technocrats’ task is to oversee a yearly ritual blood sacrifice of innocent victims to pacify the “Ancient Ones”, powerful malevolent beings that once ruled the earth but now, through such annual sacrifices, are kept in precarious sleep in thousands of glass boxes deep underground.

As sacrifice rituals fail at similar facilities elsewhere around the world, the technocrats end up scrambling as two of the young people manage to escape the cabin and learn the whole truth of the situation. The Director of the facility confronts them with a plea to willingly sacrifice themselves, so that the Ancient Ones can be pacified and the established order can be maintained. But the pair refuse. As Wikipedia puts it,

“Deciding that humanity is not worth saving, Dana and Marty share a joint as the Ancient One stirs, its giant hand emerging from beneath the temple floor, destroying the cabin and the Facility.”

The movie fascinated me at the time not because I particularly enjoyed it, but because it presents a shockingly frank metaphor for the situation of humanity over roughly the last 70 years. That has been a time in which humanity’s destructive and dangerous energies have been carefully directed elsewhere, in which Progress has been invoked like a magic wand to conceal and suppress the darker side of human nature and the radical starkness and strangeness of our existence, or to regard them as mere archaisms that can be reformed out of existence, or to deny their existence altogether. These darker energies and realities are the true “Ancient Ones”. And now, out of ideas, we are kicking back and smoking a joint as we watch their return.

What we are seeing with Trump’s rise, despite the fact that it was accomplished by a wildly complex aggregation of individual choices, is something called fate. History. Tragedy. We have forgotten, through a time of unparalleled opulence and through the detachment offered by the scientific world-view and by digital and consumerist immersion, the terrible weight and reality of these and similar words. I predict that we are soon to be reacquainted with them—with what A. N. Whitehead once described, referring to tragedy, as “the solemnity of the remorseless working of things”.

Past is prologue, it’s often said, and that’s quite so; but no less, for all its surreal qualities, Trump’s rise tells us that past is present. In particular, there is no such thing as a “throwback”; the demons of human anger and greed, the darkness of the human soul—as often as not fueled by its longing for hope and belonging—are not to be annulled by intellectualized social arrangements, cast out by rules against hurt feelings or exclusion, bribed by narratives of all-conquering technology, rendered pliable by any quantity of data or analysis, or even forestalled by such a thing as “the truth”.

The anger of the dispossessed, the allure of a strongman who promises to restore direction and purpose a land that seems to be fraying and faltering, are among these ugly tendencies to which we so long turned a blind eye. As Huxley points out, many of us only hate bullies and psychopaths until we think they can win for us, or until they promise to help us sustain our most cherished delusions—which in our case, I would describe as the delusions of endless material expansion, simple social absolutes, and undimmed world hegemony.

The far-right is not an aberration to be permanently overcome, but has ancient and abiding roots in an existential plight: it is the natural thinking style of people who are threatened, alone, insecure or intensely stressed out, and who feel the cold breath of oblivion at their backs. As the usufructs of Progress become more marginal and more hollow, we will now see that style of thought sprouting up all over the world. It’s already well underway. It’s in Turkey, with Erdogan; in Russia, with Putin; Brazil, with the virtual coup against Rousseff; in Britain, with Brexit; in the EU, with the rise of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim outrage; in Venezuela, with the post-Chavez chaos and famines; in Philippines, with Duterte; in China, with Jinping. Let’s get real and not feign such shocked surprise that it’s also here in the good ol’ USA. 

Yet that does not mean a return to the simple despotisms of old. The spores of the far-right were always in the soil, as they always are, waiting for things to get stressed and angsty again. But now they will sprout in a climate they’ve never faced before: on a planet that has become perilously small due to rapid transportation and growth, and that is currently being girdled by 7.4 billion humans all expecting to be rich. It can’t work. By comparison with this still-unthinkable realization, what happened on November 8, and the progressive marvel of electing the first black president in 2008 will likely one day seem like a mere pendants—a thin, insubstantial caprice.

The years of Obama, I have said elsewhere, will likely be looked on as the years of the Sandman: a strange, enchanted sleep that addressed little of what was crying out to be done. Now the sacrifice has failed, the sleep is ending, and we find ourselves wide awake in the temple. The Ancient Ones are awakening. We are the Cabin In the Woods.