In this respect, the political culture war is similar to the separation of the government’s powers, which as Carl Schmidt said, also conflicts with democracy. Democracy is meant to uphold the individual’s right to self-determination so that everyone is sovereign over themselves, through their vote, and the majority rules by way of a compromise with anarchy. However, democracy turns out to be counterproductive when the population doesn’t deserve the capacity for self-determination, such as when the people are grossly uninformed and easily manipulated by self-serving demagogues. For that reason, the government’s ability to carry out the majority’s will is often practically limited by a separation of the government’s powers, to prevent a tyranny of the vulgarized majority. Conflict between the branches of government delays or prevents the administering of the majority-approved policies, but it also distracts the public with the spectacle of empty rhetorical exchanges or it exacerbates divisions among the constituents, creating gridlock between the parties. The liberal myth is that all rational individuals deserve to rule, because they’re godlike. But wherever voters are much more like animals than gods, liberalism entails in practice only superficial democracy. The government is literally broken into pieces to prevent an outbreak of real democracy, since such an outbreak would be like the oinking of wild, stampeding boars.
Exoterically speaking, then, the meaning of the housing bubble is lost in the noise generated by so-called liberals and conservatives. Liberals blame the deregulation of big banks, even though neoliberals under Clinton continued the deregulation that had accelerated under Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and Obama’s economics team consisted of those same deregulators. Conservatives blame big government for pressuring banks to issue subprime loans. These are the same conservatives whose free market policies entail the capture of the government by the army of lobbyists from big business and by the revolving door between government offices and those in the private sector; moreover, as I explain below, the surge in subprime loans wasn’t the main cause of the collapse. To be sure, the political culture war is itself a sideshow in that it doesn’t reflect the American opinion as a whole, since at most only half of the eligible voters participate in the political system. Also, the American mainstream media, which establish the limits of exoteric meaning, that is, the consensus that takes on mythical status for the antiphilosophical masses, ignore the poor, the marginalized, and the radicalized, preferring to report on the Serious opinions that flatter those who are most responsible for maintaining the political and economic status quo. For their part, the disenfranchised masses are uninspired by the myths that buttress the American dominance hierarchy.
Then there’s the esoteric importance of the economic crisis, that is, the enlightened interpretation made available especially to social outsiders. When the liberal and conservative caterwauling is duly ignored, along with the centrist, pseudo-mature middle ground in which either side’s rhetoric is merely reduced to its bland essence, “Stop fighting and let the system work!” what we find is that in 2008 a great mirror was raised to the face of the United States and the reflected visage was so hideous that only a masochist or a social outsider with nothing to lose could stand to look at it for long. The housing bubble was a titanic clusterfuck that deligitimizes nearly every facet of American society. Both parties and all three branches of the government along with the banks, the regulators, the accountants, the economists, the business journalists, the plutocrats and even the average American citizens are all implicated. From beginning to end, the economic crisis reflects the rottenness of postmodern America.
The Subprime Debacle
To appreciate both kinds of meaning, that for the unenlightened and that for the more enlightened, we first need to be clear on the facts. I’m hardly an expert on these matters, but here are some of the relevant facts as I understand them. The Glass-Steagall provisions had been put in place after the Great Depression to separate commercial and investment banking, but those provisions had declined in importance as banks discovered ways to circumvent them, and the provisions were finally repealed in 1999. Thereafter, the big American banks sought ways to leverage their secure assets, including mortgages. “Financial leverage” means the act of multiplying gains and losses, such as by purchasing more and more of an asset, using borrowed money. In effect, leverage is the bet that going into debt in the short-term can pay off in the long-term, because the payout from owning the asset will be greater than the cost of paying off the debt. Banks use financial instruments, devised by so-called financial engineers, to model ways in which owning certain assets will eventually outweigh the cost of the bank’s going into debt to obtain those assets. In this way, the banks might become flush with virtual, borrowed money, as they leverage their assets by a ratio of 15 or more to 1, meaning that for every real dollar they have they owe an average of $15, since they use their real money to entice investors to lend them much more money.
For example, a bank can take a mortgage, re-engineer it, and sell it at an inflated price so that the bank makes a virtual profit even though the bank is actually in debt because it uses that profit to borrow more and more money to engage in similar transactions. The benefit of going into debt in this way is that the debt comes back to haunt the bank only in the long-term, such as when the assets prove to have been fraudulent, whereas the elites who run the banks are paid only for their short-term performance. As long as the bank rakes in fees from its complicated transactions and its financial engineers are crafty enough not to let their bank be the last one holding the hot potato, the bank will temporarily appear to be solvent even though it’s slowly sliding into bankruptcy, or zombie bank status. However, the larger banks have little to fear even from the long-term cost of their “business,” since they’re infamous for being too big to fail, which means that the government implicitly enables their frauds by bailing out the banks when their schemes inevitably come to naught.
Now, banks had prime and subprime mortgages to choose from. The subprime ones were riskier to trade with (to turn into “derivatives,” or conditional contracts), since they were based on predatory lending or on governmental pressure through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to increase the rate at which lending was given to poorer buyers of “affordable” homes. Still, these subprime loans had higher payouts than the more secure, prime mortgages which have fixed interest and payment levels. So, pressured by the government (under Clinton and then Bush II) and motivated by the economic incentive to maximize profits even in a poorly-regulated and thus highly unstable market, the banks leveraged subprime mortgages, using financial trickery to sell them for more than they’re worth so that the banks could profit in the short-term and externalize the costs of the long-term inevitable disaster (i.e. they could let others pay those costs, namely the taxpayers). As Nomi Prins explains, the banks took $1.4 trillion in subprime loans and created $14 trillion in derivatives, that is, in reworked, traded versions of those loans, which means that they went into debt 10 times over on the back of those real estate assets. The banks then borrowed an average of 10 times more still, using those $14 trillion in allegedly secure assets, to profit from international deals, from the steam rising from the hot potatoes, as it were. Thus, $140 trillion in borrowing and hence debt was created from $1.4 trillion in subprime loans.
Under President Clinton, Brooksely Born, chairperson of the CFTC lobbied to regulate the derivatives market, which is part of the shadow side of the US economy in which trillions of dollars of phony, notional, prophecy-dependent money floats around in computers that nevertheless hold the real US and thus the global economies hostage. She was overturned by Greenspan and Summers, who argued that the market can take care of itself. Indeed, the lack of regulation allowed the credit ratings agencies to give the highest ratings (triple-A) to the debt at the bottom of the banks’ subprime mortgage-backed deals, because those ratings were purchased by the banks to carry out their frauds. When they were later hauled into court, the Big Three ratings agencies were forced to admit that they’re in the business only of offering their “opinions” for sales purposes, not practicing anything like a science with iron-clad math for the sake of making the market transparent. Far from regulating itself, the derivatives market is now less transparent, less stable and more monopolistic than it was before the 2008 crash. Due to moral hazard, the incentive for all highly influential, “rational”—which isn’t to say ethical—participants is to make out like bandits until it’s time to jump ship.
Why, though, did anyone buy those re-engineered forms of what were actually toxic assets? The triple-A ratings provided cover, but the fraud was based also on the assumptions that the mortgages themselves were secure, since the loans would either be repaid or the banks would repossess the homes, and that there would always be increasing demand for those homes so their worth would never decline. The market operated under the big banks’ fraudulent representation of the assets, and so when more and more homeowners than expected foreclosed on their mortgage payments beginning in 2007, the costs ramified throughout the derivatives market and the banks’ debt bubble burst. Whereas demand for homes was always thought to increase, demand eventually fell because of the success of the derivatives scheme itself, since that success was predicated on a secret and quite unsustainable conflict with reality: the false expectations generated by the insiders’ deceptions were dashed when the reality behind the “liars loans” became more widely apparent, and the irrational exuberance was replaced by fear that owning a home at that time wasn’t as valuable as had been advertised. That fear helped to lower the demand for home ownership.
Think of a magic trick that mesmerizes as long as you’re looking where the magician wants you to look. But as you catch a glimpse of the hidden reality, of the magician flicking his wrist so that something you’re not supposed to see falls out of his sleeve, the spell is broken and you’re left with your understanding of the real mechanism at work and with skepticism about magic. The bursting of the debt bubble was like that except that the enormous profitability of the fraud ironically ensured its downfall, because reality and the inflated expectations were bound to conflict. The fraud succeeded because an alternate reality was created for those entranced by the shine on the debt bubble, and that artificial world operated under rules that favoured the insiders who conjured it. The bubble expanded until its victims began to suffer at the hands of the real world that had been misrepresented, which caused the victims to lose faith in the alternate reality and to withdraw their investment in it. Specifically, the flurry of subprime lending brought homeownership to record levels, driving up the price of houses and thus the payments in the homeowners’ adjustable-rate mortgages, which they could no longer afford to pay. As that hidden reality began sinking in, there was a surplus of homes built, since demand had dried up. That lowered the cost of homes, disinclining the lenders to allow the homeowners to refinance their mortgages, which caused them to default.
Moreover, after the earlier energy and telecom busts, when Enron, WorldCom, and other institutions perpetrated similar frauds from 1999 to 2001, posting phony profits based on the shadow banking system, Alan Greenspan lowered interest rates from 6% to 1.75%, between 2001 and 2003, creating the cheap money that facilitated the borrowing in the first place. Americans felt free, then, to max out their credit cards and to take out mortgages they couldn’t afford. Why so much debt in the US? Because, as Thomas Piketty shows in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, from 1977 to 2007, 60% of US national income went to the richest 1% of Americans. Wages for middleclass Americans have stagnated for decades while the costs of living have increased, forcing Americans to go into debt to maintain their living standards.
Why the income inequality? Partly for Piketty’s reason: the US has nearly become an oligarchy in which dynasties rule, owing to the fact that capital (some real, non-financial good that’s used to produce sellable goods) historically earns a higher rate of returns than the growth rate of national income. Thus, those who own the material means of producing profit can greatly multiply that inheritable wealth, by being able to afford to take risks on the stock market, by effectively purchasing the government to write laws in their favour, and so forth. But more precisely, the reason so many Americans have fallen out of the middleclass is the one given by Chris Hedges in Death of the Liberal Class: liberals don’t fight for their values with the same ferocity as conservatives, and so they’ve allowed unions, for example, to become corrupt or to disappear altogether. Thus, while the plutocrats have teams of lobbyists to enforce their will, ordinary Americans are effectively unrepresented. This is why, as shown by a 2014 Princeton study which looked at 1,800 policy issues over the period between 1982 to 2002, “Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic Elite Domination…” Incidentally, that finding helps explain why most Americans haven’t voted in their presidential and congressional elections for decades.
Why has the liberal class died? In a word: postmodernity. The problem isn’t just that Americans are traditionally individualistic so that they’re suspicious of welfare states. It’s that liberal values have had only modern philosophical justifications which no longer energize liberals, in view of postmodern historical developments. Of course, quasi-liberal values of social progress and of the intrinsic, equal worth of each individual used to have Christian justifications, but modernity put an end to the social functionality of theistic myths. Modernists replaced them with secular, typically scientistic philosophies that founder on the naturalistic and genetic fallacies. Consequently, postmodern liberals are crypto-nihilists and are emotionally unable to offer more than lip service to their slogans, since they’ve lost faith in the modern myths that drove the liberal agenda which included social democracy, capitalism, and consumerism. This is at the root of why, for example, the liberal occupiers of Wall Street left empty-handed.
The Distraction of Free Market Economics
That explanation is only part of the story, but I think it’s a fair representation of the whole. Again, those facts have been spun into the exoteric diagnoses that feed the mainstream culture war between nominal liberals and conservatives. But what was really going on at the philosophical level? One way into this is to reflect on the ideality of the mathematical models used by economists. These mathematical models make unrealistic assumptions to provide the illusion that economics is a science like physics that can boast genuine, exact laws in its theories of economic behaviour. These laws are extraordinarily ceteris paribus, or hedged, in that they apply to delicately-balanced situations that don’t actually obtain in the real world. The benefit is supposed to be that the laws provide for piecemeal understanding, since the economist can say that were certain conditions to be met, such and such is precisely how the system would play out. In other words, the so-called laws or principles amount to models, which are highly simplified, indeed counterfactual representations of reality. These models function more like fictions that inspire social engineers to make the real world match the economic ideal. That is, the economic models are prescriptions, not descriptions, and so the predominant kind of economics is actually a branch of ethics, not a science. But you might find that surprising, because economists hide the normativity of their statements behind an impenetrable wall of dreary mathematics.
In The Use and Abuse of Mathematical Economics, the economist Michael Hudson points to another way in which the math obfuscates:
The important thing is that no structural problems are recognized, that is, no problems that cannot be solved by marginal quantitative adjustments in incomes, prices and wage levels, the money supply and the interest rate. It is in this respect that the mathematics of laissez faire monetarism are microeconomic, depicting the economy narrowly rather than broadly through the long-distance lens of historical development. The analysis may be valid as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far, as it formulates problems marginally rather than with an eye for structural reform.
In particular, says Hudson, “At the microeconomic financial level it seems wise to maximize one’s return on equity by indulging in debt pyramiding. But for the economy as a whole this debt accumulates interest.” And “Perception of the debt-overhead problem is concealed by the characteristic feature of today’s finance capitalism: an asset-price inflation of property markets, that is, rising land and stock market prices.”
As he goes on to explain,
Monetarist models [i.e. free market ones] serve largely to distract popular attention from the extent to which more wealth is being generated more by the asset-price inflation—than by building new factories to employ more people. What has happened is that the classical distinction between productive and unproductive credit has been replaced by an ostensibly value-free theory claiming that money earned in one way is just as economically worthwhile as money earned in any other way [my emphasis]…“Hard” facts tend to be the preoccupation of technocratic economics, whose predictions focus on the short run, that is, on marginal changes rather than structural transformations. But economic truth involves a much broader evaluation of society and even culture, as economic theory itself may be viewed as an exercise in cultural history.
So as I understand it, free market economists are forced to ignore cultural and even biological factors in their bid to make economics seem as objective and exact as physics. In particular, their models ignore the structural role of debt, focusing on micro issues that can be solved by technocrats, such as by the postmodern, nihilistic neoliberals. The question this raises is about the cultural significance of a debt-based economy. In The Silence of Animals, John Gray compares Wall Street bankers to alchemists:
Debt is potentially limitless, feeding on itself and increasing until it can never be paid off. The immaterial wealth created by the new capitalism was also potentially limitless…[The] practice was a kind of alchemy. Lending people money they could not afford to borrow was a way of creating something from nothing. Even as industry was being offshored and workers deskilled, prosperity would continue rising. Wealth need not be wrenched from the earth as in earlier times. Through a process whose workings no one could specify, wealth could be conjured into being. (67, my emphasis)
Some crucial cultural background that’s left out of free market economics, then, consists of the biological, pragmatic, and psychological factors I discuss in Sociopathic Power Elites, Beta Herds, and Omega Watchers. The upshot is that our default social order since the rise of Neolithic civilization concentrates political power in the hands of some minority who are corrupted by that power and come to see themselves as superhuman or godlike. These predatorial power elites confirm their elevated status by dehumanizing the masses, turning them into what Lewis Mumford calls megamachines, which include the workforces that built the Egyptian pyramids, the Great Wall of China, or the mass-produced goods in the Industrial Revolution. America, then, is managed much more by plutocrats than by the majorities that elect their politicians. Only in local, day-to-day affairs does the representative’s judgment matter. With regard to the laws that structure the society as a whole, a minority of power elites tends to rule. In that respect, the US isn’t democratic, nor is it the leader of any free world. There is no free world, or at least none that competes for long with the default, dehumanizing social order, which is the one found in most social species. True, the more democratic societies aren’t police states, so most Westerners are free to live as they choose in their local ways; in particular, they’re free to consume whatever’s available, assuming they can afford it. But they aren’t usually responsible for the choices made by their government, even when that government is supposed to be democratic.
From Robber Barons to Postindustrial Parasites
To return, then, to the Wall Street bankers, their financialization of the US economy, which Gray calls the new capitalism, seems like the proverbial smearing of lipstick on a pig’s snout. In spite of the real US economy being hollowed out, due to globalization (competition with old-school, illiberal megamachines in places like China and India), the rise of the machines, and postmodern disenchantment with America’s civic religion, the US hasn’t relinquished its status as the military superpower. Thus, the American way of life is funded now by magic, by financial alchemy. Matt Taibbi maintains that the Wall Street schemes are just frauds that amount merely to rich people stealing from the poor. To be sure, the boom and bust cycle benefits the too-big-to-fail insiders at everyone else’s expense, resulting in greater economic inequality. Moreover, in his Rolling Stone articles, Taibbi does show how Wall Street insiders profit from techniques that are similar to those of lower-scale scam artists. Indeed, these insiders’ intention is surely nothing as lofty as a desire to be godlike. Instead, postmodern American plutocrats are merely greedy and, ultimately, sociopathic (egoistic and indifferent to the suffering of their many victims). Nevertheless, the 2008 crash is part of a hidden process which has broader significance, as opposed to being best explained in terms of mere theft. Just as the financial predators aren’t likely aware of that process, since they’re personally just greedy sociopaths with little sense of their larger role, Satan the Accuser in the Book of Job is motivated by general skepticism, not by an evil plan to embarrass God by proving that people praise God only when they fare well. Still, the myth of Satan’s testing of Job helps us see the deeper process at work in the US, as I’ll show in a moment.
But another distinction must first be drawn between the titans of financial capitalism, including the Wall Street bankers, and the industrial monopolists or robber barons who at least leave behind tangible monuments to justify the megamachines they assemble. The concentrated power of robber barons is needed to undertake any massive endeavour such as the building of railroads or skyscrapers, the refining of oil, or the mass-production of goods. The robber baron’s fortune is made in a real industry that visibly reshapes the environment for everyone; moreover, these industrialists, from Carnegie to Rockefeller to Bill Gates, tend to be philanthropists. Of course, they’re not saints since no one who controls a vast fortune retains his or her scruples for long. Powerful people deal with the devil, as it were, in that they’re brought low by their tragic flaw of hubris. Still, robber barons are comparable to the rulers of old who were the original theocrats, who used theistic myths to rationalize their own evident, albeit relative godhood, which they demonstrated with their colossal creativity.
By contrast, the postindustrial oligopolists build nothing. They are, then, parasites rather than superhuman creators. Instead of transforming the real world, replacing the natural wilderness with artificial microcosms that alter civilization as a whole, they manage dream worlds just long enough to scurry away with their private fortunes which they turn merely into the miniature worlds of their gated mansions. They do indeed seek to create something from nothing, a universe ex nihilo, but what they create is entirely for their benefit, and since their dream worlds siphon the life force from the masses who find themselves lost in the Kafkaesque financial maze, these postindustrial power elites are primarily takers, not makers. They gamble in the stock market, using weapons of mass financial destruction, including supercomputers to outmaneuver fellow con artists who are likewise looking for a free lunch. As China has taken over manufacturing, Americans are left more and more with their talents for hucksterism and myth-making. Their new ideas can be productive, as in the fine arts or in technological innovations, but they can also be cons, as in the case of the financial scams in the weakly-regulated American economy. But the postindustrialists aren’t just shameless thieves. They’re fallen angels, gods that have the misfortune of manifesting their glory in a languishing nation.
To return to Job, notice that myth’s political subtext. Yahweh wagers that the good man, Job, won’t curse God even if Satan torments him. Satan takes nearly everything from Job and Job calls on Yahweh to explain himself. Dissenting from the common view of the time, that earthly suffering is divine punishment for sin, the myth features Yahweh’s pseudo-theodicy: by listing dozens of his mighty works which no mortal can hope to understand, God establishes merely that Job isn’t on God’s level and so Job has no standing to challenge the Almighty—although the reader knows that Job’s suffering is due to the wager with the professional skeptic, Satan. Read in the context of the default, autocratic social order, the angel Satan represents the earthly ruler who dehumanizes his subjects, but who justifies the megamachine by virtue of his possessing the divine power to create worlds. Just as Job can’t understand God’s ways, but must humbly bow to the majesty of God’s creation, so too peasants must cringe before the human autocrat who employs not miracles but machines made of thousands of people to create and hold together artificial microcosms.
The robber barons could likewise have justified their sociopathy and the misery brought about by their monopolies, by roaring like Yahweh who has Satan’s back: “What do you really know of the magnate who controls an industrial empire?” they could have rhetorically asked. The inequality between power elites and the masses must be accepted as a fact of natural life, and the lower class has no right to complain about the upper one, because the two are incommensurable. Peasants understand the rarefied domain of godlike robber barons about as much as ants comprehend human culture. But the plight of so-called postindustrial power elites is that they have no track record of public works to justify the demand that we cease our complaints and merely worship them.
Indeed, a number of Wall Street CEOs have responded to the 2008 crash not by apologizing, let alone by killing themselves out of shame, as they might if they’d grown up in certain Eastern cultures, but by heaping more bonuses upon themselves and their cronies and by lamenting ordinary Americans’ right even to verbally hold them largely responsible for the disaster. These banksters couldn’t just thank Obama for not prosecuting them and for not breaking up their banks, but they had to protest his occasional populist rhetoric. It goes without saying that in the US there can be no true deterrence for those who commit colossal financial frauds, now that both parties are so dependent on private funding from wealthy individuals whose fortunes are tied up in the shadow banking system. These oligopolists hold the world hostage, thanks to globalization. (As William Black points out, many people went to jail for the S&L crisis of 1986-1995, but the scope of those frauds was puny compared to that of the more recent financial schemes, and it’s hard to believe that the American government which is in bed with private industries could successfully prosecute the new breed of plutocrats.) So any punishment of them can at best be symbolic, as in the case of fines or populist speeches, but the point is that these oligopolists have the gall to be outraged even by such token gestures, by mere rhetorical questioning of their magnificence.
The postindustrial plutocrats pretend they have a right to an attitude like Yahweh’s towards Job, whereas what we know now about postmodern America is that not only is God dead, but so too are the human autocrats. All that’s left are the self-deluded parasites, the hollow shells that they enslave, and the omegas who watch from the wilderness. Even to speak of “postindustrial society” is to credit a meme that’s meant to celebrate the genius of the new overlords, whereas obviously high-tech industry will be needed to build the world of tomorrow. The so-called postindustrial power elites are hardly more divine than the robber barons. Their wealth and corruption may be greater, but gods are worshipped because of the mightiness of their deeds. Gods don’t have to lie to enthrall the masses. True, human autocrats exaggerate their power by mythologizing themselves, to rationalize the debasement of the workers in their megamachines. But those myths are merely hyperbolic, because most autocrats demonstrate their absolute control by putting their megamachine to work. By contrast, the financial elites appear to have no creative vision; they’re not noble predators who lead their dominance hierarchies to greater glory for all, but parasitic supervillains hiding out in their lairs.
What, then, is the hidden meaning of the 2008 crash? That the host carrying the parasites stirred but failed to awaken from its stupor. That the US is in cultural decline and that, with its immune system weak, as it were, due to loss of faith in its founding myths, the least inspiring predators gather to pick clean the sickly body. In principle, the hapless animals killed and eaten by a lion could at least marvel in their dying moment that they’re inches away from such a marvelous beast that’s chosen to feast on them, lowly creatures that they are. Likewise, even being trod underfoot by the megamachine guided by an autocrat or an industrial monopolist carries with it the dignity that Job could have felt in his suffering at the hands of Satan who worked for the Lord Almighty. But Americans are going out with a whimper, not a bang. Apparently, the more creative class of predator doesn’t see much of a challenge in exploiting the American peasantry. So rather than being chewed up and spit out by the human equivalent of lions, most Americans are being bled dry by dysfunctional predators whose sociopathic genius is wasted in that it’s not paired with artistic boldness. These postindustrial predators don’t really know themselves. They haven’t come to terms with the job of the vices they’ve mastered: their sociopathy makes for the only divine beings that exist, for gods who can reshape the world in their image.
Superhumanity is and has always been just the autocrat’s sociopathic inhumanity. The gods have been nothing more than monstrous humans, the rest being naturally undead. Yahweh’s answer to Job is monstrous in its narcissism and callousness. Yes, Yahweh occupies a higher plane of existence, but that’s precisely what corrupts his character! Likewise, as Taibbi shows in The Divide, the American plutocrats are above the law as well as being beyond good and evil. The saving grace of a divine being’s corruption, though, is that the god is arrogant enough to create a world to magnify its glory. So when the monster decides not to create and merely to annihilate what’s already been made, we see the impersonality of nature’s underlying evolution to nowhere. The natural world has no personal creator, of course, so nature creates itself. Living things evolve and, taking pride in their vitality, they’re alienated from nature’s undeadness. Animals rebel and modify their environment to better achieve their goals. The best of us recreate the world out of the madness that comes from confronting such existential facts. There is no permanent escape, but we can be tragic heroes, putting our stamp on monstrous nature with our more refined monstrosity. This was the existential significance of the dominance hierarchy, of civilization, autocracy, and the megamachine. And when our power elites fail to create, merely stewing in their egoism and hackneyed social Darwinism, they allow undead nature to have its way with us—without doing their part in the great struggle. This is the pity of postmodern American society: its supervillains are good merely for an anticlimax.