Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The American Spectacle

Liberals and globalists (proponents of globalization) are aghast at the Western conservative’s retreat to infantile, care-free farce, as in Brexit and the Republican nomination of Donald Trump, the latter having been preceded by the astroturfed Tea Party diversion from the economic causes of 2008’s American housing market crash. The suspicion is that American and British white male losers in the global marketplace are scapegoating gays, Muslims, or Mexicans because these whites no longer know how to be men enough to recognize the reason why their middle classes have vanished, which is that the postindustrial environment spoils these men and so they can’t compete with the likes of the hyper-pragmatic Chinese. Heretofore the aristocratic winners in the genetic lottery that ruled their segregated societies until the 1960s’ social revolutions, whites in North America and Europe must face the prospect of being marginalized in the global melting pot, as not just Chinese and Indians but also machines come to dominate the workforces. Partly also as an unintended consequence of feminist overreach in liberal societies, Western men have lost touch with their innate sense of honour, and so they’d sooner drug themselves to death than admit that their history—from the medieval Christian atrocities in Europe to Spain’s genocide against Native Americans and the African slave trade—is sordid and wholly unforgivable, and that whites need a spiritual, existential awakening or risk becoming a laughing stock class of deluded crybabies.  

The Debordian Spectacle of Trump and His Minions

Guy Debord’s concept of the society of the spectacle can partly explain the Trump phenomenon. According to Debord’s postmodern (i.e. pretentious and obfuscating) application of Marxist theory, capitalism is a process in which “the commodity completes its colonization of social life.” Social interactions become more and more mediated by mass media images, to which we passively defer, and we live in an infotainment bubble in which past and future are conflated to make capitalistic culture appear eternal and immutable. “All that once was directly lived has become mere representation,” says Debord. “The spectacle is the existing order’s uninterrupted discourse about itself, its laudatory monologue. It is the self-portrait of power in the epoch of its totalitarian management of the conditions of existence. The fetishistic, purely objective appearance of spectacular relations conceals the fact that they are relations among men and classes: a second nature with its fatal laws seems to dominate our environment.” The spectacle “is a pseudo-sacred entity. It shows what it is: separate power developing in itself, in the growth of productivity by means of the incessant refinement of the division of labor into a parcellization of gestures which are then dominated by the independent movement of machines; and working for an ever-expanding market. All community and all critical sense are dissolved during this movement…”

This concept of the spectacle, of the image or other representation that functions as an oppressive cultural intermediary, needn’t be restricted to a Marxian analysis. There are social spectacles or myth-laden images, and there are individual ones just as there is culture and there’s the stage in each mind in which stereotypes compete for the spotlight of our personal attention. Society flatters its economic structure, defending the power allotments in its dominance hierarchy, and we each spin a private tale, the narrative of our life in which we’re the starring protagonist. Images from our dreams and symbols of the idols to which we dedicate ourselves compel us to trust the judgments issuing from these self-serving thought-worlds, from the mental space we inhabit when we live in our heads with existential inauthenticity. The alternative isn’t to trust in The Force, to walk the heroic path like Neo from the Matrix, without thinking we’re on it. Animals are the relatively thoughtless ones; thoughts—including second-order and objective ones—are weapons in our war against the godless environment. What we need isn’t nirvana, the inner peace from detaching from our thoughts as a result of our personal self-destruction. Instead, we should learn to tell better stories; we need to learn how to be self-respecting artists.
   
In any case, Trump, then, is a phony revolutionary. His supporters believe that he’ll save the white portion of the lower middle class, by protecting the US economy from foreign cheats such as the Chinese (who actually just work a hundred times harder than North Americans and a thousand times harder than Europeans), or that he’ll punish the double-dealing political class by blowing up the whole American government. But those are wishes, not rational predictions, and anyway empirical interpretations of Trump’s intentions are irrelevant, from a Debordian perspective. Mainstream Trump is a symbol and his cultural significance is determined by underlying economic processes. Ever since Nixon brokered a deal with Strom Thurmond, creating the GOP’s Southern Strategy, Republicans have pretended to champion the backward social positions of the antediluvian white southerners, while double-crossing them with free trade deals and other plutocratic economic policies that have hollowed-out the American middle class. Again, instead of taking responsibility for having been duped as gullible, irritable voters, these southerners together with low-information blue collars prefer scapegoats. Now Trump is merely doubling-down on this trusty political strategy. Superficially, Trump has the capacity to fight for this once-dominant social class (again, a class that deserves to languish for having benefited from the atrocities of its forbears). Technically, Trump could repair the American infrastructure by establishing a Democratic-style, protectionist welfare state under the cover of xenophobic bluster. But the profound ironies of social reality are perceived only at a more rarified level. Trump is himself a plutocrat, after all. Instead of controlling the government’s policies from a distance, with lobbyists and Manchurian candidates, a hero of the power elite has decided that pulling the levers directly is more efficient. We get the candidates we deserve, but the question is: Who are “we”?

The US has become infamous for its economic inequality. The vast majority of the country’s economic gains over the last several decades have gone to only a handful of individuals who belong to the top tenth of the top one percent of American wealth holders. The cultural spectacle which is a nation’s unfolding of its story to its citizens would have to be informed by such a momentous shift. And so while Trump may speak for the little guy, like a classic populist demagogue, the medium is the message: to cynical connoisseurs of political spectacles, such as to those who have overdosed on philosophy, the deeper meaning of Trump is that he inadvertently displays the id of American plutocrats. These billionaires have the wealth of kings, so democracy is an encumbrance to them. Hints of how wealthy Americans see themselves were dropped when, instead of running for the hills out of embarrassment to show their faces after their fraudulent banks were bailed out at public expense, the Wall Street bankers were indignant that Main Street called them bad names. The top one percent displayed an aristocratic resentment towards their inferiors; after all, who are mortals to complain about the deeds of their gods? Regardless of how egregious Yahweh’s treatment of Job appeared to be, Job was necessarily in the wrong, because God’s ways transcend Job’s capacity to understand. Likewise, the sheeple of Main Street were to blame for indebting themselves to achieve their preposterous dream of owning a mansion. No one deserves to live anywhere; we must fight for what we want and need. Those who can afford to pay can take what they want, while those who can’t should know their place. Meanwhile, as explained by Thomas Piketty and others, the top one percent have reaped enough wealth to take virtually anything they want anywhere in terrestrial space. Naturally accompanying those outsized fortunes is godlike insanity, the jealousy, pettiness, and narcissism featured in all monotheistic spectacles. After all, the deities of traditional religions were only fictions mined from the ancients’ familiarity with mortal tyrants. American plutocrats are godlike, then, in all the obnoxious ways, and Trump’s persona is their stereotype. As befits a superhuman aristocrat, there’s even the hint of incest between Trump and his daughter Ivanka.

As Debord writes, culture is the prevailing economic order’s “laudatory monologue” and “self-portrait.” The national story is revealed not in the form of words spoken in speeches, tweets, or pundits’ talking points. That foregrounded discourse is fodder only for the conscious and rational sides of our mind. The enduring story of a zeitgeist operates as myth and so follows a dream logic that sways us like a command issued to children or to pets (or as Elliot says well in Mr. Robot, to “paying fanboys of their [the theocratic charlatans’] poorly written sci-fi franchise”). A free lower class that’s been betrayed and needs to fight for its survival would band together and resist the forces that oppress them. This happens all over the less-developed parts of the world, but not in the United States since the ‘60s, because since that time Americans (and citizens of Americanized postindustrial societies generally) have become free only in the ironic, Orwellian respect. Our freedom is the negative kind, to choose between a thousand varieties of irrelevant products. We lack the positive freedom to be able to decide what we most want, because our cultural discourse is dominated by spectacle, by a glitzy, misleading narrative that glorifies the minority who prosper in our neoliberal regimes. That minority doesn’t write the spectacular narrative. We all do, because unconsciously we long to worship our alpha rulers, as Loki says in The Avengers movie.

Indeed, that movie is itself a Trump-like spectacle. As in most action movies, the villain speaks the subversive naturalistic or cosmicist truth, and is defeated by a hero who represents an unrealistic ideal, an ideological superstructure, as Marx said, that sustains and excuses each individual’s position in the local dominance hierarchy. Loki tries to rule so-called freedom-loving Americans, but is eventually vanquished and thrashed as a false god by the Hulk. As if most Americans don’t tell themselves daily that they’d bow at the first sign of the return of a true immortal! And as if the hyper-consumption by these worshipers indicates they’re interested in Jesus’s morality! Most Americans evidently long to be peasants in God’s Kingdom because they’re social animals, like all of us, and social animals form pecking orders in which the majority abase themselves before their masters for the sake of surviving in a world that could dispose of all life on Earth without warning or apology—by a solar flare, say, or by a meteor impact. Militaries form strict chains of command and the lower ranks are trained to revere their superiors. All living things are at war with their environment. Our artificial worlds (languages, cultures, machines, cityscapes) give us breathing room, providing us distractions that delay our reckoning with natural reality. But our animalism always hinders our plans for transcendence. We form democracies based on Enlightenment rhetoric and pseudoscientific economic myths. But just as theocratic Middle Eastern kingdoms are run by the oil industry and communist China is controlled by its oligarchs, so-called liberal America is dominated by its economic titans, by its most powerful alpha males. Trump seems to look to Putin for guidance, because Putin reached a deal with his Yeltsinian oligarchs whereby he wouldn’t imprison them on politically-motivated charges as long as they’d support him and his government. Putin’s Russia is now a crony capitalistic kleptocracy in which Putin rewards his close personal relations by making them oligarchs who in turn form pro-Putin counterweights in internecine power struggles in the Russian oligarchy.

The spectacle of Trump shows us that he would be the American Putin. And just as consumers love to laugh at the defeated Loki, Americans across the political spectrum condemn Putin for being a godless autocrat. However, that shibboleth aside for being vacuous, the rise of Trump attests to the fact that animalism has the last word in human affairs. If we’re coddled as late modern consumers and so we can’t dictate the course of our lives by telling our stories with our actions, as it were, but must settle for a mediated life in which we’re trained and managed by our cultural conventions, living through the images that embody myths of materialism or of theistic supernaturalism, these myths must preserve this social order. We don’t want the music to stop, because if it does we might be the ones left without a chair. We’re as children begging to be told a comforting bedtime story so that we can endure the inhuman darkness of nighttime. Subscribing to a new national narrative entails a social revolution, which means destroying the old social order. That task is fit only for upstanding or desperate individuals, not for a blinkered, lillywhite herd of obese, infantilized consumers.

Again, Trump’s supporters may intend to lay waste to the American government in retaliation for being stabbed repeatedly in the back by the more “serious,” professional politicians. But the American political spectacle is even less kind to these Lilliputians. If Trump’s grotesque personality signifies the disfigurement that happens when a hairless ape acquires an Olympian degree of power, the flock that follows him is committing collective suicide because unconsciously the lower-class whites know their proper place. Studies have found that poor white Americans are literally killing themselves at a high rate by drug or alcohol overdoses or by suicide. These whites seem to understand that globalization spells their demise as a privileged class and that the American Dream for them is a cruel fantasy. They resent having fallen so low in the pecking order, and so they mimic the heroism of their mortal enemy, the Islamist suicide bomber: “If we can’t have our country,” they seem to whine, “no one will.” At least, that might be their rationalization for their self-destructive political gambit.

But even should Trump win the presidency and burn Washington to the ground, the American plutocracy would endure, because the wealthy are transnational, not mere loyal Americans. Only the animistic gods of small, unorganized religions were considered tied to particular times and places. There was the god not just of trees but of this particular tree, and a god who dwelt in this particular shrine, and so on. Gods of larger groups, such as pharaohs, emperors, or late capitalistic plutocrats range across the continents, jet-setting from one branch of their empire to the next. Should the US systems of government fall into disarray, should the Constitution lie in tatters and average Americans be left to fend for themselves in the Ayn Randian wilderness, the upper class would still have their private armies, doctors, chefs, servants, and personal trainers. The despondent lower class of whites may wish that their nation can’t live without them, so that as they decline so too does their country. But the record would show that their suicide via their electing Trump to high office would rid the population only of their dead weight, being so many unenlightened omegas or have-nots. They would unconsciously sabotage only themselves, like the underwear bomber whose device failed to explode. Thus the full Republican spectacle emerges: the alphas strut like hideous invading aliens, oblivious to how they’re despised by the conquered masses, while half of the latter are mesmerized by the vast inequality of wealth and find themselves bowing before their masters, presenting their posteriors for the rape they secretly know they deserve.  

The Tiresome Fallacies in Democratic Myths

Let’s turn to the Democrat’s all-too convenient counter-narrative. As Thomas Frank, Matt Taibbi, Chris Hedges, Robert Reich, and others make clear, the Democrats have sold out the middle class just as have the Republicans. As I said, the Republicans did so because they found they could exploit the opening of white Christian resentment against the liberals who led the 1960s’ civil rights movements. However, the Democrats haven’t sided with the hippies. After Walter Mondale lost in the landslide re-election of Ronald Reagan, losing 49 out of 50 states, Democrats formed the Democratic National Convention, which is a centrist, neoliberal think-tank and governing body that supplies tactics allowing the liberal party to feign allegiance to progressive principles, while actually pursuing donations from wealthy individuals and aligning the party with what Thomas Frank calls the professional class. Ethologically, these professionals (doctors, lawyers, teachers, journalists, civil servants, etc.) are betas, meaning they defend the nation’s status quo, because they’ve escaped being victimized by the economic forces that have shaped their society and because they hope to advance in the pecking order to become alpha dominators.

The liberal or progressive rhetoric you hear from these professionals, including from professionals-in-training such as the young adults supporting Bernie Sanders or from the spoiled pseudo-hippies cheering for Jill Stein, the head of the American Green Party, is irrelevant. By choosing even to remain as citizens of the United States, of the world’s capital for global arms exports, hyper-consumption, and imprisonment of the poor and the mentally ill, these professionals have betrayed their progressive principles—regardless of their micro exercises in tolerance and environmentalism. Certainly, by voting for the neoliberal, DNC-led Democratic Party, the professional is one with the hypocritical Donald Trump in making empty gestures towards caring about the plight of the working poor, while complying with the decrees from the quasi-religion of neoclassical economics and from the corporate sector, and instituting “free trade” agreements that allegedly allow the invisible hand of personal greed to raise everyone’s living standard; instead, these trade deals merely enable economic competition to happen on a global scale, withdrawing the social safety net (thanks to the forming of monopolies or oligopolies that limit competition and oppose rules that benefit workers at the owners’ and managers’ expense) and so degrading the First World’s living standard to that of the Third World, the latter being the place in which most of the world’s real productive labour gets done.   

Did Mondale lose because American voters learned that progressive principles are bankrupt? Not exactly. Reagan won because he convinced moderate Democrats to switch sides. These “Reagan Democrats” were southern whites and northern blue collars who, being practical rather than academic, elitist types, were more interested in real-world economic and national defense issues, not in an airy-fairy ideal of social equality or in unearned redistribution of wealth to the poor. Having been bombarded with propaganda against the evil Soviet Union, Americans were ready to demonize the socialist enemy within. In any case, the resentful, bigoted whites and the undereducated blue collars broke from the professional class, and the latter came to dominate the remnants of the Democratic Party via the DNC. The Republican myth is that Reagan’s policies triumphed: he defeated the communist empire and free trade empowered the majority of Americans.

Indeed, Reagan’s arms buildup after the decay of the US military under President Carter contributed to the collapse by forcing Russia to overspend on its military. But this was only the tail-end of the US cold war against Russia, which had begun directly after WWII. Moreover, the US victory can’t be interpreted as one for conservative economic principles, because the American military buildup was accomplished by the government, not by the private sector, and that government vastly expanded the size of its bureaucracy as a result. Indeed, if American conservatives can take credit for the collapse of the Soviet Union, they should accept blame for what happened afterward: privatization under Boris Yeltsin produced the monopolies of the Russian oligarchy which had to be curbed by the strongman Putin. Also, if the war of escalation in the building of nuclear weapons was insane in its proportions (each side came to have enough nuclear missiles to destroy all human life many times over), the more responsible, sustainable society would surely be the one that failed that particular test. Only an economic system which is poised to be a cancer upon the earth, to grow far beyond the capacity of its host to sustain it would be equipped to out-compete others in such a race to the bottom. Finally, these same economic policies of deregulation proved disastrous to the US economy in the Savings and Loan Crisis (1980s-1990s), the global stock market crash of 1987, the Dot-com bubble (1997-2001), and the Great Recession (2007-2009) that was caused by the bursting of the American housing bubble (2007).

If liberal democratic goals haven’t been superseded by right-wing ideology, why have Democrats abandoned the working poor and embraced the hypocritical professional class as its chief voting block? Again, an answer is found in the legend that preserves the Democrat’s sense of self-worth. According to this narrative, liberalism originates from ancient Greek rationalism. The Greeks started to progress culturally when they thought critically about deep questions. For example, the abstract, impersonal God of the philosophers replaced the gods of naïve people’s traditional religion. The modern globalist’s concept of universal humanity is implicit in the objective, scientific outlook that began in the West with classical Greek mathematics and philosophy. Of course, like the early Americans, the ancient Greeks didn’t live up to their principles of rationality: women and slaves were regarded as inherently inferior and the democratic Athenian empire ended Greece’s golden age with the catastrophic Peloponnesian War with Sparta. Still, the classical Greek ideal was rediscovered in Renaissance Europe, and it fostered the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment culture of progress through technoscientific empowerment. The ideal in question is that of rational moderation, which the Greeks thought of as happiness-through-virtue (through excellence in the forming of character traits). The idea is that reason is our greatest gift as a species, allowing us to control our animal impulses, to be civilized, dignified persons as such, to understand our surroundings and to exploit that knowledge to improve on the world as we find it.

And to come to the point, the Democratic conceit is that modern liberals and progressives are the inheritors of this vision of our purpose in life, whereas the Republicans are plainly antirational. Hillary Clinton chuckles in her nomination acceptance speech, as she’s bewildered she has to come out and say that she “believes in” science and global warming (and likely in evolution by natural selection). By contrast, Republicans wallow in anti-intellectualism in their Fox News infotainment bubble of truthiness. Trump’s vocabulary is that of a four-year old. He dumbs-down every issue, makes absurd and empty promises with no detailed plan to keep them, and behaves like a schoolyard bully who’s temperamentally unfit to hold high office. And before Trump there was Sarah Palin and George W. Bush. Worlds apart, President Obama and Bill and Hillary Clinton are highly intelligent, competent, and serious individuals.

This, then, is the spectacle of Hillary Clinton and of her professional class. The chatter about her untrustworthiness, her maniacal laugh, and her inauthenticity misses the mark of what her personage indicates about the state of the professional betas she represents. Of course, she stands for the establishment and the status quo and is thus the more conservative candidate. Progressivism is revolutionary and so true progressives don’t fare well under an establishment; naturally, they’re the omegas, those that have lost out and so seek to change the system. The Green Party is progressive and so has the same omega status nationally as its true constituents, the working poor and indirectly the rest of the world’s have-nots. Empty rhetoric notwithstanding, the constituents who benefit from centrist, DNC policies are the American professionals and the wealthiest one percent, not the working poor. But Hillary Clinton can claim to be progressive because she taps into the Enlightenment ethos. As a woman, she fulfills the ideal of equality through rational self-control. For again, unlike Trump, her statements aren’t wildly irresponsible; on the contrary, she modulates everything she does, calculating each focus-group-tested word she utters in public. She’s not just a professional politician, representing the professional class; she’s an exemplary one. She’s attacked for this or for that minor scandal and she’s exonerated in all of them.

Meant to dramatize a myth for a beta herd, the Democrat’s spectacle which reveals so-called American liberals’ unconscious self-image is trite. Beta followers lack the desperation of the omega underclass to turn to an extreme cultural narrative to galvanize them. Likewise, liberal professionals lack the sociopathy and brazen evil of their alpha rulers and so aren’t guided by the muse or daemon that’s been familiar to artists and shamans from time immemorial. By contrast, the impoverished American southerners or blue-collar whites and the transnational oligarchs who happen now to reside in the United States are resentful or cruel and deranged enough to craft a great work of ideological art. Together, by their actions more than by their consciously-uttered words, these polar-opposite Republicans have captured their nation’s zeitgeist. Instead of sacrificing a goat upon the altar to invoke their god’s power, Republicans have honoured their muse by channeling their unconscious dread and fantasies. Economic inequality in the US has reached such Gilded Age proportions that this country is obviously unfit for democracy. Why, then, shouldn’t a plutocrat rule there as a quasi-dictator? How is that fantasy untrue to the social facts on the ground? Even if Trump loses or pulls out of the race, offended by this or by that like a prima donna, he deserves to win the presidency on aesthetic grounds.

The horrific spectacle he embodies is poetically superior to the Democrat’s lame tale with its academic half-truths. Recognizing that while reason is supreme in instrumental contexts, in devising techniques on the basis of scientific investigations, reason is irrelevant to the normative task of deciding what should be done with those techniques, Republican leaders are free to denigrate science and empirical truth, to tell one cosmic-sized lie after another, because they understand the postmodern state of their environment. Meanwhile, Democrats think reason suffices in politics, because they’re stuck in their positivistic, Enlightenment past in which science-led philosophy tossed out the baby of myth with the bathwater of systematic theology. Democrats condemn Trump for being stupid—as if Trump spoke like a four-year old in the ‘80s when he wasn’t running for office. (Feel free to watch the interviews yourself.) Or they despise him for being a lying demagogue, because Democrats are jealous of the emotional power of the Republicans’ message: “Revenge against the backstabbing professional politicians who sold you out with NAFTA!” “Blow up the dysfunctional democracy with a strongman insider!” “Tear down the system of corruption and plutocracy!” What Trump would actually do in office makes no difference to the fantasies animating the spectacle on the stage of the political theater which is trotted out at election time. Likewise, establishment Democrats fought against Bernie Sanders whose movement was energized by omega millennials, rendered broke by establishment scams from Washington, Wall Street and the American college system.

Indeed, the centrist Democrat’s self-image is unbecoming. Texas swagger and mediocrity gave Americans the major scandals of George W. Bush (Hurricane Katrina, the Iraq War fiasco, the financial meltdown, the loss of respect around the world). But American technocrats under Robert McNamara micromanaged the Vietnam War which ended in American defeat, and pseudoscientific, over-mathematized economic models bamboozled Bill Clinton and the neoliberals after Reagan, including President Obama, who continued Reagan’s and Bush’s policies of deregulation which left Americans their present iteration of the Gilded Age. For that matter, overconfidence in technoscience brought the world the sinking of the Titanic, while technocratic rationality automated the international system of treaties that led to World War I, and Marxist rationalism produced Russia’s doomed, centrally-planned economy and Mao’s communist holocaust. “No drama” Obama is a fitting nickname for a technocrat who pretended to be progressive and to want to change the system, when he ran for office, but who ended up governing as a centrist protecting the status quo. His allegiance was made clear when he bailed out Wall Street with no strings attached and left Main Street with no comparable assistance or protections. The Dodd-Frank Act was supposed to ensure that the economy couldn’t again be held hostage by unscrupulous, too-big-to-fail institutions, but of course that piece of legislation was gutted by lobbyists so that the banks are now larger and more leveraged than before. The phrase “moral hazard” is a singular misnomer because morality is held in contempt by both technocrats like Obama and Hillary Clinton and by the supervillains who scramble for advantage on Wall Street. Morality is for the little people who “cling to their guns and their Bibles,” to paraphrase Obama.

Hillary Clinton promises to bring, in effect, a third term for Obama—and in the name of seriousness, maturity, and rationality. The Democratic blather about ensuring that people get their “fair share” is supposed to follow from reason. Everyone’s equal, at least in their personal potential, so they should be treated equally. But the premise is flawed since the members of our species are obviously not equal. This is just an overflow of bogus quantification to conceal the likelihood that the slogan “fair share” emerged on the scene as a jingle concocted by some corporate market researcher. (The phrase rhymes so it must be true! And what do you want me to buy, again?) Also, the conclusion doesn’t follow, because of the naturalistic fallacy. Even if everyone were identical, being clones, for example, that fact alone wouldn’t entail that we ought to treat each other as equals. The fact that someone wants to act unfairly or to make an exception of herself doesn’t make her unfairness wrong. Unfortunately, science ripped up the roots of morality when it demolished the case for theistic religion. Reason is supposed to replace faith, but it doesn’t, contrary to secular ethicists like Aristotle, Kant, and Mill. Technocrats who think professional experts should rule bypass this inconvenient truth, by proclaiming that their normative slogans are self-evident. The Declaration of Independence contains several fallacies just in its famous second sentence, although the founders were only self-deceiving deists, not full-blown postmodern technocrats.

Serious politicians like Obama and Hillary Clinton stand for gradual progress, not the revolutionary kind. There’s no Debordian spectacle in the Democratic Party, they might contend, because myths are private affairs, like the religions crushed by the powers of reason that are supposed to direct government policy. And anyway, Democrats stand for the little guy, not for the system. If there’s a spectacle on the Republican side, that’s because Trump is a showman who belongs on reality TV. Unfortunately for "serious," "grown-up" Democrats, the American electoral system has become a reality TV show, and all such shows only caricature the real world. Myths and fantasies are needed because reality is too disturbing ever to be discussed in polite company, and those whose emotions are wrapped up in their favourite stories try to enact them, like cosplayers who think of themselves as secretly heroic in their workaday lives. We behold our reflections in the parts of culture with which we identify. Writ large are our unconscious yearnings and fears and hatreds, as well as the impersonal processes that unfold in our midst. The less faithful we’ve been to ourselves and to the world, the duller our grand narratives will be, in which case we’ll have disarmed ourselves in our primary, existential struggle against them both. 

22 comments:

  1. "No one deserves to live anywhere; we must fight for what we want and need." I wish some of the uber lefties in cities being gentrified, would realize this. Instead of whining/protesting about how they are being evicted, because they can no longer afford the area they live in.

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    1. Last season of South Park focused on gentrification. There seems enough satire to go around on all sides of that issue.

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  2. "omega millennials, rendered broke by establishment scams from Washington, Wall Street and the American college system." Could you explain how they were scammed? Do you mean they were forced into something, they did not want?

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    1. Well, think of what happens in a scam. You voluntarily pay for what you think is X, but what you get is Y, because the scammer misled you. So it's voluntary as far as it goes, but the transaction depends on a misrepresentation. The victim may be at fault if the scam is really poor, so it would have taken just a little skepticism and checking to discover the truth. Buyer beware. But in the case of the housing market crash, the accountants and ratings agencies were in on the fraud, so there was no way for ordinary buyers to learn what was really happening. Michael Lewis pointed out in The Big Short that some individuals did do some investigating before 2008 and made millions by betting against the rigged system. But that was their full-time job.

      The omega millennials have gone broke mainly because of the exorbitant college tuition which has left them in debt. I call that system a scam, based on some articles by Scott Timberg and Thomas Frank at Salon.com. See, for example, this one:

      http://www.salon.com/2014/10/01/college_is_ripping_you_off_students_are_cash_cows_and_schools_the_predators/

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  3. http://www.vice.com/read/hey-v12n5

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    1. Some interesting facts, but most are irrelevant to what I say in this article. Some of the facts given there on slavery are based on strawman over-generalizations.

      The first point made in that Vice article is fallacious because it insinuates that American slavery is fine because slavery was common elsewhere. What's popular isn't necessarily what's best.

      And I don't say, for example, that white European Christians were "solely" responsible for the African slave trade. Nor do I say that the US is a "uniquely evil place" because of its involvement in slavery. Of course, you'd expect Christians to be less likely to own slaves. And my point was that the benefactors of *recent* slavery deserve to languish as a matter of poetic justice. The point isn't that the US is the worst place on Earth. It's that the hypocrisy of the founders *suffices* to make pride unbecoming for the present generation of whites who are advantaged by that recent, local history. (And I speculate that the white support for Trump could be a form of collective suicide based on unconscious feelings of guilt and weakness.)

      The only relevant points from that article are that blacks owned slaves in the US, and that the US had white slaves. The latter point appears to be based on the misleading conflation of indentured and chattel slavery regarding the Irish slave trade. Here are some articles that refute that counter-myth:

      http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/history/2015/09/slavery_myths_seven_lies_half_truths_and_irrelevancies_people_trot_out_about.html

      https://www.opendemocracy.net/beyondslavery/liam-hogan/%E2%80%98irish-slaves%E2%80%99-convenient-myth

      Regarding the first point, the number of slaves owned by blacks was apparently relatively small: about 13,000 out of 2 million, according to one study. See here:

      http://www.theroot.com/articles/history/2013/03/black_slave_owners_did_they_exist/2/

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    2. Jim Goad actually wrote a book about this topic. It's about how racism is used to disguise classism.

      https://www.amazon.com/Redneck-Manifesto-Hillbillies-Americas-Scapegoats/dp/0684838648/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1470340223&sr=1-1&keywords=jim+goad

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    3. Goad's thesis seems plausible, but I think it's also meant to be satirical and thus hyperbolic. I can see how racism would be a more politically correct topic than the struggle between economic classes. Indeed, the culture war, too, is more openly discussed. The US isn't supposed to have classes at all, since the country is supposed to be individualistic and to promote upward mobility. "Classism" would be considered a piece of communist rhetoric.

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  4. What do you think is the best individual response to the crisis about to hit the West in the next decade or so? Our long-term decline is bound to be very messy and painful. Hedonism? Political activism for the far right? Nihilism?

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    1. Ben will disagree, but I say Nihilism is the way to go.

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    2. I'm wary of discussing any timeframe for cultural decline. Most doomsayers' predictions turn out not to come to pass. Moreover, if the decline is only cultural, the decline could be entirely subjective. For example, the US is becoming more culturally liberal in that it's more accepting of gays and lesbians and of women's abortions. So conservatives view this development as decline, but liberals view it as progress.

      Still, I'm certainly interested in the idea of Western decline. Spengler must have made the best case for the inevitability of every society's decline. I was also taken with Morris Berman's book, Twilight of American Culture, in which he'd answer your question by recommending that enlightened folks focus on preserving high culture, like the medieval monks, by setting up enclaves or secret societies.

      The best individual response? It depends on your degree of misanthropy and melancholy. If you're idealistic enough, you'll find failings in all societies so that nothing will please you. In that case, I'd recommend Stoicism. We've got to learn how to make comedy out of absurdity and tragedy.

      I'm pretty cynical about political activism, but I recognize that activism obviously sometimes works. Activism towards achieving which goals, though? How to stop cultural decline? That depends on your ideals, and that sort of disagreement is philosophical and largely subjective. Is the economy objectively declining? It's transforming into a plutocracy, because the majority don't deserve democratic self-control. They're unfit to vote, because they have no idea what's really going on. Presumably, every large democracy has a multitude who likewise technically don't deserve to vote.

      Would a dictator solve America's problems? I can see that happening as a consequence of grotesque economic inequality. It would be like the French Revolution. The cure could be worse than the disease.

      Nihilism isn't much of an option, since it would involve dehumanization. We think in terms of values and goals, so the only way to be a genuine nihilist would be to perform something like a self-lobotomy, like the Buddhist who strives after nirvana, the having of no attachment to his or her mental states, so the Buddhist cares about nothing and can't be made to suffer.

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    3. I'm familiar with the classic Stoic texts, but the philosophy as a whole seems outdated and prescientific to me. This isn't helped by the fact that it recently became an internet self-help fad, and all the cool kids are doing it. It seems to be based on the naive conception of man as a rational creature that can exercise full control over his thoughts and emotions, and who can simply train himself to react however he wants in any situation. Thinkers from Freud onward, and the last century of advances in neuroscience, have dismantled that notion as far as I'm concerned. How do you reconcile Stoicism with the 21st century view of humans as biological robots?

      Now that you mention Spengler, the field of "decline studies" has advanced quite a lot since he wrote Decline of the West. Today the dominant paradigm is an ecological understanding of decline. You might be interested in some of the following books:

      Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change - William R. Catton

      War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires - Peter Turchin

      The Collapse of Complex Societies - Joseph A. Tainter

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    4. I agree that Stoicism by itself wouldn't any longer be ideal. When I recommended Stoicism in the other comment I was somewhat pressed for time and distracted at work. I critique Stoicism in Stoicism and Cosmic Horror (linked below). I'm interested in the ascetic and cosmicist connections. The Panglossian inference from determinism (nature's "rationality") to approval of natural processes should be dismissed. And Stoicism misses the whole point about the existential significance of the relation between nature and artificiality (technology, etc), which I've been harping on in this blog.

      I suppose full control over of our minds may be impossible, but there's a bog difference between Buddhist detachment, say, and the average consumer's rampant hedonism and lack of self-discipline. The neural mechanisms involved may be complicated, but some degree of self-control seems possible. Why couldn't a robot have a higher level of cognitive functioning whereby it could monitor its lower states, veto certain impulses and condition its programming and behaviour, given some neural plasticity. It looks to me like that's what the cerebral cortex is for in humans.

      Thanks for the book recommendations. Berman discusses Tainter in that book I referred to. The ecological context is indeed interesting. There are a few relevant books that are already on my reading list: Dark Ecology, by Timothy Morton (along with his other books), and just about any book with "Anthropocene" in the title, such as Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, and Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism.

      There are fascinating connections between the ecological perspective, cosmicism, and horror. I take a stab at these issues in Humankind as Life's Executioner: The Environmentalist's Nightmare (link below). See also the somewhat half-baked, but still I hope thought-provoking Qualia, Artificiality, and Fractals: A Solution to the Hard Problem. I should return to these ecological themes soon in a follow-up article...

      http://rantswithintheundeadgod.blogspot.ca/2013/12/stoicism-and-cosmic-horror.html

      http://rantswithintheundeadgod.blogspot.ca/2013/04/humankind-as-lifes-executioner.html

      http://rantswithintheundeadgod.blogspot.ca/2014/10/qualia-artificiality-and-fractals.html

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    5. In Chris Hedge's book 'Wages of Rebellion' he argues that one of the things individuals should do is become involved in bottom up activism and supporting local self-sufficiency to the best of our ability. Most of us are Betas and Omegas with limited resources so in a practical sense we should focus small while looking at the big picture.

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    6. I believe Hedges is pessimistic about the likelihood that positive change will come from either major American political party. But yes, Hedges gets involved in grassroots protests and even gets arrested for it. I read many of his earlier articles and they're very dark. He's a radical leftist who thinks the whole American system is rigged, especially now that the liberal checks and balances that are meant to compensate for capitalism (and for the seed of its self-destruction which capitalism carries within) are mostly no longer functioning. Local self-sufficiency would be consistent with his radical condemnation of the socio-economic system. This reminds me of Morris Berman's view that we need a new monastic movement to preserve high culture through the upcoming dark age.

      The problem for progressives like Hedges is that they're up against the beta herd, the easily-distracted and infotained masses who have been conditioned to defend the system. These folks lump progressives in with anarchists and even with terrorists, with outsiders who can be demonized. All Hedges wants is more people- and planet-friendly regulation. Hedges also has a theology background, which gives his politics an interesting twist. I saw him give a talk once in Toronto.

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    7. I think that the majority of society is also justifiably skeptical of claims that civilization will collapse or that revolution would bring about a more positive outcome. We are often schooled about the revolutions that succeeded, the ones that created the liberal republics of the modern age. However, the established authorities are also keen to point out (not without some merit) the revolutions that have ended up in tyranny or chaos. So the masses can fantasize about heroic rebellion while at the same time fearing the destruction of seemingly necessary institutions (government, the market, liberal democracy, etc).

      'The End is Nigh' is a proclamation that has been called far too many times throughout recent history. So when the Casandra's out there really are legitimate they are dismissed due to cynicism and suspicion. To be honest I know our society is at a fragile state; a crossroads in history. It is difficult to know if anyone's predictions of doom or plenty or what at all are the most accurate.

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    8. Sure, prophets of doom usually end up with egg on their face, and as I've said before, we're almost all conservative at heart in that whatever wild ideas we may entertain, in our daily life we dedicate ourselves to preserving the status quo. Most of us don't rebel, because we fear the devil we don't know. This is clearest in the US where the majority would benefit from rebellion. Trump is trying to capitalize on that fact by telling the have-nots that they have nothing to lose so they should vote for him, but of course things could always be worse, and even the impoverished African-Americans and Latinos would rather not risk their minimal security by betting on a demagogic, plutocratic conman.

      People may dismiss pessimism because they subscribe to a kind of magical thinking: they believe positive thoughts attract better outcomes. So they're pragmatists. There is a natural version of this which makes sense: optimism is socially beneficial in that positive people end up having more friends, and social networks are instrumental if your goal is to succeed in the marketplace. In any case, true philosophy isn't so pragmatic, since the philosopher famously loves knowledge, not success. So pessimists likely have more philosophical and thus antisocial, introverted characters.

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  5. http://www.africanecho.co.uk/africanechonews5-sept29.html

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  6. Great job with this article. You were really inspired. I literally got turned on by it.

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  7. http://takimag.com/article/diagnosing_passover_syndrome_among_white_liberals/print#axzz4HPXrJTkK

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    1. Since I'm talking about a wider phenomenon, covering, as I say in the article, whites in North America and Europe, which includes Canada where I live, the article about "Passover Syndrome" doesn't seem to apply. The Trump phenomenon is American, but I'm not projecting weaknesses in myself onto foreigners. I'm saying that American whites seem to be losing trust in their founding myths. Also, I'm not saying present American whites share the blame for atrocities carried out by their ancestors; instead, I'm saying that knowledge of American history should contribute to deflating anyone's confidence in the American Dream. There's also the present liberalization of American culture (tolerance to homosexuals, drug use, and abortion, etc), which is also causing whites to lose faith in their interpretation of America's founding myths.

      The linked article's thesis, that there's a sort of syndrome involved in liberal whites' pretending to be blameless when they project sins onto foreign whites, is plausible. Unfortunately, I'm not a liberal. And contrary to the article, I think my blog speaks for itself regarding the outsider status of the views I defend. I harshly criticize both conservatives and liberals, both theists and atheists; I reject the psychiatric definition of health as normality and functionality, and I condemn complacency about happiness through consumerism and sex. I defend the unpopular ideas that the enlightened few should practice a postmodern form of asceticism, and that moral standards ought to be reinterpreted as being aesthetic in nature.

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