Perpetuating and Enlarging the Human Spirit
Is reliance on consumerism alienating humans in the first world from their ability to utilize human nature to survive? How do we sharpen the blunted edges of our awareness?
“We are making a new world” (1918), Paul Nash
In Post-Scarcity Anarchism, Murray Bookchin posits, “There are no hierarchies in nature other than those imposed by hierarchical modes of human thought, but rather differences merely in function between and within living things.” We’re a people that rely heavily on signifiers, especially in a present where we’re experiencing more “ecologically dislocation” as Bookchin might put it in this context, to signal societal health; functional (if not robust) infrastructure, or merely the trappings of infrastructure— financial systems, visible cleanliness, etc. This is rather than the instincts of human nature to guide us through recognizing existential threats, so we hedge and hedge (“things are worse in X”, “I don’t have it as bad as Y”) when there are things that are universally dangerous, and they are coming for all of us.
Carl Sagan described the universe as “neither benign nor hostile, merely indifferent”— the dangerous of climate change affect all of us, and the disproportionate nature of this impact is due to humanity, not the nature of that change; marginalized populations mined for their resources for the comfort of the first world, for example, or neglected communities within it, but the risk remains imminent for all. The only difference is when you’ll be left holding the bag when there’s no one left to exploit. This is the predicament described in the beginning of Don DeLillo’s White Noise, for example. A society experiencing the beginnings of an ecological (albeit manmade) disaster— they begin to manifest the fallout before they’re even aware they’re at risk, yet nothing about the unnatural nature of their behavior (or perhaps hyperinstinctual, impulsive behavior) signals to them something is wrong. The protagonist gauges the health of society by his ability to correctly estimate his bank balance at an ATM; the end result of a lot of (brittle) network infrastructures and municipal services. This is the conceit of a highly-consumerist society. “What would our diets look like without consumerism?” Well, we’d eat as we intuit rather than what we’re conditioned to want to eat, while remaining fully cognizant of the difference, with a moralized framework atop it— this is one such question posed by the novel.
My question is this: Does this enhance, or detract from our ability to survive on our own, and intuitively build cooperatively, rather than according to the needs of a system that feeds of lack of fulfillment for its own survival? In post-scarcity, we would simply not participate in such a system, but amidst it? It seems, at best, a risk to be at the mercy of such a paradigm. I talk somewhat about utopia in speculative future fictions like Star Trek as an indictment of that ideal, rather than an endorsement , and it is partially for this reason; a concern that pursuit of utopia satifies those doing the assessing, and not those being assessed, gaslit (in this context, being subjected to state violence) into docility in the face of a massive, unchecked existential threat— it is worse outside of here, you do not have it so bad, etc. The condition this engenders is one where our sense of indignation, perhaps as a function of ideology, overrides our sense that something may be wrong. Consider the example of the pandemic we’re currently experiencing; this is observable phenomenon, but the incubation period is 2 weeks, people can be asymptomatic, transmission is becoming better understood and there are mitigating circumstances, but it is still rampant and the infection rate in many places in the US are still peaking (not having peaked from the first wave of infections). However, the behavior of a subset of the population insists that, since normalcy is possible (albeit not recommended), then normal behavior is appropriate, when the outcome is, in this case, potentially fatal for a run-of-the-mill infection— our fear of this collectively seems to be broken down along ideological lines; you believe it is a risk and worth taking seriously, or you do not because the risk is being overblown, or you are unmoved by plight of others because of juked stats about recovery rates and it hasn’t hit anyone you know, etc. etc. etc.
“But the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.” wrote Carl Sagan. This sentiment, it seems, applies here as well: being a skeptic in light of overwhelming data and minimally intrustive steps to curb the spread of a potentially fatal condition seems irrational, and it is irrational, and equally so is in the insistence that the consideration of public health is not one that applies to you. This bogus iconoclastic ideal of the concept of a mask requirement being an infringement, while the right to not catch a preventable disease, somehow, is not is what I mean when I say we’re consciously, and sometimes militantly so, impulsively reacting to these situations. This is not to say that skepticism is the problem, but knowing when that skepticism should be reasonably satisfied— the ability to persist in a belief beyond its utility, at the cost of one’s health, for example, is an extreme example of this, and one that is, indeed, stranger than the fiction of White Noise, for example, where they, at least, seem unaware of the existential risk they’ve become desensitized to.
The goal is to be inclusive of new information, consider your rubric for evaluating information: does it apply? Is it a useful lens for evaluating if something is credible or not, not merely offensive to your sensibilities as someone having internalized some aspect of the piece in question? We see this kind of distinction all the time in how the public discusses issues of public health, popular science, policy around the same, not just the sort of things we traditionally classify as “dangerous” because they bear signifiers— the biases that inform the public’s positions are usually ideological, politically or religious, regardless. The ideological reaction from a skeptical right-wing about COVID-19, for example, somewhat, explains the backlash towards obvious avenues to curbing the spread, and if you were such a person, I might encourage applying this exercise, and consider that the science can be, of course, politicized, but that public health policy (WHO, for example) should, ideally, be perceived as non-partisan, or as much as any institution of that type can be. Elon Musk selling hospital CPAP machines instead of ventilators is an example of this breakdown, and one that a conservative ideology might argue was sufficient and better than nothing, but absolutely is a bias against one’s survivalist instincts to seek out such a medical facility that received one. However, the desensitization, the alienation from our instincts had engendered a belief in consumerist ideal; would a CEO be allowed to do something dangerous and stupid, and with his full confidence that he was correct when all the evidence suggests otherwise? This is the dystopia, not of the future, but of the present, and we ignore it at our peril, but because of this stunted ability rely on anythign other than signifiers of obvious peril in a society that we’ve been conditioned to receive. “At least you have a hospital! [Even if they are unequipped to help you]” seems like a pretty bleak place to be where the only help that’s coming, amidst a state out to seemingly harm as many people as possible, is ineffectual aid from a self-interested billionaire.
(Last one, I swear) Murray Bookchin said, “Unless we realize that the present market society, structured around the brutally competitive imperative of “grow or die,” is a thoroughly impersonal, self-operating mechanism, we will falsely tend to blame technology as such or population growth as such for environmental problems. We will ignore their root causes, such as trade for profit, industrial expansion, and the identification of “progress” with corporate self-interest. In short, we will tend to focus on the symptoms of a grim social pathology rather than on the pathology itself, and our efforts will be directed toward limited goals whose attainment is more cosmetic than curative.”— we find ourselves neck-deep in this phenomenon, and amidst the effort to maintain the aesthetic of stability, to misdirect from the impending (often, in progress) existential peril, the solutions would seem to be, as Bookchin put it (in reference to historical mutual aid movements in Spain), self-evident and the answer lies in our communities: “The truth, indeed, is out—but the ears to hear it and the minds to learn from it seem to have been atrophied by a cultivated ignorance and a nearly total loss of critical insight.”
Recent things I’ve read, listened to, or watched that I am now recommending: