The Mass Sport of Surviving
Rage and self-loathing are effective motivators, but also a self-immolating path forward. War planning and the prevailing hustle culture ethic of late capitalism share more in common than you'd think.
“Humanity has passed through a long history of one-sidedness and of a social condition that has always contained the potential of destruction, despite its creative achievements in technology. The great project of our time must be to open the other eye: to see all-sidedly and wholly, to heal and transcend the cleavage between humanity and nature that came with early wisdom.” - Murray Bookchin
In the film Pawn Sacrifice, the story of Bobby Fischer’s iconic matches against Boris Spassky are dramatized, and the film ends with Bobby defeating him in one match, to Boris rising to applaud Bobby’s ingenious victory, to Bobby’s stunned silence before he walks off the stage. The life of Bobby Fischer is, however, mostly a lesson in what a constant state of adversarial thinking can to one’s mind; the constancy of an “us vs. them” mentality— the game of chess, itself; Bobby vs. Boris; the U.S. vs. Russia; the plight of the Jewish people in the early-to-mid 20th century U.S.; the list goes on if you’re enumerating the number of things he, amongst so many just like him, mentally tallied his place in each day. That his mental illness manifested the way it had is unsurprising, given so much of this. We see this gamification applied to real life all the time (a chess game which comes to represent geopolitical conflict, for example), and it’s the most pure distillation of this particular socioecological problem.
I’ve previously written about the role of mental illiness in the perception of genius as a value metric (that mental illness loses stigma while productive, but untenable when it manifests, you know, irrationally and no longer of perceived value to the purveyor— Fischer is a good example of this in his relationship to the United States), but we speak less about the role of self-flagellation in productivity, for good or ill. Self-harm doesn’t have to have bad outcomes for it to be harmful; one can be a success, and that success be a byproduct of torturing oneself into feeling adequate. The problem with this being unchecked is that this often projects outwards in some form or another; a former friend of mine once put this as “mania being contagious”, and it makes a certain kind of sense that if you sympathetically are aware of the mental state of those you’re close you, the impulse to develop reflexes to match, at least anecdotally, is natural if you choose to respond in a way that may make sense to them. Part of the problem is, often, not even a bad motivation for wanting to do a thing that is only tantamount to self-sacrifice, rooted in a sense of morality, or an abstract notion of sensing something is right because, well, what it seems to beat back is concretely wrong; reality reinforces this in us.
This piece isn’t about mental illness, specifically, but it is an example of what I do wish to touch on; the idea that self-sacrifice can be, both, not worth it, satisfying, but ultimately self-harmful— the productivity lens introduces a sort of regression into the creative/intellectual lifecycle that seems foreign, thus the system attacks itself, and that being can do a lot, but not for very long, and often the outcomes are lasting, not always good.
In the Kurt Vonnegut novel, Mother Night, Howard W. Campbell, Jr. is a propagandist, and not just any propagandist, but for the Nazis; he is, however, conscripted into a plot to pass the Americans information from a mole in the regime via certain phrasing decisions and inflections in his official broadcasts on the part of the regime. He did not know what, or to whom, he was communicating, but ultimately was tried as a war criminal despite this ultimately being used to aid the Allies in the war against Hitler. The cost to him, if this is true as communicated in his memoirs, was tremendous, but the moral calculus won out, even if we cannot measure the impact of his words taken a face value by the public, relative to their value of American intelligence hearing it in the proper context. He ultimately flees after the war, is recognized by a refugee immigrant family, much to his discomfort (in the film version, this is used to frame the fallout of his power-war life) to discover the mother recognizes him as Campbell from the broadcasts, her son (wishing to move on from that period in his young life) does not and helps him with an injury. Eventually, Campbell is captured, his identity revealed, but his handler, US intelligence officer Frank Wirtanen, has him released— the problem is that, both, the harm he did undercover leaves him irredeemable by those the regime harmed, even if his mission ultimately did, demonstrably, contribute to the alleviation of their trauma at the hands of a violent, genocidal regime. This is, of course, something Campbell realizes, and despite a threat by Wirtanen to testify to his role in the war effort once again by corroborating his story to the Israeli authorities (holding him for his war crime trial), and allows himself to be imprisoned and will consider himself guilty of “crimes against myself”.
The bind here is that Campbell is, both, guilty of the crime of political apathy in a situation where there is a 1:1 mapping of political partisanship and morality, particularly given his status and the nature of the work for the Nazis, and innocent of having been a collaborator of the Nazis only by the technicality that, well, ultimately the propganda he was tasked with spreading was used to actively combat the fallout of said propaganda. The question I’m asking is if whether or not the good can outweigh the bad here, and without the bad, would the good have been necessary at all? To those who recognize him and internalized his words, I’d argue they probably do not think so, and likely neither does Campbell— Alea iacta est, the die has been cast.
This is precisely the sort of moral cognition I am describing; Campbell understands his guilt, he accepts it, but what he cannot forgive or rationalize is the extreme personal cost he took on to do what was, ostensibly, moral, and the productive expectation of the “good guys” in this war (US intelligence/the interest of the US government, rather than the enlisted men on the ground in Europe— very much a matter of debate, something Vonnegut would discuss in depth in other novels and writings) to the detriment of his sense of morality about how he’d accomplish this. The intelligence he gathered and transmitted was, no doubt, of tremendous value, but what of the literal words of the communication? Does he have to believe it, or mean it, for it to be harmful? Certainly not, and that, I suspect, is the equation being solved in framing this novel as an historical memoir Vonnegut surfaced.
We see this, however, not just on the interpersonal level in warfare. During the Cold War, the Cuban Missle Crisis was precipitated by the US installing weaponry in Turkey, adjacent to the Soviet Union, and the response being to do the same in Cuba. We’re much closer today than we were then to a doomsday scenario, however, at the time, this was the brink; ultimately, Khrushchev would back down. It makes a certain kind of sense— Soviet anti-nuclear propaganda was predicated on the perhaps somewhat nihilistic belief that devolution was the only out come. We’d developed tools, which built weapons, and those tools used centuries later to build rockets, which turned into missles, which will only take human evolution to a point of an unrecognizable primitive state in the modern world. I won’t characterize this as a notion of peacefulness, but one that accepts the reality that nuclear build-up only has one outcome once the decision has been make to accumulate these weapons.
For the productivity of a world power’s affirming of its status, the collective self-flagellating required to amass these weapons is another example of the die having been cast; whether or not we ever detonate such a weapon again is not the point, our government, for example, uses them all the time. As Daniel Ellsberg discusses in The Doomsday Machine, most US nuclear strategy, and a particular favorite of President Obama’s which also saw it’s aggressive use under both Bushes and Clinton, is a tactic where merely the threat of detonation of a weapon is the use of it, to enforce a global morality, to ensure the next largest military (US military spending is approximately the size of the next seven largest military budgets in the world) toes the line. And it has worked. But the blowback from this, like many vectors of US global foreign policy, is likely to be dramatically more harmful than the exposure of disarmament against this backdrop could possibly ever be.
“Here, then, is the actual situation that has prevailed for more than half a century. Each side prepares and actually intends to attack the other’s “military nervous system,” command and control, especially its head and brain, the national command headquarters, in the first wave of a general war, however it originates. This has become the only hope of preempting and paralyzing the other’s retaliatory capability in such a way as to avoid total devastation; it is what must above all be deterred by the opponent. But in fact it, too, is thoroughly suicidal unless the other side has failed to delegate authority well below the highest levels. Because each side does in fact delegate, hopes for decapitation are totally unfounded. But for the duration of the Cold War, for fear of frightening their own publics, their allies, and the world, neither side discouraged these hopes in the other by acknowledging its own delegation.” - Daniel Ellsberg in The Doomsday Machine
The productivity required an immense amount of state psychological terror on the respective publics of the principals in this conflict, and in particular, the component proxy conflicts— something which continues to this day, because the outcome of “winning” the Cold War was that, to maintain that stature, we, as a society, must commit to this collectively self-destructive path (one that requires, and has since encouraged, exceptionalism and nationalism to sufficiently mobilize the public in its rhetorical defense) that war is necessary part of “peacekeeping” even if this means starting civil wars, manufacturing pretexts for incursion, and creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of blowback to justify this cycle’s propagation.
The difference from an interpersonal to a geopolitical interpretation of this concept is that an entity can be misguided (by design, or organically lose its way through a number of means), while an individual must usually be programmed on some level to internalize these things; the common ground is that it’s usually the same parties (interested elites) doing the programming in both cases. In the case of Bobby Fischer, this is literally the case; war planners seeking a battlefield wherever they could find one, even between two men more alike than the conflict could possibly ever make true that they were enemies. In the case of Howard Campbell, the enemy was his own apathy, his own amorality leading him believe the false narrative that his propaganda could be used to subvert its true purpose, without understanding there would be human cost.
In both cases, the productivity is the greater good, at extreme personal cost, where an individual becomes expendable, only to realize the greater good, on the other side of the equal sign in this equation, is not other individuals (singularly or aggregately), but collective societal interest— for Campbell, it was that many still died as a result of his rhetoric on the Reich’s constituency, and for Fischer, it was that defeating Spassky did not deescalacte the war. In the end, they were both pawns, not the player, and productivity was weaponized to get them to play. This foreshadows where we see ourselves in 2020; we say we want to care for the working class, but that they shouldn’t receive handouts, despite stagnant wages the cost of living always increases, so to remain solvent, they simply must ““work harder””. This means grinding on sub-poverty wages in larger numbers of hours to make what is effectively less than they could’ve in steady hourly work if we had a robust labor culture; the gaslighting of the working poor is basically the notion that the costs of getting to and from work are on you, the worker, regardless of whether or not it exceeds your earnings, and even when it’s required to do the job, which is increasingly the case in the gig economy. Every day a person works in these conditions is a policy failure masquerading as “work ethic” by telling the poor to work harder, longer, more jobs, etc. when it costs money to simply exist in our economy, but they also are barred from working on their own behalf for better wages or benefits (traditionally, labor unions). It’s the same coerced, self-immolating path from internalizing a creation myth of how a particular type of prosperity is grown in a social ecology that forces those within it to internalize that mythology, in our case, the idea that labor has no meaning, and lack of subsistence is a moral failing, not a systemic one; it creates a path for individuals to end up in harm’s way, with no resource for coming together and correcting course because, well, everyone else is exhausted as well.
“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” writes Vonnegut in Mother Night, but I prefer a more charitable response to this concept, via Murray Bookchin, “The assumption that what currently exists must necessarily exist is the acid that corrodes all visionary thinking.” Many don’t end up sabotaged by this beseechment to endless heights of productivity to their extreme detriment for a greater good (sacrificing oneself, for example, for the economy during a pandemic, with no next step if one gets sick, or recourse for their families); we’re all just conditioned to feel there’s no initiative left to be had, and that is ultimately how the project of this concept, macro and microcosmically applied, has corroded our sensibilites to know/be able to demand better things where no self-preservation is forthcoming.
I think, to understand how these responses scale in magnitude to the cirumstances we apply it to, we need to look no further than Spassky on chess: “chess is a mass sport now and for chess organisers shorter time control is obviously more attractive. But I think that this control does not suit World Championship matches.” Do we accept diminishing returns on the human experience of the vulnerable to suit the goals of expediency for those who demand the efficiency? Do we lose the artistry of existence if the answer to this question is anything but “no”?
Recent things I’ve read, listened to, or watched that I am now recommending: