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Fear of A Doomed Planet

May 5, 2011

This graph from The New York Times shows American pessimism at a recorded high, but what exactly are we afraid of? For the first time in the history of this poll questions, the majority thinks living conditions in this country are getting worse, but what’s surprising here to me is the “first” part. If September 11 shattered the “end of history” hypothesis in which the major conflicts between liberal capitalist democracy and anything else have already ended, then why wasn’t the drop then? That day was supposed to have dispelled the illusion of American invulnerability, making abundantly clear that there would be no “happily ever after” for neoliberalism. So why did our optimism peak only months after the attack? Even if you were to attribute it to a sense of national solidarity in the face of foreign terrorism, why didn’t the crash come until after the financial crisis? That is, what did 2008 tell us that 2001 did not?

I just got home from the first of Mark Fisher’s two talks at NYU (will try and make the second as well), and the inability to think the future is on my mind at the moment. Fisher’s thesis, expressed well in his short book Capitalist Realism, is that anything beyond liberal capitalist democracy has become unthinkable. Now resistance to the status quo is coopted before it’s thought, “not the incorporation of materials that previously seemed to possess subversive potentials, but instead, their precorporation: the pre-emptive formatting and shaping of desires, aspirations and hopes by capitalist culture.” Post-modern detachment is the bargain we strike with this process: don’t get earnestly attached to anything and you won’t be hurt by its cooptation. At the same time, the way things are seems unsustainable. Unless you’re in denial about climate change, you believe that we’re pretty much on a collision course with ecological doom. An economy based on bubbles of overproduction and the steady elimination of the middle class seems like it would have an inevitable ending point. We find ourselves stuck between the inability to believe in the recent past’s ability to reproduce itself and the equal inability to imagine anything replacing it. This is a perpetual present, a constant prelude to an event that never occurs.

While September 11 points to the possibility of collapse, to the beginning of the end for American global dominance, the financial crisis suggests its opposite: What if it didn’t collapse? What if it just kept going? In the wake of the crisis, a walking-dead free-market ideology still looked more plausible than any alternative. Nationalizing the banks turned out to be more unthinkable than taxpayers bailing them out. A harsh and enduring rise in unemployment is more realistic than a social or policy shift that would result in anything different. In this light, the fear of catastrophe from the right or the left should be read as aspirational, with terror as the only way to express desire that can’t be sold. Millenarians and catastrophists are optimists disguised as pessimists; you can see the hopeful glee in Glenn Beck’s eyes when he speaks of “the coming insurrection,” an occurrence he has sworn to prevent. American politicians toy dramatically with apocalypse, a government shutdown or a reached debt ceiling threatens the end but is always narrowly averted.

This wishful thinking wards off the sinking feeling of doom, not the fear of something happening, but the knowledge that nothing will. For doom is not felt but known. It is what the characters in Sartre’s No Exit feel when they realize that they aren’t waiting to go to Hell, they’re already there. It’s George Orwell when he says “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.” It’s 54 percent of Americans thinking – knowing - their children will live more miserably than they do.

(Update: Rob Horning writes about his thoughts on the talk here)

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