Tag Archives: Pessimism

The End

To all of the friends, colleagues, clients, allies, and definitely including online friends, thank you.

I won’t manage to write personally to all the many people who have touched my life in some positive way, but I appreciate each of you.

I perceived an end approaching, for me, more than six years ago. At no point since then can I recall really thinking “things are turning out better than I dreaded; I’m going to forget the entire idea of getting out.”

Many of you have only met me within this time period. Looking back, up until late 2019 I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. Even amid stressful ups and downs, we had some times. The two and a half years since have still included some interest, certainly. But an extended negative trend within the ups and downs is undeniable now.

I have concluded that a lot of things were effectively beyond rescue—a lot of rescue efforts hopelessly ineffective and yet themselves firmly stuck within established concepts and forms and actions—years ago. Some day, the old culture may simply no longer be able to sustain itself. Perhaps a genuinely meaningful rebuilding will follow that. But I expect a long period of ruin and loss and futility between now and then.

I can’t keep doing this. My interest has left me, my heart is broken, and not all hurts can be healed.

I have spent years exploring this, testing out perspectives and alternatives and assertions of possibility. Of my conclusions I have written at length, elsewhere. But I have lived and had a good life, and now the good part seems to be past. I have decided to go.

I would like to be wrong. For my outlook to prove too pessimistic, too soon. I would like there to be a brighter future in which all of you will be safe and well. I wish with all my heart that this will be so. And I wish, in such event, you will think of me with a little kindness, a little forgiveness, if you have it in you.

Fare well.

Regression

I grew up in a culture and era of “progress” as a near certainty, for both technological and social progress.

That certainty was always, to a great extent, naive and myopic. The evidence for greater skepticism was always there. But the 21st century has hammered this home.

One big example, which I have expressed before, is that in the 19th century America had the cultural technology to close down and replace a major political party; at some point since then we seem to have lost that technology.

Lately I keep thinking, as American government largely acts powerless to address large supply constraints challenging our economy, that this is another cultural retrogression. Recall the major wars of the 20th century, and how American leadership wrung its hands and frowned about price increases, but remarked solemnly that “the economy was running too hot” and it was simply up to the Federal Reserve to slow it down and lower demand? Hopefully the answer is no, because that is not what happened.

Much can be said about the difference, of course, including the fact that America does not have a remotely functional political system now. That’s a kind of retrogression, itself, but it’s even broader than that, in this learned helplessness toward economic challenges which this culture actively addressed, effectively, not that many generations ago.

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January 6 Committee Hearing

The January 6 Committee offers a vision to America:

America belongs to Republicans, but they ought (which is not to say that they must) govern according to orderly processes.

Reading between the lines of how independent observers summarized and commented on the Committee’s first prime time hearing, this is the prevailing conceptual framework whether or not most people realize it.

America is ailing badly from a rotten, toxic system. (Either extreme inequality, mass shootings, an appalling COVID response etc., etc., have been adequate to establish that context, or else just never mind any of this.) The January 6 Committee is, above all, a reaction to Donald Trump’s guidance for Republicans, to exploit people by encouraging the rottenness.

Rep. Liz Cheney calls on her party to reject Trump’s guidance, and instead exploit people by preserving the system. It’s an entirely logical entreaty: The system advantages Republicans, and Democrats are willing to help uphold it nonetheless. Even now, the system is furthering Republican policy, and it was and remains irrational for Republicans to risk that simply to prevent a non-Republican from getting Air Force One for a few years. Cheney and her colleagues ask Republicans to wise up, embrace the system and strategic victory, and accept relatively trivial tactical reverses.

Nowhere in any of this is reform, or liberalism, or even democracy. The narrative being generated by the Committee uses that last word a lot, certainly, but the word is very firmly betrayed by the story being told around it.

(I wrote a short version of this analysis a couple of days ago.)

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Charlatans, delay, and normalization

On this day five years ago, Donald Trump wailed “Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I’m fucked.” Obviously it did not work out that way.

I have remarked already that America basically normalized the Trump presidency. I think a lot lately about how “hypernormalization” is a defining feature of the culture, at this point; I don’t know how one can process contemporary America and not lose one’s mind, without understanding that “crisis” or “breaking point” aren’t really meaningful concepts.

In retrospect, the “Refuse Fascism” people were probably correct with their “Can’t Wait” for elections warning, if for the wrong reason. The big problem wasn’t what Trump would do in two more years or in three more months or in five minutes. The big problem was that the “wait patiently for the next scheduled election” approach meant that any and everything Trump did was thereby made part of “normal politics.” Imagine, again, if Ukraine had done that in response to a Putin crime capo being head of state. Fortunately, Ukraine didn’t. Unfortunately, we did.

Even more unfortunately, Americans were giving charlatans power over us well before Trump came along. Choosing a point when that began is an arbitrary selection, to some extent; some mild element of fraud at minimum is probably always present in political power.

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Walking back through political interpretation

I make and take a lot of notes. Even before the more or less daily news chronicle which I began in 2017, I have collected and organized political, economic and other notes throughout my adult life.

Lately I’m doing some spring cleaning, and in the process, this weekend I revisited two or three small, ad hoc collections of notes. They are interesting, especially cumulatively as a walk back through 10 years of struggling to make sense of political dysfunction.

A virtual folder on my Mac, which began as a catchall for interesting texts which I wanted to save and meant to file eventually, has turned into a cross section of 2011-20 political perspectives. Some just seems quaint. Remember when the “war on terror” or “free trade debates” were national preoccupations? One is a rant from February 2017, responding specifically to local affairs and posted on a local message board, but which rails against complicit unwillingness to say that a lie is a lie; a general relevance existed at a time but has grown since, I think.

Three or four excerpts from Vox articles published after the 2014 election seem, now, like the beginning of the conclusions I eventually arrived at in my recent book Nemesis.

  • …the Democrats hadn’t actually discovered dark arts of GOTV that allowed them to survive a GOP year. The polls were wrong — but they were wrong because they undercounted Republican support. As often happens, Democrats fooled themselves after the 2012 election into believing they had unlocked some enduring political advantage. They learned otherwise. (source)
  • If the economy drives whether people vote to re-elect the president, and presidential approval drives midterm voting, then surely the economy should should drive midterm voting through the mechanism of presidential approval, right? (source)
  • The last five elections, taken together, wreck almost every clean story you might try to wrap around them. They show an electorate that veers hard and quickly between left and right and back again — shredding any efforts one might make to draw deep ideological conclusions from a single campaign. They show that Democrats can, in the right circumstances, win midterm elections. They show that incumbents can win presidential campaigns. They show an electorate that seems to be searching for something it cannot find. (source)

One sentence, from the same period, is so exact: “American politics is descending into a meaningless, demographically driven seesaw.”

It’s humbling that it took me seven more years to process this even into what I hope is some kind of useful model for making sense of things.

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Why wasn’t Jan. 6 more disruptive

I highlighted this recent thread from Kamil Galeev because it’s insightful, thoughtful, and thought-provoking. One paragraph in particular has been on my mind as a big contrast with the US:

As a general rule, a large organisation suffering from the problem of attribution can start rewarding high and extremely high performance only if the organisation feels an immediate existential threat. Which happened in Ukraine after 2014. Fear changed the system of incentives…

I’ve seen Ukrainians say, quite plainly, that Russia has been waging war on their country for eight years. To review, for my own sake, Ukraine drove the corrupt Putin stooge, Yanukovych, out of the country. Putin then launched some Civilization shit in Crimea, combining Russian troops, a Russian-supported local insurrection, and a staged referendum for annexation. (Much the same program which Russia expected, based on this experience, that they could repeat with much more of Ukraine this year.)

To be absolutely honest, that’s a big deal. I presume it’s at least on the order of e.g. a dodgy Mexican annexation of Arizona, if we imagined Mexico as the seemingly stronger military power and the US kind of stuck for any immediate options to retaliate. Nothing remotely like that has happened to the US in ages, if ever.

But then, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were not at all like a hostile foreign power annexing an entire state. Despite that—and despite my own belief then and now that they should have been treated more like a crime than like an existential threat—they produced plenty of panic and change.

So it seems like a violent insurrection invading the nation’s Capitol itself, at the prompting of a defeated president and his political allies, could qualify to change the usual approach of the same people doing the same things. It really did not in this case, at all.

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This is America now

My attempted political book Nemesis (to be shared soon) has multiple themes, but a big one might be summarized as “This is America, now.”

This is not a phase, a spell, an anomaly, or a fight with some thing which can be decisively won by the America of inclusive democracy and other liberal ideals.

It’s pure hallucinatory delusion to maintain, at this point, that “in November of 2020 … We saw a light at the end of the tunnel. Well, the light is still a little further off”* but we will get there.

We are not “passing through a tunnel” or any other metaphor for temporary deviation from a safe normal which we can get back to.

This is America.

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Rebuilding

Brooke Binkowski seems to Get It, including the fact that “This bullshit is not cutting it.” Her suggestions include:

  • we need to truly ask ourselves what we want from our country and our leadership and especially our media.
  • we need a new Constitution and a new flag and new borders
  • big social sites need to be recognized as their own forms of nation-states
  • We need more responsive local leaders and better funded newsrooms, and everyone needs to understand the power of weaponized narratives. None of this is “just happening”
  • I advocate for unionization, mutual aid, and other expressions of solidarity, because that’s what we need the most at this time and that is what we are lacking

I don’t know that a meaningful “perfect complete program of reform” exists, but the above is a much better start than the bullshit from the obsolete liberalism which just will not respond to a challenge which demands different tools.

The pretense of functioning, legitimate authority in America is really just ridiculous at this point. I could go into some recent events but, really, it’s just playing-out of what various people have seen in motion for years. From Eric Sandy writing that “the brakes are cut,” to my own scribbled note that “the crash is going to accelerate” (along with plenty of other writing to that effect) to the random person up the street who put “it will get much worse” in the apartment window in autumn 2020 to plenty of others… 

Yet the band plays on. Parts continue grinding away within the broken machine.

The concept of a reverse “first they ignore you” seems increasingly relevant: First people respect and feel part of the system, then people bump up against unworkable features of the system, then people laugh at its continued pretense of authority, then people just ignore it.

Theory of the Case

Like a lot that I post here, certainly of a political nature, this is a visit to familiar territory. I have often mentioned Carl Sagan’s quote about being “captured by the bamboozle.” (In fact I am bemused to discover that currently, at least on Ecosia, one of my posts is the third result when searching the term.)

I have also touched on the idea that’s on my mind, today, but perhaps it deserves a feature of its own:

It seems entirely possible that things can become so bad, that existing systems can be so unworkable, that an accurate assessment will sound like defeatism. Keeping things hypothetical for a moment, imagine a situation like that, and people simply rejecting the reality of it, because describing it absolutely does sound like defeatism. That seems functionally indistinct from the situation Sagan described: “we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. … The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken.”

Now obviously, I don’t really think this is hypothetical. I concluded back in 2020 that hopes for a healed democratic America were already unrealistic.

But what is the theory of the case, for those who still reject that assessment?

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What if Ukraine submitted

I think there’s important value in thinking about an alternate scenario in which Ukraine simply conceded everything which Putin’s Russia demands.

In a sense this is farfetched. Ukraine has proved very united in fighting for its independence.

But I think the question is still important as a hypothetical. We didn’t know, beforehand, that would be the case. Many other governments were counting on Ukraine folding, in fact, maybe not willingly but folding nonetheless; had that happened, it’s fair to say that most would have accepted it as fait accompli without concern over Ukraine’s opinion. Plenty of governments still, even now, advocate Ukraine simply conceding (and their ranks may grow further).

More generally, why should it seem farfetched for Ukrainians to submit to an autocrat’s demands that they accept life without democracy, independence, rights, etc.—when so many people do so?

As far as I can tell, the main thing which makes voluntary submission by Ukraine seem unreasonable, to most center-left political opinion, is its separation from Russia by an international border. That border’s current streak of existence is just over 30 years; Russia (backed up by many other governments) now deny that said border is valid; ultimately, these are abstract things which we make up.

Is that the traditional liberal order’s only “firm” determiner for whether your claim to rights is valid, or whether you are obliged to submit when an authority figure says so? I have a strong, very uncomfortable feeling that it is.

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