First, a quiz. What country am I describing: Crumbling infrastructure and manufacturing, low employment and stagnant wages, an expensive and fruitless war in Afghanistan, a bloated and over-extended military, numerous environmental crises, the loss of confidence from allies, an implacable bureaucracy and economic ideology, and an out of touch government, a media that avoids real criticism or dissent from the party line, an anxious population distracted by petty amusements.
Is this country: A) 1988 USSR, B) 2016 USA, C) Both.
There is a running joke in the Road Runner cartoons when Wile E. Coyote, the archetypal ravenous fool, runs off the cliff in pursuit of his prey. Each time, he is at first unaware that he has run out of road and keeps running on air, and doesn’t really fall until he realizes what happened. The mute troublemaker holds a sign: “yikes!” We’re there, folks. Sometimes this mid air moment occurs in slow motion, could take years even. But, you know, gravity. Even Icarus fell.
We’re in this moment in the end times of America, and perhaps much bigger than that. None of the warnings of scholars, historians or sociologists (among them a diverse group such as Gore Vidal, Chalmers Johnson, Chris Hedges, Ronald Wright, John Ralston Saul,, Morris Berman, Noam Chomsky, Slavoj Zizek, John Price, Linh Dinh, Michael C. Ruppert, Sheldon Wolin, Bill McGibbon, Dmitri Orlaf, Derrick Jensen, and David Harvey) have stopped the excesses of American Empire. Our collective imagination has run wild with envisioning large scale calamity with the last twenty years of disaster movies (among them Independence Day, Armageddon, Deep Impact, Transformers, 28 Days Later, World War Z, Day After Tomorrow, 2012, San Andreas, The Walking Dead, The Road, Pacific Rim, Godzilla, and countless others). But when we envisioned collapse in our popular imagination, we usually saw it as a bad fate from without. We did not popularly imagine that doomsday was a force rotting away at us from within empire. Of course, we were basically un-self-aware, uncritical of our own immature Faustian struggle to transcend all problems and obstacles. We told ourselves we could overcome everything.
There has been deep fear and anxiety for years, but we kept on pretending that everything was working, that everything continued in its normative ahistorical being, (as Adam Curtis’s recent film Hypernormalization showed us). We go above and beyond, anxiously trying to convince ourselves of this normalcy, effectively burying our heads in the sand, short-circuited by the collective derangement of mass media and the sybaritic comforts of commodities.
What is remarkable in this new age of anxiety is that in the face of great social and environmental danger, the prevailing ideology, (alternatively called Neoliberalism by liberals, the Free Market by conservatives, and Late Capitalism by Marxists) has effectively silenced all opposition to itself while gutting liberal democratic institutions in favor of radical privatization. To paraphrase Frederic Jameson – it is much easier to imagine global catastrophe coming from outer space than to enact even a minor regulation in the free market.
So that is what we’ve done, we have doubled down on free market fundamentalism because we have for decades been told by the managerial class that there is no other option. So that when society becomes uneasy and queasy, and beset by fear, when wages and social mobility is stagnant, when half of the country lives in or near poverty, or paycheck to paycheck, when communities are torn apart by alcohol, opiates and methamphetamines, or addicted to insipid televisions shows, porn and computer games, when the government responds only to their donor class and not the people, when military imperialism is over-stretched with nearly 800 bases in foreign countries across the world, when consumer protections and banking regulations have been eradicated, when corporate farming has dispossessed the Jeffersonian pastoral ideal of the family farm, when mom and pop shops are replaced by WalMarts, when communities are being destroyed by tough drug laws and mass incarceration, when the surveillance state over-reaches in every phone and computer, when environmental protections become lax and communities are displaced or impoverished by inevitable industrial pollution, when dissent or opposition has been silenced, then the conditions of the creeping demise of America are brewed.
THE ECLIPSE OF REASON
In 2007 I gave a lecture at the Houston Jung Center on the movie Children of Men. One of the interesting questions that came out of that evening was really the essential one of the film – why is it that in a world where humanity can no longer reproduce is the government concerning itself with nationalistic causes and ridding the nation of illegal immigrants? It is not a productive solution to the problem. It is an irrational solution in the midst of the apparent crisis. Max Horkheimer calls this kind of response The Eclipse of Reason. He was critiquing Nazi Germany, but the structure of the problem is the same. While it is true that Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, has produced rational social structures like modern democracy and bureaucracy, as well as the technological miracles in medicine and the rational structures of computer networks, unprecedented access to previously unfathomable amounts of data, this Age of Reason did not simultaneously produce societies that were necessarily wise, or enlightened or self-aware or humanistic. It did not create more mature human beings. As Theodor Adorno put it, “No universal history leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one leading from the slingshot to the megaton bomb.” (1) So we are stuck with just the tools and structure of instrumental reason – computers, bombs, bureaucracy, economies, tools – but morality, humanity, introspective reason, maturity – these remain woefully underdeveloped and irrational. Despite our current society’s technical prowess, we unfortunately remain as barbaric as ever. We’re just more dangerous barbarians with manifold and severe environmental problems and a woefully overpopulated earth. This is why a culture will deport its refugees and immigrants rather than addressing a deeper crisis that it does not know how to handle, or would prefer not facing. This is why democracy is subject to the irrational whims of mass psychology and why democracy has no inherent defense from fascism, which Adorno put succinctly, “is psychoanalysis in reverse.”
The eclipse of reason is how a society, energized precisely by the fear of facing itself, can double down on the precise Faustian delusions that are making it ill all along. This has the pattern of addiction, of which the foolish hope is that the next hit will be the one to simultaneously make you not feel sick, and also be the last one. It is a phenomenon that has a firm grip on us all. Naomi Klein said somewhere that our economy behaves like a crack addict, always rapacious, always expanding, always making excuses for itself. Despite the evident ruination around us, we go further and further into its toxic predatory embrace. Thomas Frank writes:
Let us pause for a moment to ponder this all-American dysfunction. A state is spectacularly ill served by the Reagan-Bush stampede of deregulation, privatization of laissez-faire. It sees its countryside depopulated, its town disintegrate, its cities stagnate –and its wealthy enclaves sparkle, behind their remote-controlled security gates. The state erupts in revolt, making headlines around the world with its bold defiance of convention. But what do its rebels demand? More of the very measures that have brought ruination on them and their neighbors in the first place. (2)
How else to explain the completely irrational bulletproof rise of a phenomena like Trump? As the old adage says, you cannot reason with unreasonable people. This phenomena is a derangement beyond pure rational explanation. We have to think of his rise as part of the Orwellian derangement of our dominant ideology. Here I consider Trump not as a Republican President, but as an imperial representative of the anxieties of the limits of Late Capitalism, the fading neoliberal consensus in a climate where political discourse in general has become impoverished and devoid of reasonable debate within the corporate duopoly. (Both parties are complicit in this game, which is why in three presidential debates climate change – the most catastrophic environmental disaster in human history – was not brought up once!) It is not an accident that this culture elevated the who one who personified the coarsest, crudest, most nakedly pernicious character of capitalism. This choice is not an aberration, as so many who would prefer to comfort themselves by saying so are eager do, but rather exposes to ourselves precisely the barbaric nature of Late Capitalism. Liberals, for their part, are more comfortable criticizing the boorish behavior and the excesses of capitalism expressed as racism and misogyny, but not on the core matter of the man – his capitalism!
The elevation of Trump at its core symbolizes a country that is not yet ready to rid itself of its own delusions, not yet ready to look within, not yet ready to have limits, not yet ready to grow up. Hence, Trump is the perfect candidate for a country that would rather lie to itself. He is the perfect candidate to represent a country that would rather watch tv than read, would rather get ratings than tell the truth, would rather blame others than come clean, would rather build bombs than care for the poor, would rather build walls than mirrors.
THE CRISIS CULT
Are we trapped in a neoliberal cult of illusion? Janja Lalich and Michael Langone are clinical psychologists who identified the follow traits of a cult (3):
1) Zealous commitment to its leader and considers their belief system as Truth,
2) Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or punished,
3) Mind-altering practices (chanting, denunciation sessions) are used to suppress doubt,
4) Leaders dictate how followers should feel,
5) Elitism – the in group claims special, divine, cosmic meaning for itself.
6) Has a tribal us-versus-them mentality
7) The leader is able to escape being held accountable to social norms or authority
8) The group teaches or implies that the ends justify the means, justifying ethical all ethical problems for its own exalted cause.
9) The cult leadership uses feelings of shame or guilt to influence and control members through persuasion and peer pressure
10) Subservience to the cult leader can require members to cut ties with family and friends.
11) The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
12) The group is preoccupied with making money
13) Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group
14) Members socialize only with other group members
15) The most loyal members feel there is no live outside the group, there is no other way, and can punish defectors.
You may see many of these elements of cult behavior in our the psycho dynamics of politics today. These dynamics can be seen rather naked in today’s neofascist right, but if considered again, they are also true of the neoliberal sect, if a less tightly wound. We see Capitalism as Truth and billionaires as virtuous oracles and discourage, even punish all dissent, suppressing doubt with continually reinforced commercials and propaganda for the Truth, leaders and pundits give supporters their talking points and manufacture consent, have elitist stories about American exceptionalism, and “city on the hill” patriotic bluster, has a tribal us-versus-them mentality, have political leaders and bankers who escape justice because they are too big to fail and too big to jail, pardon our nation’s crimes against the environment or against foreign nationals or dragnet surveillance under the banner of cosmic self-importance, shame the discontented as unpatriotic or outside “agitators,” we are driven by the need to expand this system and by making more profit, worship this system as a transpersonal big Other, and imprison dissidents and defectors.
Our recent stage of ideological development to a Crisis Cult, which is an anthropological term denoting a period of frenetic ritual activity where the fading culture indulges in fantasies that things will be restored according to the culture’s archetypes. Among our own culture’s attempt at crisis cult have been in a collection of trends like positive psychology, mesmerism, a cult of optimism and self-determinination (via the likes of Oprah, Amway, Norman Vincent Peele, Tony Robbins, The Secret, and Joel Osteen), the evangelical right which is constantly prophesying the end is night, or as Morris Berman writes in Why America Failed, a cult of hucksterism. Chris Hedges writes:
The rot of our failed democracy vomited up a con artist who was a creation of the mass media—first playing a fictional master of the universe on a reality television show and later a politician as vaudevillian. Trump pulled in advertising dollars and ratings. Truth and reality were irrelevant. Only when he got the nomination did the mass media see their Frankenstein as a threat, but by then it was too late. If there is one vapid group that is hated even more than the liberal class, it is the corporate press. The more it attacked Trump, the better Trump looked.
Trump is emblematic of what anthropologists call “crisis cults.” A society in terminal decline often retreats into magical thinking. Reality is too much to bear. It places its faith in the fantastic and impossible promises of a demagogue or charlatan who promises the return of a lost golden age. The good jobs will come back. The nation will again be prosperous. The decrepit cities will be rebuilt. America will be great again. These promises, impossible to achieve, are no different from those peddled to Native Americans in the 1880s by the self-styled religious prophet Wovoka. He called on followers to carry out five-day dance ceremonies called the Ghost Dance. Native Americans donned shirts they were told protected them from bullets. They were assured that the buffalo herds would return, the dead warriors and chiefs would rise from the earth and the white men would disappear. None of his promises was realized. Many of his followers were gunned down like sheep by the U.S. army.
We face the most profound crisis in human history. Our response is to elect a man to the presidency who does not believe in climate change. Once societies unplug themselves from reality, those who speak truth become pariahs and enemies of the state. They are subject to severe state repression. Those lost in the reverie of the crisis cult applaud the elimination of these Cassandras. The appealing myths of magical thinking are pleasant opiates. But this narcotic, like all narcotics, leads to squalor and death. (4)
All empires fade eventually, all rotting from within by predicable patterns of hubris, over-reach, bloated military, mountains of debt, vast class inequalities, and erosion of public institutions. Historians have been noting these trends in the fading American Empire for years. It is of course, not popular to talk about this, so people channel their anxieties by behaving generally around the subject, and reinvest in the cultural tropes of the past, a highly irrational and highly destructive defense mechanism called a reaction formation.(5) Derrick Jensen writes in a recent essay, “… rather than honestly and effectively addressing the predicament into which not only we ourselves but the world has been pushed, it’s far easier to lie to ourselves and to each other.” (6) So we continue empire as much as we can, as far as we can to stave off the inevitable calamity. Jensen continues:
There’s a difference between the ends of previous empires and the end of the current empire. That difference is global ecological collapse. Empires are always based not only on the exploitation of the poor but on the existence of new frontiers. Any expanding economy–and all empires are by definition expanding economies—need to continue expanding or collapse. America grew because there was always another ridge to cross with another forest to cut on the far side, always another river to dam, another school of fish to find and net. And the forests are gone. The rivers are gone. The fish are gone. The pyramid scheme upon which both civilization and more recently capitalism are based has reached its endgame. (6)
Geographers and deep ecologists have often looked to remote Rapa Nui (Easter Island) as a lesson in what can go wrong. The crisis arose on the island through deforestation of the palm trees. They relied on these trees for food and shelter, yet used them to transport these enormous heads called Moai to the beach, lining them up to face the ocean. While the entire ecosystem was disrupted and the economy, and then the entire culture was sent into a panic, what did they do? They went on a frenzy of religious observance and made more and bigger Moai, having to cut more and more trees, only escalating their crisis further until civil war broke out and then possibly cannibalism. Jared Diamond documented their demise:
As we try to imagine the decline of Easter’s civilization, we ask ourselves, “Why didn’t they look around, realize what they were doing, and stop before it was too late? What were they thinking when they cut down the last palm tree?”
I suspect, though, that the disaster happened not with a bang but with a whimper. After all, there are those hundreds of abandoned statues to consider. The forest the islanders depended on for rollers and rope didn’t simply disappear one day—it vanished slowly, over decades. Perhaps war interrupted the moving teams; perhaps by the time the carvers had finished their work, the last rope snapped. In the meantime, any islander who tried to warn about the dangers of progressive deforestation would have been overridden by vested interests of carvers, bureaucrats, and chiefs, whose jobs depended on continued deforestation. Our Pacific Northwest loggers are only the latest in a long line of loggers to cry, “Jobs over trees!” The changes in forest cover from year to year would have been hard to detect: yes, this year we cleared those woods over there, but trees are starting to grow back again on this abandoned garden site here. Only older people, recollecting their childhoods decades earlier, could have recognized a difference. Their children could no more have comprehended their parents’ tales than my eight-year-old sons today can comprehend my wife’s and my tales of what Los Angeles was like 30 years ago.
Gradually trees became fewer, smaller, and less important. By the time the last fruit-bearing adult palm tree was cut, palms had long since ceased to be of economic significance. That left only smaller and smaller palm saplings to clear each year, along with other bushes and treelets. No one would have noticed the felling of the last small palm.
By now the meaning of Easter Island for us should be chillingly obvious. Easter Island is Earth writ small. Today, again, a rising population confronts shrinking resources. We too have no emigration valve, because all human societies are linked by international transport, and we can no more escape into space than the Easter Islanders could flee into the ocean. If we continue to follow our present course, we shall have exhausted the world’s major fisheries, tropical rain forests, fossil fuels, and much of our soil by the time my sons reach my current age.
Every day newspapers report details of famished countries— Afghanistan, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, Zaire—where soldiers have appropriated the wealth or where central government is yielding to local gangs of thugs. With the risk of nuclear war receding, the threat of our ending with a bang no longer has a chance of galvanizing us to halt our course. Our risk now is of winding down, slowly, in a whimper. Corrective action is blocked by vested interests, by well-intentioned political and business leaders, and by their electorates, all of whom are perfectly correct in not noticing big changes from year to year. Instead, each year there are just somewhat more people, and somewhat fewer resources, on Earth.
It would be easy to close our eyes or to give up in despair. If mere thousands of Easter Islanders with only stone tools and their own muscle power sufficed to destroy their society, how can billions of people with metal tools and machine power fail to do worse? But there is one crucial difference. The Easter Islanders had no books and no histories of other doomed societies. Unlike the Easter Islanders, we have histories of the past—information that can save us. My main hope for my sons’ generation is that we may now choose to learn from the fates of societies like Easter’s. (8)
Diamond wrote that in 1995. I’ve elsewhere criticized Diamond on a fundamental flaw in his work – he writes with this kind of geographic determinism. That is to say, he thinks that whole cultures are the result of a people’s opportunity to gather resources (as in his famous book Guns, Germs and Steel). This is a kind of flat, mechanistic, yet a very rational view of society and humanity. If only it were true, we could take past warnings, like he assiduously documents in his book Collapse, seriously. I think people are adverse to evidence, however. We are much more susceptible to stories, most of the time surrounding ourselves in symbolic exchanges that have nothing to do with reality, or in fact, are created precisely to ignore, or perceptually transcend reality.
What we are fundamentally suffering with is fundamentally a reality problem. It signifies that our cultural consciousness is really reluctant to grow up, reluctant to be aware or take responsibility (6). This is highly apparent when we consider our treatment of the ecosystem. We believe that we can pollute the earth or kill off half of its species without any consequences. We expect that we can take these massive stores of carbon in the ground, the remnant of a prior extinction, burn it off into the sky, and yet not expect extinction level consequences. Humans have long ago killed off most of the megafauna – the moa, the great auk, the mammoths and mastodons, and so on. Our over-populated species is having such an enormous impact on climate and in the landbase itself that even geologists are calling this now the Anthropocene, the geological age of humanity. Elizabeth Kolbert’s best seller calls it The Sixth Extinction, and its already been going on for the last few thousand years. Yet the consequences of this anthropocentric world are entirely censored from our consciousness altogether.
Our current post-truth moment is not necessarily an aberration. It isn’t a break from the norm of our culture, but a particular period, a manifestation of a culture that is reaching an inflection point, a terminus. In our inability to phantom curtailing this ecocidal culture, we, like the islanders of Rapa Nui, double down on imbibing the precise conditions that have led to our current decay as a nation, a culture, and a civilization.
The Easter Islanders, for centuries having no known historical connection with other lands or their Polynesian ancestors, thought of themselves as the only people in the world. They thought they were alone. We too think we are alone among all the planets and stars. We don’t put stone heads in the sky to look outward to the mysterious unknown, but we do shine lights out, lights that can’t be seen by anyone.
We live in a culture shielded from reality. James Baldwin’s critique of America as one with primarily a “reality problem,” not a “race problem” as some would have expected him to say, rooted in a basic persistent immaturity in its character. (see here) People grow old, but girded in immature, unreflected narcissistic adolescence. This unreality, exposed in the shadow of the empire in its relations to race, gender, and the ecosystem, is clothed in half delusions that we are the vanguards of civilization, a phenomena which John Muir called “Lord Man” – blessed as God’s viceroy on Earth, somehow conveying a sanctimonious symbolic order able to transcend death itself. Morris Berman writes, “As a California migrant worker once remarked to his family, on a return visit south of the border over the Christmas holiday, ‘the gringos don’t like to be reminded that they’re corpses.'” (8) They would prefer to live immaculately, beds made, lawns cut and street lights on. Henry James called America a “hotel civilization,” to which Cornel West offered this rejoinder: it is a “death-denying civilization,” warning against our culture’s inability to confront reality, to instead retreat and regress. “A hotel civilization is a civilization in which people are obsessed with comfort, contentment and convenience, where the lights are always on. [We] don’t have time for questions. We don’t have time for such interrogations.” (9) There is a distinct aversion to avoid reality, avoid dread, avoid introspection. As a campaign spokesperson for George H.W. Bush famously rebuked an interrogating reporter, “Real men don’t get on the couch.” (10)
What we need now as ever is to grow up. Of course Jared Diamond is correct in his well-intentioned cool reason. There are lessons to be had. But as a psychologist, we must first have a psychosomatic transformation of the spirit. We have to have critical distance from the would be ideologies which would seek to reassert themselves and again march the earth. We must have a great critical unraveling of these ecocidal myths which have clothed and given succor to the roots of our rootlessness. Maturity involves rigorous self-examination. It means overcoming the Ernest Becker death-denying anxiety, to endure the Socratic questioning of our mortality. To endure the process of self knowledge. Involved in this is the development of healthy boundaries, the recognition of limits, taking responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions, and knowing what we leave behind. , It also involves developing awareness of and sophisicated affiliations with otherness. Maturity also involves being able to adapt, and have an interest for the communal or public good, and the health of the landbase.
The crisis cult now being lived out is the naked, excessive form. It’s pied piper, a wildly malignant narcissist whose own strength is derived in proportion to his ability to endure beyond truth, reason or dignity, is the leading figure in our cultural reaction formation, a last gasp of a broken system. At the same time, if we have the courage to revolt, this dark episode of history is an opportunity to confront the dominant ideology in personified form in a historically epic struggle. At stake is finding the will to shed ourselves of this failing system and discover a new robust vitality with which nourish our souls in the firmament of a new rooted cultural mythology born in reality.
(1) Adorno, Theodor. Negative Dialectics, 98.
(2) Frank, Thomas. What’s the Matter with Kansas?, 76.
(3) Lalich, Janja and Tobias, Madeleine. Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationship. (Berkeley: Bay Tree Publishing, 2006)
(4) Hedges, Chris “It’s Worse Than You Think” Truthdig. Posted on Nov 11, 2016.
(5) After nearly forty years of the neoliberal experiment, we can see the evidence of its failing clearly – it has restored the plutocratic class while performing austerity on the masses. It was just reported that the eight wealthiest people on the planet have as much wealth as the bottom half of the world combined, some 3.6 billion people. Neoliberalism is, as economist Paul Mason put it succinctly, an austerity machine, which progressively guts the public and the commons, juggling capitalism’s instabilities and crises from one sector to another, using what Naomi Klein called the Shock Doctrine of always having to liquidate the public sector to enforce free market reforms, which lined the pockets of the plutocratic class. Elites would tell us that this economic strategy was somehow synonymous with divinity, and they collectively worshiped its mystified “invisible hand.” And the more unstable the invisible hand, the more it needed tending to, like Hindi worshipers bathing their idols with yogurt. (The fact that the night shade of global capitalism was actually being supported by China’s bailout of America with their 1.2 trillion dollars in treasury bonds was conveniently left out of this worship. So was the fact that the enormous military industrial complex, which is somewhere between a third to a half of the fiscal budget of the United States is basically Keynesian in structure). Yet at the same time, the bipartisan neoliberal consensus of the corporate duopoly maintains an energy policy and a tax policy that benefits the plutocratic managerial class. The fact that there is no evidence to support the claims of Reagan’s beloved Laffer Curve, the mystifications of the market and the hopes that it would provide, like a god, did nothing to deter us. Instead, we doubled down on these delusions, gave the wealthy even greater tax cuts, and everyone else was led to believe that they needed to tighten their belts. David Harvey notes in his Seventeen Contradictions of Capitial, that this disparity in wealth, along with the escalating ecological crisis, puts the future of capitalism on critical precarious ground.
(6) Jensen, Derrick. “One does not hate when one can despise.” Seven Stories Press Blog. Dec. 20, 2016 here
* see my review of Nature and Madness
(7) Diamond, Jared.“Easter Island’s End.” Discover. August 1995.
(8) Berman, Morris. Dark Ages America, the Final Phase of Empire. 89-90.
(9) quoted in Silver, Mandy. “Cornel West delivers inspiring lecture” Washington University. Feb. 3, 2006.
(10) quoted in Ducat, Stephen. The Wimp Factor: Gender Gaps, Holy Wars and the Politics of Anxious Masculinity. Beacon Press, Boston. 2004.