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Extinction Age Capitalism, How It Defines This Age, How We’re All Working For It Now, And Why You Shouldn’t Read This Post

Extinction Age Capitalism, How It Defines This Age, How We’re All Working For It Now, And Why You Shouldn’t Read This Post

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the issues that matter most.

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  1. Trump’s increasingly charged criminal trial (WaPo)
  2. Risk of bird flu spreading to humans is ‘enormous concern’, says WHO (The Guardian)
  3. Nearly half of China’s major cities are sinking — some ‘rapidly’ (Nature)
  4. E.V. Sales Are Slowing. Tesla’s Are Slumping. (NYT)
  5. Lethal heat in West Africa is driven by human-caused climate change (NPR)
  6. U.S. blocks full U.N. membership for Palestinians (LA Times)

The Feeling of a World Going Haywire

I wonder if, like me, you read the headlines and just…despair. Here’s a smattering that we’ll cover in the coming days. Prospective jurors in the Trump trial dismissed, intimidated, afraid of being outed, and then harassed, or brutalized, for life. Climate change—the latest research shows it’s going to make us at least 20% poorer, individually, fast. That’s on top of today’s global “cost of living” crisis. Crisis after crisis.

It’s hard, maybe, not to take all that a little personally. What do I mean? I’m sure you’ve looked around and wondered: why is it that terrible people are doing so well? In an age like this, do only terrible people do well? And…do I have to be one?

By the way, the title’s not clickbait. I’ll come back to why I mean it.

How Polycrisis and Permacrisis are Changing Us

We often speak in grand, abstract terms, you and I. About how this is an age of polycrisis and permacrisis. Less often, though, we speak about how it’s…changing us. As people, as human beings, and thus, as societies, or even, in that way, from the bottom up, person by person, as a civilization.

But those changes are all around us, sort of the elephant in the room, or the house on fire, if you like. 

How is this age changing us? How isn’t it, might be the better question. Here are a few deep ways that people are being affected.

  • Young people show the classic signs of trauma, only stretching across generations, and around the world. They feel “numb,” “completely overwhelmed,” and “unable to function.”
  • People are giving up trust in mainstream institutions, from political parties, to newspapers, to leaders. And so, of course, “alt”-institutions and figures are emerging, and growing incredibly powerful, from fanatical political parties to leaders and so on—the leader of Germany’s “Alternative for Deutschland,” for example, just went on trial for using…Nazi slogans.
  • People are finding less and less meaning and purpose in their lives, as the horizons of fulfillment shrink, and life becomes a sort of bitter, brutal struggle. For many, it’s just for survival—not just in poor countries, but among the former working and middle classes even in rich countries—but it’s also about respect, esteem, a place in society, a sense of being valued.
  • Negative sentiments are exploding off the charts, anxiety, fear, and despair skyrocketing, over the last few decades. 
  • Social bonds are rupturing, and as a result societies are increasingly at each others’ throats, divided into various forms of “us” and “them,” whether it’s the last few believers in liberalism versus the growing numbers of conspiracy nuts, or rich and poor, or religious vs secular, and so forth.
  • Inequality and social media are making people miserable, and those effects sort of multiply one another. So on social media, there’s a kind of search for a perfect shiny life, as its portrayed by influencers, and people thus, more desperate than any point in modern times, copy, jump on the bandwagon, ape, slave away…

What’s the thread that unites all these changes?

The Emotional Labour of Extinction Age Capitalism

Whew. There’s a mouthful for you. It’s the kind of phrase that I don’t even like to write anymore, because it gets me painted as some kind of radical. Hey, I’m just a guy who loves fashion, disco, and art. But I also see the changes happening to people in an age of…

The threads above are forms of emotional labour. You know that phrase, I’m sure. It just means feeling-work, in a way. The point though is both the feelings and the work

What’s happening to us as a civilization? As individuals? As societies? As families? We’re doing the emotional labour of extinction age capitalism. And it’s sort of wrecking us, slowly at first, and now, faster and faster.

Let me explain what I mean by that.

Here we have a system that’s failed in the most colossal terms there are. What we want from economies, models of prosperity, is…just that. What we don’t want is…all this…from a planet on fire, to widespread decline, to stagnation, to the majority of people in the world getting poorer. 

That is a failed system, and at this point, it’s hardly controversial of me to point it out—to anyone under the age of 40, the word “capitalism” is something between a joke and a four-letter exclamation of scorn, unless you’re a college Republican, I guess.

But as systems fail…who picks up the pieces? 

Think of how “careers” work now. For a while there, they were stable things, with upwards trajectories. But now, even for the most highly skilled professionals in society—you can be laid off at a moment’s notice, and then…what? That high-paying job is gone, and you spend months, maybe a year, maybe three, looking for another one. Meanwhile, you do side-hustles to pay the bills, and try to…

Keep it together. Try not to go nuts, give into the despair, the feelings of worthlessness, the anger at being discarded like this, just because some schmuck with the title “CEO” couldn’t see the obvious coming, or bet on something foolhardy yet again, and now you’re paying the price.

You’re doing the emotional labour of extinction age capitalism.

Let’s think about climate change now. Eco-anxiety, climate doom, ecological despair—all these new syndromes we don’t really have a good name for yet are skyrocketing, probably endemic amongst young people. 

What’s going on there? Much the same. There’s a system which wrecked the planet, and a class of people, it has to be said, who benefited handsomely from it, too. It’s not paying any price, that system—in fact, it’s profits are higher than ever. The people in the managerial class are making out like bandits, year after year, and their bonuses aren’t exactly being clawed back to save the planet.

The burden of all this despair and grief falls therefore on the shoulders least able to bear it. Young people, who have few to no resources, and more to the point, few to no adult experiences—yet there they are, forced to grieve for a planet. The elderly, who understand we should have done better, and yet have to live with their own frailty and regrets—now this, the despair of watching a planet burn, falls on them, too. 

I could go on, but perhaps you get my point a little bit.

What we’re all "dealing with”—what’s consuming us, like a megafire—is the emotional labour of extinction age capitalism.

Forms of Emotional Labour at the End of Modernity

Let me sharpen that, a little bit, by giving you a brief taxonomy of it.

  • Grief for a dying planet.
  • Anger at being discarded and abused by a system which never pays a price.
  • Despair at widespread degeneration and decline, to the point that the majority of people in the world are getting poorer, and even if you don’t sort of sympathize with them, or understand yourself as in that class, you feel that horror anyways, personally.
  • Horror at the brutal conflicts which are erupting, as the system breaks down, from Gaza to Ukraine and beyond, old hatreds resurfacing, the rule of law a distant memory.
  • The feeling of worthlessness at understanding that generations now face a downward trajectory.
  • The sense of futility that comes from being an individual in the face of omnipresent mega-crisis, which you can do little to nothing to really change.
  • The raw desperation of watching the horizons of meaning and purpose shrink, and a fulfilling life, no matter what you do, seems to be that much further away.

All those are forms of emotional labour in the age of extinction capitalism.

They’re ways we’re doing the work of…picking up the pieces…of a system that’s shattering around us, and producing everything from stagnation to war to ecological implosion to worldwide decline. 

But while it’s noble, good, and above all, necessary, we shouldn’t be doing all that work. Not alone, anyways. That work should be being done by the system, not by us. When we’re forced to do that work, it begins to wreck us, because we’re already working for the system, which is a thankless task, with diminishing returns to begin with.

What Extinction Age Capitalism Is (and Isn’t)

Now we can sharpen our analysis a little bit. What’s really going on here? What do I even mean by “extinction age capitalism”?

Sadly, I mean it in a number of ways.

  • The extinction of the planet as we know it, not in a Hollywood movie kind of way, but the true one, in which boundary conditions of geological ages are triggered, and we live in a very, very different world, much of which isn’t habitable at all.
  • The extinction of democracy, which is currently at just 20% of the world, and imploding at 10% a decade, which gives us just two decades of democracy left, if current trends hold.
  • The extinction of happiness, meaning, and purpose, as life grows more brutal, bleak, selfish, and stupid, the battle for subsistence and survival taking primacy over contributing, valuing, sharing, holding, knowing, giving.
  • The extinction of a social surplus, which is what’s happening as the ultra mega wealthy skim off all the “growth,” and convert it into hidden offshore bank accounts and what have you, leaving little to nothing left over for societies to invest, collectively, in their shared futures—consider how we’re going to see the world’s first trillionaires this decade, yet can’t even raise a few hundred billion as a world to seriously fight climate change. Pretty startling when you think about it.
  • In the end, the extinction of modernity and civilization, in the true senses of the words, cooperation, peace, justice, truth, equality—and instead, a kind of techno-authoritarian dystopia of inequality, a panopticon of big lies, perpetual conflict, and the resurgence of fascism rising.

So: that mouthful of a phrase, “extinction age capitalism,” means many things. It doesn’t mean sort of The Purge meets 2012, a blockbuster movie script. Rather, it means that the things that we value, sane and sensible people, appear to be dying, and that’s because they are, and that, further, is because we have reached the point where the system is killing them off, one by one, whether democracy, the planet, our societies, peace, or the idea of a shared surplus.

All of that leaves us doing our best to pick up the pieces—on the days, or in the moments, where we’re not sort of overwhelmed with the despair and injustice and folly of it all. And if you think I exaggerate, remember that the majority of young people say they “can’t function anymore”—this plight we’re in is very real, only it’s sort of a social norm, thanks to quite a feckless media and intelligentsia who wants to go on pretending “everything’s fine!”…to grin a weird rictus smile, sweat bullets, and try to ignore it.

But that too, ironically, is a form of emotional labour in the age of extinction capitalism. Ignorance, of a willful kind. None of us, therefore, really escape the burden, unless we’re in the class that jets off to private islands while mega droughts rip across the mainland, of this emotional labor. 

The Black Hole of the Extinction Age

Instead, sadly, the emotional labor of extinction capitalism defines more and more of our lives. It’s consuming us, like I said, in so, so many forms, from the family with stable, high-paying jobs wondering “why do we still always feel poor?,” to the worthlessness endemic amongst the former working class, fueling their turn to erotically charged hyper-demagogues like Trump, to the escapism that substitutes for culture, because nobody can do much about mega-poly-perma-crisis, so why not just pretend to be happy like the influencers? 

This is a bad approach. The emotional labour of capitalism will reach a kind of event horizon, around which we’re circling now, consuming us totally. What’s fascism? A whole society doing that emotional labour, purifying itself in hate, searching for lost “greatness again.” What’s war? Societies at each other’s throats, each deciding the other mustn’t have the right to exist, which is just the illogic of capital taken to the logical endpoint. What’s generational or political paralysis? Doing the work of futility and hopelessness, which is what the system should be feeling, but isn’t, because it can’t, the way it’s built right now.

So this emotional labour of extinction capitalism will consume everything we are, have accomplished, have built, created, done, until, at last, there’s nothing left, but rage, despair, fury, and emptiness, and in that nihilistic vacuum, only hatred and spite can survive. The end of extinction age capitalism is…extinction.

That’s a lot. It’s pretty…bleak. Sorry about that. But I wanted to share this set of thoughts, this little theory, this analysis with you, so that maybe, just maybe, we can begin to reorient ourselves again, back towards the things that matter.

So, to make up for it, here’s a big hug from me and Snowy. And if you’re feeling the pain of all the above, or even some of it—we’re right here with you, holding you right up to the stars.


PS. By the way. On a personal level? I hate writing stuff like this. Hate it. It gets me painted as all kinds of things I’m not. A radical, Karl Marx, etcetera. Look, let me be really honest with you. I like capitalism. So what gives here? Let’s talk about that, too.

These days, we divide the world into black-and-white. Another aspect of traumatized thinking. So if I criticize something, I must be against it, in a black-and-white way, right? 

Wrong. I enjoy creativity, shopping, “brands,” hell, I’m the guy that reinvented them, in a Don Draperesque kind of way. Nothing wrong with any of that if you ask me.

And yet you’d have to be blind not to see that something’s going badly wrong. And the system isn’t working, in many, many ways. You can let your "political beliefs,” as we say these days, lead you to whatever conclusion you like about that.

Mine isn’t black-or-white. Extinction capitalism is, to me, a very real thing, a sort of system transition. But it doesn’t mean that I’m the reincarnation of Lenin, and calling for the abolition of private property. Far from it. I’m just thinking aloud about where economic and common sense both lead me, and it doesn’t mean that I’m calling for the guillotine. Give me a nice leather jacket, and you’ll see a smile on my face, and I don’t know if that makes me a hypocrite. Maybe just…a mature human. Capable of reconciling differences, without needing to cleave everything into either or.

That’s why I titled this post what I did. I really don’t like writing stuff like this anymore, because in a world reduced to black-or-white thinking, it just creates bad blood. Hey, that’s the guy who hates capitalism! I’m a capitalist! I’m this, I’m that, you’re not, you’re my enemy. How did we get here, all over again, to this place of skin-deep differences which we imagine are existential, but in truth are only ideological, flimsy, and artificial? So. I hesitate, these days, to write stuff like this anymore at all—what you might call system-level criticisms.

Still, it’s been on my mind, and I thought I’d share it, even though I wonder if it leads to anything but me being painted as “controversial” or other things I’m not, just a pretty regular guy, far from a beret wearing revolutionary, which is OK, too, just not me. Bad blood. We don’t need more of it, and I wonder, all the time these days, what I can say that doesn’t contribute to that degeneration—or, if it’s baked in, what can be said at all anymore.

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