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Why it Feels Like Our Civilization's Committing Suicide

Why it Feels Like Our Civilization's Committing Suicide

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 biggest issues—the ones that matter most. If you like what you read, please consider sharing the Issue on your Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.

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Today's Read: 11 Minutes.

Is Our Civilization...Self-Destructing? The Rising Tide of Global Ultra-Pessimism. How did we end up on this road? We dive deep into the Paradox of Self-Destruction in the 21st Century, and why it's ripping our world apart.

 1. Is consciousness part of the fabric of the universe? (SciAm)
 2. How red-state politics are shaving years off American lives. (WaPo)
 3. 'Bananas’: scientists stunned by planet’s record September heat. (Guardian)
 4. How Sandy Hook led to more AR-15s being sold than ever before. (LitHub)
 5. Climate change: Pope Francis warns world 'may be nearing breaking point'. (BBC)

Today's Issue. Civilizations. Institutions. Us. The Road to Collapse.

Nope. Don’t take it from me. No less than the UN Secretary-General said it, speaking of us committing "collective suicide.”

"Secretary-General's remarks to opening of COP27"

We are in the fight of our lives. And we are losing. Humanity has a choice: cooperate or perish. It is either a Climate Solidarity Pact—or a Collective Suicide Pact.

United Nations

And you’ll begin to hear leaders around the globe speaking in increasingly similar terms, following Antonio Guterres’ lead, more and more this year.

When we say things like that, we're instantly painted, often, as controversial. But...are you kidding me? It shouldn’t be remotely controversial to wonder these days. (And what should be controversial is...well...being a Terrible Person, but I'll come back to that.) It shouldn't be because, that’s how it feels to Very Large Numbers of People.  

"Large shares in many countries are pessimistic about the next generation’s financial future"

This spring, Pew Research Center asked over 20,000 adults in 19 countries to think about the financial well-being of future generations and answer the following question: “When children today in your country grow up, do you think they will be better or worse off financially than their parents?”

Most are pessimistic: a median of 70% of adults said children will be worse off than their parents, while 27% hold a more optimistic view.

OECD and Pew

See what I mean? We tiptoe around it. We never discuss it. It's taboo to talk about it. As leaders, as institutions, organizations, corporations, governments. But it's One of the Biggest Issues in the World. People are profoundly pessimistic. And the answer to that isn't to just tell them, increasingly frantically, not to panic, and to just hope harder—but we'll discuss that in coming days.

If anything, this question is the one thing lately that unites the bitterly divided left and right. Is our civilization committing suicide? I've put that in harsh terms, because this isn't a poll. We're trying to get to the bottom of the Issue. And if we're serious about it, that intensity of pessimism? Felt universally and globally? It's got to point to something much like the above.

We’re not going to politicize it, but we are going to discuss it. The right, of course, blames it on women, immigrants, refugees, while the left and center focus on climate change, and so forth. Different mechanisms, but the contours of the problem, interestingly, are very much the same. Things are going badly wrong. And it’s foolish to imagine that people aren’t looking for reasons—even if they don’t often arrive at the correct ones, flawed and fragile things that human beings are.

Let’s begin with America. It’s government is in chaos, paralyzed, brought to a halt. By whom? Conventional wisdom, the kind of punditry America’s famous for goes like this: by a handful of extremists. And yet a the merest glimmer of a deeper glance would reveal that these extremists—Matt Gaetz and so forth—just followed in the footsteps of those who are denouncing them today, like Newt Gingrich. Gingrich and his ilk, after all, were the ones who pioneered a strange, disturbing new ideology. Reagan, Gingrich, Gaetz—at each step, the ideology grew more extreme, yet its basic beliefs remained the same.

Government shouldn’t exist. Government is inherently bad, a kind of poison, or toxin, the enemy of “freedom,” and therefore, we should want as little of it as humanly, socially, politically possible. You should know all that by now. But I want you to focus on what this really means.

Why is America so broken? Because it’s generations of politicians who…don’t believe in government. Certainly not the liberal democratic idea of it, and barely in any other modern kind either. All of that creates the vacuum for authoritarianism and fascism to rise, of course.Think of how…baffling…bewildering…painfully ironic...head-shatteringly absurd that is, for a second. Really see it. Politicians who don’t believe government should exist.

There’s something…deeply…wrong with that. And I don’t mean in a simplistic way, I mean in a profound one, an ontological one, if you like, which is a big word that just means “what things we think should exist or not.” Here we have a Big Problem of Human Stupidity. How do you even get to…politicians…who don’t think government should exist? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms? Isn’t that absurd on it’s face in a way that even Camus and Sartre would find too ironic to comprehend?

And yet that’s just the tip of the iceberg. This problem. It’s much, much bigger than just American politics. The problem of…Institutions and Leaders Who Want to Destroy the Very Systems They’re There For. What do we even call that? I’ll come back to it, but first let’s go through a few examples.

America, again. What else do you notice about it? It’s systems don’t work, on basic levels anymore. And when you look at that, you begin to notice this Big Problem popping up everywhere. “HMOS”…that don’t think healthcare should exist. Americans aren’t going to be able to retire anymore—don’t kid yourself—so here we have all these weird institutions like “401Ks” and whatever funds that…don’t really think retirement should exist. How about utility companies that don’t think the basic systems—water, electricity, etc—they’re there to provide should really exist? At least not in the sense of being utilities. Then there’s a financial system that basically thinks its job is to make everyone poor, and it’s excelled at that so spectacularly that America’s basic economic stats are absolutely gruesome, 70% under stress, most people struggling to pay the bills.

See what I mean a little bit? This problem goes deep.

But even that’s just the tip of the iceberg, still. Let’s keep going. Think of what’s been happening in Florida. There, you have an educational system that doesn’t think books should exist. Classes, too. No, not everyone in that system thinks that—but that’s not the point, because systems are excellent at squelching any kind of dissent, or even common sense. See how deep we’re going?

But let’s go deeper still. The problem’s gotten so bad that there are whole groups of people—some Very Famous People by now, rocketed to insta-fame by YouTube and Facebook and so forth, who don’t think People They Don’t Like…should exist. You know who I’m talking about. Manfluencers of various sorts, young and old, for example. They’re part of this whole movement, whose entire point is that other people shouldn’t exist. Women, minorities, refugees, climate change experts, professors, scientists—doesn’t matter. It's not just politicians who don't think governments should exist, it's fanatics who don't think other people should exist.

The point is that this Big Problem goes so deep...that it’s not even just about systems contradicting their purpose, and wiping out their own rationale for existence—it cuts right down to thinking…people…shouldn't exist. Where does that road lead us? It hardly takes a genius to see, does it? Shall we all retaliate in kind, and say, no, you shouldn’t exist? That way lies all the ugliness and stupidity of human history.

So what are we even talking about here? How baffling and strange and ironic is all this, anyways? Let’s now name the problem.

This is a Big Problem of…Turbo-Charged Nihilism. Not just old-school nihilism, cue the violins, and there’s Nietzsche proclaiming God is dead, and away we go into the Metaverse. This is something new. We could call it Thanatos, the death impulse, in a way. My Only Reason For Being Part of This is to…Destroy It. This System Will Self Destruct in 3…2…1.

This is why it feels like our civilization’s committing suicide.

In actuality, seen at this level…it kind of is. Think about America again. What sort of a country doesn’t have functioning governance…for no other reason, really, than crackpot ideologues who don’t believe it should exist? That’s not just a banana republic, by the way, or even a typical authoritarian state. It’s a Backwards Inverse New Deal of Nihilism.

This new form of nihilism says that the only reason we do a job—if we’re that kind of person—is to destroy the very institution or norm or organization we’re a part of. You can see that easily in the examples of figures like Matt Gaetz or Newt Gingrich, America’s fanatical politicians who’ve long wanted to destroy governance. But let’s think about it more subtly. What’s the point of going onto public platforms—YouTube, Facebook, etcetera—and shouting that people shouldn’t exist? You see, those are public institutions. They’re not really the stuff of Stasi-level societies, because of course, in that kind of society, you’re not really free, and you’re watching what you say like a hawk anyways. That’s why places like East Germany or the Soviet Union didn’t develop institutions of this sort, precisely because they couldn’t.

Think of the Manfluencers preaching all this hate towards women, minorities, equality, democracy, etcetera. What would they really have without any of that stuff? Nothing much, to be precise, because of course even their fame depends critically on modernity and democracy. And yet their mission in life is to burn it all down. You shouldn’t exist. But, hold on, we need you to make us famous, and give us clicks, and get us more dollars.

You see how…paradoxical…all that is? So here we have a paradox. A thing that contradicts itself. This one we might call The Paradox of 21st Century Self-Destruction. The only reason we joined this institution, organization, norm is to destroy it. Our only role here is to burn it all down. This or that shouldn’t exist. Government, books, classes. Ideas, like equality, freedom, dignity. Basic rights, like expression and association. Right down to you shouldn’t exist.

But hold on, wait a second, we want all that stuff. Only all for ourselves. We want to publish our books! We want speech and expression! We want government, just…you know…the authoritarian kind, that can tell you what to do, think, say. Hey, no, we totally don’t believe in climate change, but we want food, water, and clean air, too. Absurdity piled atop absurdity.

Our civilization feels like it’s committing suicide because in this way, it is. This is why progress has slowed to a halt. This is a Big Problem, and it’s not a joke. The Paradox of 21st Century Self Destruction is ripping through our world. Every corner of it. Take a look at the EU’s hardliners…who don’t believe there should be an EU. How did Brexit Britain happen? Because of a guy named Nigel, who was one of it’s representatives to..LOL…the EU. See nation after nation hitting American points of dysfunction, empowering the sorts of lunatics and crackpots who don’t believe in government, not to mention equality, truth, or democracy.

And see how many of our corporations, too, of course, have given up on the stuff in their charters, their basic social functions. Let’s do a simple example of that, in case it’s not clear yet, which is…why does a guy like Ron DeSantis get to publish a book? While he’s…banning books? Doesn’t the publishing industry see…something…pathetically…wrong…with that? Apparently not, because money is the object of the game. But the purpose of the game was…publishing. When we legitimize and validate authoritarians who ban books, as publishers, what are we even doing? Haven't we lost any semblance of reason, common sense, and just lapsed into sheer…I don’t know…self-destructive greed? There, too: the Paradox of Self-Destruction in the 21st Century.

You see, even if we don’t really consciously see it in these ways I’ve pointed out to you—and I hope you can see it now—we still feel it. And we get this kind of horror-struck impulse jangling our unconscious, and lighting our nerves on fire. I’ve got to Outrun a Civilization That Appears to Be…Committing Suicide.

How do you do that? Well, maybe you get radicalized, by figures like Gaetz, into nihilism yourself. You give up, and snarl, and say, it’s their fault! Those hated ones! If we just…throw them into the sea…maybe we can hold back the tide! Maybe you spend too much time online, and come to believe in all kinds of nonsense, historical hatreds, they’re-drinking-our-blood-and-coming-for-our-women-and-children. Get them! Get them first!

Maybe you throw yourself into escapism, or just go numb, which is where I think a lot of young people are today. Glued to screens, laughing at some TikTok dance, which is OK, but let’s not pretend that spending all your time doing that isn’t indicative that you’re trying to run away from something. From what? From the growing, billowing smoke clouds of destruction gathering like a whirlpool over the towers of our civilization, I’d guess. Who’d want to look at that unless they had to? No wonder young people report levels of despair that should make everyone who’s not one feel a little ill.

Or maybe you try to do something about it. That’s where a lot of us are, sane and thoughtful people. So we go out there and we invent, I don’t know vaccines, or write books, or lead organizations, or, here, take me as an example, create ideas and do research, or write sonatas and films—doesn’t matter. We try, and we try—and yet, we’re met, increasingly, with this Idiot’s Tide of Nihilism. Hey, look, we can do this thing together, and make things better. Isn’t that awesome? Hey! What was that? I Only Joined This Organization to Destroy The Purpose Of It.

Bang. It’s getting harder and harder, isn’t it? Be honest, because that’s what I think. What the stats show me. Not easier and easier. To change things. To fix all our broken systems. To repair and renovate, let alone pioneer and innovate, and I don’t just mean “here’s an AI girlfriend! Wow, look, bro, we saved the planet!” Harder and harder…and harder. Why is that? Because the Paradox of 21st Century Self-Destruction is getting stronger.

By now? It’s practically a maelstrom. A gigantic vortex half the size of an ocean. It’s just sucking people in left and right. Whoosh! Jesus, did you see that? There they go. Right down…to the bottom. Dozens at a time, arms flailing, legs careening. There go masses of young people taught to hate women by Manfluencers. There go another dozen corporations, hijacked by bean-counting fanatics who think profit’s the only purpose of the existence of the universe. There goes another country, led by lunatics and crackpots who don’t think government should exist.

What happens if this trends keeps accelerating? How much more of it can we take? Another decade? Two? Three? At some point, things begin to go…crrr-rrack. A breaking point’s hit. We might not be quite there yet, but it’s hard to dispute that we’re not just getting there, but we’re racing that way, pedal to the metal.

The Paradox of Self-Destruction. Our civilization feels like it’s committing suicide for a reason. It’s not just the inertia of the old. It’s different. It’s frantic, manic nihilism, turbo-charged with hatred and envy and rage. I Want To Destroy It All. The house I’m living in. The ground I’m standing on. The planet I’m living on. Burn it all down. Thanatos. Death. Chaos. God is dead, and all I they gave me were vaccines that tried to control my mind and take away my Genetic Superiority. I’ll show them. The Only Reason I’m Here is To Destroy That Which Gave Me Life. I Hate It, Because Now I Have to Exist, and That's Hard.

It’s a very human feeling, in the end. This feeling of betrayal and abandonment by your parents. It goes deep, because of course, being human, we all have to confront our finitude and mortality and profound imperfection, without just blaming it all on Mommy and Daddy, in infantile rage, envy, and hatred, recognizing the depths of that very pain, that lostness, that torment, as the universal form of human experience. You know what psychoanalysts call maturity? Outgrowing it.

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