The End of the End of the World

27 March 2009


Apocalyptic dystopia has proved a pervasive seduction since the dawn of the Atomic Age in the middle of the twentieth century. It has been all-too-easy to think in terms of apocalypse and dystopia; the mind is dawn to them with a certain morbid fascination, much as the eye is drawn to the prurient, the violent, and the spectacular. Apocalypticism and dystopianism are political pornography.

The peculiar thing about pornography of all kinds is the fascination it exercises over both its enthusiasts and its censors. The power of pornographic images — be they graphic depictions of sexual perversions or the equally graphic depictions of nuclear holocaust — is the power to monopolize thought and to therefore force all other concerns to the margin.

I began my discussion of these themes in Technical Ecstasy: Futurism and Dystopia of 28 February 2008, and converged on a definitive formulation in my Fear of the Future of 21 March 2009. Many of the themes in these posts are integral with other themes that I have been exploring in this forum, especially in regard to the great ideological movements of our time. I began this blog with the explicitly stated thesis “to view geopolitics through the prism of ideas” and I remain convinced of the necessity of this approach to any understanding of the world.

From the perspective of grand strategy, apocalypticism and dystopianism are morale issues: the peoples of contemporary nation-states, no less than their armed forces, are vulnerable to a failure of nerve. We are at present experiencing a failure of nerve in relation to our worldwide financial markets. What Keynes called our “animal spirits” have failed us, and people have, for the moment, ceased to believe in themselves. Or, at very least, people are having doubts, and these doubts have created a crisis of confidence in markets.

If people believe that the world is ending — not if they merely say it, but if they believe it in their bones, if they feel it with a chill down their collective spines — then they will make decisions that reflect the inevitability of the end of the world as we know it. The steady drumbeat of apocalyptic and dystopian images in the popular culture of industrialized regions of the world has conditioned entire peoples, and entire generations of peoples, that the civilization we know and love will not last, and that we will, by and large, come to a bad end.

No survey can reveal what people believe in their bones. We discussed this recently in Microcosm / Macrocosm. How can we gain a genuine understanding of what people think and believe and feel? Only through an act of what Collingwood called the a priori imagination, which is an “activity which, bridging the gaps between what our authorities tell us, gives the historical narrative or description its continuity.” In other words, the political situation of the world is only to be understood through an act of philosophical synthesis.

In Social Consensus in Industrialized Society I suggested that society transformed by industrialization has not yet found a stable and sustainable social order, and I extended this reflection in Fear of the Future, in the latter making the claim that it is this very absence of a social order that answers to the needs of industrialized peoples that has driven fear of the future. Apocalyptic dystopianism graphically depicts the overthrown of industrialized society, and as such constitutes an escapist fantasy of a life free from the compromises and sacrifices demanded by that society.

If my thesis is correct, it immediately suggests the following question: if we could arrive at a social order that sustains industrialized civilization and also meets the needs of people so subordinated to that order, if we could have industrialization with hope and optimism, would the popular infatuation with apocalyptic and dystopian images disappear in time, like the memory of a nightmare one would prefer to forget? When I want to forget a bad dream, even a dream of great intensity, I have little difficulty in doing so. Later the same day, most of it is gone. By the next day, none of it remains.

How can we forget the collective nightmare of apocalypticism and dystopianism? By explicitly and consciously cultivating a new attitude toward the future. I visited this topic previously in my Very Short Treatise on Hope, Utopia, Perfection, and Progress, but it is a theme deserving of more attention since it is the theme of the survival of our world as we know it.

Another question is also suggested by the above consideration: if no fulfilling social order is possible that allows for the continuation of industrialized civilization, will civilization continue in a condition of chronic dissatisfaction, or will cumulative social discontent bring an end to the world? The answer in contemporary popular culture is already evident: it is be the latter, as this is the apocalyptic resolution of the difficulty posed by industrialized society.

I will not at this juncture play the prophet; I do not know what it coming next. But I will make this observation: our collective fate is tied to that of industrialized civilization. There is an insufficient appreciation today that, should our institutions fail us, we simply cannot survive. Some remnant of our species would survive the collapse of our institutions, but the world we have constructed on these institutions, and the vast majority of the people who inhabit this world, would not survive.

And when I here mention “institutions” I am not thinking of anything overly abstract or refined. I am talking about simple things like, for example, feeding a city of a million or more people, or getting rid of their sewage and garbage. On such basic functions does civilization rest. Without garbage men, waste water treatment, and truckers bringing food into our cities, these cities would depopulate within days, and their populations, on forced march through the countryside, would not last long — nor would the countryside where they foraged.

On a more optimistic note, we all have a vested interest in the above scenario not coming to pass, so we can expect extraordinary efforts to prevent this actuality.


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One Response to “The End of the End of the World”

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