Why Crackpots, Lunatics, and Extremists Rule American Life — Even in a Lethal Pandemic

 

When I look around the world today, it strikes me that we’re living in the age of the sociopath. I don’t just mean that in the technical psychological sense of the word — a certain head of state and his goons come to mind — but first, in a deeper, truer, broader sense. Sociopathic: hostile to the idea, the notion, the purpose, of society. Not just “their” society or “mine” or “yours” — but the great and historic ideal of society itself. Sociopathy to the point that nations like Britain and America were simply unable to lock down in time, to protect society’s most vulnerable. Sociopathy to the point that Americans sunbathe on beaches while the death rate is the equivalent of a 9/11 every day. Sociopathy to the point that despite the fact that the infection hasn’t peaked yet, Trump is still trying to “reopen” the economy.

When you look at a generation of leaders failing ruinously to deal with any of the great challenges of the 21st century — inequality, climate change, mass extinction, stagnation, and now, a pandemic— it’s because most of them are profoundly, immovably hostile that there is such a thing as a society we should and must care for to begin with. When you look at fractured, riven countries, one after the other plunging into authoritarianism, it’s because large numbers of people have become deeply hostile to the notion of living in or being part of a society — not just theirs, but living beside anyone and caring for them, investing in them, nurturing them, period. When you see Americans protesting lockdown, armed with rifles— that, my friends, is textbook sociopathy, a kind of sneering contempt towards the idea that society exists, matters, counts, or is even necessary.

We are living in the age of the sociopath. Wherever I look, I see sociopathy at work. We often say that countries are divided today — but that’s not quite true, at least in the old sense of left versus right. What we should really see is that that many, many people have developed a deep enmity, hostility, antipathy to society itself. The idea of society. Its principles and values. Its founding notions, which I’ll come to. Its very essence. More and more people are simply rejecting “society” itself — not theirs, per se, but the concept itself.

The world is divided now into people that believe in society — and people that don’t, who believe in something more like tribalism, Darwinism, authoritarianism, hate, violence, and rage. That they should be supreme, above all others, that they are the center of the world, that nobody else and nothing else matters but them and their gratification. There is a kind of deep social nihilism at work in the world today — a kind of bitter disbelief that any kind of “we” exists. And from this hostility, this enmity, comes a surging aggression, bitterness, rage, animus — that’s tearing the world apart today, knocking back to turbo-charged regress. And it is this force at work in Britain and America’s responses to Coronavirus.

You don’t have to look much further than America — the world’s reigning champion of sociopathy — to see all this in action. America’s long championed the idea that, as Margaret Thatcher once famously said, “there’s no such thing as society.” You might not — but generations of American leaders advanced bizarre and strange notions that basically rested upon the idea of society not needing to exist. Hence, Americans privatized everything from energy grids to schools, hospitals and medicine, universities and roads. Generations of Americans came to be staunchly “conservative” — not genuinely interested in conserving anything, really, but only in tearing down whatever remained of a functioning society. They succeeded — to the point that today teachers are being armed in schools, suicide is skyrocketing, the average person’s life has fallen apart, all while billionaires are becoming trillionaires.

Of course, Americans didn’t believe in society because they couldn’t — America was founded on the notion that some people aren’t human at all, so society, in the modern sense, could never exist at all. Only something more like a caste system could, which is why the American elite and what’s left of the middle class (not much) still rejects the idea of society today. “I won’t stay home to save their lives! Those dirty, filthy people!” But much of the rest of the world doesn’t have this strange and grim history. And yet instead of having learned anything from all this, many nations are beginning to follow suit. What the…? And there’s Europe — slashing investment instead of spending.

America’s cautionary tale — its weird, foolish journey of sociopathy — contains many lessons for the future, for the world, even for Americans. Some of them are simple.

There’s a certain kind of American, now legendary the world over, who thinks that carrying a gun to Starbucks, not vaccinating their kids, denying their neighbors retirement, and denying their own families decent healthcare, is the pinnacle of intelligence, civilization, decency, and progress. The rest of the world, and the rest of America, has come to know such people as the American Idiot. The American Idiot, it seems, knows no bounds. Today, for example, their latest and greatest cause is to protest against lockdown, reopen a pandemic-ridden society where the infection rate hasn’t even fallen yet, thus ensuring that death on a mass scale becomes death on an historic one. The question therefore arises: are such people (for whom the idea of a society of equals, who people are to respect, care for, nourish, and protect) simply… sociopaths?

I mean that in this sense: to the American Idiot, society doesn’t really exist. Everyone is an enemy, a rival, an adversary, cannon fodder. Come down with a deadly pandemic? Too bad for you. You must have been weak, and only the strong survive. This kind of attitude, which betrays a stunning indifference to everyone else’s life or death, is surely the essence of sociopathy. So: are we living in the age of the sociopath? And isn’t that one of the things the pandemic proves, despite all the feel-good stories of doctors and nurses? That many of us have become hardened to the point of indiffierence about life and death? But can you have a functioning society made of sociopaths — and if you can’t, what percentage of sociopaths does it take to destabilize a functioning society for everyone else?

One of the things that has gone badly wrong in America is that the idea of freedom itself seems to have turned sociopathic. I carry a gun to Starbucks, so kids have to do “active shooter drills,” and pretend to die, traumatizing them for life. I deny everyone else decent healthcare, access to medicine, a visit to the doctor. I withhold retirement and safety nets, and supports from everyone else. I’m “free” of obligations and responsibilities to care for, protect, and invest in anyone — including myself. But is that really freedom? Or is it something more like irresponsibility, negligence, and self-destruction? In America, freedom now means the right to inflict serious and injurious harm on a whole society. In the rest of the world, these actions are considered uncivilized. But when a society consists of people fighting for freedom as the right to injure everyone else, where can it really go except backwards and downwards, like America has?

If a people believe “society doesn’t need to exist,” they are also going to end up going without all the things that a society provides. Public goods will never develop — like public healthcare, affordable education, safety nets, and so on. As a result, inequality will skyrocket, because people will have to pay capitalists monopoly prices for the things they should have simply given each other. Because there’s little social investment in such a society, it will soon enough grow impoverished — after all, capitalists are hardly interested in sharing the wealth, and the gains they accumulate will simply go to yachts, mansions, and shares. All that describes America perfectly, doesn’t it?

Those economic effects are also accompanied by equally damaging sociocultural effects. No notion of a common wealth, a public interest, shared values can emerge if people don’t believe in society to begin with.That’s exactly what happened in America, too — there is literally no functioning notion of public interest or common good at work left in its institutions, which is why, for example, hedge funds are allowed to “raid pensions” (or, put in plain English, steal your money.)

In the end, these three effects — runaway inequality, growing poverty, which means the collapse of a middle class, and the erosion, the disappearance, of the notion of a public interest — what do they culminate in? They culminate, quite naturally, in the corrosion and eventual collapse of a democracy. After all, a democracy can hardly function when people don’t have anything left in common — when they are at each others’ throats, for the simple stuff of survival, whether money, food, healthcare, or education. Bang! You can see that lesson illustrated in the last catastrophic three years of America, during which democracy essentially imploded into fascist-authoritarianism (and if you think I’m kidding, go ahead and tell me who else puts kids in camps.)

But I think these basic lessons still don’t go nearly deep enough to really come to the heart of the matter. Why does “society” matter? Why should we believe in this thing, this project, this great ideal, this historic endeavour, called “society”?

One of the greatest lessons we’ve forgotten is what a “society” really is. The word “society” comes from “societas,” which means a kind of companionship, a certain association with others, or at least the hunger, the willingness to. But companionship also implies things which are crucial. It says we don’t act in bad faith. It says we regard others as our equals. It says we don’t try to stab them in the back. It says we aren’t just playing games with them, toying with them, for our own advantage — grinning, but only hoping to get one over on them.

All of these things seem to be vanishing, don’t they? And in fact, it’s exactly these things which seem to have vanished in our dislocated, zombified, post-modern age. We aren’t companions any more. We’re something more like adversaries, enemies, opponents. We are constantly battling one another, aren’t we? Our lives have become more and more defined by combat, by opposition, by difference.

But in what? For what are we constantly battling one another? Just the stuff of survival. In America, you are made to battle everyone else for…everything. Nothing is your right, really. You must fight bitterly for education, for healthcare, for a little bit of money, for food to eat, for a roof over your head. How can such people really be “companions” — when they are busy being enemies, opponents, adversaries? And when you look at the world this way, why would you want to stay home to keep others safe? And yet if a society is an organization of companions, of fellow travellers, of pilgrims all wearing humble cloth walking the same road — how can such a thing made of competition ever be a society?

And yet that is what the growth of capitalism to global proportions did. A few brave nations fought it — Canada, Europe, and so on — but in the end, even their resistance is crumbling. They too are slowly giving up on the idea of society as an organization of companions, of genuine equals. People in them too are becoming Americanized — being made to fight each other for the basics.

This kind of gladiatorial mode of organization isn’t a society, in the true sense. It’s just something more like a jungle, an arena, take your pick. I think the most accurate term is Social Darwinism — only the strong survive! Capitalism’s fundamental principle. But it’s profoundly incompatible with the essence of a what a society is. Capitalism says that we’re all greedy, stupid individuals, who have nothing but self-interest, after all, and that our only purpose in life is to blindly obey it, every nanosecond, so that we can maximize our own profits. But this starkly and absolutely incompatible with the following ideas: a public interest, a common interest, shared values, joint investment, public goods, me caring about you, virtue in any sense whatsoever. If the only person I am allowed, encouraged, rewarded to care about is me — then what room is there for a society to exist? If a million such people exist, do they make a society — or something more like its opposite, a ruthless Darwinist machine?

But isn’t that just what our institutions, from companies to schools to thinking itself do — reward people, train them, indoctrinate them, to only care about themselves, or at least care about themselves first and most? It’s no surprise, then, that every single kind of social institution you can imagine, from unions to marriage to friendship is in severe and ruinous decline. If we don’t believe in society, what need is there for any social bonds, really? Ah, but that’s exactly what capitalism wants. What do you call a group of people without social bonds? Prey.

We are going to have to rediscover — and reimagine — this great and beautiful idea of society if we want to survive the 21st century as societies. One of the biggest reasons that our societies are collapsing now is also one of the most obvious, hiding in plain sight — many of us don’t believe in society anymore. Not just in “ours” — but in the idea that there is anything beyond ourselves, our own appetites, our own advantage, our own aggressive, naked self-interest at all. That’s hardly a surprise. This century, middle classes are growing poorer — and people growing people struggle just to subsist.

And yet this sharp turn away from society, and towards narrow self-interest, is having catastrophic effects. It has corroded the idea of the public interest, of the common good, of shared values. It has breaking the back of democracy. It is causing a volcanic surge of white-hot rage to explode around the globe, as little entitled self-interesteers don’t win the power and control and status they need to feel secure. It is legitimating the worst of us, all over again, everything from the supremacism and fascism of Trumpism to the extreme nationalism of Brexit. It is causing the dislocation of technologically depressed generations, who, unable to form real bonds with one another anymore, are turning to drugs and suicide. The turn towards self-interest is especially ruinous in an age in which humanity needs to pull together if it wants to survive in any real sense of the word.

We are not going to make it as little groups of competitive, antagonistic individuals, battling for dwindling resources — playing out games of pointless, meaningless status competition for little capitalist baubles — while the capitalists laugh at our folly, stupidity, weakness, and powerlessness. The fascists and authoritarians that fill their pockets will pick us off one by one — after the tides and seasons have famished and starved us. We are only going to make it through this century as societies. In the end, as a society of the human race for the first time — as one band of companions, walking beside one another, not climbing atop one another, not dragging one another down, all on the same difficult and strange and beautiful road home. The one that leads us through the valleys of stardust and midnight, to our truest and deepest selves.

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