“While modern capitalism constantly develops new needs in order to increase consumption, people’s dissatisfaction remains the same as ever. Their lives no longer have any meaning beyond a rush to consume, and this consumption is used to justify the increasingly radical frustration of any creative activity or genuine human initiative — to the point that people no longer even see this lack of meaning as important.” - Pierre Canjuers, Socialisme ou Barbarie #27

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Why don't we live in Utopia? (and other stupid questions)

Why isn't life wonderful?  Some lives are wonderful but chances are, yours isn't.  Mine isn't.  Granted, it's not the life of a Syrian refugee (and there are 9 million of those) or an Indian or West African slave (30 million) or Chinese peasant (about 482 million).  It easily could have been any of those lives.  Pick a human being at random, and there's about a 50-50 chance s/he lives in poverty (defined as less than US$2.50 a day) and about a 1 in 7 chance s/he lives in extreme poverty (less than US$1.25 a day).  The skyrocketing number of humans competing to consume the resources of a planet no larger than it was back when there were only a few million of us, are demanding a even more intangible number of other individual animals be to sacrificed so that we can eat their bodies, in the hope of thereby strengthening and extending the lifespans of our own.  These animals spend their entire lives in conditions unimaginable even to most of the humans living in extreme poverty, only to murdered at an age far sooner than they would have otherwise have died.  Without getting too metaphysical here, I suppose I could just easily have been one of those animals.  So yeah, my life isn't so bad.  Statistically speaking, the chances of living a life at anything close to the level of luxury I've enjoyed so far are astronomically tiny.  So chin up, you grumpy bastard.

Now there's a few directions I might go with this information.  One is no direction at all, which is essentially what I've done so far.  I've been aware of facts like these just listed for most of my life but my actual, practical response to the information has amounted to little more than a shrug.  The state of the world is unsatisfactory but I, a part of the world, haven't done anything about it.  This is unsatisfactory too.

Another direction is to point out that without the kind of agriculture and technology we've developed in the past few hundred years, most of us wouldn't even exist at all, and those of us who did would still be living the kind of miserable lives the agricultural and industrial revolutions worked so hard to transcend.  Life is terrible for many of us now, but it could have been even worse for all of us.  Progress is slow, and Utopia is still only a dream.  We just need more time to make the dream real.

A third direction is to follow the mindset the kind of response that paragraphs like my opening one here are usually designed to evoke.  The human race hasn't been so much a victim of its own success as the engineer of its own destruction.  Nothing good can come from continued population growth, environmental exploitation, or accelerating technology.  Back to the trees.  Some argue that global environmental catastrophe is now inevitable anyway - at the very least, it's hit or miss whether our species survives this century - so even the hippy or feminist or luddite or neo-shamanic dream of low-impact communal living in harmony with nature and polyamorous love with each other - or whatever - still only a few generations old (which as ideas go, is not very old at all) is already dead.  So out of the trees, and back to the oceans.  Or out of the oceans, and back into stardust.  Back into nothing.

This is Dan Bilzerian, American venture capitalist, "king of Instagram" and general enthusiast of all the traditional symbols of tacky hyper-masculinity: in particular, guns, cars and nearly-naked, subservient women.

According to celebritynetworth.com, he has amassed his fortune of around $150 million mostly from winning poker tournaments.  This is not a closely-guarded secret: Dan regularly shares pictures of his money with his 16 million instagram followers, along with pictures of his guns, of his private jet, of himself with his private jet, himself with lots of women, himself with lots of women and his guns, himself with lots and lots of women, himself with lots and lots of women on his private jet, himself with lots and lots and lots of women, himself with a frankly impractical number of women, and his cat.  There is also at least one picture of his cat with a gun, possibly on his private jet, albeit sans lots and lots of women.  Who are presumably off camera with Dan.  Playing with his, um, gun.  You can see where this is going.

You probably know what I'm going to ask now, too.  "But is Dan Bilzerian happy?"  Well...yes.  Of course he bloody is.  Or he certainly looks happy - which in an age where the celebrity has replaced the genius, sexiness has replaced beauty and the selfie is more closely scrutinised than the autobiography - amounts to the same thing.  "Everything that was once lived has receded into a representation", wrote Guy Debord - a representation he called "the spectacle...[which is] not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images...where the liar has lied to himself".  The image is the reality, the medium is the message.  The Matrix is everywhere; and if, indeed, the universe is nothing but a video game, then Dan Bilzerian has the cheat codes.  As anyone who's ever played a video game with the cheat codes activated can tell you, it very quickly stops being fun.  No risk, no game.  No joy.  And what is life without joy?  As Baudrillard put it:
"We dream of passing through ourselves and finding ourselves in the beyond: the day when your holographic double will be there in space, eventually moving and talking...Of course, it will no longer be a dream, so its charm will be lost".
So far, so standardly postmodern.  What's next?  Well, the current buzzword in the pop-political sphere is inequality.  "The 1%", wherever and whoever they might be but who are most assuredly the baddies, reportedly own 50% of all of "the wealth" (which I think refers to the money) in the world.  While this is mathematically true, and symptomatic of a whole range of cultural and spiritual diseases, the neo-socialist political narratives that have arisen to articulate, ad nauseum, nothing more substantial than the toddler's whine of "it's not fair!" don't really seem to touch the issue at all.  And of course, in the age of gesture politics, hashtag activism, meme fights and the shoegazing "SJW" phenomenon, what time or space is there for anything else?

It's not fair.  Some people have more money than I do.  Therefore I want more money.  Libertarians and capitalists want everyone to be rich.  Socialists and liberals want nobody to be poor.  Perhaps someday these two ideologies will finally balance each other out - short term, I have some hope in the concept of "universal basic income", which seems to be gaining momentum - but longer term, until we as a culture really start to question the concept of money itself, I don't see any real progress being made.

I don't know yet if it is stupid to ask these questions.  I don't think it is, but perhaps I'm not intelligent enough to articulate them properly.  Could we create a society without money?  Would that society be better than what we have now?  Does wealth cause poverty?  Does money create scarcity?  Do we all deserve more, or should we all strive to have less?  I'm an individual, but these are questions the individual can't answer alone.  But what is stopping us from making the world a better place?  What is stopping me?  Why don't we live in Utopia?  Money has to have something to do with it; if for no other reason than the time we all spend accumulating it eats away at the time that might well be better spent improving the world, rather than simply our own silly little lives.  (Are you happy?  Are you fulfilled?  So what if you are?  Most other people aren't). So all that stands in our way is...us.  Why are we standing in our own way?  Something is wrong.