Illustration by Joe Kloc
I’m always impressed by people’s behavior during massive panics. They rarely believe or admit that they are panicked. Instead they assure one another that at last the wool has been lifted from their eyes. They are seeing the clear daylight of rationality after years of delusion.
But a delusion that lasts for decades is not a delusion. It’s an institution. And these, our institutions, are what now fail us. People no longer know what they value. They don’t know what to believe. And unfortunately, it’s part of the human condition to believe and invest in things that are demonstrably not true.
As 2009 opens, our financial institutions are deep in massive, irrational panic. That’s bad, but it gets worse: Many other respected institutions have rational underpinnings at least as frail as derivatives or bundled real-estate loans. Like finance, these institutions are social constructions. They are games of confidence, underpinned by people’s solemn willingness to believe, to conform, to contribute. So why not panic over them, too?
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Let’s consider seven other massive reservoirs of potential popular dread. Any one of these could erupt, shattering the fragile social compact we maintain with one another in order to believe things contrary to fact.
1. The climate. People still behave as if it’s okay. Every scientist in the world who isn’t the late Michael Crichton knows that it’s not. The climate is in terrible shape; something’s gone wrong with the sky. The bone-chilling implications haven’t soaked into the populace, even though Al Gore put together a PowerPoint about it that won him a Nobel. Al was soft-peddling the problem.
It’s become an item of fundamentalist faith to maintain that the climate crisis is a weird leftist hoax. Yet, since the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike, an honest fear of the consequences will prove hard to repress. Since the fear has been methodically obscured, its emergence from the mists of superstition will be all the more powerful. Unlike mere shibboleths of finance, this is a situation that’s objectively terrifying and likely to remain so indefinitely.
2. Intellectual property. More specifically, the fiat declaration that properties that are easy to reproduce shouldn’t be reproduced.
Declaring that “information wants to be free” is an ideological stance. A real-world situation where information can’t be anything but free, where digital information cannot be monetized, is bizarre and deeply scary. No banker or economist anywhere has the ghost of clue what to do under such conditions.
Intellectual property made sense and used to work rather well when conditions of production favored it. Now they don’t. If it’s simple to copy just one single movie, some gray area of fair use can be tolerated. If it becomes easy to copy a million movies with one single button-push, this vast economic superstructure is reduced to rags. Our belief in this kind of “property” becomes absurd.
To imagine that real estate is worthless is strange, though we’ve somehow managed to do that. But our society is also built on the supposed monetary worth of unreal estate. In fact, the planet’s most advanced economies are optimized to create pretty much nothing else. The ultimate global consequences of this situation’s abject failure would rank with the collapse of Communism.
3. National currencies. What do these odd numismatic relics have to do with today’s roiling global economy? There is no national currency remotely strong enough to resist persecution by speculators. They’re all potential bubbles — panics in the making.
If cash becomes king, what happens when market forces smash the cash? Was that inky paper really, truly supposed to be worth more than real estate, or unreal intellectual property, or shares in productive companies? Why should anyone honestly believe that local treasury departments are somehow more credible than global bankers? What on earth were people thinking? Flee for the hills!
4. Insurance and building codes. Every year, insurance rates soar from mounting “natural” catastrophes, obscuring the fact that the planet’s coasts are increasingly uninsurable.
Insurance underlies the building and construction trades. If those rates skyrocket, that system must keel over. Once people lose faith in the institution of insurance — because insurance can’t be made to pay in climate-crisis conditions — we’ll find ourselves living in a Planet of Slums.
Most people in this world have no insurance and ignore building codes. They live in “informal architecture,” i.e., slum structures. Barrios. Favelas. Squats. Overcrowded districts of this world that look like a post-Katrina situation all the time. When people are thrown out of their too-expensive, too-coded homes, this is where they will go.
Unless they’re American, in which case they’ll live in their cars.
But how can dispossessed Americans pay for their car insurance when they have no fixed address? Besides, car companies are coming apart with the sudden savage ease of Enron’s collapse. Indeed, the year 2009 is shaping up as a planetary Enron. Enron was always the Banquo’s ghost at the banquet of Bushonomics. The moguls of Enron really were the princes of contemporary business innovation, and the harbingers of the present day.
5. The elderly. There’s nothing so entirely predictable as demographic change. Obviously we’re facing enormous booming hordes of elderly. Yet no one is confronting that issue. People remain in denial. They’re hoping a miracle will turn up, like, for instance, the sudden disinterest of a demographic majority who always vote.
Even elders who have long-garnered private nest eggs quite likely no longer have them in 2009. There is no sound way to live off the hoarded efforts of earlier labor. Inflation looms, ready to destroy fixed incomes. The elderly, supposedly the calm, serene, seasoned elements in our society, have every right to panic. They will not go gentle into that good night.
6. The Westphalian system. Why are so many great military powers losing a war in Afghanistan? Afghanistan isn’t even a nation-state, yet it’s defeating all comers. Why do we even pretend to have nations these days? Hollow states, failed states, non-states… The European post-state!
No flag, no currency… People no longer have to believe in these effigies. Why do they persist? The benefits of believing in nations are slim. The planetary slum-dwellers of failed states may find the rollicking life of a Somali pirate far more attractive than the hard work of state-building. The nation-state is torn from both above and below. The global guerrilla and the Davos globe-hopper are cousins.
7. Science. To be a creationist president is not a problem. A suicide cult is the most effective political actor in the world today. Clearly the millions of people embracing fundamentalism like to make up their own facts.
Standards of scientific proof and evidence no longer compel political and social allegiance. This is not a return to the bedrock of faith — it’s an algorithm for ontological anarchy. By attacking empiricism, the world is discarding all of the good reasons to believe that anything is real.
If science is discredited, why should mere politics have any intellectual rigor? Just cobble together a crazy-quilt mix-and-match ideology, like Venezuelan Bolivarism or Russia’s peculiar mix of spies, oil, and Orthodoxy. Go from the gut — all tactics, no strategy — making up the state of the world as you go along! Stampede wildly from one panic crisis to the next. Believe whatever is whispered. Hide and conceal whatever you can. Spy on the phone calls, emails, and web browsing of those who might actually know something.
If that leads you to a miserable end-state, huddling with the children in a fall-out shelter clutching silver bullion, then you can congratulate yourself as the vanguard of civilization.
So 2009 will be a squalid year, a planetary hostage situation surpassing any mere financial crisis, where the invisible hand of the market, a good servant turned a homicidal master, periodically wanders through a miserable set of hand-tied, blindfolded, feebly struggling institutions, corporations, bureaucracies, professions, and academies, and briskly blows one’s brains out for no sane reason.
We can do better than this. — Bruce Sterling is the author of the forthcoming novel The Caryatids and a renowned commentator on design and technology. His hometown is Austin, Texas.
Originally published January 29, 2009