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The Collapse of American Optimism and the Rise of Apocalyptica

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Ask any American older than 30 what the country was like when they were growing up and with few exceptions, the answer will be uniformly positive, and certainly more positive than its perceived to be today. Indeed, even young adults in their 20s recognize that the tone of the nation has changed in recent years. This is not merely a case of viewing the past with “rose tinted glasses.” Examining the nearly unanimous optimism of past decades, particularly the 1950s and 1960s, can be downright staggering by today’s standards, where expectations get lower every year. Only a few (mostly older folks) still maintain that improvements are even possible.

One need only examine the writings of the past to see how true this is. Take for example this article in Time Magazine from February 1966 called “The Future: Looking Toward A.D. 2000.” In it, the author describes a plethora of imaginative predictions about what it will be like to live in the future. They say the next 30 years will include underwater farms, a fully automated society run by robots where only ten percent of the population is employed and planes that can carry up to 1,000 people, which by the end of the millennium “will of course be old hat.” In general, they are the usual predictions you’d expect to read from such a periodical, but the consulted “experts” go further still.

In a Rand Corporation study, “82 scientists agreed that a permanent lunar base will have been established long before A.D. 2000 and that men will have flown past Venus and landed on Mars.” The article also predicts flying hover cars and the casual use of drugs to help avoid “a wife or husband [that] seems to be unusually grouchy.”

Not all of the predictions were so bold. The article did successfully predict the use of artificial organs, pharmaceuticals, artificial limbs and the general rate of population growth on the planet. There is however, one immediately noticeable and disconcerting exception to Time Magazine’s otherwise whimsical predictions. Toward the end of the article, the author warns:

There are some who gloomily expect a society run by a small elected elite, presiding over a mindless multitude kept happy by drugs and circuses, much as in Huxley’s Brave New World. But most futurists believe that work will still be the only way to gain responsibility and power.

Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel predicts a highly structured future in which mankind has surrendered its rationality and liberty for vapid pleasures devoid of new ideas. Time continues:

Futurists are earnestly considering all kinds of worries: the possible failure of underdeveloped countries to catch up with the dazzling future, the threat of war, the prospect of supergovernment. Today’s ‘New Left’ predicts the need for political movements to break up big organization. But the skeptics are plainly in the minority. Some futurists, like Buckminster Fuller, believe that amid general plenty, politics will simply fade away. Others predict that an increasingly homogenized world culture—it has been called “the culture bomb”—will increase international amity…

Harvard’s Emmanuel Mesthene, executive director of a ten-year, $5 million program on Technology and Society commissioned by IBM, believes that for the first time since the golden age of Greece, Western man ‘has regained his nerve’ and has come to believe, rightly, that he can accomplish anything.

‘My hunch,’ says Mesthene, ‘is that man may have finally expiated his original sin, and might now aspire to bliss.’

Mesthene’s attitude and indeed the tone of the entire article is absolutely baffling today. In the 1960s, the United States was at the absolute peak of its political, economic and spiritual fulfillment. In less than four years after this article was published, that same nation put a man on the moon. Optimism was widespread throughout the culture. There was a belief that we could achieve anything, solve any problem, and that the future was so bright it would be unimaginable to most.

Russian American sociologist Pitirim Sorokin wrote in his 1941 book, The Crisis of Our Age, that mankind’s successes seemed “limitless.”

[W]e are proud of man. It is not strange that our culture has become homo-centric, humanitarian, and humanistic ‘par excellence’. Man is its glorious center. It makes him “the measure of all things.” It exalts him as the hero and the greatest value, not by virtue of his creation by God in God’s own image, but in his own right, by virtue of man’s own marvelous achievements.

It substitutes the religion of humanity for the religions of superhuman deities. It professes a firm belief in the possibility of limitless progress based on man’s ability to control his own destiny, to eradicate all social and cultural evils, and to create an even better and finer world, free from war and bloody strife, from crime, poverty, insanity, stupidity, and vulgarity. In all these respects we live, indeed, in an era of a truly great glorification of man and his culture.

Years ago I even remember reading how President Taft’s son, Charles Taft gave a speech in November 21, 1963 (the day before President Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas) about how mankind had escaped the ups and downs of “cyclical history.”

Clearly, Taft was wrong; the nation was merely in ascendancy at the time. By the mid-1980s, the nation had begun to move toward a nation that produced, to a nation that consumed. Deficits were larger. Finance was riskier, personal savings were declining. The abundance of the prior era was born of a generation’s steadfast efforts to live modestly and to deal with challenges directly. In George H. W. Bush’s words, his generation was inclined to “see life in terms of missions–missions defined, missions completed,” but future generations were increasingly disinterested in addressing the nation’s problems.

In the view of historians and economists William Strauss and Neil Howe, who predicted there would be a crisis back in 1997, the nation’s past success was leading to its undoing. To quote Scottish historian Alexander Tytler:

Great nations rise and fall. The people go from bondage to spiritual truth, to great courage, from courage to liberty, from liberty to abundance, from abundance to selfishness, from selfishness to complacency, from complacency to apathy, from apathy to dependence, from dependence back again to bondage.

And where are we now? Beginning in 2008 with the financial crisis, and now going on five years, we’ve seen economic stagnation even despite unprecedented economic stimulus. The nation has nearly doubled its total debt, now at about $18 trillion. If you count unfunded liabilities, it’s well over $100 trillion.

During this time, the employment population ratio has not moved at all, meaning the economy hasn’t added any new jobs after accounting for population growth (see this chart). The number of Americans on Food Stamps has doubled from 27 million to 48 million. One in 6.5 Americans are now on Food Stamps.

The Federal Reserve has set interest rates at zero percent for seven years and is printing money at a rate of $85 billion a month to keep long term interest rates suppressed. Global currency wars have broken out on a scale not seen in at least 40 years. Couple all of this with the knowledge that the government is massively corrupt and owned by Wall Street. And that’s just the beginning.

As many of our more astute cultural critics have noted, the nation has gone from having a sense of spiritual emptiness that epitomized the 80s and 90s, to a embracing a completely dejected and near apocalyptic tones. Peak oil theorist and writer James Howard Kunstler wonders why we haven’t had civil disorder on a broad scale yet. “Civil disorder would at least mean something. A consensus of dissatisfaction about how life is lived,” Kunstler writes. ”Instead, we only get mad outbursts of tragic meaninglessness: the slaughter of innocent children in school, or movie theater patrons mowed down by a lone maniac during the coming attractions.”

This feeling of wanting substantive action, of resolution, is not unjustified nor unexpected. It’s typical for collapsing societies to embrace the promise of burning down the house and starting from scratch. For many, it seems our only hope. Some are content to wait, hoping the system implodes upon itself, while others want to take more direct action. Author Chris Hedges notes that the poorest people are more likely to embrace violence and nationalism because they see it as the only way out.

“Violence is a frightening attempt, by those who are desperate and trapped, to escape through invented history their despair, impoverishment and hopelessness,” he writes. “It breeds intolerance and eventually violence. Violence becomes in this perverted belief system, a cleansing agent, a way to restore a lost world.”

While it is true that reform never comes without conflict of some kind, it’s never as glamorous, never as direct, and never as satisfying as the fools imagine. More often than not, it is a disaster, and that’s where we’re headed.

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