In my last essay I wrote about what I call the great decoupling, citing some examples of what I perceive to be an historical process which has culminated in a disjunct between narrative and reality. Here I’d like to delve deeper into the philosophical and historical underpinnings of this disjunct, and try and make some meaningful sense of how we got to here, and where we might be going from here.
"All that once was directly lived has become mere representation."
In his seminal situationist work The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord takes aim at the commodification of social life, describing it as "the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing." In Debord’s view authentic life has been replaced by representation, and relations between people by relations between comodities, causing human experience to be supplanted and impoverished, and knowledge, perception and critical thought to be degraded through a lack of authenticity. This certainly rings true of our present historical moment.
Debord’s thesis echoes that of another well known figure. A century earlier Karl Marx had proposed the idea of alienation to explain the experience of the labouring classes under capitalism. Marx argued that alienation from the self is a consequence of being a mechanistic part of a social class, a condition which estranges a person from their own humanity. Within the capitalist mode of production the worker becomes an economic entity whose activities are controlled by his employer in order to extract the maximum amount of surplus value. In this way the worker not only loses direct connection to the goods and service he creates, but also the ability to direct the course of his own actions, life and destiny.
Can Marx’s alienation be seen more broadly as a structural feature of modern society? Does his critique of capitalism explain the disjunct between society and spectacle? Is this the same disjunct which obtains between the stock market and the economy? Between the nightly news and what is happening in the real world? between the idea of a vaccine and what is really in the vial? Is this disjunct between reality and its representation the culmination of an historical process which begins with technology and industrialisation? Or do the roots of our current malaise go back further than this, perhaps to the European Enlightenment, to the protestant notion of individualism, the scientific ideas of atomism and materialism, the economic theories of markets and private property, and the ethical ideas of relativism and utilitarianism? What happens if we apply a Marxian reading to Marx’ own critique, as it were, and look at the social conditions which gave rise to capitalism in the first place?
“The meaning of history and progress was henceforth to "liberate the individual from all forms of collective identity" to the logical limit.”
Alexander Dugin argues here that the historical arc of liberalism began in the Middle Ages, reached its maturity in Modernity with the emergence of capitalist society, and is today is in its final stage.
Dugin’s timeline begins with a scholastic dispute between catholic theologians split between two schools of thought. The realists, proponents of the classical idea of universal forms espoused by Plato and Aristotle, and the nominalists, for whom only individual things and beings were real.
The nominalist school of thought eventually won out, paradoxically reaching its apotheosis with the destruction of the church as a collective entity, and the replacement of the social order of priests, aristocracy, and peasants by a new class of individuals “without clan, tribe or profession, but with private property.”
Just as the abolition of the Papal See which had united the Western Roman Empire gave way to the establishment of individual nation states consolidated under the Peace of Westphalia, so feudalism gave way to capitalism, which by the 20th century had become the dominant social, political and economic ideology, not just in Europe, but worldwide. In Dugin’s view the philosophy of Hobbes, Locke, Hume and Kant as applied by Adam Smith was nothing less than a “systematic implementation of nominalism” which became a coherent, systemic world view.
The picture begins to develop when we consider the current historical moment. The lonely individual, divorced from family, clan, and tribe, estranged from the fruits of his own labour, estranged it seems from even identifying with own biological sex, is now being forced to wear a mask at all times and to maintain 1.5 meters '“social distance” from other individuals. Does this not seem like the culmination of a long historical process? And where might this process lead to next?
“It is the fusion of these technologies and their interaction across the physical, digital and biological domains that make the fourth industrial revolution fundamentally different from previous revolutions.”
Just when you thought alienation could not go any further, along comes the Fourth Industrial Revolution™️ which promises to foist digital identities on every living soul through a global health passport ID system. As Naomi Wolf argues, once this platform is mandated, any functionality can be added and we’ll no longer be able to opt out. We’ll be forced to ‘agree’ in order to work, socialize, travel, or even have access to our bank accounts.
Just as the purpose of the manufactured pandemic was to sell us the vaccines, so the vaccines will be used to introduce medical (digital identity) passports, which will become a permanent record of our every movement, transaction and interaction, captured by a million billion interconnected AI devices. This will facilitate the implementation Klaus Schwab's oft touted “new social contract”, aka radical restructuring of the welfare state.
Once neoliberalism has trimmed the last ounce of fat from the carcass of the state, services previously provided by government will be delivered by private non-profits under performance-based contracts. Data collected about our lives and social relationships will be packaged into future debt projections of medical expenses, housing costs, food subsidies, education costs and so on. These ‘social impact bonds’ will then be securitised for hedge funds to trade off.
This is the much anticipated social credit system which is coming, whether we like it or not. We are about to experience Debord’s inverted image of society, but on steroids; a social relation among digital avatars, mediated by blockchain. About as decoupled from authentic life as it’s possible to get.
Anyone who’s seen the The Matrix (or any of dozen other dystopian sci-fis which come to mind) knows where all of this is leading. Whether the runaway train we’re on can be stopped is a whole different question. Schwab tells us that “the coronavirus pandemic marks a fundamental inflection point in our global trajectory.” I don’t think Herr Schwab has read a lot of history to be honest, because it seems to me this is where our trajectory has been leading us for a long time now.