When I was 19 and full of socialist fervor, I went to the Soviet Union to see the workers’ paradise. I spent most of the year on bread lines. And flour lines. And butter lines. My disillusionment was total. The Russian army was withdrawing from a ruinous war in Afghanistan. The economy was nearing collapse. The core beliefs that had served as a foundation for the society were daily being exposed as transparent lies. Drug addiction was rampant, something I couldn’t miss, living as I did across from the city drunk tank; screams filled the Krasnodar night. Bad as it was, no one dared recognize how bad it actually was: the country would shortly cease to exist. It was 1988.
Parallels to the U.S. are hard to miss. Our economic system has been revealed as a teetering house of cards. We are deepening our commitment to permanent war in the same region, one known as the graveyard of empires. The nation’s debt is now so large it can never be repaid, and a sovereign default, while not imminent, is nevertheless inevitable. The obviousness of this fact panics everyone, forcing the power holders to send spooky numerologists to utter magical numbers—to the delighted gasps of an audience that thrills at the setting aside of its own rational experience. More ominous, the beliefs that for sixty years have formed the ideological basis for the society are failing to cohere. The new reality—the reality of failure—cannot be integrated into the old symbolic order. Just as the nation’s new program reveals itself as an unmythical, unmagical struggle for brute survival, its past doctrine sharpens in the rear-view mirror: the expropriation of nature. That has been our real program. It is a game we will never win again, and in fact must lose if we are to survive.
In a Ponzi scheme, early investors reap rewards while later investors are shafted. Western economies, fueled by debt and unlimited consumption of limited resources, are Ponzi economies and will sooner or later collapse under their own weight. The victims of this scheme are the young. That this is perfectly foreseeable has not made it preventable. The collapse of the dominant order is far outpacing the thought or work of any of the interested parties. We acknowledge on the one hand the inevitability of the fall of the current economic model, and on the other hand the apparent impossibility of collective revolutionary action. As a result, the main characteristic at all levels of society is confusion and an acutely felt need for unconsciousness.
Some look to electoral politics for a way forward, but there, too, the leadership is failing. Lost in imagery and the critique of imagery, we have failed to notice that no party has acknowledged the real threats to our security—rising seas, permanent war, depleted resources, and a bankrupt central government—let alone put forward any strategy for addressing them. Politics is pretend. A magazine depicts the President in a cape. But Superman is a fictional character. And if Barack Obama is Superman, then Barack Obama is also a fictional character, as will become clear. He ran on a platform of hope; the cheapest liniment in the medicine show is now part of our palliative care. It does work at one thing, however: keeping people pathetically waiting for help from above. Show me a fighter who went into the ring with hope, and I’ll show you the loser on that particular card. No winner takes hope into the ring.
We live in a state of permanent falsification, our starkest fear that we will collectively awaken to reality as it is. To speak the truth is to sound insane. George Orwell once imagined a government that would (ludicrously) claim that ignorance is strength, yet my friends and family now say this to my face.
The truth is that our leaders’ every action worsens these conditions in a mendacious, murderous betrayal of the next generation. They have suggested no end game, leaving it up to the people, specifically to the young, who have one.
When the next generation is handed the keys to a broken, bankrupt nation sinking into a fishless sea, when they realize they’ve been ripped off, when they take to the streets—and they will—they will flood society with a mass of desires that cannot be realized by the current system, and they will call for a revolution in every aspect of human life. No one has succeeded at superseding capitalism, but they will have little choice but to try. Humanity’s future will depend on it.
What is the role of the artist at a moment like this? Should artists play the role of jester, preening in garish costumes and fright wigs, doing any dance, no matter how debased, that flatters the shrinking base of high-paying customers? Should we do new riffs on the triangle, on the color orange, make our brushstrokes go up instead of down? Stage mock sea battles between salt and pepper, making a mockery of real struggle (while of course coyly sneaking in ambiguous non-meanings as our “shocking” statements)? For examples of art’s irrelevance, you need only visit any art fair, gallery or museum chosen at random to see work that stands for nothing, made by people who stand for nothing. Art’s high value will not save it from being worthless.
It’s time for artists to reopen an old program: to see what is before us and to describe it pitilessly. Art must combat permanent falsification and seek to tell the truth of past, present and future events. And we must banish our false feelings of guilt for doing so. Art will become relevant only when it again becomes a threat to the established order. Art without threat is decor.
Ultimately this empty art will perish only with the society that created it. This day isn’t far off. Not long ago I watched my city sink into the sea. Here is what happened to the government: it disappeared. No police, no ambulances, no mail delivery. In its place came paramilitary units that operated under nebulous terms and killed civilians with impunity. Look to the future: look south. As coastal cities flood mid-century, governments everywhere will destabilize. Many will fall overnight. Most will experiment with authoritarian measures. All over the world, young people are gathering, talking, planning for this day. We are developing a politics without lies, without bribes and without false dreams. You see us on the news (our aims falsified, our beliefs trivialized). Generations Y and Z are preparing the ground for the greatest generation: Generation A. Let’s bury as much ammunition as we can, familiarize ourselves with the terrain, form columns—and live our lives with all the qualities of rage and disgust which we value.
This is my first, flawed attempt to describe a situation. Level your best arguments at it; if the ideas are bad, they should fall. But keep the vast drugstore of calmatives, along with the dusty tinsel and tattered flags of your broken world. This is not a phase but a new age. You can keep the past. We’ll take the future.
In the wasteland of a destroyed city, I and all my friends were handed our lives. And there remains a chance, however small, that in a potlatch of destruction we will discover the elusive national soul. While you hope and pray for a new world, we will be in the streets answering those prayers. And who answers prayers, but gods?
BECOME A GOD. FIGHT ON THE SIDE OF THE NEXT GENERATION.
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