Back around the turn of the 20th century, all advanced-thinking goodpersons were worried that the human race was devolving. The classic literary expression of this fear was H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine. Wells, a Socialist, thought he was writing a vicious critique of the English class system. It’s also that, but more importantly, it’s a serious meditation on the dysgenic effects of plenty. We, as a species, simply aren’t built for permanent caloric surplus.
Wells’s Eloi are like little children… autistic children. An early, shocking scene shows the Time Traveler saving one of them from drowning.
It happened that, as I was watching some of the little people bathing in a shallow, one of them was seized with cramp and began drifting downstream. The main current ran rather swiftly, but not too strongly for even a moderate swimmer. It will give you an idea, therefore, of the strange deficiency in these creatures, when I tell you that none made the slightest attempt to rescue the weakly crying little thing which was drowning before their eyes.
The other Eloi barely seem to realize that Weena is drowning, which is bad enough. Worse is the fact that they’re too physically weak to save her even if they want to. Even worse, is the fact that they can’t even be bothered to try. They’re so completely creatures of the moment that Weena’s peril doesn’t even register.
This, Wells suggests, is what permanent plenty does to us. Which, of course, sets up the worst revelation: That the Morlocks are actually farming the Eloi for food. The Time Traveler understands this. The Eloi don’t, because they can’t.
I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that modern life has a strong Eloifying effect. I wrote “autistic children” for a reason. So many modern behavioral symptoms simply make no sense, except as our basic monkey hardware short-circuiting. We’re built for a high-threat, resource-scarce environment. To function properly, we need a certain level of stress (called eustress, e.g. the constructive stress of weighlifting that causes muscle growth). If we don’t get it, we either freak out and manufacture some (the whole litany of First World Problems)… or the whole system shorts out and shuts down (autism spectrum disorders).
Worse yet, all our institutions are built to accommodate creatures such as we were, but no longer are. The social contract theory of government is the most obvious example, but it applies to all aspects of social organization. The Soviet system’s main problem, for instance, wasn’t anything so highfalutin’ as “lack of freedom.” Read up on the New Soviet Man, then look around at the large and growing American underclass. What Lenin Stalin dreamed of giving to the
slaves proletariat of Magnitogorsk, Phil Knight and Steve Jobs has given to the homeboys of Baltimore. They’re perfectly happy to let the government run their lives for them, so long as their iPhones get an update and their Air Jordans a redesign every few years.
(As the lifestyle of the American nomenklatura is both obvious and enraging, let’s spare our blood pressure and move on).
“Freedom,” indeed, is an all-but-meaningless concept in a land of perpetual plenty. What’s the point of doing things for yourself, when everything you could ever want is provided to you? I’m seriously asking, because I promise you this: No one under the age of 40 has ever given it a passing thought. I’ve taught a lot of history to a lot of undergrads, and I’ve never once seen the light go on when talking about stuff like the American Revolution. It just doesn’t compute on some fundamental level. The colonies were peaceful and prosperous. They had everything they could ever materially want. What the fuck were they so worked up about?
Worse yet, “effectively meaningless” becomes “completely meaningless” when you throw in the state’s surveillance capacity. 1984 is a great polemic that everyone should read, but as a novel it’s shit. The whole plot revolves around… can you remember? An old, blank notebook made of fine paper that Winston Smith finds in an antique shop when he’s out browsing in a prole part of town. He’s only able to write in it because there’s a small corner of his room that is out of the telescreen’s range. Both are necessary plot contrivances, but both are ludicrous — no minimally self-respecting totalitarianism would’ve tolerated either. A totalitarianism with Big Brother’s level of tech would automatically flag an Outer Party member going into a prole area, or not being in full view at all times.
Even more ludicrous is Big Brother’s belief that he has to be oppressive at all. To be fair to George Orwell, the actual totalitarianisms of his time shared this belief, too. Josef Goebbels poured untold millions into the Reich Culture Chamber, which forbade and censored and cranked out all kinds of heavy-handed propaganda. What he should’ve done, of course, was let the glitterati’s natural self-righteousness kick in. Hollywood’s deliriously happy to propagandize for free — indeed, as box office returns for the latest batch of SJW agitprop confirms, they’re more than happy to pay for the privilege. So, too, will the Junior Volunteer Thought Police, aka Faceberg and Twatter. If you recruit, train, and pay an NKVD goon, you’ve just given him (what he sees as) three great reasons to gripe about you. Let him act like he’s doing you a favor, though, and he’ll do twice the work, for more hours, for free, and never utter a bad word about you….
See what I mean? In times of permanent surplus, there’s only fake drama and autism. Homo economicus is a real thing, kameraden, and we are him. We’ve “evolved,” god help us all. Our social arrangements will evolve with us eventually.Loading Likes...