“Just look at us. Everything is backwards, everything is upside down. Doctors destroy health, lawyers destroy justice, psychiatrists destroy minds, scientists destroy truth, major media destroys information, religions destroy spirituality and governments destroy freedom.”
I’ve been exploring and writing about the world’s “narrative breakdown” for years.
And yet if you had told me 2 years ago that the very institution of medicine would come under fire, I would not have believed you.
One by one the institutions of liberal democracy see their authority collapse in the eyes of the population.
The government? Corrupt.
The Justice system? A joke.
The media? Biased.
Medicine? Untrustworthy. What with Big Pharma in charge.
And nobody much cared so long as the population remained compliant. With no alternative system in sight, all people could do was comply. Their enthusiasm was not necessary, only obedience.
Then again, nobody expected a global pandemic.
Now it has become painfully obvious that the machine of everyday society cannot merely trundle on when a sizeable portion of the population is “disconnected” from it.
The Breakdown of the “Mainstream Story”
Let’s call it the “Mainstream Story”, a shorthand for the multitude of stories we grow up with that explain the world around us.
And let’s focus specifically on the narratives that explain our personal lives.
The “job for life” narrative.
The “marriage for life” narrative.
The “nuclear family” narrative. White picket fence, 2.4 kids, a mortgage, a pension, narrative.
The “poverty as moral failure, wealth as moral virtue” narrative.
The “government knows best” narrative.
The “science is trying to find ways to make our lives better” narrative.
The “medicine is invested in our health and wellbeing” narrative.
When the number of mainstream narratives that don’t apply to you personally grows, you will fall off the mainstream story.
When the gap between “what life is supposed to be” and “what life turns out to be” widens, we collapse into a space where nothing makes sense.
And when too many people are inside that space you end up with big trouble for society.
Narratives are Essential, We are Made of Stories
When the cultural narrative stops making sense, people will naturally build their own story to understand the world around them and their lives in it. This isn’t optional.
Narratives are essential for our wellbeing, we cannot simply “exist” just “because”.
When people cannot find a “job for life” or when they discover that marriage can end in divorce; when they’re looking at renting a single room in a house at their almost 40 years of age… this is the moment when they either create a new narrative, or succumb to the old. And I do mean “succumb”, for the old narratives don’t have anything nice to say about people who cannot build careers or get a mortgage.
Scratch underneath the garden variety neurosis of most people in the Western world and you will find people failing to map their lives into the stories they believed to be “how life is supposed to look like”.
The “incels” who grew up on a steady diet of media telling them they too would grow up to be superheroes and will get a blonde girlfriend like…
Or the young men who were raised on the myth of the American Dream, that they too could be successful, wealthy, famous, and now find themselves mired in ennui, insecurity, unemployment, and no opportunities to make something of themselves.
Or the women who grew up being told they could “have it all”, only to discover that they can’t.
Over and over our failure to live up to the stories we grew up with leads to misery. Such is the power of stories to shape our conception of reality, what to expect of ourselves and our lives.
If the narrative says “the world is getting better and better” and you find yourself on the wrong side of “better”, then you have 2 options: accepting the dominant narrative, and accepting its judgement of you as “failure” OR resisting and questioning the dominant narrative and searching for a new one.
This is not a really a choice. People will do anything to not feel bad about themselves, it’s normal and understandable. A healthy society should work for everyone. The mainstream narratives of a healthy culture should include everyone.
But ours doesn’t. And so, from inside this “non-choice”, people write their own version of reality.
And in the absence of any real “truth” to work with, they come up with nonsense, whatever “feels good” at the time. Truthy stuff.
Academia May Have Started It All
Now I want to make something clear: these alternative narratives are not “nonsense” because they come from the uneducated. This is what makes Covid denialism so difficult to pin down. Both the educated and the uneducated, the “left” and the right have been engaging in nonsense making for a while. It just so happens that some of it is sanctioned by Universities and and some isn’t.
The fine, ol’ tradition of making up your own reality is alive in well in almost everyone. I’m looking at you, students of the “Humanities”, clutching at Postmodernism and Queer Theory.
Indeed a strong argument could be made that the postmodern, university educated “left” is mad at the anti-science Covid denialists because they believe they and only they should hold the monopoly on “post truth”. Here, you can find Gary Lachman saying precisely that:
But what the men of ’68, who became the “tenured radicals” of the 70s and 80s, did not know was that their deconstruction of what they saw as an oppressive reality would not lead to the “progressive” society that were aiming at, but to something quite the opposite.
Because if reality is up for grabs, there is no telling who will grab it.
“Because if reality is up for grabs, there is no telling who will grab it.”
Put a pin in this one.
this suspicion of once trusted sources was allied with a mind so open to a variety of “conspiracy theories” that it was ready to swallow practically any “alternative” account, as long as it contradicted whatever the “official” one was.
Lachman draws a neat line between the deconstructionists and postmodernists and… Donald Trump.
To summarise: the Woo Woo World, the “Consciousness Community”, the Spiritually inclined, is the un-official version of the deconstructionism and postmodernism of academia. They share the same origin. Whereas one says “your thoughts create your own reality” the other claims that grand narratives are essentialist, that “the notion that, (…) things, ourselves included, do have an essence, a nature, that is not historically or culturally produced, is seen as the source of a kind of “metaphysical imperialism,” an expression of the will to power, to dominate”.
Does This Mean that Everyone is Wrong???
Well, if you are me, then yes.
Why am I not insane, you may wonder… Because I look at the economy.
See, there are two kinds of people, and only two kinds: Marxists, and people who don’t understand economics.
If you study economics suddenly everything becomes clear. You can see straight away that the Woo Woo Covid-denialists and the liberals who love to hate them are all on the same side. Just get them talking about economics.
Economics is not a science, but physics is, and economics has been going against physics for a long time now. So even those who cry “trust the science” are not really doing so because they are not raising the alarm on just how far the economy is from any sound scientific basis.
But I digress.
I think the absence of a real, political alternative is making everyone insane. One side, the liberals, end up projecting all kinds of neurosis on the “other side”, magical solutions, elections, “green new deals” that will never happen.
The other side, fed up with the status quo, is reaching further and further into fascism or insanity, which are really the same thing.
On the one hand we have the people believing in fantasies about the superiority of “liberal democracy” over all possible systems, with their conviction that it will get us out of this mess somehow.
And on the other hand we have the people who will blame refugees, the employed, the unemployed, Europe, Non-Europe, lizards, vaccines, Soros, WHATEVER, and who believe that if only we got rid of the “bad apples”, everything would be fine..
There is no iota of sanity left in the house. And yes, I feel very lonely.
Oh, sure, of course, most people will immediately assume that the “liberal” side is the adult, sane, responsible side. Well, it isn’t. Sorry.
The liberals are just as delusional as the lizard-blaming people, it’s just that their delusion is safely backed by the Big Institutions that make up our society. They are lizard-blaming people with careers and mortgages. But they’re delusional nonetheless.
I’ll say it again: the absence of a real, political alternative is making everyone insane.
It’s not just that people cannot see anything getting better anytime soon; it’s that they cannot begin to imagine what “better” would look like.
So… What’s the Answer?
The collapse of the legitimacy of mainstream institutions is not going to disappear, no matter how hard the liberals wish it so.
People have a right to question the narratives they have been fed their whole lives when those narratives no longer apply to their lives.
Here’s a quote from Joseph Campbell (via Derrick Jensen, whom I love)
"For those in whom a local mythology still works, there is an experience both of accord with the social order, and of harmony with the universe.
For those, however, in whom the authorized signs no longer work-or, if working, produce deviant effects-there follows inevitably a sense both of dissociation from the local social nexus and of quest, within and without, for life, which the brain will take to be for 'meaning'."
That’s the task before us. Those of us who are standing at the margins of society must go through this dark process where nothing makes sense and emerge on the other side with something new.
Covid denialism isn’t “new”. It is precisely what you can expect of a group of people who don’t want to accept that things have changed. Who resist that space where the mainstream narrative has collapsed, where nothing makes sense.
And so they cling to what they want to believe: that willpower alone can protect you from illness, that you are lord and master of your own destiny, that freedom is determined by the degree to which you are not held responsible for the wellbeing of the collective… that you are an island and answer only to yourself.
These half-baked misguided spiritual ideas will not serve us. They serve Capitalism, they serve the far-right, they serve the people claiming that any and all government intervention is suspect (an argument they never make when said government dishes out money to private corporations).
We need something new.
I don’t know what that will be… yet. I think we’re all going to have to be a little uncomfortable for a while and stay in that space of “I don’t know”.
Maybe something will emerge from it.
In the meantime, wear a mask, get vaccinated, and for Heaven’s sake, stop listening to Covid denialists.
Hat tip to “Last Born in the Wilderness” podcast, an absolute treasure of a resource, for introducing me to Gary Lackman. Click here for the episode.
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