Decline is the Wrong Metaphor, A Storm is Better

There is a very important, unknowable question: Will the future be good, or bad?

It is, unfortunately, unanswerable, as are all questions about the future.  Past performance predicts future results—so far.   The Titanic was unsinkable, until it wasn’t.  All swans were white, as everyone knew—until some were black.

But the past is helpful in predicting the future most of the time.  If the line has been going down for the last sixty days, it will probably go down tomorrow.

And so, when we look around and we see a society getting worse, we extrapolate forward and see a decline.  And we are probably right.  Even if it doesn’t happen tomorrow, there are structural issues that show no sign of being fixed.  So if not tomorrow, next month, or next year, or decade, or century—who knows?  But we’re crusin’ for a bruisin’, that much we’re sure of.

But.  There is still more future left.  After the Big One (civil war?  credit crunch? earthquake?  tsunami?  nanobots?), will things get a) better, or b) worse?  How does the story end?

That’s an important question, because if it all ends in thermonuclear war, or even just eternal Mad Max, then what’s the point?  Why prepare for a future that won’t exist?

And so we come back to our original question,  and re-realize that it is

  • important (if ends badly, why waste all the effort now?)
  • unknowable (past performance is no guarantee of future results—although past performance indicates that we’re in trouble)

Taking a very (in my mind) rational view, Captain Capitalism has published a book embodying the look-at-things-so-far-stupid approach, titled Enjoy the Decline.  The thesis is that things are going downhill, so you might as well get as much out of life as you can in the meantime.

But can anyone really enjoy a decline?  I will certainly admit to an overly-developed sense of schadenfreude, but probably the worst thing about a decline is knowing that you’re living in a decline.  “What’s tomorrow going to be like?”  “Worse.”  “Oh…that’s, uh…great.”  As far as I can tell the EtD idea is to create a local pocket where things will be better each day, but only better as measured on a hedonism scale.  Trying to actually accomplish something is pointless, because any lasting good you might do will crash and burn with the stock exchanges.

But hedonism’s not good enough.  Man does not live on bread alone.  Humans require narrative—what is the point?   What is “all of this” leading toward?

 

“We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”

 

Fight Club describes a bunch of men who, lacking belief in God but still needing a narrative to sustain them, have it punctured by reality.

Little wonder, then, that is produced by a society that no longer believes in God (at least not seriously), and is having its alternative narratives (80’s: Me!  90’s: dotcom! 00’s: hmm… 10’s: uh oh…) popped one by one.

The important thing to understand about Fight Club is that they were right.  In a world governed by Ikea catalogs (in other words: no narrative), the plea to start the world becomes relevant.  Bread?  We’ve got iPhones, we have bread covered (for now).  But a future?  We rejected (and probably fear) the Second Coming, Mars is too expensive…House of Cards in your pocket, now there’s a future we can all agree on.  This future is a) unobjectionable, and b) quite obviously hell on earth.

I mean, ignore the basement fighting and the corporate sabotage and the workplace blackmail and coordinated vandalism for a moment.  It’s how you respond to things that determines who you are, but we don’t care who they are, we care about what they saw and what they were responding to, because we can notice it and not be them if we respond differently.  The rain falls on the just and the unjust, so you can at least trust the unjust about whether it’s raining or not.

I’m not saying anything new here.  All I’m saying is: the discontent, at least the sophisticated ones, are right.  Basically right.  Democracy leads downward, the sexual revolution leads to disaster, race matters more than we (self included) would like to think, immigration is going to screw us over.  And there is no way to reverse any of these things.

So that’s the rain.

But there’s a difference between a world-ending flood and a storm.  The difference, when it’s raining, is which you think it is.

So which do we think it is?  Are we facing a survivable storm, or the end of the world?

Where I live, we get some OK storms now and then.  Nothing too crazy, but maybe enough to make you drive a lot more carefully during the commute.  And it’s pretty nice to be in your warm house when it’s pouring outside.

The Decline is temporary.  It is temporal.  It is part of the world, not the whole world.

We should take it seriously, we should prepare, we should be generally sober-minded.  But then we should forget about it.  I imagine Christ shaking his head, saying, “Look, I’m glad you understand the world better now, but don’t forget that I’ve overcome it.  Gethsemene?  Calvary?  Those were hard, you know, and the whole point of them was so you didn’t have to get super down about all this stuff, so I’d appreciate it if you didn’t.”

So, let me spell out the future: a bunch of good and bad stuff happens, bla bla bla, then eternal happiness and immortality.  Not very exact, but certainly throws everything else into perspective, doesn’t it?

The other thing I want to mention is: the Decline does not drag every other narrative down with it.  You can not only play fun games and eat warm food during the storm, but you can write great novels and extend the garage.  It is possible to grow in the midst of rot.

Who’s dumber, the person who gets caught out in the rain and then frantically tries to get inside, or the person who, safe inside, concludes that the rain will last forever and commits suicide?  You don’t have to be either.

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