Last year, Nordstrom’s advertised jeans caked in fake mud for US$425 dollars, creating a storm on social media. It was but the latest micro-level sign – complementing a surfeit of macro indicators – that we live in a sort of end times in which the idiots have ascended and the masses are dosed up on bread and circuses; a period characterised by a rotten ruling class, infotainment, crumbling education systems (that do the opposite of preparing people for purposeful participation in civic life) and palliative consumption, the latter assuaging the banality of everyday life with ever-diminishing doses of dopamine.
The fake mud jeans, a grotesquely ironic garment manufactured by exploited labour yet channelling working class chic, are still in reach of some middle class consumers, albeit probably via credit and at around six times the minimum monthly wage in Bangladesh. Yet, this garment was striking for both hinting at and forgetting the working class; emblematic of the conveniently compartmentalised lives that many now live, that seamlessly leverage off incredible levels of ignorance (especially of social, political and environmental realities), cynicism, technology-fuelled escapism and debt.
At the top end of town, we are now presented with a truly surreal smorgasbord of hyper-decadent forms of luxury consumption and apocalyptic panic within the global elite – with both often combined into a hedonistic end times elixir. The most striking examples are perhaps the Silicon Valley libertarian elite variously buying large swathes of the land in supposedly safe and social democratic locations such as New Zealand and or plotting to place humanity’s survival on colonising distant and hostile planets.
In February 2017, media reports revealed that Peter Thiel, PayPal’s co-founder, Facebook’s first professional investor and a prominent Trump supporter, was granted New Zealand citizenship under ‘exceptional circumstances’ after he purchased a large property without requiring foreign investment approval. This revelation was met with nonchalance from within the tech elite, who retorted that purchasing a New Zealand property was simply code for ‘apocalypse insurance’.
While YouTube is now littered with everyman doomsday preppers, flogging both prepper-ware on eBay and knowledge of how to ride out the coming zombie-film-esque end by storing canned food, building a bunker and engaging in combat training and survival tactics, the Silicon Valley variant are evidently preparing their own airfields and keeping their aircraft fully fuelled.
All of this is happening instead of, for example, investing in proper social security systems funded out of taxing people precisely like Thiel; an approach built to avert apocalyptic uprisings by establishing the sorts of socially-grounded institutions that libertarians so despise. In essence, these supposedly smart Silicon Valley superrich – who despite being socially stupid, attract near-automatic reverence from many – spend their wealth on constructing high security prisons for themselves, while doing their bit to tear up social compacts that were won by working classes. Meanwhile, such hypocrisy has the added ‘bonus’ of challenging housing affordability in host countries, with new propertied classes and estate agents relishing in housing price increases while everybody else struggles with stifling rents and an inability to buy property in an environment of declining social mobility and stagnating wages, the latter fuelled by the sorts of policies that neoliberals and libertarians treasure so dearly.
At the same time, ultra-libertarians in the tech industry have made huge profits and increased share prices by selling high-tech surveillance systems to, and making Faustian bargains with, state agencies and supporting true idiocratic royalty, such as Donald Trump. Their proclaimed belief in radical ‘independence’ from the state is easily compartmentalised, mostly to the culling of any social services that impose costs on their ability to accumulate, and they easily turn a blind eye to the inconvenient manner in which populists like Trump advocate policies that are far from libertarian or neoliberal in nature. Indeed, their ability to accumulate such staggering wealth is often dependent upon the plundering of public budgets and delivering crucial infrastructure to strengthen repressive state apparatuses. On this front, Thiel’s company Palantir was contracted to build and maintain a new system to help the US deportation agency ICE to integrate data and establish a comprehensive surveillance of immigrants. And despite their ostensible brilliance, it is now apparent from the Cambridge Analytica and US election influence scandals that the vast social media systems that big tech have developed – systems that feed people much of their information about the world – are easily gamed and exploited.
In terms of compartmentalisation and contradiction, there are of course myriad, and seemingly more modest, versions, including the so-called ‘climate refugees’ and ‘falling stars’ – part of the new cashed up Chinese elite living in urban areas. These people respectively use their holiday time to go to countries like Iceland where the air is still clean or upload photos of themselves on social media falling out of German cars and the like with luxury items sprayed out in the most ostentatious, yet supposedly cute (read ‘infantile’), displays of wealth.
With the apparent impossibility of making companies in China adhere to environmental law in an if-it-grows-it-goes atmosphere (crucial to maintaining political legitimacy and accumulation and supplying the outputs that algorithms ensure consumers buy), the trip to Iceland or Wales during the Lunar New Year holiday has actually become a very popular option, which is seen as having the added bonus of contributing to the economy.
Indeed, business experts exalted the fact that during the 2017 Lunar New Year, climate refugees helped bolster the revenues of airlines and the tourism industry, while of course neglecting the inconvenient fact that these climate refugees were contributing to further climate change and pollution by massively boosting carbon emissions. And the lower classes haven’t been neglected in benefiting from market solutions to extant conditions. For the less well off in China, people can now purchase cans of fresh air from places such as – wait for it – New Zealand.
We could go on and expand the list of ridiculous scenarios that characterise the idiocene era: the Russian billionaire intent on reconstituting the Russian monarchy on a Pacific Island; Jeff Bezos’ plans to engage in space tourism; the Australian billionaire determined to build a replica of the Titanic; the blatant tax dodging and egregious corruption now found at the highest levels all over the place from Europe to Asia that seems to receive little more than a collective shrug or the endorsement of an often equally questionable reactionary populist politician.
The essential message here is that the global elite has become so detached from the workings of everyday life that its members appear to have no concern for notions of maintaining legitimacy. This is not just about politicians in Hong Kong, South Korea and the US who don’t know how to buy toilet paper or metro tickets (which shouldn’t be surprising given that they never use public transport or shop at convenience stores). It’s about a complete loss of ideological and political leadership amidst various grand economic, political and environmental crises combining to reinforce one another.
The complementary double to daft idiocratic luxury consumption is the idiocratic politician. Bequeathed to us by politicians such as Clinton, Blair, Obama, Hollande and Merkel of the ‘extreme centre’, as Tariq Ali has dubbed it, the original purveyors of false fixes who advanced progressively-packaged policies that actually increased inequality and precariousness for many, idiocrats like Trump, Bolsonaro, Modi, Erdogan, Duterte, and Le Pen are increasingly successful.
Political idiocrats like to trade off their status as outsiders and or being self-made, ignoring the usual etiquette of more established liberal elites. However, they have even less of a clue of how to deal with today’s problems than the pseudo-progressive politicians that they now replace. Indeed, the idiocrats are the political equivalent of the doomsday preppers: instead of facing fundamental problems, they deny them, or retreat to dog whistle ‘solutions’ such as national identity, religion or national security.
The idiocratic action plan hinges simply upon simulating the capability to act, presenting the appearance of being action men in a world that has escaped our control, as Eric Hobsbawm once put it, while they are in reality completely incapable of conceiving and addressing problems that are beyond efforts limited to the nation-state and their anachronistic ideologies.
That the global elite is moribund and bereft of solutions is on display for all to see, and this is potentially good news. It is the first serious step in creating a new world that works for the many rather than the few. However, truly progressive change demands ideological leadership and coordinated action to shake populations from bread and circus distractions and deep cynicism, the latter only finding solace in preparing for the end. It also requires solidarity against the powers that be, remembering that the only real solutions are political, demanding a rebalancing of power and a wholesale transformation in the institutions governing human activity.
It seems quite emblematic of the ideological limitations of the technology-and-science-can-fix-everything times that we live in, that the only idea that the late Stephen Hawking could come up with in early May 2017 to solve the grand crises facing humanity was to leave Earth altogether; a truly outlandish substitute now taken seriously by many for the actual necessity of getting rid of the global elite and the socially and environmentally destructive system that it defends.