Apocalyptic Anxiety and the Rumbles of Discontent: The Alienation Effect

Gregory Diamant
Monday, September 11, 2023


Near the end of Franz Kafka’s novel, The Trial, a prison chaplain calls out to the protagonist, Joseph K. ‘You don’t need to accept everything as true, you only have to accept it as necessary.’ ‘How depressing’, responds K. ‘It makes world order dependent on this lie’.

Of course, world order throughout history has always depended on lies: those lies our rulers tell us in order for us to obey, those we internalize that keep us from questioning too much, and those we tell each other that can give us a somewhat perverse satisfaction while creating a sense of community.

The pervasiveness of the internet and social media have facilitated the spread of useful information, lies and conspiracy theories that can proliferate at a rate that it would have been difficult for Kafka to fathom. We find ourselves dancing around a Bonfire of Inanities that generates much heat but little light. Perhaps we use the term Kafkaesque too liberally, but our regular encounters with opaque bureaucracies and the constant injunctions we take in as, to succeed (whatever that means) and to be happy (a word probably as difficult to define as love [here we need a poet]). And we must consume (a form of satisfaction and addiction) that leaves us content as we graze for what we can purchase with a click. Most of us gain little fulfillment from our work. No wonder many of us are confused and angry; we often turn to drink and drugs that stupefy us and help us deal with our pain and emptiness.

But I can’t seem to let go of Kafka: alienation, confusion and discontent are so much a part of his universe and so too of ours, that we need to delve a bit into our modern day swamp, into our collective and societal neuroses and try to look for a way out to dry land where we hope to regain our footing. And even if we do find an alternative path, some leeches are going to come along for the ride. And that is OK, so long as we acknowledge their presence as we create our future.

Remember that at the entrance to Hell in Dante’s Inferno there is a sign that reads, ‘Lasciate ogni esperanza, voi che entrare’. ‘Abandon all hope, you who enter here’. Dante did not abandon hope (although it was often severely battered) and neither should we although optimism (and pessimism) needs to be left at the side of the road. Both of those are sterile forms of thinking that put our critical facilities to an unwarranted rest.

The pervasiveness of fear, coupled with much insecurity in our work and personal lives, leads to the monsters that can haunt our waking, sleep and stupefied lives. We are under constant pressure to produce (at work and in our so-called free time) …what? At our work there is no such thing as democracy (or economic democracy). We punch in, we are told what to do and where to do it. We don’t own the tools we are using (and I am not just speaking of factory work but service work as well) and all too often there is a big eye watching us to insure that we are continually productive. Frequently we are asked to fill out forms with our opinions on the work we are doing; it is promoted as a way to make us feel part of a “team”, and identify with what is often meaningless work. It is mostly eyewash, a way for us to internalize the injunctions I mentioned earlier. It is a form of self-exploitation that can create a false sense of intimacy and identification between those who control the levers of power and the rest of us. And for many of those working in the service industry, the “customers” are asked to rate us: were we friendly, did we solve their problem, were we efficient? ‘On a scale of 1 to 5 please rate your experience.’ Even students today are defined as customers and rate their teachers/professors in the same way. So too the parents of minors in the educational system are given a false sense of control under a dubious rubric of “liberty” that is all too often a cover for censorship. Much of our lives are reduced to a statistical form via the meaningless collection of “data”; do we fall within the norm or are we part of the anomalies? What happens to those who fall outside the boundaries? Heavens, we don’t want to be classified as “losers” and perhaps lose our jobs.

Time and again, due to fear and the propaganda we have been absorbing during our lifetime we fall prey to a deadening conformity. The creativity that lies within us, that we can regularly observe with children at play, has been sucked out of us. Life should not be about conforming: we need to embrace the organized complexity of disorder, the hurly-burly of life. We experience this organized complexity of disorder as we walk on a street: traffic, pedestrians, the sounds of life that surround us. We should embrace this little bit of anarchy in our lives and be curious. It can be a refreshing break from the commands that our external and internal lives are continually giving us. Imagine if we could collectively decide what and how to produce, if democracy was a part of our daily lives and not just a false spectacle that we are a part of periodically, only later to feel the familiar pang of disappointment. Of course, we have to engage in difficult work and yes, there is a need for leaders. But who chooses them? When we are not a true part of the process of deciding how and what we produce, when we don’t own (individually or collectively) the tools we use, we are living in a state of alienation.

Simply put, alienation refers to something outside of us, outside of our control that yet seems an integral part of our lives. There are blind economic forces over which we seem to have no control that lead to frustration and despair. Quasi-religious fetishes are created to help us live and perform. As an example, terms like “the market” are used in vulgar formulations such as “the market decided”, and thus more austerity is needed. But truly shine a light on the term and it disintegrates like Dracula stepping out of his tomb at the wrong time due to a faulty watch. What is this thing that “decides” and then we suffer? Isn’t it an abstract concept that has no corporeality yet to which we assign earth shaking powers? Something alienated from our being, seemingly beyond our control. And ironically (and tragically), something we created….a god that lives on Mt Olympus and plays with us mere mortals.

So many of us suffer from loneliness; we are alienated from each other. We desperately seek and need connection. Social media offers us both positive and negative connections. But even the positive connections, such as meeting on Zoom or other video connectors, suffer from a false sense of intimacy,. Too many of our experiences are mediated by a digital device. All too often we live in an electronic bubble. We find ourselves walking on the street or a country lane but we can’t hear the sounds of the city or the countryside. We are alienated from nature too. Where does our food come from? How do we get the raw materials that we use to make stuff? What happens to waste? How do we connect to each other and to the natural world, of which we are a part?

We seem to suffer from a toxic individualism. We are reduced to a monad floating in space. Community is mostly defined by consumerism. Connections are frequently made through identification with celebrity culture (another form of consumerism). On social media (via an outgrowth of video games) we create avatars, a digital continuation and modification of what we humans have been doing for millennia via dress and jewelry, a practice that perhaps had been inspired by our observation of peacocks and other animals. But the whiff of anxiety and loneliness seems to pervade much of our present practice.

On another note, we drag the chain of conspiracy theory behind us as we trudge along. Of course, it makes perfect sense! WE can’t make sense of the world. We know we have been continually lied to (by our rulers and by our bosses, among others). We have been ill educated and the coin of trust has been severely debased. How can we discern the real from the false? And many of us question the concepts of truth and fiction. Alas, critical thinking is difficult and time consuming and not the type of consumption to which we are drawn. We live in the time of the Big Lie. And the command to enjoy permeates our air (along with other noxious pollutants). Kafka had it right: you don’t have to accept what is true, just what is necessary.

In the US and other Western nations we pride ourselves in the philosophical liberty that we enjoy. But doesn’t it cohabitate with gross inequality accompanied by dissatisfaction, alienation, suspicion and attendant conspiracy theories. But again, isn’t this “liberty” a part of the Big Lie? A minority of us participate in elections to choose our rulers who are supposed to represent our interests. Don’t so many of those running for office exhibit a pathetic insincerity? The interests they represent are of those with the money and power that they have accumulated via exploitation on multiple levels. Ethical and financial corruption is the yeast that leavens the bread of our so-called liberty. We live in a society of spectacles (and I don’t mean the ones that perch on the end of our noses). Our elections are like the Carnivals in which the common people could dress up and ape (and sometimes insult) their betters. But remember that Carnival is followed by Lent and repentance follows in its train. Our so-called philosophical liberty is embedded in a gangster state in which punitive measures and shame color its existence.

Our society seems to oscillate between two poles. On one side there is a braying triumphalism characterized by nationalism and toxic individualism (often accompanied by racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny and other unhealthy bacteria). On the other side lies dystopianism, not only embraced by many of us but also by billionaires (Elon Musk, anyone?) looking for another planet or a missile silo to escape to when the Apocalypse and its horsemen (climate change, famine, mass migration, etc.) arrive. No wonder we suffer from societal and individual anxiety. It consumes our souls. We frequently succumb to a form of apocalyptic mysticism as we search for answers. We shall micro dose our minds and spend our way to better health and gain the satisfaction of the acquisition of more stuff and be prepared for…what?

So much of what I have described are artefacts of the capitalist system in which we are embedded. Exploitation, destruction of so much of the natural world, toxic individualism, anxiety, loneliness, fear, societal neuroses and the spread of the socially illiterate are ripe. Certainly, this is a heady stew.

That leads us to the existential question: What is to be done?

Clearly, things cannot go on as they are. One can read in many compelling writings that capitalism, with its primeval drive to accumulate profit at any cost must be transcended. Its reckless destruction of our environment cannot be overcome by technological fixes alone…at best they can buy some time in limited ways. Many plants and animals are trying to adjust to the environmental crises via geographical movements but extinction is on the menu as is evolution (though constrained by time and geography). There is no doubt that we are going to see more famine, more migration and the development and spread of more disease. We must recognize that we humans are in control (that is why we are calling this age, The Anthropocene). Societal change is what is needed, not just for human health but for the health of our only home, Earth. Some believe that capitalism will collapse of its own accord and lead…where? But the ultimate limits of capitalism may not lie only in the “natural” world but subjectively within us. It is up to us humans to change the way we produce and jettison the concept of economic growth (i.e. unbridled accumulation) as the touchstone of our lived and economic existence. We shall have to change the way we relate to each other and to the natural world, both the animate and inanimate parts that make up our planet.

There is no cookbook, nor collection of recipes that we can follow to create a different world, a different way of relating. I only know that we and our descendants are the chefs who will have to be very creative and struggle and struggle to make the new. As I said earlier, some leeches will come along for the ride. We will have to know our history and through trial and error (much error, we are not gods…and anyway didn’t they make a mess of things too?) start to craft a healthier physical and social world. Courage and humility are needed.

Make a new world.

Make love, make friends and make jokes! Cosmic laughter is the background noise of the universe.