by John Rember
"I’ve been reading R.D. Laing again, mostly when I wake up at 3 a.m. and worry about how long it will be before Social Contract Capitulation. That’s when people sliding toward the bottom of the human pyramid give up, cash out their remaining 401(k) funds, use it to buy an assault rifle and a cookbook, and start researching how to field dress their neighbor’s Bichon Frise.
Worrying about pyramids causes me to also worry that if the American Federal Reserve ever loses its ability to prop up the economy, the largest employer in America will not be the Federal Government but Amway Corporation. That might not be all bad if you’ve correctly timed your entry into the Amway family. Amway can’t really lay you off once they’ve sent you a pallet of household detergent and cosmetics, especially if you’ve taken the time to hide it all in a safe place.
Unsold Amway products will form the nucleus of a new barter economy, which is how goods and services will be distributed after global capitalism finishes making like genetically-engineered oil-eating bacteria. As the oil economy starts winding down, your regional Amway dealer will likely send you a railcar full of unsold diesel pickups to distribute to your friends and family one tier down the pyramid. You’ll be able to trade them for food just as soon as folks learn how to fashion crossbows from leaf-springs. One of the most valuable things you can have in a world where the Social Contract has broken down is a good place to hide stuff. The Swiss have known this for years. Their best customers reached Social Contract Capitulation long ago. But in a good way.
It’s thinking like this that wakes me up when it’s dark outside and going to stay dark for another four hours. So I turn on a reading lamp, and pick up R.D. Laing. Laing isn’t an economics pundit. He’s a British psychiatrist, a dead one, except at 4 a.m. on dark winter mornings, when he comes back to life, sheeted and gibbering.
One of Laing’s foundational ideas is that we humans create false selves to satisfy the demands of our culture. But a false self, and the story we tell about it, alienates us not just from our real self but from the natural world and from other people and their real selves. Laing says that this process of creating a false self makes us lonely to the point of psychosis. Bad craziness begins when we start to think our false self is our real self, and that the story we’ve made up about it is true. We starve our authentic self to feed the false one. We forego an authentic world and authentic relationships to live in ones that we’ve constructed out of wishes and lies and projection.
It happens no matter how smart you are. In fact, one of the side-effects of being highly intelligent is that your false self and made-up world are better and less subject to breakdown than the false selves and made-up worlds of people less intelligent than you. If you’re of genius-level intelligence, your false self is likely smarter than any other false self you encounter. In philosophical terms, this is known as winning the booby prize.
You seldom glimpse your false self when you look in the mirror, but you can see it when it happens to other people. For example, Ernest Hemingway spent his life constructing a writer’s self and its accompanying story about a wounded guy who never complained. When self and story broke down under the pressures of age and alcohol, there was nothing left to sustain his real self, and no real self left to sustain. His shotgun merely provided punctuation for a sentence already complete.
While R. D. Laing is concerned with individuals driven crazy by their false selves, the current economic and ecological crisis has made me realize that technological civilization also has a false self and a false story to back it up. For fifty years now, we have been telling ourselves that we’re richer than we are, that we can steal from unborn great-grandchildren, that we stand for the noble cause of human freedom, that our economic system isn’t subject to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, that we’re mining and consuming inexhaustible resources according to their highest and best use.
Our real story is different, because our real self spends more than it makes. It approves the torture of detainees. It investigates the geology of countries before it invades them, because it has wasted most of its oil. It tolerates the manipulation of markets and tax codes that result in the working poor, who aren’t free, and the idle rich, who lack the sort of purpose in their lives that would allow them to do something constructive with their relative freedom. It turns its gaze away from observable phenomena when they contradict projections of economic growth and technological triumph.
Laing would say we’re in the process of discovering that we’re nuts. Hard facts are beginning to destroy the myths we’ve lived by. When George W. Bush called the American Constitution just a piece of paper, and America’s Supreme Court proved him right, all of technological civilization took a giant step toward reality. Another giant step came when America’s military got away with violating the Geneva Conventions. Another came when American politicians enacted more tax cuts and higher spending, which means we’ve realized that in an inflationary economy wealth is debt, and debt is wealth.
We’ve reached Capitulation Level with our cultural story. We’ve stopped believing in things we cannot touch or see, and a bleak, pragmatic survivalism has taken hold, even in that Font of Narrative called the Oval Office. It’s a good thing, because it’s the start of sanity. But sanity is an inhospitable environment for technological civilization. It’s an inhospitable environment for any civilization.”