Every political pundit (or even remotely connected cultural pundit) is tying themselves up in knots to find the reason(s) -- we know it's complex, yet cannot seem to stop ourselves from Finding The One True Reason behind all things -- behind the sheer absurdity of this U.S. presidential election. No one can find the meaning in Election 2016, because we appear to have hit Peak Meaninglessness.
It is the moral equivalent of the 2007-8 financial disaster we also fomented: overweaning hubris and overconfidence in our ability to book tomorrow's profits, today. We so strongly believe in the Power of Progress to make us better people that, combined with our increasing impatience for the Glorious Future, we simply demand to leverage our Future Awesomeness, Right Now. Why wait? Technology helps create the illusion that we can Be Anything we want, whenever we want, as quickly as we want, simply by thinking it so -- and without all the pesky drudgery of having to wait for it, like unsophisticated people once had to do back in ancient times.
Increasingly, it promises to unmoor us from the reality of dealing with reality at all. Pessimism, too, is seen as the stuff of backwater Luddites -- after all, how can one mount any successful critical thinking in the face of so many blindingly intelligent leaders (also: blindingly white and wealthy) who claim that the solution to all of our problems is literally just ahead of us? Just apply a little mental leverage and we're basically there already -- despite what your gut tells you or what your actual everyday experience shows. So, when confronted with the discrepancy between what is happening Out There and what our brains believe we must already have eradicated through Progress, we come unhinged.
What could help us: A return to values
Starting in the 1970s, we took at first a slow turn and then a sharp acceleration into the financial policies of neoliberalism and its accompanying worldview: an unshakeable faith in the power of free markets to deliver absolutely everything we may ever need. The monetarist conviction that all of humanity can be made to operate tirelessly and without end: simply by making a few tweaks here and there to the global money supply, the masses will continue to dance an infinite dance of global enrichment -- though one not quite evenly distributed in its outcomes.
Despite many sophisticated mechanisms of portraying the story favorably to those who haven't meaningfully shared in the benefits of these economic policies over the past ~40 years, there is yet a deeper problem that Americans in particular are primed to at least feel, if not be in command of cerebrally (by design: the obfuscation is in many ways intentional): the complete and total hollowing out of all other human values once held dear to civilization -- indeed, the unifying forces that once were the impetus behind the creation of civilization itself.
Meaning. Purpose. Fulfillment. Integrity. Fairness. Compassion. Empathy.
We can't trade them on a market, and in a worldview completely dominated by market forces as both an overarching narrative and goal state, they are almost literally valueless. They are like "human dark matter" -- invisible "stuff" that is really the most vast quantity of material in the universe. We can neither measure nor predict them -- rendering them singularly uninteresting to the demands of data and algorithms, whose demands for More Numbers increase day by day.
It is not enough for us now, in our advanced sophistication, to simply Make Progress. To deliver on our earlier promises requires an ever increasing acceleration of Progress; if it feels a bit stressful, as if we're getting ahead of ourselves, it's because we are -- and we no longer even know where we're going, or why we wanted to get there in the first place. Those at the vanguard of creating this utopian new world are practically beside themselves about the affront of being occasionally distracted by the problems they have almost furiously solved already. Those continuously rejected by the vanguard for being less skilled wonder what kind of place they may have in the new order, if any.
In our haste to solve problems, we have a strange tendency to forget why they ought to be solved. We can find enough pleasure in the act of problem-solving itself that frantically-produced solutions become a sort of addiction of their own, divorced from their origins. We are clever enough to begin manufacturing the kind of problems we know we can solve, just to enjoy the elation of solving them. We suffer greatly from Hero Syndrome.
Could there be a Singularity of Meaning?
It is possible that we have become so devoid of values that Election 2016 is our reward. It is a farce tantamount to a black hole we try desperately to project sense onto, but receive no reflection for our efforts.
Perhaps this is a moment of Singularity for Meaning: in Baudrillard's view, we may be crossing over into a world of pure simulacra -- forever separated from any original referent. So great is our power of symbolic manipulation and control that we seek to fully reject the confines and downsides (and risk, especially risk) of Actual Reality in lieu of the Virtual; and other seemingly unrelated developments may point in this direction as well.
It is a time that warrants greater caution, but we are impulsive creatures who do not view our impulsiveness as a problem to be solved. Instead, impulsiveness is used as the fuel for an economic engine that must continuously find new frontiers whether they exist or not; accumulate and produce knowledge whether it is accurate or not; and convert natural resources into products whether anyone needs them or not.
Anything that interferes with this process, now flying at ludicrous speed, is a distraction we Do Not Want. Government is something other people should do, somewhere else -- undoubtedly poorly, to our sophisticated judgment. Its role is to work tirelessly, somewhere in the background, shuttling us to and fro in our earnest endeavours at problem solving. We no longer see ourselves as having any kind of civic duty, or governance as a reflection of ourselves, as those who founded the nation once did.
Yet somehow, we're still surprised that our absence from civic life and full absorption into private enterprise fails to produce a public sector that Just Works. Because in our minds, we've already created a system in which everything Just Works, and find it increasingly difficult to remember the physical limitations of Actual Things.
To counter hubris: humility
Things get stranger, closer to the event horizon. Armed now with the tools to project our thoughts into The World at all hours of day or night, we do -- and believe they have an impact. How great of an impact we believe our thoughts can have is dependent on our past experiences, expectations and ambitions, and the size of our egos. Through this mechanism the presidential election becomes whatever we want it to be, and whatever we say it is: shock doctrine, snoozefest, end of days, return to greatness, road to ruin -- or all of the above.
It represents the winnowing away of our national stock of moral fiber, built up over centuries yet -- like fossil fuels -- depleted swiftly: securitized, repackaged, derived, rated AAA, and sold all over the world.
It is a reflection of our character; our anguish; our collective unease at being collected together with so many people we distrust -- our leaders most of all. It is a conduit we pour all of our anger and frustration into, hopelessly, with little expectation of any good outcome.
Or, we may completely ignore the theater and keep our heads down to scurry more swiftly in the maze without the distraction of having to think about the theatrics that keep us running, and persuade us that it is too difficult a course to change. That having a ready-made track to run on must surely be better than the terrifying responsibility of being the kind of free-range humans who would chafe at the bit, and break through the fourth wall into the wild unpredictability and uncertainty of the meadow beyond.
Mostly, it is our own ego come home to roost. No longer humble in the face of God and finding nothing to replace him, we've taken up the mantle as Creators ourselves -- with all the terrible responsibility it entails. That we haven't managed to annihilate ourselves yet is cause for so much self-congratulation that we can barely admit some imperfection yet remains.
Our newfound religion of Rugged Individualism has roots older still than its recent crystallization, into a decades-long stroking and stoking of millions of tiny narcissistic fires, all of which demand our moments of heroism, some great reward, and a 3000-square foot pyramid or two to call our own and serve as a physical memorial to help us transcend death.
We've gotten what we deserve. Now, to get out of it...