“Greed is good,” Gordon Gekko told us in 1987 (echoing and perhaps parodying Ayn Rand‘s long-running, uber-egoistic economic cant). For all we know, he may be gearing up to deliver us a repackaged version of the same message later this year when Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps hits theaters. But regardless of what Gekko’s message in that forthcoming sequel may turn out to be, there’s another message that is gearing up for a major groundswell right now, and its orientation is not in question. It can be phrased as a modification of Gekko’s famous maxim: Gloom is good.
I say this based on just two pieces of evidence, but both of them fascinate me — especially since they hail from diametrically opposite ends of the socio-political ideological continuum — and I have a gut feeling that they will soon be joined by more items pointing in a similar direction.
The first is John Derbyshire’s We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism. I became alerted to Derbyshire‘s existence and writings last September when he mentioned H.P. Lovecraft, whose appearances in public discourse I am always assiduously following, and who, as it turns out, Derbyshire has rightly regarded for some years as a fellow conservative and fellow pessimist who held a cheerfully grim view of the human prospect. Such an attitude and temperament is entirely congenial to Derbyshire’s own, and thus there’s no surprise in the publication of the man’s new book, which is dedicated to the proposition that “the conservative movement has been derailed, by legions of fools and poseurs wearing smiley-face masks.” He argues that “conservatism has been fatally weakened by yielding to infantile temptations: temptations to optimism, to wishful thinking, to happy talk, to cheerily preposterous theories about human beings and the human world,” and it can therefore “no longer provide the backbone of cold realism that every organized society needs.” Obviously, the book is diametrically opposed to the tenor of the interminable Obama campaign — a fact that’s brought home by Derbyshire’s use of exclamations such as “No, we can’t!” and charming terminological reversals such as “The audacity of hopelessness.”
I bought the Kindle edition a few days ago and am positively reveling in the man’s incisive humor and sharp thinking. The book is both laugh-out-loud funny and quite thought-provoking with its heavily researched and serious call to abandon vapid optimism and embrace a serious realism in the form of a fundamental pessimism about human affairs.
Here’s a current favorite passage from chapter three, which is winningly titled “Politics: Show Business for Ugly People.” The topic is the quantifiable devolution of presidential rhetoric toward triviality and idiocy in recent decades:
William Henry Harrison, in his fatal inaugural address, likened liberty to “the sovereign balm for every injury which our institutions may receive.” George H. W. Bush, in his inaugural address, likened it to a kite. “Freedom is like a beautiful kite that can go higher and higher with the breeze,” he proclaimed. We may be only a president or two away from hearing liberty compared to a chocolate fudge sundae.
Second, there’s Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, written by one of the most visible champions of progressive social and economic thought in recent years, Barbara Ehrenreich. According to the official description, the book “exposes the downside of America’s penchant for positive thinking: On a personal level, it leads to self-blame and a morbid preoccupation with stamping out ‘negative’ thoughts. On a national level, it’s brought us an era of irrational optimism resulting in disaster.”
I was alerted to its existence by Kerry Howley’s thoughtful review at Reason.com, titled “It Takes a Village Atheist: Barbara Ehrenreich’s jeremiad against cheerful thinking.” Howley summarizes how Ehrenreich was inspired to write the book when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and subsequently found herself ensnared in a Kafka-esque world of enforced optimism among her doctors and fellow cancer sufferers, who rejected any budding expressions of unhappiness or negativity out of hand and tended to condemn and exclude those who persisted in such folly. Ehrenreich traces this attitude through American evangelicalism and economic thought, focusing on the obvious effects of such “irrational exuberance” (I don’t know if she uses that term itself) in, for instance, the financial markets.
And I, to highlight the obvious point, find the near simultaneous arrival of these two books — We Are Doomed hit bookstores in September 2009, Bright-Sided in October — to be more than a little noteworthy. Here’s hoping we’ll see a healthy slew of such writings throughout the new year. (Actually, for all I know this may already be occurring; I didn’t check before composing this post.) For the past couple of years the propaganda about an economic “recovery” has been polluting public discourse, mostly courtesy of mainstream financial and economic voices and, of course, government leaders at both the federal and state levels. The word “recovery” implies the re-attainment of a former state of healthfulness. The United States has been anything but healthy, economically speaking and in all sorts of other ways, for a very long time now. President Obama, as James Howard Kunstler pointed out in his recent forecast for 2010,
speaks incessantly and implausibly of ‘the recovery’ when all the economic vital signs tell a different story except for some obviously manipulated stock market indexes. You hear this enough times and you can’t help but regard it as lying, and even if it is lying ostensibly for the good of the nation, it is still lying about what is actually going on and does much harm to the project of building a coherent consensus. I submit that we would benefit more if we acknowledged what is really happening to us because only that will allow us to respond intelligently. What prior state does Mr. Obama suppose we’re recovering to? A Potemkin housing boom and an endless credit card spending orgy?
It’s time for a new realism. Gloom is good, especially amid current circumstances. The fact that this recognition is erupting on both the right and the left bodes well.
Here’s the perfect reality check for all of the current ill-conceived hopes for a swift economic “recovery,” defined as a return to our previous bubblicious state of unfettered (and, as it turned out, fake) economic growth and “greed is good”-induced cultural mania:
“For a happier life, shake off your misplaced optimism” — Financial Times, April 30, 2009
It’s a brief essay by Swiss writer, philosopher, and television host Alain de Botton, who commands a magnificent grasp of the idiocy of modern Western corporate/consumer culture. He begins his essay by locating all of the recent media chatter about “signs of hope and recovery” in stark historical context:
It has been clear for a while, at least since the first talk started about “green shoots” of recovery, that what we have to fear above all is hope. Attempts to trust that the worst is over and to stop frightening ourselves seem doomed to project us into yet worse disappointment. We are not only unhappy but — believing calm and happiness to be the norm – unhappy that we are unhappy.
It is time to recognise how odd and counter-productive is the optimism on which we have grown up. For the last 200 years, despite occasional shocks, the western world has been dominated by a belief in progress, based on its extraordinary scientific and entrepreneurial achievements. On a broader perspective, this optimism is a grave anomaly. Humans have spent most of recorded history drawing a curious comfort from expecting the worst.
He goes on to sketch the way of inner-peace-through-active-resignation advocated by the ancient Roman Stoics, and augments this by applying it directly to current circumstances:
Because we are hurt most by what we do not expect, and because we must expect everything (“There is nothing which Fortune does not dare”), we must, argued Seneca, hold the possibility of the most obscene events in mind at all times. No one should make an investment, undertake to run a company, sit on a board or leave money in a bank without an awareness, which Seneca would have wished to be neither gruesome nor unnecessarily dramatic, of the darkest possibilities.
He also touches briefly on Christianity:
Christianity only backed up the Stoic message. It pointed out that while humans might strive for perfection, it is a problem — indeed a sin — to suppose that such perfection can ever occur on earth. Nothing human can ever be free of blemishes. There cannot be an end to boom and bust, mayhem and death.
And he does a masterful job of using all of this to expose the sham of our contemporary bourgeois worldview that elevates a cheap and uncritical optimism to the status of self-evident axiom:
When an exception is misrepresented as a rule, our individual misfortunes, instead of seeming to us quasi-inevitable aspects of life, weigh down on us like particular curses. In denying the natural place reserved for longing and disaster in the human lot, the bourgeois ideology denies us the possibility of collective consolation for our fractious marriages, unexploited ambitions and exploded portfolios, and condemns us instead to solitary feelings of shame and persecution for having stubbornly failed to make more of ourselves.
What’s left for me to say but, “Amen, world without end”?
Especially when de Botton has also called a spade a spade in talking about the insanity and ugliness of life in the modern corporate office, as reported in an April 23 story at one of Australia’s main news sites: “Upbeat office culture fake and creepy, says Alain de Botton.”