Pessimism abounds. From the election of Donald Trump in 2016, to climate crisis, to antibiotic resistance, nuclear war and the end of capitalism, contemporary discourse is dominated by the language of uneasiness and apprehension.
It is taken for granted that civilisation is on the precipice of disaster. Optimistic voices can still be found, if one searches judiciously for them, but these are typically drowned out by jeremiahs and their terrifying predictions of impending doom.
We are living through another Morbid Age, as the historian Richard Overy named his 2009 book about the fear and paranoia that gripped British intellectual life in the years between the wars. The difference today is that fears of war, eugenics and psychoanalysis have given way to fears around climate catastrophe, immigration and the collapse of capitalism.
Referencing a quote by the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, who, while studying at Cambridge wondered whether very soon he and his contemporaries might be dead, Overy’s book asks why so many in the 1930s were ready to contemplate “the death of civilisation in a country whose political and social system has proved almost impervious to the savage violence and upheavals that scarred the history of the rest of Europe”.
Hobsbawm’s fear of imminent catastrophe was more understandable, perhaps, in 1939 when Adolf Hitler had recently annexed Czechoslovakia. But many similar sentiments appear in the media today. Moreover, they are often espoused with undisguised relish. A period of supposedly relentless advance — in this case the Nineties — has given way to a prevailing paradigm of decline and collapse.
Trump has provided the lightning rod for much of the recent catastrophism. “People aren’t wrong to point out that Trump certainly appears similar to Hitler in some ways,” wrote the former deputy editor of the Guardian opinion pages, Kira Goldberg, shortly prior to Trump’s election.
Once Trump was elected, the hysteria was dialled up a notch. The new President was about to replace democracy with a fascist dictatorship. The Observer ran a special edition of its New Review supplement comparing our own era to that of the 1930s, based on Trump’s apparent similarities with the Führer. Newspaper columnists encouraged readers to pick up a copy of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (which they did in droves, despite Airstrip One having little in common with 21st century America) together with books by Philip Roth and Sinclair Lewis about fascist takeovers of the government.
Three years on from the election of Trump, who has been an embarrassingly incompetent President but who has not, as yet, ushered in the Fourth Reich, it is now climate change that is about to bring the curtain down on civilisation. The Guardian announced in 2018 that: “We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe, warns UN.” This year, Extinction Rebellion have taken to disrupting commuters while the eco-celebrity Greta Thunberg has received plaudits from the great and the good for telling us that we have “stolen” her “dreams” and her “childhood”.
Indeed, predictions of the imminent demise of not just capitalism, but civilisation itself, have gone mainstream. “Without us noticing, we are entering the postcapitalist era,” wrote Paul Mason in the Guardian in 2015. As in the Thirties, many in the political centre are fretting about the end of capitalism too. “Capitalism is in crisis — and business leaders know it,” reads the headline of a recent article by CNBC Editor-at-Large John Harwood.
A further delve into some of the articles prophesising the end of capitalism reveals a circularity to much of the reasoning. If capitalism is killing the planet, then, ergo, “Ending climate change requires the end of capitalism,” as a recent headline in another opinion piece for The Guardian read. Each catastrophic event (or the potential for a catastrophic event) is conveniently marshalled as evidence for the correctness of everything one already thought about the world.
Apocalyptic anti-immigration tomes are also popular. Such books usually attach themselves to the notion that ‘the West’ is facing catastrophic decline unless it curbs the number of foreigners settling within its borders. Again, crisis is evoked to drive home a particular political argument. The supposedly terminal “crisis of late capitalism” is music to the ears of the activists who wish to see capitalism replaced by socialism, whereas the impending “death of Europe” has an obvious appeal to those who wish to fortify Britain’s borders.
Solipsism probably plays a role in some of the recent doom-mongering. We all want to live in epochal times because we all want to feel we have a consequential historical role. Or at least the average political activist does. The Nineties cult film Fight Club captured well the mood of anomie when such historical purpose is lacking. The film’s protagonist, Tyler Durden, laments the spiritual emptiness characteristic of consumer capitalism at the supposed ‘End of History’. “We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression.”
For many intellectuals, journalists and activists, locating this purpose seems to be synonymous with existential crisis. Thus when the planes crashed into the twin towers on 11 September 2001, the polemicist Christopher Hitchens wrote of a feeling of “exhilaration”. The subsequent ‘War on Terror’ invoked a renewed struggle for civilisation against barbarous Jihadists. Moreover, the defence of ‘our way of life’ functioned as a convenient rallying cry to embark on a particular course of action — in the case remodelling the Middle East — that those who evoked it were already set upon.
None of this is meant to dismiss pessimism about the future, which is not entirely without substance. There is certain kind of Pollyanna commentary, perhaps best encapsulated by professor Stephen Pinker and liberal websites such as Quillette, that is so attached to the status quo that every example of human suffering is repackaged as a mere blip in an upward tick of unstoppable progress. The transparent purpose of such material is to sooth the consciences of those who have made their peace with the status quo.
The “culture of crisis”, as Overy put it when writing about the Twenties and Thirties, was made possible by the “freedom to express fears openly and the competition to identify its causes”. Much of this competition today manifests itself on social media where, to quote from one of my favourite books of the year, online activists “take up more radical positions to get more attention”.
Grand pronouncements about the world burning, capitalist collapse or the death of the West make others sit up and take notice. And perhaps it is this that explains why Jeremiah has once again become a best-seller. Books with titles such as The Uninhabitable Earth: A story of the Future, How Democracies Die, The Strange Death of Europe have all been best sellers in the past year. The surest way of standing out in the current social media environment is indeed to dial up one’s rhetoric and proclaim that civilisation is at a crossroads.
And, of course, those who make such pronouncements are usually on hand to supply the magical solutions which they claim will reverse the slide towards apocalypse. We should thus take all such doom-mongering with a pinch of salt. For as Overy noted, democracies are not immune from “the distortion of reality or from the dangerous power of popular fear that provokes it, either then or now”.