What an attentive reader of contemporary books, printed periodicals and online media is bound to notice in the course of the years is a somewhat familiar set of recurring themes, accompanying an (usually, but not necessarily) unprecedented and dreadful kind of event or a political circumstance.
One of those recurring themes is the outlook towards a soon to come collapse of the economic system, financial markets, or other vital devices (food supply chains, health care), and another, less violent but gloomy in a similar fashion, the incessant decline of culture, morale and social cohesion in the Western World.
The impulse behind this is anyone’s guess. Increasing click-rates or sold copies with a controversial topic seems one of the obvious reasons.
Narcissistic attention-seeking for its own sake, or an attempt to push a political agenda can be reasons just as well.
However, such sorts of simplistic explanations I never found really convincing though they surely have their merits. They always address distasteful elements of the human nature like greed or power-hunger, but, as it seems, they ignore an underlying spiritual dimension.
The predictions of decline and disintegration
“Certainly it is possible that the advent to power of the masses marks one of the last stages of Western civilization, a complete return to those periods of confused anarchy which seem always destined to precede the birth of every new society.” – Gustave Le Bon
When one takes the trouble to explore older literature and study some of the classics of the great thinkers and controversial minds of the modern era, like Gustave Le Bon (“The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind”) or Karl Marx (“The Communist Manifesto”), he’ll see that their work is often rooted in a very pessimistic, even a doomsday outlook about the future.
Popular dystopian novels of the middle and late 20th century strike a similar tone, so as “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley, or “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury, to mention a few.
The discussion is by no means a novel phenomenon. However, not even the devastating events of the last decades, or the last century for that matter, proved the grim predictions as to (or the desire for, more about that in a minute) a zombie apocalypse (our half-ironic contemporary term) quite right.
Compiling material for this article has in fact led me to a slightly altered view on the subject.
The actual question that arises is, to put it concisely, whether people want to see the world burn.
After doing a fair share of research, I hold two quite different hypotheses in regard to this question. I’ll try to discuss some of the material and the ideas I came across in the following paragraphs.
Desire for vengeance
“And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an unuprooted small corner of evil.” – The Gulag Archipelago
Crushing disappointments, rejections, suffering are intrinsic to the human existence. This inherent feature of life has been cast into a spectrum of philosophical theories across most different cultural origins and eras ever since the invention of writing.
Undoubtedly, there exists (or has to exist) an angry and vengeful side within our human nature that blames the world for pain and suffering, and a spiritual desire for retribution seems just the logical consequence of it.
However, how this inevitable fact of life transcends the spiritual realm of every individual person varies greatly.
Since a long time I hold the theory that people who encounter rejections and hardship from early on in life (and therefore lack sexual, as well as other essential gratifications) have a strong tendency to create stunning pieces of art, literature or technical innovations (you want to look up the biographies of artists like Vincent van Gogh or Ludwig van Beethoven) which is the way to “get your own back on grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood”, as George Orwell put it.
Others are not able to find a creative and beneficial outlet to sublime their impulses and go the destructive path. It is of no difficulty to find examples here, for there exist sadly a lot of them (you want to look up the biographies of mass murderers like Nikolay Yezhov or Timothy McVeigh) especially among those groups of people who believe they serve a higher political cause.
Escaping comfort and consumerism
“He [Orwell] was more insightful about the distant dangers of Communist thought-control, in the Soviet Union, than the more pressing and durable thought-control of Western consumerism” – Keith Gessen
The 21st century Western society is a world of abundance, unprecedented rises in standards of living and physical safety. The current pandemic doesn’t contradict my last point, but indeed confirms it to all intends and purposes.
The lack of real face-to-face interaction and, by contrast, the levels of comfort and ease of our everyday lives lead one to believe, or rather feel that this can’t be the natural order of things.
Quite recently I came across a film analysis about appeals of modern zombie apocalypse movies, and the argument goes that the reason for the popularity of such movies is, by and large, that many viewers covertly wish for a scenario of the kind depicted to happen.
Clandestinely I wish for civil society go down the drain in my weaker moments as well, if I am perfectly honest1. But I am also perfectly aware that this is pathetic: the benefits of a stable society prevent me from going with black and ruined teeth, being paralyzed by bacteria or freezing to death in unfavorable climate conditions.
People may fancy the idea of the very freedom of a post-apocalyptic world, but only so far as access to material goods and the benefits of the industrialized age are maintained to a certain extent.
1 for this reason I want to point out here, as any author must be aware about confirmation bias pitfalls, that critical scrutiny as to conducting research should or must be a matter of course
Predictions about the end of the world have always existed, and they will continue to exist by being reformulated and sold as new insights. Two ideas of mine that shed some light upon this phenomenon I’ve illustrated above.
Why has an apocalyptic collapse never occurred is human history, after all, though it has been prophesied since generations of writers2?
My take on it is, that predictions of decline and disintegration strengthen those very antagonistic forces that prevent the ultimate breakdown of societies, a sort of anti self-fulfilling prophecy if you will.
With a more religious stance one would assert that Good will invariably defeat Evil, and the human spirit will prevail. I would kind of adapt on this, since it is basically the very same message.
So, the end of world will not happen anytime soon, particularly not in the manifestations that are predicted. Or covertly hoped for.
2 as far as I can see, the closest mankind ever came to a complete civil collapse was the Black Death that terrorized the population of the Old World from 1346 to 1353
Books and essays (selection)
1. The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956 – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Harvill Press; ISBN 978-1843430858
2. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks; ISBN 978-1451690316
3. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley, Ernst Klett Sprachen; ISBN 978-3125798502
1. Psychologie der Massen (The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind) – Gustave Le Bon, Alfred Kröner Verlag; ISBN 3-520 09915 2
2. Beyond Order – Jordan B. Peterson, Penguin Random House LLC; ISBN 978-0593420164
3. Politics and the English Language – George Orwell, Sahara Publisher Books; ISBN 978-2491704810