Is the 2016 presidential election the beginning, or the end, of American civic life?
I say it’s both.
Pessimistically, one can say we are witnessing the end of civility, honesty, and empathy, and the beginning of the end of our two-centuries-long experiment in a quasi-functional representative democracy. Yet I believe what this election must provide, no matter who wins on Tuesday, is a wakeup call from our collective somnambulism, and a willingness to confront the Brave New World we have already begun to enter – a world in which we can disappear into virtual realities of our own imagining, and therefore one in which our ability to be more conscious (of ourselves, our surroundings, and the invisible systems that hold us prisoner) must become the lingua franca of a renewed civic order.
Fittingly, the stakes are laid bare in HBO’s latest blockbuster series, Westworld, a story in which future citizens spend up to $40,000 a day exercising their most base impulses – sexual violence and murder chief among them – in a vast adventure theme park filled with blissfully unaware android “hosts.” These hosts are pre-programmed with narrative storylines. Their memories are then wiped clean after each new day of rape and pillage, resulting in an endless loop of unconscious servitude.
As the show’s co-creator Jonathan Nolan puts it, Westworld is an effort to explore issues surrounding artificial intelligence and “the idea that humans are getting ever better at immersing themselves in their narrative fictions.” Consequently, it’s a story that poses timely and provocative questions about the depths to which we humans will sink when the line between fiction and reality becomes almost impossibly blurred. As one of the hosts says, foreshadowing her own conscious awakening from the nightmare she inhabits (and quoting Shakespeare as she does so), “These violent delights have violent ends.”
On one level, the election results on November 8 will reveal how violent the end to our most recent binge of primal theater will be. On another level, though, we have been asleep at the wheel for a long, long time.
Indeed, Trump’s rise recalls the warnings in Erich Fromm’s 1941 classic Escape from Freedom, a book that was written in the shadow of Hitler’s ascent to power, and in which Fromm tries to articulate our dialectical relationship with freedom itself, and what that relationship tells us about ourselves and the societies in which we live.
Fromm’s thesis was that before we can understand the dynamics of any society’s social processes, we must first explore the dynamics of the psychological processes operating within the individual. Central to all modern societies and individuals, Fromm wrote, was man’s relationship with freedom itself, which he defined as “the fundamental condition for any growth.” Since the structure of modern society and the personality of modern man first began taking shape – beginning with the end of the rigid social structures and limitations found in the Middle Ages, and accelerating after World War One – we have become freer to develop and express our own individual selves and ideas. At the same time, however, we have become freer from a world that gave us, precisely because it was proscribed, more security and reassurance. “The process of individuation is one of growing strength and integration of the individual personality,” Fromm wrote. “But it is at the same time a process in which the original identity with others is lost and in which modern man becomes more separate from them.”
The dilemma of modern society and how it impacts us is the same: it has given us more space to develop as individuals – and it has made us more helpless. “It increased freedom,” says Fromm, “and it created dependencies of a new kind. The understanding of the whole problem of freedom depends on the very ability to see both sides of the process and not to lose track of one side while following the other.”
The danger, Fromm cautioned, is if we forget that “aloneness, fear and bewilderment remain; people cannot stand it forever. They cannot go on bearing the burden of ‘freedom from’; they must try to escape from freedom altogether unless they can progress from negative to positive freedom. The principal social avenues of escape in our time are submission to a leader, as has happened in fascist countries, and the compulsive conforming as is prevalent in our own society.”
Because of this anxiety – and this willingness to submit to someone who will do the thinking for us – Fromm believed that our capacity to think critically had dangerously dulled over time (and that was in 1941!). Ironically, however, this gradual numbing of our critical capacities doesn’t mean we feel more uninformed. On the contrary, the constant barrage of messaging so indicative of modern society tends to be designed in such a way as to “flatter the individual by making him appear important, and by pretending that they appeal to his critical judgment, to his sense of discrimination. But these pretenses are essentially a method to dull the individual’s suspicions and to help him fool himself as to the individual character of his decision.”
How will Fromm’s observations play out in a Trump presidency, where the ersatz becomes the law of the land? How will they play out in a Clinton presidency, where the fog of secrecy becomes the daily forecast? And how will they play out in either case, as the virtual world increasingly becomes part of the daily menu of possibilities?
British filmmaker Adam Curtis has an idea, and it isn’t encouraging. As author Jonathan Lethem wrote in a recent must-read profile of Curtis, “One of his central subjects, running through all his work, is the possibility that we’re listening to the wrong voices in public life, and in our own heads; that the ideas we find authoritative and persuasive about our politics and culture are in fact a tenuous construction, one at the mercy of bias, invisible ideological sway and unprocessed, untethered emotions (principally, fear).”
“This is the whole thing about ‘good and evil’,” Curtis explains. “It’s a naïve view of the world. The problem is bigger, it’s a system. But how do you illustrate something invisible?”
For Curtis, the problem is that the central ideology of our age is the lionization of the self – the philosophy of ‘freedom to,’ run amok. “That the self, being expressive, is the good thing. Expressing yourself through consumerism is central. So, the dilemma for artists is that however radical in content their paintings, their performance art, their video works, the mode in which they’re doing it — self-expression — feeds the strength of the very thing they’re trying to overthrow, which is modern consumer capitalism.”
That’s deep. It’s also terrifying. So how do we separate ourselves? How do we develop the capacity to live lives of positive freedom amidst the filtered bubble of our own devising? How do we become more socially conscious at the very moment our ability to disappear into all-encompassing virtual worlds becomes commonplace?
How do we wake up?
In this sense, we are more like the android hosts of Westworld than we may want to admit. As Curtis put it, “On a social-media network, it’s very much like being in a heroin bubble. The utopia they hold out is a world where machines make everything for you and you have endless leisure time, you become creative and everyone’s happy. And the only thing is, actually, everyone’s incredibly unhappy because they haven’t got anything to do. What we call our jobs today are actually fake jobs. We sit in our offices in front of our screens in order to get the money to go out and buy stuff. Our job is really to go shopping. And the rest of the time, we sit in our offices doing complicated managerial things, and when we’re not, we’re actually watching the internet. The internet is there to keep you happy during your fake job.
“You have to recognize that you’re part of the thing,” Curtis argues. “But the point about journalism is to try to portray the thing you are part of. I think that’s the best you can do.”
So cast your vote on November 8. Recognize that you are part of the thing. And let the real work begin.