It was called depressing back then to write like this, nobody wanted to hear it. It went against the culture of make believe and eternal optimism. I lived in New York during those years, a place that for a century was held in popular esteem as a beacon of hope, as the manifestation of the greatness of the ideology that took root after the world wars ended, a place where materialism and its culture reached new heights. There were more cars in the Unites States than people. We used machines and energy to perform most of our daily tasks. We were able to eat tropical fruits in the dead of winter and eat meat on a daily basis. We regularly took trips to other climates to find reprieve from harsh Northern winters. We had incredible hospitals offering extremely complicated procedures and body modification. We regularly threw out perfectly good clothes if they were not of the same style being marketed currently. Overconsumption of food, alcohol, drugs, and tobacco were the primary problems with which our society struggled. The Western world had embarked on a journey to ameliorate conflict through growth and a more equitable distribution of its spoils, a distinctly materialist philosophy that was intended to supplant or transcend the divisions hewn by religion and ethnicity.
There were periods of ostensible tranquility, although maybe the violence just took on another form. There assuredly was extreme violence against the natural world to which our destiny is inextricably linked. There was also a more subtle war against the individual, against the human spirit. Later on conflict over resources began to occur.
It took many decades, but the economic and political machine was taken to its apogee by rational thought and it began to groan and occasionally falter. There are problems with the idea of perpetual growth; we live in a world of limits. The resources were bound to begin to feel the strain and we were forced to search ever farther, scouring and scarring the globe as we did so. The productive machine required an ever expanding resource and energy base to feed an ever expanding population that expected an ever increasing quality of life. It was required to work even harder to try and hold back forces that worked against it assiduously like friction or gravity against a perpetual motion machine.
We all wanted to believe that we had created the perpetual motion machine though, that we could continually invent our way out of problems and continue on this path. That was how it gradually became a marketing game, a game in which statistics and studies were produced to inform us about our ever improving quality of life, unprecedented freedom, expanding resource base, essentially that everything was the best that it could possibly be.
When those of us who lived through those times look back upon them though, we all felt the discord deep within ourselves. We knew what was going on as our military roved the world ‘freeing’ oppressed people, opening up their markets and resources; we all knew it as the air, water, and soil became increasingly polluted and unproductive; we all knew it as excess housing was built and then millions were forcefully evicted, we all knew it as record profits were trumpeted as 40 million people lived from government handouts during those years. Those who experienced this discord too overtly and were disillusioned as to the nature of reality, were often diagnosed with mental illness and left to fend for themselves. Addictions and escapism ran rampant.
Politically and economically everything became more precarious with each passing year. The social safety net and the legislated equality that resulted from the war years were dismantled starting in the 1980’s and more inequality was created than ever before to preserve the illusion for the few.
Our politicians and business leaders deemed it necessary to strive at all costs to maintain the status quo. Interest rates were perpetually slashed and legal constraints lifted to remove some of the friction constraining the perpetual motion machine. Our government at the time, or really everyone, just kept borrowing against a future that was incapable of actually paying all of the debts with which it was being saddled. Economic bubbles swelled and burst, often several times in the same decade as the dream machine took itself too literally. It became necessary to preemptively address any threats. Our calls and internet usage began to be monitored by a vast information gathering network with no clear purpose. Drones first began to appear in the skies over our heads. More citizens were imprisoned in a vast and ever expanding network of prison complexes run by private companies. Some were held without trial.
The paragons of our society at this time were the manipulators, the ones who created nothing but an illusion through numbers that did not correspond to reality and reaped fortunes similarly denominated in numbers that only existed in computers. Most of society had a vested interest in maintaining their slice of the imaginary pie. The politicians, the businessmen, the academics, and the bankers largely merged into one ideologically cohesive group to trumpet the perpetual motion horse on which they had staked their money. We had a president who exhorted us to ‘go shopping’ days after thousands of people died in an attack on the physical pillars of this ideology in New York. A mood familiar to all of us as individuals took hold on a national scale, one of repression, denial, and a grasping for the comfort of childish ignorance.
The ground upon which we stood was undergoing tectonic shifts, yet we refused to adjust to this reality. No one at the time knew what was to come and we consciously avoided thinking about it. You have to understand that we couldn’t countenance what this said about our culture, about our country, about ourselves as inextricable cogs in this vast machine. It would have all fallen apart overnight and we were terrified by what alternatives existed. It was all that we knew. The established order tried to assimilate all threats and challenges. The problem is that the shifts were of an order of magnitude that could not be managed, like trying to hold back a glacier or cap a volcano.
Wasn’t there a way to have reached a more moderate, more just, more humane outcome? As we look back upon and teach about this era in world history it is clear that the seeds of this dissolution had been sown long before we ever became conscious of the growing problems. It seems axiomatic now that the perpetual motion machine would eventually succumb to natural forces and that change is the only constant, but this experiment had to run its course for us to now understand. At that time for anyone who did see the problems, there was nothing to do anyways but wait for the first contraction signaling the birth of the future.