Angst and Madness at the End of Empire

Goya’s Madhouse, 1812-1819

“Recent research suggests that human societies will experience disruptions to their basic functioning within less than ten years due to climate stress. Such disruptions include increased levels of malnutrition, starvation, disease, civil conflict and war – and will not avoid affluent nations.”

– Jem Bendell, professor of sustainability leadership, University of Cumbria, UK

“Perseverance porn goes hand in hand with the rise of a GoFundMe economy that relies on personal narrative over collective policy, emotional appeals over baseline human rights. $930 million out of the $2 billion raised on GoFundMe since its inception in 2010 was for healthcare expenses, while an estimated 45,000 people a year die a year due to a lack of medical treatment. Meanwhile, anchors across cable news insist that single-payer healthcare is “unaffordable,” browbeating guests who support it, while populating their broadcasts with these one-off tales of people heroically scraping by.”

– Adam Johnson, Media’s Grim Addiction to Perseverance Porn, (FAIR)

“The liberal class thus divides into two breakaway clans, those who limit themselves to lip-service monologues with which they publicize their sense of injustice over comfortable meals, wine glasses brandished as weapons to punctuate their outrage. Then there are the true thespians, who take to the streets, wielding placards filled with exclamations and chanting songs of resistance as their throngs progress clumsily down the avenue, thoughtfully cleared of traffic in advance by local authorities. On the one hand, gestural politics; on the other, theater.”

– Jason Hirthler, The Curious Malaise of the Middle Class, (Dissident Voice)

“This present momentism appears, at least on the surface, as a therapeutic solvent for all our problems, making our present situation more bearable. But this bearability of the status quo amounts to a permanent retreat to the psychic bomb shelter of now, a kind of bury-your-head in the sand mindfulness which acts as a sanitized palliative for neoliberal subjects who have lost hope for alternatives to capitalism.”

– Ronald Purser, The Faux Revolution of Mindfulness, Open Democracy, author of McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality

“Empires are death cults, and death cults, on a subliminal basis, long for their own demise. Paradoxically, the collective mindset of imperium, even as it thrusts across the expanse of the world, renders itself insular, cut off from culturally enhancing novelty, as all the while, the homeland descends into a psychical swamp of churning madness.”

– Phil Rochstroh, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Capitalism, Counterpunch

In the waning days of the American Empire a sort of collective madness has seemed to take hold of its ruling class. It is perhaps most clear in the unhinged and incessant decrees of the bloated emperor via tweet. But it is also in the idiotic ramblings of his minions redefining fossil fuels as “freedom gas” or rapidly melting Arctic seas as an economic “opportunity.”  It can also be seen in the reactionary and warmongering responses of the so-called resistance in the corrupt Democratic Party establishment and corporate media regarding Russiagate. Or Bolton and Pompeo inventing evidence to justify more imperial wars just years after the disastrous assault on Iraq and during the longest ongoing US war in Afghanistan. It extends to the incredulous claims of Michele Bachmann that Trump is “godly and biblical” and televangelist Kenneth Copeland, who described his aversion to flying commercial airlines as getting in “a long tube with demons,” calling for a national day of prayer for the orange-tinted tyrant. It is truly staggering to behold.

Amidst all this madness, crimes and atrocities are being committed in broad daylight by that same ruling class both domestically and abroad. In the Middle-East the ruling class, via their corporations General Dynamics, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and Boeing, is aiding and benefiting from outright genocide in Yemen by the most brutal and criminal of America’s colonies: Saudi Arabia. Similar profits are garnished from backing the apartheid regime in Israel and the military junta in Egypt. In Brazil the ruling class has only just begun to see the dollars roll in from Bolsonaro’s further opening up of the Amazon, the planet’s proverbial lungs. In Modi’s India, they are salivating at the chance to despoil more of the sub-continents riches. And around the world corporations and the fossil fuel industry continues its mad and blind dash toward species extinction.

Back in the US police violence against people of color remains steady and the prison industry is still booming. Along the southern border, migrants from Central America are seeking legal asylum, scores of them young children. Their only “crime” is fleeing their homelands which have been ruthlessly torn up by US foreign policy for at least a century.  But they are being rounded up by militias and sent to concentration camps. LGBT and mentally ill migrants are being tortured in solitary confinement. Families are being separated, children caged, violated, dying from preventable diseases.

In the era of social media all of this information is readily available for those interested. Even those uninterested are exposed to what is happening via the ubiquitous social media newsfeed. Indeed, a subdued disquiet among the bourgeoisie has become undeniable. But endless imperialistic wars, rampant corruption, human rights abuses, waning economic advancement, and mass species extinction hasn’t yet prodded most of them from their homes to shut down the machinery of this cult of death, even though it threatens the very futures of their own children. When the bourgeoisie in the US do get out to protest the events are generally scripted, scheduled, sanctioned and televised by the establishment itself. The appropriate permits are obtained. No traffic is stopped. No building is occupied. The status quo remains intact and the necessary steam of middle-class angst is let off until the next event. In the meantime, the war, prison and surveillance industry expand, police militarization continues apace, the environment continues to be raped and pillaged, and fundamental freedoms like speech and reproductive rights are systematically dismantled. By comparison, any actual dissent is met with swift authoritarian violence by the corporate state; Standing Rock Sioux and BLM as stark examples.

Perpetually harried and fearful of losing the tenuous privilege afforded to them by the ruling class, the white middle class in the US has little time to focus on anything outside their prescribed bubble of experience. They inhabit a world constructed by the capricious and cynical designers of the free market. A place devoid of the words “ruling class,” where the mantra of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” reigns supreme in an era of neoliberal barbarism. Where even if one is working fulltime they may still not have access to basic healthcare coverage. Where they are saddled with enormous debt that can never really be paid off in anyone’s lifetime. Peering at the world through the lens of glowing, hand sized screens, connecting algorithmically to the pulse of a commercially constructed world, most essentially exist in a pixelated prison of suspended and unconnected moments, reinforced by procedural programs which have been meticulously written in the posh and sterile board rooms of Madison Avenue and in the Silicon Valley. History is extinguished here, as are agency and imagination. It is a consumerist world that conforms to the dictatorship of money.

Americans have been socially conditioned for decades to accept these contradictions of their economic, social and political arrangement. Meanwhile suicide is rampant, punctuated by mass shootings. Opioid abuse is taking many more lives. Indeed, the pharmaceutical industry has thrived off this angst, convincing millions that their psychic and social maladies are all due to a personal or chemical defect, not the system itself. That working people barely stave off homelessness and middle class families are increasingly separated from their loved ones and communities by having to travel long hours to a job (or jobs) which hardly covers daily expenses, is a struggle not considered telegenic enough, unless it is cast in the heroic light of “personal responsibility.”

Indeed, Hollywood and corporate media reinforce the mythology of American greatness while its populace becomes ever more weighted down by the late stage capitalist nightmare. Whether it be CNN or MSNBC, distraction from issues related to class or economic disenfranchisement rule the day. Russiagate, the “scary” (and non-existent) migrant caravan, or Trump’s latest outlandish or absurd tweet dominate the news cycles. Catastrophic climate change, the staggering loss of biodiversity, burgeoning suicides among youth, the elderly or veterans, the never-ending and expanding war machine of the Pentagon, growing police violence and a bursting prison industrial complex, corporate and banking corruption, increased economic disparity and hardship? Not so much.

Movies and programs about dystopia have been ubiquitous for many years now, but the factors that contribute to these apocalyptic futures have nothing to do with the actual existential threats we are now facing. Zombies and terrorists dominate the themes presented, and this reflects back on the enormous influence of the Pentagon, Department of Defense, CIA, et al. on mass media. Even video games mirror the warped and expansionist aspirations of the American establishment and its bellicose foreign policy. For decades, these agencies have sought to steer the narrative of American angst toward conformity with the capitalist status quo. And they have been largely successful thanks to many attributes of American life itself. Suburbia and automobile culture after WW 2 erased the commons to create a sort of facsimile of community, often devoid of central spaces, character or originality, and connected by ribbons of featureless highway. Vast dead spaces that are simultaneously everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

But even relatively innocuous programs and movies are divorced from lived reality. I was watching one recently at a friend’s house about a group of friends taking a trip to the wine country. With some mild and typically safe humor to garnish a few chuckles, it was rife with convention and contrivance. The most glaring thing of all, though, was the lack of any class reflected in the character’s diverse lives. All were of the American middle-class in one form or another. Some single mothers, others working highly paid jobs. But none of them facing what the majority of Americans actually face. None of them living pay check to pay check, lacking basic healthcare coverage, paying exorbitant rents or mortgages, or saddled with perpetual debt. But as long as their character’s clothing and surroundings were furnished by Zara, Williams-Sonoma and Pier One, the circumstances of reality were easily eclipsed. Forgotten.

Indeed, the Age of Trump, which is the product of decades of capitalist rot, has demonstrated that the American bourgeoisie have been largely inured to their continually degraded status. They cannot see class oppression because those words are not in the lexicon. Corporate capitalism has created an insular world of sterile detachment from the real world in which it inhabits. “Human resource” departments, situated in nearly every workplace, effectively erase class and context by enforcing optimism and encouraging a kind of self-policed dialogue. Outside this world, mass media manages “threats” by externalizing and otherizing. So little has really changed in the narrative. Once upon a time it was the communists, Jews, Khrushchev, the Vietcong, the sexually “deviant,” people of color, Russia. Now it is migrants, Muslims, Julian Assange, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, LGBTQ, people of color, Russia. All scapegoats for the country’s failures and abysmal state. All psychic projections of animus and angst for a bourgeoisie in America that never understood the machinations of its ruling class or shook itself free of the “exceptionalism” of its Calvinist puritanical roots.

But the angst of the American bourgeoisie is demonstrated more by what it doesn’t speak about than what it does. It is a disquiet which is at once terrified of the collapse that looms ahead and horrified at the idea of losing the status quo arrangement, even though that status quo is benefiting fewer and fewer people. It stands simultaneously aghast and paralyzed before the obvious madness of its rulers, and yet continually grasps at failed “lesser evilism” as a solution. And it largely still buys into the noxious mythology of it being the “greatest country on earth.” The corporate elite, having stripped down civic education over decades, robbed them of their political agency and resistance and replaced it with a sanitized history and demoralizing optimism, or “positive thinking,” which places all blame for their collective state and its inadequacies on the individual. That it has been so lauded by Wall Street should cause anyone to wonder why it has been so internalized by the disenfranchised masses.

To be sure, this arrangement is rapidly meeting its end. Banking and corporate corruption, never really having been dealt with in the last “Great Recession” or its notorious state funded “bailout,” has only become more blind and reckless. The membrane of the bubble created after that fiasco, born in avarice, is thinning in plain sight. It is about to burst again, and this time it will be far more catastrophic. The endless imperialistic wars that the US has engaged in for the last decades are also creating a financial strain. Coupled with climate breakdown those expensive bases of aggression around the world will begin to cost more than they bring in profit. In the US itself biblical floods are wiping clean the soil graded for agriculture throughout the Midwest and causing tremendous economic hardship for scores of rural and commercial farmers. Droughts offer a grim alternative to this increasingly chaotic climate pattern. Food prices will undoubtedly rise in the future thanks to a capitalist system which creates artificial shortages and surpluses.

Indeed, around the world the climate is shifting dramatically between drought and deluge affecting huge swaths of habitat. Already countless species have succumbed to this ramification of a warming world. But also to industrial pollution, defilement of the oceans, misuse of land and extraction of minerals and fossil fuels: the excesses of capitalism. According to a recent study, a million more species are being marched down the halls of extinction today. Trash is filling the world’s oceans, with birds, turtles and whales washing up by the thousands with bloated bellies full of plastic detritus. It’s literally raining plastic particles now in many places. And all the while the beneficiaries of this pernicious and omnicidal system are dwindling to a select few who are incapable of grasping the quietus of all life on the planet, let alone their own. But without a doubt, this small segment of society will fight ferociously for their continued privilege no matter how untenable, absurd or suicidal it is.

The concurrent madness of the ruling class and the angst of the bourgeoisie in our age isn’t anything surprising. Like the phenomenon of Trump, it has been an unholy union in the making for a long time. The product of empire itself. Social media and the death throes of capitalism have only made it more visible to the general public as of late. But it should be understood that while the ruling class are moneyed and powerful, they are not omnipotent, nor are they more intelligent than the rest of us. On the contrary, even as it sees the demise of the biosphere on which it depends, this “elite” class can do nothing else but marshal the language in an attempt to save its failing economic trajectory. Thus, it is militarizing our collective existential moment: not to save the planet, but to save capitalism itself. And it will do this by deflection, brutally punishing or even eradicating those who have the least impact: the poor, the working class, and the global south.

Under a darkening, climate changed sky, created by the avarice of a few and their ceaseless wars and atrocities, an imperiled and disappearing biosphere lies before us all. Therefore, remaining silent and accepting the status quo in the face of ruling class folly, cruelty and madness, should only be interpreted as complicity to the crime.


Kenn Orphan is an artist, sociologist, radical nature lover and weary, but committed activist. He can be reached at