First, some context.
Science fiction portrays three visions of the future of humanity. First, there is the dystopian future where all of mankind is enslaved as the human spirit is crushed under the weight of a totalitarian regime that reduces human beings to mere gogs in a massive technocratic wasteland. Second, there is the equally dystopian future where humanity is also enslaved but authorities use mass media in tandem with powerful pharmaceuticals to dope the masses into seeing their condition as one of freedom, pleasure, and bliss. Then there is the third vision of the future, perhaps the most terrifying, where the human race no longer exists because technology has finally made the human body and even the human mind obsolete. Instead of men and women, the world is populated with robots, androids, and disembodied cyber-humans.
Our current reality in the modern world is the realization of not one or two of these dystopian futures, but all three.
We are told that Current Year might not be perfect, but it is far better than any other time in human history. This is because humanity is constantly progressing. Constant economic growth, constant technological advancement, constant moral progress as humanity discovers new human rights and new freedoms to be championed in the latest social justice campaign. Humans are better off now than they were at any time in history. Or so we’re told.
But what is the reality? Think about the modern person’s life. From the moment he is born to the moment he dies, modern man finds himself institutionalized. He is born in an institution run by the state — the hospital. The instant he comes into the world, he is grabbed by the medical professionals and weighed and measured and injected. After a day or two, he might get to leave that institution, but guess what? His mother is a strong, independent woman, who has to work at a soulless job to make ends meet. Statistically, it is most likely that she is a single mother and doesn’t have a husband or committed family to help with the new baby, so the new baby has to go to daycare, another institution, for most of the day, surrounded by more professionals. At age 4, he is transferred to yet another institution, grade school, where more professionals make sure he is properly educated. Eight hours a day, forty hours a week, he is fed the state mandated curriculum, ensuring that he becomes an obedient citizen, an obedient consumer. He gets older and goes to college, another institution, meant to train him to be a productive citizen who thinks the right thoughts, believes the right beliefs. After graduation, he can look forward to desperately searching for a job to pay back tens of thousands of dollars in student debt. If he can’t find a job in his field of study, he can always find menial labor for minimum wage. If he is lucky, he might hit the jackpot working as a wage slave, plugged into the corporate rat race. Every day, he drags himself out of bed, sits behind the computer for 40 hours a week, comes home exhausted, too tired and emotionally burnt out to do anything other than order take out and watch Netflix. Maybe he gets married, maybe he has one or two kids, but what’s the point? They are all locked into their own institutional existence for most waking hours of their atomized lives. So he works like this for 40 years, only to retire, most likely he is divorced by now, his kids have long ago moved on, and he has to spend the end of his life alone, maybe in a nursing home, the final institution. So, from birth until death, virtually every moment of his life was mediated by a state or corporate institutions. Or maybe he lives alone, and when he dies in his apartment, no one will know. He has no family to visit him or care for him. And when he dies, it will only become apparent a few months later, when the growing stench of his rotting corpse wafts into the halls of his apartment building. And then again, a corporation has to be called to dispose of the putrid remains.
This sad existence is not unusual. It’s the norm. It’s the model. It’s by design, the logical consequence of a materialist progressive worldview.
After all, real happiness, according to materialists, is not to be found in some promised heaven in an imagined afterlife. This life is all we have and material bodies are all that exist. As such, the meaning of life is really about maximizing bodily delights and reducing pain and toil. And the best way, indeed the only way, to maximize pleasure and minimize toil according to this philosophy is through goods and services. Give people more food, more entertainment, more gadgets. Produce more technology and more automation which will make life more convenient. More, more, more. The more goods and services people have, the happier they will be, the freer they will be. One year, you have basic cars. The next year cars become more advanced with power steering, and the next year they are even more advanced with airbags and bluetooth and gps navigation and so on until you have self-driving cars, and so on. Products become better and more plentiful. This is Progress.
The classical liberal thinkers and the early economists, people like John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham, and Adam Smith, were all progressivists. They all agreed that human happiness was tied to more goods and services and more goods and services would eventually bring human freedom, equality, and ultimately utopia. Communist thinkers were no different. In fact, communism as a materialist philosophy fully agrees that human happiness and freedom can only come from more and more goods and services. The communist only disagrees with his liberal counterpart on how best to achieve the goods and services, but the underlying materialism is the same.
Does non-stop consumption lead to freedom and happiness? Sure, some aspects of happiness can be put in consumer terms, like food, shelter, the basic needs of life. But most human happiness does not depend on products or have anything to do with bodily pleasure. The happiness that comes from a loving and committed relationship with the opposite sex. The happiness that comes from growing old with a loving family and devoted children. The happiness that comes from sharing an identity with other human beings centered around pursuit of a higher purpose. These profound sources of happiness are not consumerist in nature, and in fact, the consumer economy does a great deal to dissolve these organic relationships and replace them with alternatives. Why bother with the duties of marriage when you can use a convenient sex app or online pornography to perpetually satisfy carnal lusts? Why bother with the burden of having to raise your children yourself when daycare services make it so easy to ship them off while you pursue your personal career ambitions? Why bother with the burden of serving God and uniting with a community of the faithful when you can wallow in the faux-feel-good McSpirituality offered by flashy motivational speakers whose cloying adjurations are broadcast directly via social media to the palm of your hand? It is the intrusiveness of consumer technology that has created a modern society that is more atomized, more individualistic, and ultimately more depressed, more lonely, more unhappy, more disconnected from everything that makes life worth living.
The human mind naturally shuns such an artificial existence. The only way modern people survive is by constant use of drugs, alcohol, pain killers, and antidepressants to numb the senses. And still, suicide rates and drug overdoses have been climbing year after year.
Modern unhappiness is truly unique. Perhaps most telling is what is called the “Happiness-Income Paradox”: Contrary to the materialists, happiness does not increase when income increases. When the happiness levels and income levels in dozens of countries around the world are tracked over long periods of time, it becomes evident that more material wealth does not equal more happiness.
But other studies paint a darker picture.
Once basic needs are met, a person’s happiness is strongly correlated with perceived social rank and relative status. In other words, how rich are you compared to other people? Research shows that relative wealth and comparative status play a dominant role in people’s happiness levels. This is why a millionaire, despite all his wealth, can still feel very unhappy if his social circle is filled with billionaires, and why a billionaire can feel very unhappy if his social circle is filled with mega-billionaires. The paradox here is that a person can endlessly increase his wealth, but if those around him are increasing their wealth at a faster rate, then he will actually become less happy over time. This phenomenon is referred to as the Relative Income Hypothesis.
What researchers have found is that people who have higher status than those around them naturally feel more confident, have higher self-esteem, and are more happy. By contrast, those with lower status have higher levels of depression, stress, paranoia, and mental illness.This has major implications for how we understand the connection between happiness and the economy. If people’s happiness is so closely tied to relative status, then a constantly growing modern economy is much more a source of despair than it is of happiness. Just consider the reality of the ever-burgeoning wealth gap, where 1% of the world’s people own 50% of the world’s wealth. The gap between the rich and the poor is absolutely unprecedented in modern times, and due to the Relative Income Hypothesis this also means that the levels of unhappiness and depression are also unprecedented. And the salt in the proverbial wound is that media technologies like TV and social media display the lives of the rich and famous in agonizing detail, which only heightens the sense of relative privation in the minds of the 99%, leading to dissatisfaction and depression on a global scale.
Consider this paradox: People in developing countries have actually become wealthier in absolute terms over the past century, but despite the increased wealth, their overall happiness has decreased. How can that be? This is because they experience themselves as poorer. Why? Because relative to Western economic growth over the same century, they are poorer in comparison. For example, colonialism and capitalism have without a doubt made the Muslim world wealthier in material terms than it ever has been, but overall Muslims in those countries feel poorer and feel less happy. Why? Because in the past their wealth was relatively equal to Europe or even higher. But even though they have more absolute wealth now than they did in the past, their relative position compared to the West has dropped. Due to colonialism and other factors, the West grew richer at a far greater pace, creating an insurmountable wealth gap. This global inequality generates a lot of unhappiness, paranoia, and depression for poorer nations and, by the same token, it generates a lot of happiness and satisfaction for richer nations, who feel good about being at the top.
But is the wealth gap between richer and poorer nations really insurmountable? Can’t developing nations eventually catch up to the West and enjoy equal wealth and status? Doesn’t a capitalist global economy provide a fair playing field for all?
The answer is a resounding, “No.”
What theorists like Emmanuel Wallerstein and Thomas Pickety have pointed out is that the liberal capitalist model does not account for structural inequality. The reason that 1% of the population own 50% of the world’s wealth in an ever growing wealth gap is not due to sheer hard work and perseverance. The reason that Western nations have had overwhelmingly more wealth and held overwhelmingly more control over the rest of the world for the past few centuries is not due to sheer ingenuity.
Rather, there is clear structural inequality hardwired into global capitalism that prevents other countries from being able to catch up with the West.
Sociologist Emmanuel Wallerstein points to the fact that, because the technological revolution began in the West, they were able to accumulate a great deal of capital. Using this capital, they were able to invest more into research and development than other nations, which led to more innovation, better products, more high tech products. Other nations could not compete with this and they were locked into a low-tech economy relative to the West, where they are producing low margin, low tech goods and raw materials, etc. Meanwhile, the Western nations can create better, higher tech goods and sell those at higher margins, which brings more profit which they can invest in more innovation and the vicious cycle continues. This is a structural inequality that prevents other countries from catching up. The modern wonder of progress and constant economic growth is actually a modern nightmare that keeps the majority of the world’s population in a perpetual state of inferiority.
Isn’t mankind supposed to live free? Maybe freedom is exactly the problem here. The whole purpose of endless technology and endless consumption is to give us more and more freedom. The life of inconvenience and perpetual toil of our ancestors is no more. Now we can live comfortably with all our needs, food, shelter, sex, entertainment, literally available to us at the touch of a button. And if a button is too taxing, just give voice commands. But even this is not good enough. What if chips could be implanted in the brain so that we can order the pizza with our thoughts? But then we would have to chew the food; quite a chore. What if we could just automatically inject the nutrition of the pizza into our bodies and then virtually simulate the sensations of enjoying a pizza? But then, why allow a clunky body to limit our freedom? Why not technologically enhance our bodies or, better yet, ditch our bodies altogether by uploading our consciousness into the cloud so that we can exist in a state of perpetual cybernetic bliss? Isn’t this the logical end of freedom; freedom realized to its fullest potential? But of course, this freedom would also mean no more human body, and no more human body means no more soft touch of another’s warm embrace, no more watching the sunset, no more smelling the rain, no more revelling in the joyous laughter of your children, no more human life as we know it. The extinction of the human race.
Is there another path?