Roslyn Fuller speaking at the Battle of Ideas Satellite Event.
Transcript of Speech
I want to zero in on the word apocalyptic. Why apocalyptic thinking?
As opposed to concerned or worried or risk-averse thinking?
An apocalypse has two major factors: one is its all-encompassing nature. Caution, fear, anxiety, these are all generated by contemplating that you’re going to end. When I’m risk-averse, I’m trying to avoid me ending. An apocalypse is thinking that the world is going to end. Not just you – everything.
The second characteristic of an apocalypse is that it’s a revelation: in an apocalypse the truth will be revealed – about who’s good and who’s bad and who’s right and who’s wrong.
An apocalypse is a balance sheet on the era that it ends.
And I can see how this is a very attractive proposition to many people in our time, because there is a complex of factors that has led to it. We could think about the narcissistic injury of being average in a world that condemns averageness; the always-on media that can always provide a disaster somewhere; and the necessity to wildly exaggerate to get any attention at all. All true, but I’ll briefly address just three considerations that I think are the most major: the political, the psychological, and the economic.
First the political.
Because our political system is winner-takes-all each side continuously ups the stakes in their attempt to win power, and social institutions (like education or the media) become subordinated to this power struggle, and essentially looted for their social capital in the quest to attain or retain power.
For example, universities stop judging ideas on intellectual merit, thus negating the purpose they were built for. Media is overtly partisan, again negating the purpose it was created for. People’s standard of living bears little relationship to their effort, negating the purpose of work. Billionaires and corporations evade tax, negating the purpose of a State.
This tendency of electoral systems to increasing political warfare was the subject of my first book. But because it is so destructive, it often has to be rhetorically justified. Obviously, that favours apocalyptic rhetoric. People are going to die if you don’t win this election, so it’s good that you twisted the truth a bit or silenced your opponent.
Unfortunately, destroying so much social capital in itself creates a nihilistic force at the center of society, which works to self-actualize the very apocalyptic situation that was used to justify taking such action in the first place. It’s a kind of political perpetuum mobile and I think it gives people a justified sense of impending doom, despite being a purely man-made problem.
This political warfare is both a product and reinforcer of the second factor: swiftly increasing economic inequality or, to put it in psychological terms, humiliating injustice.
There are two main classes of people here: the victims and the beneficiaries of this economic injustice. Both of them have a strong psychological interest in apocalyptic thinking.
The victims are probably never going to get anywhere in life, so obviously from their perspective there is little to lose by burning it all down. A great reckoning would be in their interests.
But even more ‘apocalyptic’ in their attitude are the winners – the upper middle class. They know that they’ve hoarded the gains of free trade and increased productivity for themselves and that they haven’t been quite fair to everyone else.
We use the word ‘scapegoat’ a lot today, but few people are aware that scapegoats were once literally goats, that the society would load its sins onto and then send off into the wild.
Today’s upper middle class attempts a kind of ad hoc version of this, casting about for scapegoats to blame for anger towards them. Is it racists? Is it transphobia? Is it ignorance?
It’s actually their great big houses that went up 10 times in value that their kid, whose university tuition they paid and whose first job they arranged on a handshake, is going to inherit, while the rest of us do their work while living in a cubbyhole that they try to convince us we actually really like because it’s good for the environment.
No one, except themselves, and they are a minority, buys their scapegoating attempts.
So, they do something that is, characteristically, almost clever, that is to punish themselves on their own terms.
And they do this by being performatively apocalyptic: free speech is killing people; owning your own home is causing racism; someone used a plastic straw so we’re all gonna die etc., etc. It’s an attempt to create a kind of mini-Apocalypse on their own terms, and they make it feel as real as they can by pouring emotion into it.
Religion exists all over the world. It gives life meaning and provides justice, whereby the apocalypse, the great revelation, is the final, inexorable and most meaningful justice.
One side wants justice, the other side wants the appearance of it, but since we badly damaged the social institutions that once provided it, this energy has been poured into trying to out-Apocalypse each other.
The final big thing: money.
Panic is a great way to get people to agree to anything.
‘Fear is the mind-killer’.
Two sets of people have started using this as a constant tactic. One are the people who don’t trust others with relatively straightforward truths and assume they can only be motivated to take sensible action via abject fear.
Then there’s a second, often smarter and richer group, that uses apocalypticism as a way to avoid scrutiny. So, when someone says, ‘why are we giving this huge contract to this private company for some environmental project?’ they’ll scream that you’re a climate denier who is funded by the Koch brothers and wants to kill every being on the planet earth. So apocalyptic thinking serves to justify things that are unjustifiable.
The complement of apocalypticism is not pragmatic action, it’s salvation. Only a 'saviour' can save you from the apocalypse, so faith rather than thinking becomes the important point.
People usually look for this third factor, the money, and it is an important factor, but I wouldn’t under-estimate the impact of the psychological and quasi-religious factors here, too, as this is what keeps apocalyptic thinking running on its own steam once it’s started.