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Beyond Cynicism: America Fumbles Towards Kafka’s Castle

Nobody knows, from sea to shining sea, why we are having all this trouble with our republic. — Tom McGuane

Can a people recover from an excursion into unreality? The USA’s sojourn into an alternative universe of the mind accelerated sharply after Wall Street nearly detonated the global financial system in 2008. That debacle was only one manifestation of an array of accumulating threats to the postmodern order, which include the burdens of empire, onerous debt, population overshoot, fracturing globalism, worries about energy, disruptive technologies, ecological havoc, and the specter of climate change.

A sense of gathering crisis, which I call the long emergency, persists. It is systemic and existential. It calls into question our ability to carry on “normal” life much farther into this century, and all the anxiety that attends it is hard for the public to process. It manifested itself first in finance because that was the most abstract and fragile of all the major activities we depend on for daily life, and therefore the one most easily tampered with and shoved into criticality by a cadre of irresponsible opportunists on Wall Street. Indeed, a lot of households were permanently wrecked after the so-called Great Financial Crisis of 2008, despite official trumpet blasts heralding “recovery” and the dishonestly engineered pump-up of capital markets since then.

With the election of 2016, symptoms of the long emergency seeped into the political system. Disinformation rules. There is no coherent consensus about what is happening and no coherent proposals to do anything about it. The two parties are mired in paralysis and dysfunction and the public’s trust in them is at epic lows. Donald Trump is viewed as a sort of pirate president, a freebooting freak elected by accident, “a disrupter” of the status quo at best and at worst a dangerous incompetent playing with nuclear fire. A state of war exists between the White House, the permanent D.C. bureaucracy, and the traditional news media. Authentic leadership is otherwise AWOL. Institutions falter. The FBI and the CIA behave like enemies of the people. 

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Bad ideas flourish in this nutrient medium of unresolved crisis. Lately, they actually dominate the scene on every side. A species of wishful thinking that resembles a primitive cargo cult grips the technocratic class, awaiting magical rescue remedies that promise to extend the regime of Happy Motoring, consumerism, and suburbia that makes up the armature of “normal” life in the USA. They chatter about electric driverless car fleets, home delivery drone services, and as-yet-undeveloped modes of energy production to replace problematic fossil fuels, while ignoring the self-evident resource and capital constraints now upon us and even the laws of physics—especially entropy, the second law of thermodynamics. Their main mental block is their belief in infinite industrial growth on a finite planet, an idea so powerfully foolish that it obviates their standing as technocrats.

The non-technocratic cohort of the thinking class squanders its waking hours on a quixotic campaign to destroy the remnant of an American common culture and, by extension, a reviled Western civilization they blame for the failure in our time to establish a utopia on earth. By the logic of the day, “inclusion” and “diversity” are achieved by forbidding the transmission of ideas, shutting down debate, and creating new racially segregated college dorms. Sexuality is declared to not be biologically determined, yet so-called cis-gendered persons (whose gender identity corresponds with their sex as detected at birth) are vilified by dint of not being “other-gendered”—thereby thwarting the pursuit of happiness of persons self-identified as other-gendered. Casuistry anyone?

The universities beget a class of what Nassim Taleb prankishly called “intellectuals-yet-idiots,” hierophants trafficking in fads and falsehoods, conveyed in esoteric jargon larded with psychobabble in support of a therapeutic crypto-gnostic crusade bent on transforming human nature to fit the wished-for utopian template of a world where anything goes. In fact, they have only produced a new intellectual despotism worthy of Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Pol Pot.

In case you haven’t been paying attention to the hijinks on campus—the attacks on reason, fairness, and common decency, the kangaroo courts, diversity tribunals, assaults on public speech and speakers themselves—here is the key take-away: it’s not about ideas or ideologies anymore; it’s purely about the pleasures of coercion, of pushing other people around. Coercion is fun and exciting! In fact, it’s intoxicating, and rewarded with brownie points and career advancement. It’s rather perverse that this passion for tyranny is suddenly so popular on the liberal left.

Until fairly recently, the Democratic Party did not roll that way. It was right-wing Republicans who tried to ban books, censor pop music, and stifle free expression. If anything, Democrats strenuously defended the First Amendment, including the principle that unpopular and discomforting ideas had to be tolerated in order to protect all speech. Back in in 1977 the ACLU defended the right of neo-Nazis to march for their cause (National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie, 432 U.S. 43).

The new and false idea that something labeled “hate speech”—labeled by whom?—is equivalent to violence floated out of the graduate schools on a toxic cloud of intellectual hysteria concocted in the laboratory of so-called “post-structuralist” philosophy, where sundry body parts of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Judith Butler, and Gilles Deleuze were sewn onto a brain comprised of one-third each Thomas Hobbes, Saul Alinsky, and Tupac Shakur to create a perfect Frankenstein monster of thought. It all boiled down to the proposition that the will to power negated all other human drives and values, in particular the search for truth. Under this scheme, all human relations were reduced to a dramatis personae of the oppressed and their oppressors, the former generally “people of color” and women, all subjugated by whites, mostly males. Tactical moves in politics among these self-described “oppressed” and “marginalized” are based on the credo that the ends justify the means (the Alinsky model).

This is the recipe for what we call identity politics, the main thrust of which these days, the quest for “social justice,” is to present a suit against white male privilege and, shall we say, the horse it rode in on: western civ. A peculiar feature of the social justice agenda is the wish to erect strict boundaries around racial identities while erasing behavioral boundaries, sexual boundaries, and ethical boundaries. Since so much of this thought-monster is actually promulgated by white college professors and administrators, and white political activists, against people like themselves, the motives in this concerted campaign might appear puzzling to the casual observer.

I would account for it as the psychological displacement among this political cohort of their shame, disappointment, and despair over the outcome of the civil rights campaign that started in the 1960s and formed the core of progressive ideology. It did not bring about the hoped-for utopia. The racial divide in America is starker now than ever, even after two terms of a black president. Today, there is more grievance and resentment, and less hope for a better future, than when Martin Luther King made the case for progress on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. The recent flash points of racial conflict—Ferguson, the Dallas police ambush, the Charleston church massacre, et cetera—don’t have to be rehearsed in detail here to make the point that there is a great deal of ill feeling throughout the land, and quite a bit of acting out on both sides.

The black underclass is larger, more dysfunctional, and more alienated than it was in the 1960s. My theory, for what it’s worth, is that the civil rights legislation of 1964 and ’65, which removed legal barriers to full participation in national life, induced considerable anxiety among black citizens over the new disposition of things, for one reason or another. And that is exactly why a black separatism movement arose as an alternative at the time, led initially by such charismatic figures as Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael. Some of that was arguably a product of the same youthful energy that drove the rest of the Sixties counterculture: adolescent rebellion. But the residue of the “Black Power” movement is still present in the widespread ambivalence about making covenant with a common culture, and it has only been exacerbated by a now long-running “multiculturalism and diversity” crusade that effectively nullifies the concept of a national common culture.

What follows from these dynamics is the deflection of all ideas that don’t feed a narrative of power relations between oppressors and victims, with the self-identified victims ever more eager to exercise their power to coerce, punish, and humiliate their self-identified oppressors, the “privileged,” who condescend to be abused to a shockingly masochistic degree. Nobody stands up to this organized ceremonial nonsense. The punishments are too severe, including the loss of livelihood, status, and reputation, especially in the university. Once branded a “racist,” you’re done. And venturing to join the oft-called-for “honest conversation about race” is certain to invite that fate.

Globalization has acted, meanwhile, as a great leveler. It destroyed what was left of the working class—the lower-middle class—which included a great many white Americans who used to be able to support a family with simple labor. Hung out to dry economically, this class of whites fell into many of the same behaviors as the poor blacks before them: absent fathers, out-of-wedlock births, drug abuse. Then the Great Financial Crisis of 2008 wiped up the floor with the middle-middle class above them, foreclosing on their homes and futures, and in their desperation many of these people became Trump voters—though I doubt that Trump himself truly understood how this all worked exactly. However, he did see that the white middle class had come to identify as yet another victim group, allowing him to pose as their champion.

The evolving matrix of rackets that prompted the 2008 debacle has only grown more elaborate and craven as the old economy of stuff dies and is replaced by a financialized economy of swindles and frauds. Almost nothing in America’s financial life is on the level anymore, from the mendacious “guidance” statements of the Federal Reserve, to the official economic statistics of the federal agencies, to the manipulation of all markets, to the shenanigans on the fiscal side, to the pervasive accounting fraud that underlies it all. Ironically, the systematic chiseling of the foundering middle class is most visible in the rackets that medicine and education have become—two activities that were formerly dedicated to doing no harm and seeking the truth!

Life in this milieu of immersive dishonesty drives citizens beyond cynicism to an even more desperate state of mind. The suffering public ends up having no idea what is really going on, what is actually happening. The toolkit of the Enlightenment—reason, empiricism—doesn’t work very well in this socioeconomic hall of mirrors, so all that baggage is discarded for the idea that reality is just a social construct, just whatever story you feel like telling about it. On the right, Karl Rove expressed this point of view some years ago when he bragged, of the Bush II White House, that “we make our own reality.” The left says nearly the same thing in the post-structuralist malarkey of academia: “you make your own reality.” In the end, both sides are left with a lot of bad feelings and the belief that only raw power has meaning.

Erasing psychological boundaries is a dangerous thing. When the rackets finally come to grief—as they must because their operations don’t add up—and the reckoning with true price discovery commences at the macro scale, the American people will find themselves in even more distress than they’ve endured so far. This will be the moment when either nobody has any money, or there is plenty of worthless money for everyone. Either way, the functional bankruptcy of the nation will be complete, and nothing will work anymore, including getting enough to eat. That is exactly the moment when Americans on all sides will beg someone to step up and push them around to get their world working again. And even that may not avail.

James Howard Kunstler’s many books include The Geography of Nowhere, The Long Emergency, Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation, and the World Made by Hand novel series. He blogs on Mondays and Fridays at Kunstler.com [1].

74 Comments (Open | Close)

74 Comments To "Beyond Cynicism: America Fumbles Towards Kafka’s Castle"

#1 Comment By Maria Luisa Cohen On December 31, 2017 @ 3:13 pm

Kunstler s truthful, irruent, convincing, emotional and realistic, full of unorthodox ideas.
Continue like this, and I hope you have lots of admirers. I am one of them

#2 Comment By Maria Luisa Cohen On December 31, 2017 @ 3:32 pm

I follow Kunstler , because he doesn’t fit in any of the political social slot, but has a mind of his own. And, what is rather important, I love his style which reflect his character. Sharp, observant, maybe impulsive but not orthodox or simplistic. Carry on, you have many admirers.
Happy New Year!

#3 Comment By Alison On January 1, 2018 @ 3:01 am

CRA did not cause the mortgage crisis. For a refresher course on what really happened, I commend the award winning The American Life two part episode on this issue. I think it was called, Big Pot of Money. There was a Republican senator interviewed on NPR at the time who also debunked this claim…can’t think of his name though…

#4 Comment By Alison On January 1, 2018 @ 3:08 am

Sorry… it was called The Giant Pool of Money and it aired in May 2008.

#5 Comment By Ted Rice On January 1, 2018 @ 1:02 pm

Government has become a racket run by and for crooks. The right stupidly wants to get out from under the regulations, while thinking they will get to keep the goodies, subsidies and other benefits. The left wants ever stronger government, but somehow assume that it will always be controlled by leftists and will benefit them, and that the anti-free speech agenda they push won’t eventually be used to silence them. In the end I think we are doomed to follow the path of Venezuela. No political or economic ideologies work, but ideologues cling to them more strongly than most believers cling to their religion. Whatever the ideology, it CAN’T be wrong, it has just been implemented improperly! What else could explain Venezuela’s still clinging to socialism?

#6 Comment By Catherine George On January 1, 2018 @ 6:05 pm

I can’t believe that this needs to be said, but apparently it does; there are legitimate reasons for disenfranchised groups to call attention to the history of what’s made them disenfranchised, and to point out evidence that we are in no way free of them. To squeeze all of that into your limited view and dismiss it not only ignores history but puts your own hubris at center stage. And, exactly how do you define the “national common culture” – care to elaborate? Me thinks you have some giant blind spots in need of serious remedy.

#7 Comment By Piltdownman On January 2, 2018 @ 10:19 am

Jim is a great writer. Sharp and incisive. I’ve been reading him since he published “The Geography of Nowhere.” Yet, as others have noted, he is something of a one-trick pony. He refuses to be lumped in with all the other “doomers,” though he sees no future for us other than a complete and utter collapse, followed by some as-yet unseen “realignment” of our society, which seems to involve sowing seeds by hand. Each year he opines about the coming apocalypse, like a traveling preacher on the back of buckboard — and each year it doesn’t happen.

That said, there is a lot of truth in his writing, if you are willing to wait for it.

For instance, while he may overstate his position, I mostly agree that the transgender LBGTQ movement has taken too much air out of the room. The degree to which this miniscule population is covered in national news (particularly NPR) far outweighs its actual social significance. And on the Right, those folks use the same “cause” as a cudgel.

#8 Comment By Jon Ellis On January 3, 2018 @ 10:27 pm

FOR me,here is a superior explication: [2]

#9 Comment By lances sjogren On January 4, 2018 @ 6:09 pm

It’s indicative of how much the left has become a mindless fundamentalist religion that its disciples would dismiss Kunstlers opinions as a set of right wing talking points.

#10 Comment By Kevin Cobley On January 4, 2018 @ 9:20 pm

Kunstler would be a lot better of if concentrated on his core themes rather than travelling down the irrelevant roads of race and gender politics. It’s clear that Mr Kunstler dislikes Americans of African descent and people with differing sexual orientations.
His recent obsession with “Political Correctness”, what I would like to know is what people would like to say that’s being held back by this alleged “political correctness”?
Kunstler are you are too much of a coward to say what you want to say and quote political correctness as the excuse for not saying it?
Any person that quotes political correctness should be asked why they are too cowardly to say what they want to say, then asked what they are prevented from saying.

#11 Comment By Dirk Ouellette On January 7, 2018 @ 1:30 pm

As much as I enjoy JHK, and believe he is correct regarding the devolution of our current empire, I also agree with Kevin Cobley, that Kunstler has some racist tendencies he has a hard time admitting. His PC ideas have some merit. Humans usually go too far in any societal groundswell.

#12 Comment By Disaffected On January 8, 2018 @ 2:25 pm

Academic careers ruined by aspersions of racism are mentioned by Kunstler without any examples mentioned or coming to mind, but no mention of pro-Palestinian professors being hounded off campus, with several egregious examples in the news recently, not to mention the silencing effect that such academic censorship inevitably spawns. Try Googling “professors against BDS censorship.” Zionism is Kunstler’s blind spot, or one of them, I should say. Not too fond of brown people either. I happen to agree with him on many issues, but often his rants foster ill will from his more rabid followers against Blacks, immigrants, LGBTQAGKWE persons, Arabs, Persians, Muslims,and Latinos. Zionists get a pass, even (excluding pro-Israel positions) if they fit the model of nincompoopery he generally derides.

#13 Comment By Newton Finn On January 8, 2018 @ 2:30 pm

Spot on social commentary until the concluding paragraph. JHK, like the vast majority of the small minority who see our problems vividly, are not yet able or willing to embrace the startling fact that we CAN afford to do what we must do to begin to build a better world, and that what is lacking is not money but political will. Resources are the only restraint, not cash. If you haven’t caught on to Modern Monetary Theory, please search on the net for Stephanie Kelton’s video entitled “Angry Birds,” a bit of the flavor of which is captured in this article:

[3]

#14 Comment By Ted Wells On January 14, 2018 @ 1:17 pm

This is simply a rehash of now popular buzz words and common thinking.

When have we ever given the goings on of college students so much attention? In the 90s and 2000s binge drinking and “girls gone wild” caused us all to worry about the future of our country (and that was actually troublesome). Now kids are engaged in politics. Are they “doing it right?” No…but then again, they’re 20. Did you do everything right when you were 20? The 20-year-olds are not supposed to be our “thought leaders.” They’re supposed to make fools of themselves because it’s their first time away from home, because they’re young and think they’re invincible, because they have to fall on their face a couple of times so they will learn how the world actually works. This truth is as perennial as the grass.

Our country is not going to hell in a handbasket. We might be regrouping, but so what? There needs to be a good housekeeping from time to time. Men are being held accountable for their nonsense. We are throwing off prejudices that stifle productivity and opportunities for individuals (based on skin color, gender, sexual orientation, etc).

Are we getting everything right? No, this isn’t the Movie of the Week. There isn’t a script. So, it’s messy and people get things wrong (being humans and this being actual real life).

Of course, it isn’t clear how the plot will end either. The “good guys” might not win.

But the tendency to throw in the towel, to say we’re down for the count, etc. is premature.

People are digging deeper than they have in decades (well, except this author). There is a 67% increase in women running for office. That means that rather than waiting for someone else to solve the problem, people are rolling up their sleeves and participating in self-governance (rather than just complaining about it).

This is not the decline of an Empire. And I am not cynical. Our best days are ahead – and it will be amazing.

#15 Comment By gregory young On January 15, 2018 @ 11:10 am

I would seriously doubt JHK has much preference for skin color but rather associates genetic expressions with culturally imbued ideas about the nature of reality. I would imagine we all do this if we have had exposure to segments of humanity other than our own tribe and are observant and capable of making distinctions. To point out that someone else has biases is usually our subtle way of asserting our own superior understanding of what is, and yet generally we can not see our own blind spots, hence the term. I would assert the way to freedom is to examine the source of our own thoughts in an effort to unconceal the ground of being, the unchallenged assumptions out of which our thoughts are birthed in an effort to remedy our own blindness and improve the world one mind at a time, starting with our own mind.

#16 Comment By Paul R. Potts On January 15, 2018 @ 3:24 pm

I have been following Kunstler’s writing and blog and podcasts for many years and I consider myself a big fan of his thinking on the economy, on climate change, on architecture, on fossil fuels, and urban design. He’s clearly done his homework on these issues and his alarmism is justified even as it tends to have a “blogger who cried wolf” numbing effect. But Kunstler at some point started leaving his wheelhouse and writing about cultural and racial issues and when he does this, the results are downright embarrassing. He turns into the loud uncle at Thanksgiving ranting about how “the blacks” just need to pull their pants up. His understanding of the experience of minorities in America is a minimal. He apparently doesn’t believe in the existence of structural racism and redlining, which seems very strange and blinkered for a man who knows a lot about urban planning. Unexamined criticism of the younger generations, without really looking at the challenges each generation faces, just makes him sound like an old man yelling about kids on his lawn. His explanation of identity politics makes a caricature or an important political principal — which is a bit ironic, because his political opinions are so cringeworthy precisely _because_ they are the full expressions of his own unexamined identities, rather than the product of his best thinking.

#17 Comment By J Clivas On January 23, 2018 @ 6:01 am

“Nobody knows why” ? God knows (no, He hasn’t told me personally). In a word, secularization.

#18 Comment By Kirsten Ball On January 23, 2018 @ 9:38 am

If you spend any time in the so-called doomer community you will quickly notice this group swings overwhelmingly towards the political left. Liberal doomer ideologues (unfortunately, this describes most of them) go immediately into fighting mode whenever they encounter an independent thinker who doesn’t play along with the prevailing leftist group narrative. You can see this for yourself in the comments section here. Although Mr. Kunstler’s writing in no way indicates he is a racist, the ideologues immediately descended en masse, kneejerk style, hurling their trite and unfounded accusations. The defining issues of doomerism: resource depletion, pollution, overpopulation, overshoot, biosphere/habitat collapse and an incoming energy crisis are all secondary concerns to the dedicated leftist doomer. To these ideologues: ego, group identity and self identifiers (“I am a liberal”) are their foremost intellectual considerations. All new information the ideologue encounters is carefully assessed and run through a mental filter to see if it “fits” neatly into their preconceived world view. If it doesn’t fit, they stop listening at that point and proceed straight into attack mode. It’s unfortunate that in this way, the majority of doomers are rather unremarkable thinkers, and prone to the same type of pack mentality/groupthink errors they devote so much time and energy to pointing out in others.

#19 Comment By SueS On February 7, 2018 @ 9:19 pm

Woah Nellie. Guess I’m a “doomer”. I do try to read widely, though, because it’s fun, and in the hopes of discovering something to dissuade me from the obvious.

Jim Kunstler seems to be a kind of inadvertently tone-deaf white man, which I can very much relate to, being born and raised by a couple of true-blue racists.

There is something about the way Kunstler,a few years back,dissed boys for wearing their underwear visible above their baggy pants, that affected me so much I fell out of reading his stuff(that may qualify as “attack mode”?) until this afternoon.

#20 Comment By alfredwarwickshire On February 11, 2018 @ 4:05 pm

I am an admirer of Kunstler – except when he tries to defend Israel. Everyone has their own weak point I guess. 🙂

#21 Comment By EntropynEnergy On March 2, 2018 @ 5:37 pm

The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics didn’t specify when its heat engine will ultimately reach end-of-life and fail but left the freedom for the device to run indefinitely – as long as it obeys the Law, and fuels running it are available.

This is to the contrary to the fact that today there are mountains of useless heat engines thrown in junkyards all over the world and growing by the hour.

[4] proposes, the engine will ultimately wear and tear and cease, when the sum of all the useful energy it produced edges closer and closer to match the total energy put earlier in constructing it owing to Entropy internal to matter.

The new thesis is about Energy, but is it applicable to social systems, too?

It seems Repairs are as Energy-intensive and time consuming as constructing a device of useful energy from scratch.

#22 Comment By andy On March 4, 2018 @ 5:09 am

America started with the Mayflower, high principled and conviction bent.
So life today is black or white, left or right, shit or bust, there is no grey.
But life is all grey, Americans lovely as they are individually, just don’t get it, rather they need to preach or be preached at, either way only recognising one truth, when in fact there are many.
JHK is right its all coming to a head, the dominating hegemony of US foreign policy; the debt, consumer, corporate, and government; the rackets, health , defence, education, auto/oil, Fed Reserve; the failing middle class, the greedy 1% ers.
It will collapse in depression, possibly global, when the world wants a better return on USTs and the Fed loses control of the price of money. Then the US will have to pay for what they consume with real value, not depreciating USD.

#23 Comment By Petunia On March 17, 2018 @ 2:51 pm

The war on poverty, a democratic party reform, is the basis of the perpetual underclass in America. In order to install a jobs program for middle class professions, that insulated the middle class with a perpetual poverty bureaucracy, they destroyed poor families, especially minority families.

The democrats then gave us NAFTA to breakup working class families. NAFTA was also a give away to the professional class, the globalist and climate disseminaters. The final capstone was the deregulation of Wall Street, which brought us the current ongoing financial disaster.

Yes, I am now a republican, the Clintons turned me into one.

#24 Comment By Szandor On April 2, 2018 @ 6:35 am

Love the (dare we say obligatory) virtue signalling comments on race and gender. I very much liked the article and feel sad that the detractors do not ‘get’ that a) The race identity calamity has been steered by gamers like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton to amplify and weaponize black issues for leftist polytrix with a divide-and-conquer goal, and b) They simply miss the low overall incidence of both homosexuality and trans-gender – and allow the agenda of the MSM to (wildy amplify and) use these marginal groups to distract ordinary citizens from the dying, hyperfinancialized economy, and absurdly wasteful wars.