I wrote a while ago about how our current social media is driving a society that is becoming more and more isolated. This atomization creates, I argued, a perfect breeding ground for cults and cult-like power structures. I want to revisit that idea and explain exactly why it’s my greatest fear. I believe that everyone is allowed at least one irrational belief (because as the great philosopher Clint Eastwood once said, “everyone’s got the right to be a sucker once”), and until fairly recently my now-seemingly-rational belief was that a third world war was eminent. But irrational doesn’t mean unreasonable and I do have my reasons.
I think most people now feel that WWIII is feasible, but for reasons that I believe are red herrings. Almost everyone is looking to North Korea testing nukes or Russia invading some East European hellhole and dragging NATO into a global conflict. Yeah maybe, but I’ve been paranoid about this for years and I think that if such a conflict were to come it would be a surprise to everyone. My tinfoil hat has dust, yours is shiny and new. The thing I saw a few years ago was simple: the erosion of trust. Everywhere. This is no secret, trust in institutions is at historic lows, most obviously in today’s time through the public hostility to the Media, but also low faith in the Banks, the Government, Business, professionals, the Church, and, hell, whether the Earth is even round.
This has been long in the making, but social media threw napalm on the dumpster fire that was the credibility of our so-called fearless leaders. We could now see that they were winging it just as much as we would in their shoes and that’s frightening. A cool historical analogy was actually in Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History episode called Prophets of Doom. Carlin starts by discussing the advent of the printing press and how the volume and spread of information magnified and became democratized. Whereas prior to the printing press religious knowledge was a specialized trade for those fortunate enough to learn to read and have access to expensive books, rapid printing allowed information to become cheap. This meant that everyone now could learn and create their own interpretation of what at the time was the heart of the most predominant institution – the Bible. He (Carlin) overviews how the Protestant Church developed and Martin Luther’s 99 Theses and how all of this formed the backdrop for the rise of the Anabaptist faith.
Carlin recounts how an increasingly globalized Munster becomes home to a millennialist strain of the Anabaptists who grow in numbers and eventually overtake the city of Munster. They are led by the gaunt and charismatic John Mathys, who proclaimed Munster to be a new Jerusalem and that he was the prophet Enoch. Obviously, this did not sit well with the neighbors of Munster, in particular on prince-bishop who blockades the city, which is in turn met by a call to communalism inside the walls of Munster. Things eventually get so bad that John Mathys is killed as pressure and forces escalate. What’s strange is that often in history there is one cult leader, but when he is taken out the cult disassembles. But here, the mantle was taken up by John Mathys’s protégé, John of Leiden. Who promptly declares polygamy. You can tell what sort of leader he is and suffice it to say, it ends tragically for both him and the people of Munster. The blockade eventually gets so bad that the people take to the streets trying to eat bricks. There are of course, mass casualties when the prince-bishop invades. It’s a highly riveting podcast, I highly, highly recommend.
But why bring this up? Mostly because the analogues are pretty obvious:
Mass increase in information publishing? Check.
Greater public understanding and thus greater and deep differences of opinion? Check.
An increasingly globalized society? Check.
Charismatic leaders who take control by doubling down on an apocalyptic narrative? Da.
And part of this is because Carlin is great storyteller and knows how to highlight history to be relevant to the listeners everyday sense of the world. But part of it is that we as human beings still follow certain instinctual patterns. When faced with sudden upheaval, a huge portion of society will cling with greater fervor to their beliefs and their proven systems. Others will seek to exploit the opportunity. Most of us look for any semblance of normality or stability in tumultuous and fast paced ecosystem. We’re human, that’s all. And we’ve changed our foundational environment so profoundly that all of our evolutionarily selected adaptions no longer apply. We increasingly live and create a world in which we have no part in.
I’m no Luddite and I don’t blame social media entirely. I’m just reading tea leaves and taking a WAG. But historically it hasn’t ended well. The second (or third, depending on what page you look at in Wikipedia) largest conflict by estimated deaths was the Taiping Rebellion. This was started because some guy (Hong Xiuquan) believed he was the brother of Jesus Christ and took on the Qing Dynasty. There aren’t even reliable estimated as to how many died, but conservatively, in the ballpark of 20 million. The only events that could be counted as deadlier would be World War II and the Mongol Conquests. The third largest conflict in history was because of a cult.
It’s not just the religious aspect of cults that I’m referring to. It’s the power structure. That hierarchical control, that gaslighting, that mind-control, that level of group-think. It’s that top-down, “Die-for-me” structure. It’s easier for someone to build that sort of structure if people are scared and willing to concede autonomy to strong, visionary, charismatic leader. Theoretically, this could be a benevolent philosopher-king. But I am skeptical. Anyone can have a vision, some can convince many to join their vision, but at no time has everyone agreed to a vision. And disagreement in vision means conflict.
What then is my biggest fear? That it goes like this:
The economy crashes. There’s bound to be another recession, off of nothing more than the economy is cyclical. We’re caught with our pants down, interest rates are still too low, we’re still in QE4 and there’s a lot of helicopter money floating around so we have no means leveraging against this recession.
People get scared.
They get angry.
And they get in skirmishes.
They won’t be called cults, but maybe militias, insurrectionists, protest blocs, whatever. The United States, don’t forget is the reserve currency of pretty much the whole world. Other state actors take notice and intervene on such a juicy opportunity, as this happens all across the world.
China always fronts with Japan when there are internal tensions. The EU still hasn’t forgotten Greece, even as it prepares to deal with Britain. Russia’s MO is and has been to create a blanket fog of war.
And that’s what it will be.
No one will know whose side is where and with who. Some may not even realize a war is happening until it is too late. But by then, global chaos. Nations will not only be at war with other nations, but with themselves.
I don’t want this. Obviously. Fingers crossed I look back at this, laugh, and say “What a poorly conceived piece of apocalypse porn”. I’m kind of hoping someone makes a convincing argument to me that, “No, look at this mechanistic failsafe that will 100% protect against the scenario you outlined”
But this isn’t a rational thought. I’m fully aware that this is my feeling out an idea I just don’t want to hold but can’t let go. It’s what keeps me up at night. A huge portion of me rationally knows that we are living in the most peaceful time in history and that my anxiety is manufactured so that I go out and buy the latest and greatest toaster. But I still can’t shake this unease.
If there is a silver lining to my thought process, it’s that humans are resilient. We’re cockroaches, just a goddamn plague the earth will never be rid of. And yeah, more than ever we are relying on a monoculture to feed a populace that outweighs the carrying capacity of our ecosystem to begin with which means that any effect of famine will be multiplied by, like, a thousand. Yeah, we now are in possession of at least one technology that could end all life (nukes) and fast approaching another that could endanger our livelihoods (AI).
But we’ll find a way to outlast all of that.
I honestly don’t think any human being is actually willing to push the big red button and end it all for everyone. Parasites and weeds die last unless actively sought out and we’re probably the most successful parasites evolution has ever seen. I hope.