Laurie Penny

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Laurie Penny, who a couple months ago published the excellent Pacific-Standard piece “On the Milo Bus With the Lost Boys of America’s New Right,” has just penned “Life-Hacks of the Poor and Aimless,” a great Baffler article about “well-being ideology” or the selling of self-improvement systems in an era of pending climate collapse and capitalism run amok.

In this odd moment of food fetishization and FitBit (at least in the West), we’re gorging and gauging as Rome burns and seas rise. We’re urged to live healthier and happier lives by corporations and governments, not an unreasonable request, but it’s an impossible mission sans social safety nets and a habitable plant. Ballooning wealth inequality is detrimental to democracies and their citizenry alike, and there’s just so much individuals can do to steel themselves from the chaos it brings.

It makes sense that in America the culmination of this medicine show is a President whose family literally worshiped, when he was a child, at the church of Norman Vincent Peale. The power of positive thinking, however, won’t remove lead from the Flint water supply, cancel climate change or prevent factories from falling into the grip of robot hands and low-paid contractors. It’s really a false doctrine, a Depression Era dance marathon reimagined for the Digital Age. The last one to hit the floor wins.

Still, Penny manages to find some value in yoga and self-care despite the gathering storm.

The opening:

Late capitalism is like your love life: it looks a lot less bleak through an Instagram filter. The slow collapse of the social contract is the backdrop for a modern mania for clean eating, healthy living, personal productivity, and “radical self-love”—the insistence that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, we can achieve a meaningful existence by maintaining a positive outlook, following our bliss, and doing a few hamstring stretches as the planet burns. The more frightening the economic outlook and the more floodwaters rise, the more the public conversation is turning toward individual fulfillment as if in a desperate attempt to make us feel like we still have some control over our lives.

Coca-Cola encourages us to “choose happiness.” Politicians take time out from building careers in the debris of democracy to remind us of the importance of regular exercise. Lifestyle bloggers insist to hundreds of thousands of followers that freedom looks like a white woman practicing yoga alone on a beach. One such image (on the @selflovemantras Instagram) informs us that “the deeper the self love, the richer you are.” That’s a charming sentiment, but landlords are not currently collecting rent in self-love.

Can all this positive thinking be actively harmful? Carl Cederström and André Spicer, authors of The Wellness Syndrome, certainly think so, arguing that obsessive ritualization of self-care comes at the expense of collective engagement, collapsing every social problem into a personal quest for the good life. “Wellness,” they declare, “has become an ideology.”•

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  • The meek were promised they would inherit the earth, but policies change.
  • Trump’s Administration, fueled by Exxon and coal, is eager to deregulate as many environmental protections as possible and embrace what will be the death of us. The willful ignorance of the ruling party may not kill off all of humanity–not immediately, anyway–but you better have a large bankroll or be especially lucky if you want a chance at persisting in life.
  • I wrote last month on Evan Osnos’ New Yorker article about members of the financial elite planning on escaping a large-scale calamity, readying themselves for the Big Withdrawal from a disaster that will envelop their less-well-funded friends. Perhaps they’ll relocate away from the worst of a heating planet or maybe the wars that will likely attend higher mercury. Peter Thiel has a backup plan if the sociopath he enabled into the White House is the final nail in our coffin, but for most there will be no avoiding the creeping disaster of climate change.
  • It’s the worst possible moment for the most destructive American political uprising in memory. The earth is cracked and so are the people.

In “The Slow Confiscation of Everything,” an excellent Baffler essay, Laurie Penny analyzes how the meaning of end-of-world scenarios have changed through the ages and the political undertones of the current ruinous impulses among the masses. 

An excerpt:

This month, in a fascinating article for The New Yorker, Evan Osnos interviewed several multi-millionaires who are stockpiling weapons and building private bunkers in anticipation of what preppers glibly call “SHTF”—the moment when “Shit Hits The Fan.” Osnos observes that the reaction of Silicon Valley Svengalis, for example, is in stark contrast to previous generations of the super-rich, who saw it as a moral duty to give back to their community in order to stave off ignorance, want and social decline. Family names like Carnegie and Rockefeller are still associated with philanthropy in the arts and sciences. These people weren’t just giving out of the goodness of their hearts, but out of the sense that they too were stakeholders in the immediate future.

Cold War leaders came to the same conclusions in spite of themselves. The thing about Mutually Assured Destruction is that it is, well, mutual—like aid, or understanding, or masturbation. The idea is that the world explodes, or doesn’t, for everyone. How would the Cuban Missile Crisis have gone down, though, if the negotiating parties had known, with reasonable certainty, that they and their families would be out of reach of the fallout? 

Today’s apocalypse will be unevenly distributed. It’s not the righteous who will be saved, but the rich—at least for a while. The irony is that the tradition of apocalyptic thinking—religious, revolutionary or both—has often involved the fantasy of the destruction of class and caste. For many millenarian thinkers—including the puritans in whose pinched shoes the United States is still sneaking about—the rapture to come would be a moment of revelation, where all human sin would be swept away. Money would no longer matter. Poor and privileged alike would be judged on the riches of their souls. That fantasy is extrapolated in almost every modern disaster movie—the intrepid survivors are permitted to negotiate a new-made world in which all that matters is their grit, their courage, and their moral fiber. 

A great many modern political currents, especially the new right and the alt-right, are swept along by the fantasy of a great civilizational collapse which will wash away whichever injustice most bothers you, whether that be unfettered corporate influence, women getting above themselves, or both—any and every humiliation heaped on the otherwise empty tables of men who had expected more from their lives, economic humiliations that are served up and spat back out as racism, sexism, and bigotry. For these men, the end of the world sounds like a pretty good deal. More and more, it is only by imagining the end of the world that we can imagine the end of capitalism in its current form. This remains true even when it is patently obvious that civilizational collapse might only be survivable by the elite.•

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