Billionaires Want Us to Be Nihilists. Let's Fight Back in the 2020s

The 2010s told us the future was stolen and there was nothing we could do. That’s a lie.
billionaires, end of year
Image via Pexels.

Here at the end of the decade, I sit surrounded by “smart” devices. Besides the laptop computer on which I type this, a smaller, handheld computer (a vestigial kind of telephone) is charging within arm’s reach. (Often, the same website will be displayed at the top of both browsers, perhaps the clearest sign of my digital brain damage.) A small machine named Alexa sits on a counter in the living room, permanently eavesdropping in anticipation that its human hosts will call on it for entertainment. The refrigerator is connected to the internet, for some reason, and the doorbell is tied to a clandestine police surveillance network.


Man has indeed become a prosthetic God and we are compelled to imbue everything around us with that same divine and utterly unwieldy power. But as we careen into the future we are building for ourselves, rare-earth-elemental brick by rare-earth-elemental brick, its promise seems smaller and more limited than ever. If this decade opened with the promise of the planet blossoming into one vast global village, it closes on a world shrinking back into a patchwork quilt of walls and moats and guns.

It is this violent knot of contradictions that may come to define the decade. The Powers That Be are as anxious and incoherent as everyone else. Social media has obliterated any illusion that Elites are “‘elite”’ because they possess special talents or skills or insights or abilities separable in any meaningful way from money. Brains rot in real time within the closed loop of the digital pleasure principle.

Even basic accounting for the passage of time is changing. We are no longer bound to the hubris of human calendars. Iceland this year erected a memorial for a melting glacier. Dated “August 2019/415 ppm CO2,” the plaque addresses an ominous future: “This monument acknowledges that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”

The 2010s were characterized by the shocking interplay of the real and the phantasmic. Once upon a time we could cleanly separate Extremely Online from the Meatspace. By 2016 we knew there was no longer any such clean break—for better and for worse. Political power grows out of the ratio on a shitpost. Twitter and Facebook melt and mold the human brain like so much plastic putty. And as all human activity is recorded in the hard physical record of carbon in the atmosphere, we retreat further and further into the ethereal digital shadow-world at our fingertips.


We are more connected and disconnected to one another than ever before. We are both more present and more distant, more combined and more isolated. Digital connection obliterates the distance between London and Tokyo and widens the gulf between two friends sitting in the same room. We are the guinea pigs in history’s largest uncontrolled mass social experiment, yoked together in a digital “commons” that flattens culture and emotion as it shores up the most grotesque social inequality since the Jazz Age a century ago.

There are none who are righteous, not one. Between the choruses of “OK, boomer” and eye-rolling about avocado toast there is little recognition that generational conflict is the politics of fools. It is misplaced, if genuine, recognition that the future has been stolen, and that there must be a culprit. It is another victim of the poison of populism—the false promise that the “proper” order of things can be restored as long as a disruptive minority can be squeezed into submission, that demographic tides can be rolled back by sheer force of will, that the sun will stop rising on a cold alien dawn if we smash all the clocks and clockmakers.

How the 2010s Taught Us to Hate the Rich

It is a lie, of course. But a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth can even lace up its boots—assuming truth isn’t harassed, held up at the border, or outright murdered in Kashmir, Canada, Missouri, or Brazil.

Sometimes, though, the simulation flickers; sometimes this palace of illusion shows us its bare walls. It is hard now to stand in a store without seeing the full symphony of production behind every tiny plastic trinket: every drop of petroleum drawn up from the ground, every ounce of water poured into the mixture, every shuddering halt along the assembly line, every drop of sweat from the brow of the workers, every exhaust blast from the delivery trucks—the entire vast and hidden architecture behind the most mundane and simple things. You can see the hideously gorgeous web of commodity production stretching out across the whole surface of Earth and feel yourself caught up in its rituals. The world is cluttered with the monuments to dead and dying Gods. Mammon alone now holds the skies aloft, sending rain on the just and unjust alike, mocking the very idea of justice or anything indeed beyond Itself. It has made us wildly, inhumanly lonely. All of us, together, alone.


It is hard to imagine settling accounts. The whole promise of capitalism is that no accounting is necessary. There are supposed to be no limits. A hundred million separate strands of Money can chase their destinies wither the wind takes them. But this too is a fiction—there is no infinite expansion in a finite system. You can indefinitely ignore the human cost, written in blood across centuries, but nothing is lost from the balance sheet of Nature. This decade will pass into history as the moment our species withdrew its balance into overdraft. The horizons of human history, expanding outwards in fits and starts for the past 300 years, will begin to snap back on themselves like overstretched rubber bands. The long spring and summer inaugurated by the Industrial Age will give way to fall and winter.

This was not inevitable. But we will be told as much.

So what is to be done? No one can say with certainty. Everything under heaven is in chaos. The world is bestrode by headless Leviathans, slashing at themselves and one another madly. The sorcerer’s apprentice has conjured up powers beyond his control, and the Master will not save us from the mire. You will be pressed into believing that nothing matters and that everything is already too late.

It’s a lie. It’s a lie. It’s a lie. You have to fight like hell. In the streets, in the institutions, in the small committed cadres. You have to find everyone else in the world afflicted with this damnably maddening idea that a better world is not only possible but necessary. You have to listen for the still small voice inside you breathing against the grain of the world. The old is dying and the new struggles to be born. God grant us the courage for delivery by cesarean.

Happy New Year. Sic semper tyrannis. The roaring 20s await.

Follow Drew Brown on Twitter.