Why 2016 Seemed Like the Worst Year Ever
Let this past year be a kick in your ass, not a boot on your throat.
Illustration by Joe Frontel
"Man has become a kind of prosthetic God," Sigmund Freud tells us in Civilization and Its Discontents. "When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but… We must not forget that present-day man is not happy in his Godlike character."
The good doctor might have been wrong about the value of the vaginal orgasm, but he was right about the crippling, self-destructive anxiety undergirding modern life and how poorly our species seems equipped to handle it. This was prescient when Freud first published it in 1930, and like too many other things out of that decade, it feels fresh again at the end of 2016.
It's common to lament 2016 as a kind of spectacularly miserable year, a singularly awful global catastrophe where all the good celebrities died and all the bad ones became president. But 2016 is not sentient, and it's not deliberately tormenting you (no matter how much it sometimes feels that way). It's really just the year a number of cultural, technological, political, and ecological trends all collided into one another in the worst possible way.
In hindsight, it's easy to see how everything that boiled over this year was bubbling away for the better part of the decade. It feels like we live in a markedly—even unthinkably—different world than we did in 2011 or 2015. But we're really just catching a boomerang. This was the year our chickens came home to roost.
Can't Get Enough of That Kulturkampf
This year has infamously racked up an impressive celebrity bodycount, including David Bowie and Prince and Leonard Cohen and Muhammad Ali and John Glenn and George Michael and Carrie Fisher and, and, and...
Many of these people were cultural giants of the 20th century—in a way that might be impossible in the 21st century. Thanks to the proliferation of media technology (and changes in its consumption), it's difficult for anyone to cultivate the same kind of universal cultural appeal or influence of someone like Bowie or Fisher. As Sam Kriss has noted elsewhere, we're not only mourning the loss of beloved idols but the last links to a fading world: "There really were more celebrity deaths in 2016 than in previous years, and there'll be even more next year, until everyone who unified the culture is gone, and the only people left are aging YouTube stars and problematic faves, heirs to a more atomized world, whose disappearance will be wailed at by their isolated fan bases and utterly ignored by everyone else."
This metamorphosis in media has been underway for more than a decade, but 2016 is the year we finally began to understand its true ramifications. There is no question that the spread of smartphones over the last decade is changing the way people interact with one another and the world. It's trendy in technophile circles to call this a "revolution," but counter-revolution works just as well. Social media in its present form—that is, a disparate network of privately owned websites functioning as a public space, the content of which is subject to manipulation by advertising algorithms powered by personal information extracted from users—is as profoundly, maddeningly disempowering as it is a vehicle for personal enlightenment, community engagement, and social organization.
Take this year's absolute meltdowns about "fake news" and "post-truth." "Fake news" morphed from a descriptive term for deliberately false stories circulated on social media for advertising revenue to "deliberate misinformation from agents of [the Russian state/international Jewish financiers]" to "anything dissenting from the [liberal political establishment/Alt-Right hivemind]" to "anything I don't like." These are not the conditions of "post-truth"—because political discourse has always exceeded (and often contradicted) empirical reality—but rather what Alex Tesar has dubbed "meta-truth."
Changing media technology, dovetailing with the precarious economic conditions prevailing since the Great Recession in 2008 and the bankruptcy of traditional economic, intellectual, and political authorities have landed us in a condition of epistemic anarchy. The political earthquakes of 2016 have demonstrated, that in conditions of meta-truth—the intellectual state of nature—the only rule is brutal, naked, awesome force.
The Circus Comes to Town
Shock and awe was how the far right won most of 2016's major political battles.
Consider, first, the Brexit blitz. When David Cameron called the referendum on Britain's membership in the EU, it was on the assumption that it would be a resounding success for Remain and that the Euroskeptic fringe that had been floating in the Tory coalition would finally shut up and go away. Business leaders, tenured academics, and every other member of the Liberal Political Establishment was trotted out to stress how terribly complex leaving Europe would be and how they had all these statistics about how neoliberal globalization might be a touch uncomfortable for the poor but that everything otherwise was tickety-boo. The Leave camp, by contrast, focused on stoking racist fantasies about murderous immigrants, completely disingenuous claims about how much money they would could funnel into the NHS if they weren't paying Brussels, and the fabulous lie that moving political power from the technocracy in Brussels to the plutocrats in London would make life better for the average (white, aging, anxious working-class) Briton.
The ghost of an entirely imaginary British Empire—the wrong answer to the right questions—cut the country off from the continent in a political upset that the Leave campaign did not anticipate. The Remain coalition spent approximately zero time wondering how they misunderstood the mood of the electorate or why they were so out of touch, and instead immediately moved to asking why voters were so stupid. There was a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth, and nobody learned anything and the exact same experience was repeated four months later across the pond.
Constitutional wranglings in the United Kingdom have nothing on this year's American election, when what was a punchline for 20-odd years slowly metastasized into President Donald Trump. Trump is one of the greatest conmen in American history, channeling the anxiety, alienation, and resentment of white, rural America into a victory over one of the worst political campaigns ever run in the history of the republic. Faced with overwhelming evidence of widespread popular dissatisfaction with the status quo, Hillary Clinton campaigned on the absurd slogan that "America is great because America is good" and was so convinced of her own inevitable coronation as the khaleesi of corporate feminism that she didn't even bother campaigning in Michigan. Half the electorate stayed home, and a few million useful idiots for a bargain-bin American Bonaparte handed control of the world's preeminent nuclear arsenal to a 70-year-old toddler and his merry band of vampire billionaires.
Like Brexit, the Trump campaign was running a scam of biblical proportions and improbably won the day—thanks to a perfect storm of antisocial radicalism bubbling at the fringes of American life for the better part of the last decade. What observers had once assumed was the Republican Party eating itself in the face of Barack Obama's triumphant liberalism was actually the total colonization of the GOP by Andrew Breitbart's parasitic ghost. Meanwhile, disaffected white virgins who had been radicalized on pickup artist websites in 2012 and spent 2014 laying the groundwork for a violently reactionary white-identity politics by getting mad about video games online and became, in 2016, a vanguard of computer literate neo-Nazis described in the press as the "alt-right."
Fascism has been a hot topic in 2016, specifically because of the ongoing argument over whether or not Donald Trump and the alt-right can be called a properly fascist movement. They are definitely not classically fascist—there are no partisan paramilitaries storming through the streets (yet)—but they belong in the same family tree of extreme reactionary politics. You can call it neo-fascism, or post-fascism, or even proto-fascism, and there is a valuable debate to hold about splitting these semantic hairs. But I think the f-word works just fine, because the genius of fascism is that it is always morphing its shape. It is the ultimate pastiche ideology—an ideological chameleon, rearranging its spots to suit the historical moment, pressing stoner cartoon frogs into the service of white supremacy.
Fascism flourishes in conditions of meta-truth precisely because it is so malleable, so forcefully beguiling, so deliberately free of even pretending to care about the Liberal Establishment's idea of "truth." It recognizes, consciously or otherwise, that truth is a function of power. Donald Trump's regular, pathological lying underscores that the real goal of fascist rhetoric is not to convince, but to awe and impress. This is why fact-checking the alt-right's absurd claims are useless and arguably counterproductive—everything they do and say is intentionally performed in bad faith.
Keith Olbermann can scream and sob into a flag all he wants. It only makes Trump stronger. He may or may not ever build that border wall, but the central promise of his campaign remains true: He will do whatever he wants, and the rest of us will pay for it.
This Planet Is Burning Up
Not that there's ever a good time for the political triumph of reactionary nationalism, but this is an especially bad one. Major countries are turning inward and the international community is fracturing at the exact moment when coordinated global action on climate change is most necessary.
The real sense in which the future arrived in 2016 are all the ecological barriers the planet broke this year. Not only was this the hottest year ever recorded (RIP 2015), but the planet also permanently passed the threshold of 400 parts-per-million of atmospheric carbon dioxide for the first time in millions of years, which by all accounts is not so great a time. Second, and more alarmingly, the Arctic has been anywhere from 20 to 30 degrees Celsius warmer than usual all autumn, losing 19,000 square miles of ice over five days in November.
These are significant developments. Higher CO2 levels in the atmosphere along with abnormally warm temperatures in the Arctic bring us perilously close to triggering a number of unstoppable climactic feedback loops. A markedly warmer Arctic means more dark, sunlight-absorbing ocean surface, which in turn warms the Arctic further, and on and on. (Pay no attention to the melting permafrost behind the curtain.)
All of these trends existed well before 2016, but we can point to 2016 as the year we blew past those major milestones and definitely entered the Anthropocene. Ironically, the surest sign that humanity has entered a geological era defined by our impact on the planet's ecological metabolism may turn out to be that we are no longer able to control or mitigate what we have unleashed. There is no question now that after 2016, we live on a different planet than the one any previous generations in human history inhabited.
And as 2017 looms, epistemic anarchy reigns. The incoming president of the United States believes climate change is a hoax and has appointed a former Exxon executive as secretary of state. If the long arc of history does indeed bend toward justice, the devil and his angels are making sure they grab everything that isn't nailed down before the final trumpets sound.
The situation is dire. Angry baby boomers are taking their countries back at the same time as the world spins catastrophically out of their control. Everyone is connected to one another and the entire compendium of human knowledge by the supercomputers we carry around in our pockets, and we have never felt more anxious or alone. We are prosthetic gods hell-bent on our own crucifixion.
But it would be irresponsible to wrap all this up on such a bleak note. There are reasons for hope. If 2016 was the year that the old order of the world finally started cracking to pieces, that means it's also the moment when space opened up for something new. Right now, the forces moving to occupy those spaces are monstrous. But their victory is fragile, and they can be pushed around. There is a clear hunger for a different future—something better, something not constrained by the beige, dead-eyed dogmas of technocratic liberalism.
Millennials take a lot of shit for being apathetic, flighty narcissists. But the other major Western political upheaval of 2016—the one spearheaded by a geriatric Jewish socialist named Bernie Sanders—shows that we'll come out in droves for anyone who will listen to us, for anyone willing and able to give voice to the demand that our lives don't have to get worse forever just so some monsters with suits and stock options can get rich off our labor while cities sink into the sea.
The clock is ticking, but it shouldn't be paralyzing. Nihilism is a disease, and irony is a vector. It is possible to dream differently, and it is possible to organize, and it is possible to win. Let 2016 be a kick in your ass, not a boot on your throat.
So slam as many drinks or joints or pills or lines or quiet moments of sobriety as you need to get through New Year's Eve 2016, and then get the fuck up. The future is here, and it's ours if we take it.
If we don't, somebody else will.
Follow Drew Brown on Twitter.