‘Truth is like poetry. And most people f&ck!ng hate poetry” – Adam McKay, the Big Short.
Whiffs of fraud in the Pfizer vaccine trials have a certain deja-vu quality. If you were around for the 2000’s you would have been through the dot.com bubble deflate, the mortgage backed securities melt-down, the Weapons of Mass Destruction and opioid and arthritis drug debacles. For the purposes of this article we will also call them fiascos. And now it looks like the Covid-vaccine trial raw-data caper will be the next in a long line of big money shell games backed by too much wall-street, political and media will. The blend of opportunity, panic, crisis, saviour or guru in various mixes, followed in all cases by nasty fall-out has become as formulaic as a 3 chord pop-song about the one that got away. Or in this case gets away with it, for a while at least.
I will first flesh out the fiascos that riddle late-stage capitalism and highlight the rise and fall cycle that seems to be a pattern. We will touch on the types of players and moves of game, how they tie with an elitism that is common to all these late-stage debacles. Then I invite you on a journey exploring some of the deeper currents in collective psyche around how sex and death are related with such that these debacles are perhaps an unavoidable consequence of western individualist exceptionalism. An exceptionalism which I suggest is vulnerable to what psychology calls high place phenomenon, or what the French more poetically call ‘appel du vide’, the call of the void, referring to the mysterious urge to leap that sometimes grips people in high places. A phenomenon that seems true of concrete but also of abstract heights. Our relationship with this pull in relation to carnal forces of sex and death entwine with how society, laws, politics and so on are structured in a way that seems to be ultimately undoing us, yet may just hold the key to a way out of this quagmire.
If you have read some pieces here, you will have a sense of a certain insidiousness endemic in deep state, parapolitical psyops, and the shell game it plays with, in and as contemporary society. You will be familiar with the presence of overt and covert parapolitical power dramas that undergird techno-military-pharma-industrial-financial-political forces, creating, commandeered and continued by an increasingly elite class. This in the context of the larger-than-life shadow of social media reducing complexity to a false dialectic of this and that side, of ascertaining who is villain and who hero, a la Son of Korg’s article Not so Free Guy, on this site. It is hard not to see horizons of warm human connection receding daily in social media ecosystems, atrophying our capacity for adequately living within the ambiguities and differences necessary to global, collective society.
Maybe it is just me, but there is a feeling of having reached a culmination of decades of insidiousness that has metastasized and now seems to feed off nearly everything in the life-world. Industries seem to learn from each other and get better at extracting ever-greater profits while simultaneously making many things worse. We know the drill in oil and gas, where climate and profit are in tension Then there is the finance industry, where various sectors came together in particular patterns of relationship that resulted in the dot.com and the 2008 economic melt-down fiasco, a bust for most but still a boom for some. Hollywood provided post-mortems on the mortgage-backed securities fiasco with big budget movies like Margin Call and The Big Short which illustrate it well, both worth a watch if you have not seen them yet. While the general economy tanked, a few in the industry made bank, including those who bet on the fall as told in The Big Short. Stoic vultures, rising on the updrafts of air sent up by the wake of your average American dream collapsing under the hype.
Like their human creators, big-business sectors continuously learn from each other, such as how to maximize position in the systems they function in and evolve towards ever higher growth and profit production. Refinement and innovation in the art and techne of how to ‘engage’ with government to effectively influence the regulatory process – not just as a lobbyist – seems to be an unofficial domain of a huge amount of expertise. Expertise generally learned on the job after the ‘grooming’ process of a university education in business. The underside of how things actually work does not evenly square with the entrepreneur’s save-the-world ethos, or the CEO’s-are-exceptional-beings myth that lures big finance along. The movie Vice is a decent if left-leaning exposition on said underside in the U.S. lead response to 9/11.
With an eye to the para-business world, the mortgage and opioid crises can be seen as a very natural consequence of relationships of exchange between domains like finance, politics, regulation, science and medicine. They made for a toxic, often lethal mix like prescription drugs that, taken together, cause more damage than cure. And seem locked in a kind of death spiral, dragging the best of intentions down in their undertow.
Hope and Pain: leveraging emotions for profit.
Emotions close to the bone are seductive hooks that draw people in to these fiascos. The mortgage and opioid crises fed on two very primal human feelings, namely hope and pain.
The mortgage debacle fed on the hopeful founding myth of America as a land of opportunity for anyone willing to work hard and take a risk. It preyed primarily on people’s dreams of increasing their lot. The opioid debacle meanwhile preyed on pain and the promise of relief or escape from it all. The demands, limitations, indignities and other deficits of many people’s everyday lives in the rat-race – or being unable to participate in it – drove many to their doctors for remedy. Doctors are also dealing with the demands, limitations, indignities and other deficits of how the medical system fails them . So, they offer what they can, mainly pills .The injuries of a soul-deadening society are met with a soul deadening scientific-medical response. Insert medical profiteering as an industry norm, and unsurprisingly we have the opioid fiasco, leaving many broken and broke and a few very wealthy in the process. This article does a laudable job of trying to understand coalescing legal, medical, financial factors and so on that contributed to making that epidemic a reality.
It is hard not to notice parallels between the mortgage, opioid and now covid ‘crises’. Take a very primal emotion – hope, pain, or as with covid, fear – magnify it with help of media, influence regulations, pump and pimp a select solution, ensure distribution channels and ‘retail’ outlets, rake in profits, and get out if you can before it implodes.
Where the mortgage fiasco exploited dreams of something better, and the opioid crisis primarily fed off pain, the debacle aspect of covid response exploited the natural, necessary emotion of fear. Like hope and pain, fear is strong, primordial, and close to the bone in the human psyche. It is perhaps not a stretch to say that it is one of the least trivial in the pantheon of human emotions. And it was played to maximum effect all through the pandemic – death numbers reported daily on basically all media – keeping the spectre of death in everyone’s face, the pulse of fear beating stronger day after day. That and other media shenanigans have an effect, as elucidated on this site by Ezekeil-73 here and here .
Enter Media physics
Media acts as both particle and wave in the physics of these multi-sector fiascos. Working together to send out bits of information that eventually coalesce into momentum, building into beliefs, attitudes, ideas that strike people’s minds, imparting a stamp of their energy. Media also acts as wave, spreading ripples of information, flooding the ebbs and flows of our minds towards certain ideas, dispositions and beliefs. Big tech magnifies the wave and increases the particles, measuring everything it can to tighten the feedback noose of influence on people’s thoughts and behaviour. Noose because the online terrain tends towards thought-termination rather than increasing openness.
With the death of the fairness doctrine, media transformed into an influence werewolf, or propaganda machine by any other name, howling its messages disguised in the sheep’s clothing of what used to be at least nominally balanced journalism. You can see the propogandization of media in how covid death tolls were front and center on all mainstream channels during the pandemic. And a little bit of truth – it was a very bad flu as flu’s go – makes the influence go down easier. Covid was in all likelihood worse than your average flu, but not for example as deadly as food distribution inequality. Not to diminish the very real tragedy this has been for many people – loss is loss, however it comes, and it hurts like hell. Every loss of a loved one counts more than anything to the ones who live with it. Loss of a child perhaps especially so.
As a thought experiment, consider what the stories would be if daily starvation and for that matter obesity death numbers were reported next to covid deaths. Especially taking into account whether adult or child deaths. This presentation of information would make possible very different stories to be told about the significance of covid, of profits over humanity’s health and well-being, and so on. The media role in magnifying fear in relation to covid is clearer to see when you put it beside the stats for people dying from global food distribution imbalance. The point here is not to scold and harp on what should have been done, but rather to notice the way narratives take shape by what gets reported on and what does not, use of repetition, the impact of tone, urgency, timing and positioning of information. To notice what is offered to our attention, what information is included or kept near, and what information is excluded or kept far away.
Like a forest fire fueled by gusts of wind made by heat from its own burning, the insidiousness of intersecting incentives and power plays – overt and covert, structural and assumed – plays itself out through multisector fiasco after multi-sector fiasco. An ensemble piece with the usual more well-known players – pharma, tech, military, politics, wall-street – plus a few lesser-known actors along with ones well behind the scenes. Again the movie Vice, though slanted hard to the left, paints a decent sketch of enmeshed insidiousness and the power of less high-visibility players in concocting fiascos.
What goes up, and the seduction of ‘appel du vide’ in the elite class.
Now that we have examined some of the more outward facing dynamics that support fiasco-ism, let us slide a little further backstage, deeper towards the impulses and aversions from which these shadowy forces are born. Appel du vide, or the call of the void, is that feeling you might pull a Thelma and Louise ending if you get too close to the edge. It can be literally jumping off a height, as well as figuratively doing so. And it is not limited to physical heights - the urge to jump from the height of social, financial and other more abstract ladders is likewise real. These heights were made more accessible by the human potential movement, edging individualist culture and de-regulated free market economies to precarious heights, inadvertently helping set the stage for the fiasco-itis that dogs late-stage, individualist-centered capitalism.
The human potential movement was fueled in part by an aversion to insignificance, one of the double-edged features of individualist culture. When you can be anything, and there is some special gift you are that the world needs, ways of confirming that specialness are imbued with value. A currency of perks to distinguish you from the faceless hoard, something that shows your unique VIP status. You can see this employed in social media as bragging rights for having x number of followers; in construction as driving x type of pick-up truck; in the rap music industry by sporting a ‘rollie’ and flying in private jets; in activism by ‘standing with’ this or that person or cause; or in academia being most cited, and so on. Regardless of sector, industrialism perverts belonging and status into measurable benchmarks of having ‘made it’. Ideally to the top. And true to civilization’s current runaway dopamine habit, these bench-marks are always already half in the shadow of the next bigger, better, more authentic, smart, more integrated, internetted, efficient, and newer, younger, faster, further mark of distinction.
Currency - ie money - is more than just a means of exchange, it is a way of distinguishing yourself. Within these echelons of distinction, having power or influence over currency’s value and global flow is its own league of VIP status. Like Elon Musk, whose tweets about Bitcoin, Dogecoin etc have been followed by huge shifts in those currencies. One person plays with the abstraction of currency, uses symbols of language on social media, and it affects the mood, behaviour, and fortunes of millions or more people. It is hard to imagine what that kind of influence does to a person. To be that set apart from ‘regular’ humans and even from your industry’s peers by that level of influence would likely feel as potent as it gets. And, awe-inspiring as the singular uniqueness of this power is, it seems vulnerable to a unique loneliness as well. To be without peer is in a sense to be completely alone.
A shadow side of being one-of-a-kind seems then to be a unique loneliness. Where do you go to quench the need for belonging? What seems to happen is you find others who are likewise exceptional in their respective field to hang out with. You see this often, exceptionals hanging out together with other one-of-a-kinds. A president with a top-tier Hollywood producer, a tech baron with top-tier comedian, top entreprenuers with top athletes. The ‘top of’ club cuts across sectors, industries and niches, united in their one-of-a-kind-ness. This provides company of a sort, which is likely a balm, though would not seem to fully scratch the itch of communion. As incarnate – so far – beings, it seems we are still hard-wired for consummating communion at least some of the time. And not just with wine and bread.
The set-up of exceptionalism leaves a gap in the experience of continuity with fellow humans, opens a chasm of yearning for connection in the social ecosystem. The yearning of this void to be filled gives both rise and home to the likes of Jeffry Epstein, a shooting star in finance as well as sexual services provider to the rich, powerful and famous. He acts as a kind of tour operator to the void, creating ways for elites to surrender to the call, to temporarily escape the pressure and loneliness of their accomplishments and entitlement. Epstein’s of the world know how to decorate the void with curated, pre-approved companions for carnal communion. Making available girls or very young women, boys and young men who are refreshingly not yet exceptional and powerful in the world.
One can speculate as to how aware these youth are and how fully informed and consensual or not the situation may be. Perhaps for some youth, the lure of distinguishing oneself by keeping company with famous or powerful people overcomes more cautionary impulses. Like the mortgage fiasco, Epstein’s of the world offer to youth the dream of increasing their lot, in this case by affiliation with those of god-like status, a heady siren call. Often the very power imbalance that is part of the initial appeal is later weaponized by both parties, whether to strong-arm silence, or to leverage for a settlement and silence the details of it. That said, there is no doubt that Epstein and his collaborators outright duped many if not most youth into their illicit and illegal scene. (See Ezekeil 73's piece here for deeper dive into Epstein's sudden departure from this mortal coil)
In these curated young bodies, members of the ‘top of’ club can viscerally unburden themselves of the yoke of their exceptionalism, be relieved however briefly of the gravitas of being terribly significant, and soften into places beyond the hardening of experience and accomplishment. Epstein’s of the world offer the opportunity to transmute stifling aspects of hyper-elitism into carnal communion with the perky, unstretched and hardly tested promise held in the body of youth. As Mötley Crüe, balladeers of unbridled bacchanalia, caught in the limitless neo-liberal Reaganomics of their time sang it, “take me to the top, take me to the top, take me to the top and throw me off”. . .into what one might speculate is the seduction of the void.
If money and status are abstractions of life-force, sex is a very concrete exercise of it. It is a heady blend of both prize and possession, nectar and imbibing that can even redeem our more violent impulses. It takes a certain physical vigour, after all. The act is packed with the potency of all-senses-go freedom, and the energizing paradox of rigour with subtlety and fragile moments of release from the weight of exceptional separation, communion consummated in the merciful oblivion of a ‘little death’. A great reset if ever there was one.
Notice how attention goes to a few elites who get caught partaking or providing of these depraved rewards, the Prince Andrew’s, Bill Clinton and Donald Trumps, but except for a rare scapegoat, it doesn’t last. For more on Epstein and mainstream media, see Ezekiel’s piece here. Meanwhile there is an absence of curiosity or at least media coverage, about the ones who sensed the depravity in the vibe around Epstein and stayed away, or left very early. What are their stories, and what is revealed in the fact that those stories are not the ones that get the most airtime? Along with curiosity about the ones who resisted or stayed away, curiosity for the way an Epstein is able to happen in this world seems under examined. The players may have a hand in making the game, but the game also makes and plays the players. How did we get to this being part and parcel of the game?
In high or low places, sex has its gameified valence, where the transactive, exploitive, extractive, perverse as well as innocent dimensions can cluster anywhere along a spectrum. Many a human drama plays out in the body-to-body (or more than one body, as the case may be) of sexual entanglement. Regardless of the amount of deceit and manipulation to get there, the act itself tends to towards a visceral kind of truth. In coitus, pleasurable or not, there are within us few places to hide from the unmediated truth of our present experience. One might deceive a partner about level of arousal and satisfaction, but during the act – with rare and extreme exception – your flesh inescapably tells at least you the truth of your present experience. Like breathing, it is a dance of conscious will and deeper than that, incarnate physiological will. We can will ourselves into the act, but it is also up to the grace of incarnate life-force coming together just so to complete its consummate crescendo. No one else can experience it for us.
Likewise, death is uniquely our own and paradoxically a great equalizer – common to everyone. This, horror of horrors, is antithetical to exceptionalism! As an exceptional individual, the logic towards death would be that you live longer and redeem more years of life than the average person: a rivalrous dynamic by any other name. Indeed, a lot of what passes for seeking better health amounts to seeking exception from the grim reaper. Like taxes to the wealthy, you try to defer it as long as possible.
What about our relationship with death in highly secularized, capitalized times? Without better myths to dignify and welcome our own end, death has largely become equated with defeat in the modern psyche. It seems we are instead hypnotized by youth and being alive, reduced to conventions of measuring the good life with numbers, be it of years of life, influence, net worth and so on. More and longer has become the proxy for a good life, supported by the affliction of excessive reliance on measurement in science and medicine.
Longer life spans meanwhile carry with them unintended consequences of more impact on the planet, since wealth, life-span and carbon footprint are deeply entwined and often positively correlated. It is like we did not think it through – if we make people live longer, and often lonelier, lives what will the impact of that be on planet, housing, equality, sexual communing predilections, and so on? What are the collateral costs of longer life and perhaps more importantly, how is it they have so consistently shown up in the blind-spot of progress?
We are caught in a loop, supported by markets, policy and habits of consumerism etc, wreaking havoc on the planet in an effort to extend our exceptional lives and escape the nameless oblivion of our common, carnal mortality. Life lived prizing exceptionalism while paradoxically lured by the prospect of release from it. Where death is the ultimate departure from incarnate presence in this world, the communion of sex is a witness to our existence, as well as a bulwark and remedy against separation from life.
Perhaps our treatment of sex and death is connected somehow to the afore-mentioned blind-spot of progress. The habit of not thinking through consequences costs us in climate, economic, health, housing, inequality and nearly all our big ills. Maybe rather than staring down carbon levels, which seem to increase in response to our attention to them, a little shift towards tending to the place of sex and death – without which there is no life – in our secularized world and economy might be worthwhile context to include. To give them their due in the fumble toward the good life, or at this point even just the continuation of human life on this beautiful blue droplet of a planet that we call home in the vast star-studded void of space.
Western individual elitism is stuck on a fiasco generating merry-go-round of rises and falls of increasingly insidious enmeshment and scale. Regulation is caught up in the game so cannot be relied on for much in the way of course correction. The deviation towards untoward sex, and away from the final chapter of life that is death, may yet paradoxically hold promise for nudging us into more vital and vitalizing territory, if we can right our relationship with these essential dimensions of life.