This is the first in a series of essays concerning the political, moral and material gaps left by alienation under capitalism and crises of capital, what arises to fill those gaps, and how the left can respond to nationwide depression.
“You know your life is useless and meaningless. You’re full of self-contempt and nihilism.”- Jordan Peterson
“You just gotta go hardcore happy.” — Matt Furie, creator of Pepe the Frog
I was weeping while watching the Ellen Show. Two weeks earlier, I had moved back into my parent’s house after a major depressive episode to seek treatment and get myself clean from drugs and self-harm. The first few days were immensely difficult, and I was not able to change my clothes, eat, or sit in silence for more than a few minutes before panic set in and I would break into sobs. I wore a bathrobe for about four days before putting pants on.
After changing my medication to a stronger anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medication, I slowly began to function more normally and get through the day without intense panic attacks. About two weeks into my stay, I was getting up at a decent time, getting more sleep and got accustomed a fixed eating schedule to gain some weight back. The small TV in our kitchen is on every morning, as neither I nor my mother are comfortable with long periods of silence and need some kind of background noise.
As I would eat breakfast, some morning talk show was playing in the background. I found them vapid and grating. Beautifully made up Gen X celebrities would greet and pacify an uncomfortably loud and joyous crowd with in-jokes among their celebrity guests, half-assed game shows and trotting out the feel-good story of the week, usually a kid who played violin well or a coach who really liked his high school basketball team.
I don’t remember who the guest was, nor do I remember what they were talking about. All I remember are the motions of the programming, because they don’t change much episode to episode: Ellen DeGeneres brings out a guest who probably didn’t want to be there and who Ellen probably didn’t want to talk to, they have an innocuous and inconsequential conversation that nonetheless gets raucous applause from the audience, and after the revelation of some small prize or gift for the audience, a huge dance party ensues where a guy whose only job is artificially inseminate the program with more endorphins leads the crowd in a great celebration about the nothing that’s been flashing on the screen for the last fifteen minutes- the nothing that, despite its complete emptiness, is synthetically loaded with some meaning or purpose. I felt like I was staring into uncanny valley.
Maybe I was thinking too much about it. I had AJ Soprano syndrome: in the calming but meaningless, but also harmless, programming that takes up most of mainstream media, I only saw deliberate and cynical placating that distracts us from the horror, exploitation and evil that define not only our current political moment, but the entire arc of human history.
“It’s bullshit. It’s all such fucking bullshit.” I said through sobs to my mom, who was trying to understand why the Ellen Show would set off a panic attack for a 23-year-old man. We were possibly going to war with Iran. People in China were dying of COVID-19. The President of the United States had been impeached, acquitted, and it completely disappeared from the wider discourse. But my own cynicism burrowed further than what was on the front page; everywhere I looked I saw each microtransaction between every human being as part of an evil project. We lived on a dying Earth where most members of our species died before 40 and never had enough to eat or drink, while a long continuation of concentrated power pitted the poor and hungry against each other in a depressive cycle of never-ending warfare for resources. And by warfare, I don’t just mean literal war, but every human interaction was an unconscious struggle against each other in the day to day war to stay alive, to be seen, to matter and to be heard.
“It’s all evil. The entire fucking world is evil.”
I was depressed. Obviously. And though my mental health has immensely improved since that day I cursed Ellen through the TV for trying to put a mask on the inherent suffering that is existence as my tears soaked into my EGGO waffles, I still don’t watch morning talk shows. My feelings towards them haven’t changed much. Rather, the last year made it clear to me it isn’t just the Kelly Clarkson Show that’s alienating us from the material reality of our fucked up world, but that the entire power structure in America is designed to do just that: to tear us from political and material reality, so that as the rich and powerful plunder our Earth and the fruits of our labor, our minds are flung into the blissful ether at best, and viciously pitted against each other over unsolvable cultural dilemmas at worst.
Not everyone in America suffers from depression- although I do think that more people suffer from some form of depression than we think- but in preparation for writing a series of essays about cultural responses to capitalist alienation, it occurred to me that there is a nationwide, if not worldwide, depression in which we are ensconced. Many great authors have written about the atomization and alienation suffered by subjects of capitalism- the feeling of having nothing tangible to hang onto, feeling like you’re growing further and further away from whatever meaning and purpose you were promised at birth, the growing separation between the political institutions that claim to represent you and your own material needs. Noam Chomsky offers my favorite explanation of capitalist alienation:
“…neoliberal democracy. Instead of citizens, it produces consumers. Instead of communities, it produces shopping malls. The net result is an atomized society of disengaged individuals who feel demoralized and socially powerless. In sum, neoliberalism is the immediate and foremost enemy of genuine participatory democracy, not just in the United States but across the planet, and will be for the foreseeable future.”
I certainly felt demoralized and powerless. Throughout the duration of lockdown and quarantine, I came to learn that most of my friends did too. I believe that there are very few Americans who don’t feel demoralized, burnt out or powerless in some way. For the purposes of examining weapons of alienation and cultural responses to being atomized, I suggest that America’s fatigue and listlessness is not a result of us passively suffering from depression, but rather we are actively being depressed- not only in terms of our mental health, but in all aspects of our lives we are being depressed: we are economically depressed, we are morally depressed, and the faith into the system which we pledge allegiance is depressed. Alienation is an active, intentional depression employed against the population.
This is not meant to read like a manifesto. My goal in this series is to find the active solution to active depression. There is an answer to not only our American Depression, but to the monsters it bears: reactionary movements, mythmaking, cults, proto-fascist militias, and our deadlocked partisan politics of grievance are all a result of our profound alienation and depression. Many in the alt-right and other reactionary groups openly admit to suffering from some form of mental illness, usually actual diagnosed depression, and I do think the medical condition has a strong relation to the abstract in which I’m using it- but from here on out, when I say “depression” or “depressed”, I am referring to the aforementioned active depression of capitalist subjects unless otherwise specified.
Reactionary bubbles are always primed to fill in the gaps in peoples’ lives left by depression and atomization. In the next part of this series, I’m going to delve into the Volkisch Occult and its influence on the post-World War I people of Germany and the rise of the Nazi Party, and the new hot button reactionary stopgap for depression- Q-Anon.
After that, I’m focusing on our consumption of media with social media and 24 hours news cycles, and how it distorts our view of the stakes and impact of current events, cognitively separating us from the tangible events that make up our material history and the passage of time; history appears to be happening at lightning speed, but cultural retention has never held less capacity. Paradox and dissonance are coercive forms of active depression and atomization. The speed of history is accelerating at an infinite pace, but our perception of the present moment and the events that define it are completely paralyzed.
Next, the two-party system and the left’s failure (and if victory is even in our grasp in an electoral capacity) to fill in the cultural and political gaps that are created by a continual system of government that purposefully alienates and depresses its voter base. We know reactionary projects like the alt-right and Q-Anon are always ready to provide meaning to empty lives- why has the left not beaten them to the punch?
Finally, the hardest part- what do we do? How do we fight, not cure, depression? What projects can the left take up to make spaces for the Depressed American? How do we realistically take up those projects in a strict two-party system? What is the active antidote to a culture that’s been deliberately depressed and demoralized?
There is an answer, but right now, I have no idea what it is. Matt Furie, the artist behind the infamous Pepe the Frog, told the directors of Feels Good, Man, a documentary about the online right’s appropriation of innocuous symbols like Pepe as a mascot for their ennui resultant of their perceived loss of place in American culture, “If you wanna escape hell, you can’t ignore it. You kinda have to go to the center of it.” We’ll meet up in the 9th circle.