Disco Pandemonium: The Gotterdammerung of Ideology

A few days ago I beat what is among the best games to be released in the last decade: Disco Elysium. The title functions on so many levels of nuance it’s disgusting, as many as the game itself does, and hits them all straight on. I won’t be delving into what makes it a great game. Better and more prominent (and actual) games journalists have pried into that subject with more depth and expertise than I have any desire to match. Rather I want, like the narcissist I am, to explore how the game made me feel.

But first, a brief explainer: You are Harrier DuBois, a washed-up cop who was once a Rock Star Supercop, a Disco aficionado and creature of the night, renowned for your legendary benders and borderline insane commitment to The Truth. But that was many years ago. Now you’re like an aged bloodhound: You’ve still got the nose, but not the get-up-and-go. You need copious amounts of speed for that, and alcohol to bring you back down to earth. That sordid tumble from cocaine-fueled stardom has led you to Martinaise, as much of a backwater of a town as you are a wreck of a man, a filthy port town in the nation of Revachol. Martinaise’s geography is not one that many in America have to look far to find in the Real World. For those in the Rust Belt, it’s right outside their door. People struggling, hanging on; buildings decaying; trash collecting but never overflowing; just the right side of dismal to keep from collapsing altogether. In essence, a ghoulish behemoth struggling on if only for the fact that its muscle memory reads no other way.

Martinaise, and Revachol with it, however differs from your standard post-industrial American shithole in one key way: It was once host to a revolutionary vanguard. The communards of Martinaise overthrew the local syphilitic monarch and so invited the wrath of the MoralIntern, the game’s stand-in for the IMF/UN/Globalists, who proceeded to annihilate the upstart militiamen in search of a new world and a new future for themselves. To anyone with a glancing knowledge of history, particularly lefitst history, this is a tale told again and again and again. South America is rife with American interventionism in its leftist movements, frequently precipitating violent crackdowns from right-wing factions. Both Russia and China saw foreign intervention in their civil wars in pursuit of a communist state. I’d also be remiss if I did not mention the many movements crushed by domestic police violence a la the Paris Commune of 1871.

This is something we do not know or rightfully understand in America. The protests and organizing of the 1960’s and 70’s pale in comparison to these others, who came far nearer the sun than we could ever have dreamed. To have achieved something, only to see it laid waste by some vast and insurmountable power, is a pain we perhaps will never know. Only this most recent primary can conceivably come close and put that pain into perspective, this massive upswell of organized power only to be dashed by legally illegal election rigging and party apparatchiks. The only way we can truly experience this feeling of defeat and dread, outside Bernie having won and subsequently shuttled off by a military coup, is through media. And Disco Elysium, like Les Miserables before it (yes, I went there), captures this perfectly.

It presents the sort of ideological vacuum that takes hold in the aftermath of the destruction of a popular movement. That sense of directionless, a mindless plodding onward without any heading but that which the bare necessities of life obligate you to pursue, shelter and sustenance, brilliantly exploited by a capitalist system. A void is opened in the heart that any light struggles to escape: We had come so close and were struck down. How do you recover from such a blow? How do you rally the people when charge upon charge of “Look what happened before…” may be levied against you? I don’t have the answer. Disco Elysium did not have the answer and that is perhaps the most poignant, sorrowful note of the game. At the end of all this soul-searching, this uncovering and confronting the ghosts of the past, both your own and the city’s, you are left only with the simple and grim clarity that comes after realizing a thing cannot be put right again. The old wars are lost, and a terrible peace was sown a long time ago despite all your fighting. There is simply the present, wan and plodding, and you simply must get on with it. No amount of amphetamines or alcohol will transmute this washed-out landscape back to its fresh glory. It’s over. They’ve won. And here you are.

It is not so difficult, then, to read this as the dirge of leftism as we have come to know it in the real world. What are all our wars but ones that were fought long ago, with surer hands and many more besides, and still lost? I’ve asked already how we recover from such a blow, but a more brutal question is perhaps how do you build upon ruins? How do you hew a new edifice when the foundations are already cracking beneath you? You can’t, and anyone who tells you otherwise has his hand in your pocket. It’s so very hard to see by the light of the sunset, let alone the dawn. But if we hope to see the full brightness of another day, we’ve got to let the dawn come. We’ve got to realize the sun is setting on the old days and all that the old days entail. We’ve got to embrace the dawn, even if that means embracing the night. We’re living through the twilight as it is–the gotterdammerung of ideology.

If I were to attempt to accurately sum up this current predicament, I’d say modern leftism is the Disco Cop. Run-down, tired, clinging onto the bright tapestry of the past in hopes that it will impart some magnificence to our lives today. And so this is a moment in time with only two outcomes: Either we transcend this crisis point and forge ahead with a new path, a new heading; or we descend, squabbling amongst ourselves and the world around us, into Armageddon. But trying to remain where we are will destroy us. Like the Disco Cop, failing to move on and acting against inertia will only exacerbate the agony when the world chooses for us.

I am of the mind, after all the shit we’ve gone through from 2016 to now, that an entirely new approach needs crafted and pursued. No Democratic Party, no Green Party ticket. Throwing our lot in with either is to embrace the old, the old that hasn’t worked in decades and by no discernible logic looks to work in the future. It is tantamount to willingly take on baggage that isn’t yours. I’d go so far as to abandon the DSA, the SRA, the PSL, and all acronyms in between. Throw the colors in the trash and forget all the thinkers and writers, themselves whales beaching themselves on the shores of history. Retain the theory, reject the fountainheads that only encourage infighting and factionalism. If it casts aspersions or burdens us with iconography that does more to dissolve than to adhere, leave it in the dust bin. The cause is all, and everything is a tool and means to facilitate that cause. Nothing else and no more.

There’s no time or choices left but the one, as near as I can tell. We’re at the finish line, if not as a movement then as a species. This is a war, solely ideological at present, but that does not change the fact that we need to treat the cause as such. All our resources and machinery and infrastructure must be retrofitted to achieve the aim of a socialist state, whether electorally or otherwise. If we don’t right the ship soon, we’ll be living in the same nihilistic hellscape the Russians are right now. Our sense of individual reality will be courted and manipulated by an ominously nebulous state that exists beyond the bounds of electoral action or organizing, in which need to enforce a police state with open brutality is almost nonexistent. Indeed, a political landscape so efficiently managed and crafted to vent frustrations without resulting in substantive change that popular uprisings simply will not occur. I fear, like the Disco Cop, we may be at the precipice already.

So, which way are you gonna jump?

Destroying the Rock is Worth the Wrath of the Gods

Pretty much since the day after Donald Trump got elected there were already articles popping up about self care and taking time off from being mad about the state of the world. Leave alone the fact that most of these people – the writers and passionate consumers of these articles – are totally insulated from the effects of our failing economy and crumbling nation-state. Let’s you and I speak instead about the fact that no matter how many marches you scream through, protests you paint signs for, nasty takedowns you rhyme through a megaphone, the only thing you’re accomplishing is either a) fulfillment via self-indulgent rage or b) wearing yourself straight the fuck out without actually effecting any change.

The only times marching or protests have fundamentally changed society have been when things are so utterly terrible that even Tom, Dick, and Harry are rioting because they can’t feed their kids. That or a foreign government is sponsoring regime change for whatever cryptofascist reason is hot that year. Systemic change is rooted in systemic resistance. Either you fight to get your hands on the gears of the machine, or you destroy the machine entirely and build a new one. This is lost knowledge. We think if we yell loud enough, someone in the ivory tower will listen to us. To that I will say only this: would Marie Antoinette have kept her head if being able to hear the screams of the populace meant anything at all? I can yell, but you don’t have to listen.

Things change when they’re made to change, either through political will or temporal force. We get to choose which; but, at a certain point, the one loses its value to the other and – as yet – the conditions that prevail today are not those under which material force will be favourable to us. This idea of taking the high ground, of not debasing ourselves to the level our enemies, is not just muddied by conversations of false equivalency and faux moralisations. It lacks a basic and intrinsic understanding of revolutionary history and the failures of the philosophies that often guide leftist circles to account for material realities. We are too ready to exchange strength for moral cleanliness – a moral cleanliness that is debatable in its actuality, no less – and hesitate for too long to accept the brutal truths of the past and of the present. This trail we are following has already been blazed, and been found wanting.

History won’t remember the blood on your shirt, shed shouldering the blow. The chroniclers of our future, whether they be for or against us, will remember our efforts thus far as feckless at their worst and those of blowhards at best. If these same tricks were going to work, they would have worked in past decades when our numbers were greater and our veracity more self-assured. Instead, the language became coded and the powers at play softer. We were content that nothing was being shouted anymore, that there were ample rugs to sweep things under and most of us were doing alright. Most of us. Doing alright. Getting by.

Is that all we want? To have most of us just doing alright, again? To fight to only preserve our claim to the fixtures of a system that was designed for the purpose of quietly degenerating into oligarchy? Our world must be a new world, down to the foundations. The pillars must go, the streets must be torn up. Time is running out, the clock is ticking, and the sun might already be setting on the dawn.

And I, for one, have no desire to imagine Sisyphus happy.

Ivory Orbit

That we live in a world of multiple, concurrent realities is not a secret; but it is a truly alien universe one must occupy to have words and phrases like ‘business model’ and ‘user experience’ supplant basic ideas of human dignity. To have the words ‘gig economy’ fall out of your mouth, to have your eyes glaze over at the mental image of a constantly shifting underclass of on-demand labor, as though watching the moves of a mysterious chess game that plays itself and has yet to achieve sentience, is a cruelty so complete that it doesn’t even recognize its own malevolence.

It is worse than a child who, knowing nothing, burns alive a cadre of ants with matchsticks found in the kitchen drawer. It is the reduction of persons to not even things, not even creatures with some kind of inherent value attributed to them by their capacity for labor. They, we, are objects to be arranged and poked and prodded by a system ignorant of the most basic precepts of a functional society.

Quite like the scientific breakthroughs that heralded the atomic bomb, the world – or the planet itself – is destroyed everyday for millions of people by neat ideas and nifty tricks. The greatest threat to human survival has nothing to do with nuclear fire or inescapable pandemic, but the grinding of our too-mutable spirit down to the paste that greases the gears of currency and empire. Uber, Lyft, Crowdtap, Fiverr, Favor: these are the Charon’s that ferry our obsolete souls across the river and into limbo – souls automated or exported or delegitimized out of the workforce.

Life is made difficult by catastrophe, but not impossible, and the machine will stop at nothing to ensure that its production is still in some way profitable. Our gravest misstep will be to assume that the hands on the levers will understand the implications of the future they’re engendering, that such a pursuit is a zero-sum game. You can’t eat money, as the adage goes, but money buys power where the institution doesn’t already supply it – and power is adept at extracting sustenance.

We live at the behest of a beast so complete in its dominion that it need not even wake or stir to smooth over the wrinkles of our dissent. The leviathan sleeps at the helm of a rudderless ship headed for a catastrophe that has no certain class of victim and no foreseeable endpoint. True horror is not even a future established by violence, a boot stamping on a human face forever. It is an algorithmic nightmare where we have ceased to even represent beings in our own right, where we are slaves to numbers on screens like the mute benefactors of our own demise.

The Right to Dream

The freedom of being a child is the freedom to wonder. The freedom to passively explore. Freedom from demand, freedom from labor. The freedom of being a child is freedom in essence. There’s no greater feeling, no more crystalline a form of clarity. No one has tried yet to impose upon us a system or a process when we are children, except those unfortunates who are inculcated with indoctrination by indoctrinated parents. We may roam. We may sit still. We may sleep, and we may wake. Time stretches when we are able to pace ourselves.

Society bookends our lives, and poisons us enough that we pine for old age in order to be relieved of our forced obligations to a paymaster. Most work is empty, its value going to whoever holds the leash or disappearing into gaping wounds of systemic problems. Most pursuits are invested with importance by the injustices rooted in the civilization we’ve constructed. Play is the essence of life, but we give ourselves struggle and call it fulfillment. We’re all human, inherently equal. Who’s place is it to demand that we be anywhere, be anyone, that we do not ourselves choose to be?

It’s a crime against our humanity to live under the yoke of financial demand or spiritual, existential dread. To be free to pursue our own path, to retain the simple freedom of choice that belongs to children, is the highest principle of a just society. This place doesn’t exist yet. We’ve gotten close; but there’s a lot of work left to do, and most of it backtracking or making up for lost time. Even more than this, we have to remember.

So much has been taken from us that we long for the simple things, or what ought to be simple. Access to healthcare, food and shelter, clean water. The right to live in an environment that isn’t cancer-inducing or spiritually devastating. Some of us are fighting for the right to exist at all. These are the immediate conflicts, to be sure. They must be fought outright and without hesitation; but, in fighting them, we shouldn’t also forget the future we’re fighting to secure or the existences waiting for us on the other side of peace.

There is a higher calling that sits outside bondage and the pain of want. Nothing should keep us from it. The greatest gift that the oppressed can hope to win for themselves is the ability to create, to not worry or be constrained or made demands of by the laws of a broken world. We must be children, and given the liberty to see the world as children. Technology – society itself – must bend or be bent to the extension of this wonder, else they risk their purpose

Built-in Obsolescence

I want you to imagine a world in which you do not go to work. Work comes to you. Purchasing, buying, selling, manufacturing, everything, comes to you. You don’t come into the office, but take the office with you and leave it wherever you choose to leave it. There are no sprawling corporate headquarters, no skyscraping teeth of the industrial-financial beast. If you sit down outside your home, it will be at a café or on a park bench. The whole world will be your playground, your leisure spot, your backyard, and if anyone is out and about: they will not be working or running errands and what have you, but enjoying life and each other.

There was a time in the industrial age that the scholarship theorized we would soon only have four hour work-days. The theory put forth was one in which automation and mechanization would free the worker, in a sense, granting a full wage for half the work of yesteryear. It was a comforting myth that had the potential to be realized, but instead materialized into an unchanging work-day that produced twice the output for corporate and private stakeholders.

Unions fought hard against capital just to set in stone an 8 hour work-day, let alone any lower. Blood was shed for sick days, and blood may need shed again for sick days; but there remains a brutal caveat: in the past, no matter how bad it got, capital still needed us. Still needed us to man the assembly line, the stockyards, the docks. Fight us all you want, but someone still needs to go down and mine the coal or haul the steel and we knew it. That’s rapidly transitioning.

We’ve reached a point in the modern world that, for some occupations, all the work has been automated or its necessity removed. The borders are tightening on much of the remainder, with service jobs such as fast food and conventional banking being replaced entirely with machines. Developments in AI are on the horizon that will sap the labor market of rudimentary programming and paralegal work, performing the jobs entirely or streamlining them to the point of a skeleton crew. You’re not safe with an advanced degree and 10 years in the financial sector. Your bargaining power on the scale of time and technological advancement is dictated by the specificity of your skill set.

We bought in to the corporate culture too much over the past 30 to 40 years, seeing human value only where humans can add value to something else. If we are not needed, we are useless. The sheen on the windows of the skyscrapers were perhaps too alluring, too bright and mystical with the light of the sun, for us to see the eclipse rounding the corner on the age of labor. Now they’re coming for our healthcare, which most of those undesirables from the manufacturing days depend on. The same forces evicted them from their jobs, and then their homes. The same forces infiltrated and corrupted an electoral system designed to protect the public from them. The same forces enjoy rigged games and enjoy rigging them.

It’s a long trail that only leads back to one place: capital. And capital would be quite contented to operate at the whims of Amazon drones delivering Whole Foods packages, filled with food grown, harvested, reared, and butchered by rudimentary robotics. There’s very little that a sufficiently advanced AI can’t be programmed to do. Smart phones were a myth 20 years ago. Day-to-day, I hold the processing power of entire terminal bank from the 1980’s in the palm of my hand. Maybe more. Machines perform surgery with more precision than a human hand ever could, and they don’t get arthritis.

I want to return to the image I painted at the start of this article. It’s a bright future, a possible future, but at present it isn’t designed to be ours. We don’t exist there, except in some marginalized capacity, hidden away behind walls that shut out the day. We fend for ourselves while we all slowly expire, returning to the sludge from whence we came. It would be among the most unjust existences, so deprived of dignity that we are not afforded even the concept that we should have it at all.

All of this is to say that the future is coming, as it has always come, and will bring with it what the future will, as it has always done. The means of production is a shifting goal post, but it is one we must keep holding fast to the idea of seizing. Labor is obsolete. As a species, we’ve outpaced the need for our numbers and often create work for ourselves to fuel the needs of a system trying desperately, consciously to destroy us and all the while trying to justify its existence to us. In fighting back against it, we should not seek to reclaim labor from capital. I don’t believe that was ever Marx’s intent. We should be fighting to reclaim capital from capital, value from the system, to dictate its meaning and place for ourselves.

It would be a better world to no longer live at the behest of a paymaster, no matter the nobility of the job or the work. It would be a better world if the technologies we’ve built made our lives simpler, easier, instead of more convenient ways to distract us or replace us. The future should not be something we fear to meet, for fear that we won’t be a part of it. We must acknowledge the fruits that technology brings as the fruits of our labor heretofore, not reject them as the product of a system to perpetuate that system. Technology, like labor, can free the individual to pursue their own goals and aspirations, detached from necessity and unbound from livelihood. That should be the future for which we are fighting, not a restructuring of the scraps from the table of profit.