Dystopia and American Individualism

Today I learned the word “centi-millionaire.” I did not want to know this word. I did not require a vocabulary for gradations of unimaginable wealth. I did not want to imagine billionaires benevolently sharing social theories, real estate tips, and 60-year-old wine with their scrappy li’l neighbors in the soundless, glinting moneyscape of the topmost fraction of a percent. But now I know, and I cannot un-know.

Primarily tech elites, centi-millionaires and billionaires are responding to social unrest by imagining an impending bloody revolution of vengeful working class rage. They are so scared of the 99% that they are building underground bunkers, snatching up New Zealand properties and otherwise doomsday prepping in the isolated and isolating fashion we have come to expect from Silicon Valley richies.

My household conversations about the future: “We should probably update our passports, in case we need to flee Nazis. But if we really need to flee, would passports even matter anymore?”

These bros’ conversations about the future: “I’ll be candid. I’m stockpiling now on real estate to generate passive income but also to have havens to go to.”

Reassuringly, the article also quotes centi-millionaires reminding their brethren that investing in public infrastructure and a strong safety net would prevent the fruition of their darkest fears about the consequences of the egregious social inequalities that they exploited to enrichen themselves. One hedge fund hero notes, “If we had a more equal distribution of income, and much more money and energy going into public school systems, parks and recreation, the arts, and health care, it could take an awful lot of sting out of society. We’ve largely dismantled those things.” Sigh. If only.

This ethnography of some of the quirkier super-rich left me wondering if our country’s hard-on for rugged individualism has poisoned everything, injecting the mojo into the GOP’s most magnetic messages about the value of personal responsibility and the dangers of a society that dares to invest in everyone’s health and safety. Because of rugged individualism (encoded as white masculinity), we elected a rapist/racist sadist who will probably destroy our democracy and who will certainly leave needless death and violation in his gold-crested wake.  He will destroy language, the value of fact, the integrity of our voting system, the safety of our nation’s most vulnerable people.

Rather, he will catalyze this destruction, already begun long ago by folks who prefer personal privilege to social good.

Paranoia is an inverted mode of individualism that centers the paranoid individual as the knowledgeable authority within a bewildering, complex set of structural forces. But our society has already validated these elites’ authority with $$$$ and cultural power. Their paranoia only strengthens the bubbles they’ve built around themselves.

The Silicon Valley centies and billies are better situated than most, but none of us are immune to these self-aggrandizing fantasies of civil collapse. Slate recently ran an article about how some crunchy moms are determined to feed their babies a toxic herb, despite the FDA’s desperate attempts to change their minds. The article argues that these common beliefs in pseudoscience are another misplaced response to women’s shit-ass social conditions.

One reason so many moms oppose medical and technological interventions is because it gives them a sense of identity and purpose in a culture that doesn’t otherwise value caretaking. By exaggerating and/or inventing the threats modernity poses to our children, these women create a sense of agency and power within the narrow role afforded to them as mothers. Instead of putting that energy into fighting for more freedom as parents—whether by pushing for more accommodating workplaces, advocating for guaranteed leave and childcare, or simply liberating themselves from a life of worrying about their children all the time—they bunker down.

Paranoid fantasies absorb energies that we’d otherwise invest in fixing our problems. All those centies and billies (and new parents, while we’re at it) could help us by supporting and funding policies and programs that would end poverty: Equal pay. Subsidized family leave and child care. Free, quality K-U public education. Universal health care. Universal basic income.

Instead, we will hunker in our bunkers. Those of us who have bunkers. The rest will have to do their hunkering on their own.

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