“The things you think are the disasters in your life are not the disasters really. Almost anything can be turned around: out of every ditch, a path, if you can only see it.”
— Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies
We already know the way out. I know this sounds contrary, in a time when California’s skin is sloughing off in huge burned chunks. But there’s no such thing as an unsolvable problem. The world is telling us how to solve the world: change the view.
There were about nine important stories last week. The wildfires of California. New Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez triggering conservatives in a dozen different ways. Amazon’s massively unpopular exploitation of New York, and that city’s shameful sell-out to him. Rumors of Secretary Clinton’s return to the electoral game, and the pushback against it. Trump being afraid of rain, and Trump being Trump in general. Facebook exploiting Americans by peddling anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. The story of this election: disgusted suburban voters come to the Dems. Signs of electoral hope from Red States: promises of progressivism to come. Finally, there were visible, irrefutable demonstrations of voter suppression in Georgia and Florida. Proof that suppression is necessary for conservatives to win in modern, diverse America.
They don’t seem to tell the same story, except they do.
We don’t live in the end times. We live in the time when our old model of the world is falling apart. That’s why the news seems so crazy. The old model cannot explain, it cannot predict, it cannot advise on courses of action. We live surrounded by problems we seem incapable of solving. But they are solvable. It’s just that our model cannot account for them. This is what it feels like when your society’s understanding of the world is wrong. It feels like the stars and planets are falling on you.
For example, the old model advised passivity for the public. It said that merit and markets would save everything. The people and their government couldn’t fix anything, the old model said. We have to rely on rich people to fix our problems, the old model said.
But Bezos will not fix New York. He will make it worse, as he makes the lives of his workers worse. Zuckerberg will not fix social media. He will make it worse, as he has made politics worse. The rich people of California will not fight the fires. They will pay for private fire fighters to save their own houses. All of these events are anomalies in the system. And anomalies tell you change is coming.
A philosopher named Thomas Kuhn studied the history of science. Kuhn said human society changes its scientific understanding in a funny way. The science of Aristotle gave way to the science of Newton. Near the end of the Age of Aristotle, everything looked confusing. Our understanding of science was full of anomalies. That’s what happens when science is about to change, Kuhn said. The dominant story looks creaky. People try like mad to protect the old story, even when it’s full of holes. Because they cannot imagine anything outside the current theory. Then a new story, one that better explains those anomalies, takes over. The history books are written to make this change look inevitable. But really, up until the moment of change, it was anything but certain.
The story that illuminated all of this for me wasn’t about Ocasio-Cortez, or Trump, or the wildfires. It was a hand-wringing New York Times piece about the recent rise of China. It was full of elite anxiety about waning American power: “The West was sure the Chinese approach would not work. It just had to wait. It’s still waiting.”
Everybody knows that China is doing well. That’s not news. And indeed, that is not what the feature was actually about. Although on its surface, the story was a study of modern China, it wasn’t truly about China. The story was really about how badly America had messed up in underestimating China. The Times writes about the fear of the Chinese elites, but I believe that they are projecting their own fear onto Beijing:
“There is no simple explanation for how China’s leaders pulled this off. There was foresight and luck, skill and violent resolve, but perhaps most important was the fear — a sense of crisis among Mao’s successors that they never shook, and that intensified after the Tiananmen Square massacre and the collapse of the Soviet Union.”
For decades, America’s model of China said that China would fail. China has not failed. Did the article suggest that the American model might be wrong? It did not. That’s why the story is such a good example of how the old model is dying. The Times is the most important paper in the world. It sets the tone. When the NYT is conflicted, it means the establishment is conflicted.
In this China article, the Times was not able to make up its mind. It was torn between two needs. On one hand, as the paper of authority, the Times is wedded to whatever official establishment ideology is. The establishment ideology changes. In 2003, mainstream ideology said that Iraq had nuclear weapons, and the Times agreed. Now, mainstream ideology says that invading Iraq was a mistake, and the Times agrees. Whatever the prevailing ideology is in America, it is the job of the Times to promote and argue for it. The Times cannot say that neoliberalism is bankrupt, any more than a cavefish can curse the darkness in which it swims.
On the other hand, the Times is made up of honest, gifted journalists. These journalists understand that the official model failed to explain the success of China. The establishment cannot rule without correct information. It is the job of the Times to provide useful data to the rulers of this country. Those rulers are indifferent to the suffering of ordinary people. However, they do care about America being eclipsed by another power. The Times is obligated to supply data showing the story they have been telling is wrong—like an ambassador delivering an order for his own beheading.
The current mainstream ideology of our time is called neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is conservative capitalism combined with shallow social liberalism. The Times cannot yet admit that neoliberalism is wrong — that would cause a psychological rupture — and alienate their readership. But the Times cannot deny China’s success. Underselling China would mean incorrect information. Incorrect information makes the Times worthless. Being worthless also alienates the readership. So the Times is stuck between a hard place and a somehow still harder place. Unable to say anything, all the article can do is marvel at China’s success, and say “How ‘bout that.”
What is happening at the Times is happening at every level of our society. Each of those news stories I mentioned demonstrates anomalies. Those stories describe events that are not supposed to happen in a society where markets and merit rule.
Two of the aforementioned stories are about a problem that our current model is powerless to solve (wildfires, Trump)—problems that were not supposed to happen under neoliberalism. Markets were supposed to be more efficient at protecting the planet. Meritocracy was supposed to prevent idiots from being president.
Four stories are about powerful people proposing obviously bad fixes to problems with clear solutions (Bezos, Clinton, Zuckerberg, Brian Kemp). Three stories are about experts being shocked by people behaving in unexpected ways (AOC, suburbans, the Red States).
And the story about China fits into all three categories.
These crises that cannot be solved or explained by neoliberalism. Or by centrism. Or by civility.
So, a new model is coming. In this new model, the market and merit will be recognized as the shams they are. In the new model, people will understand that the system can be changed. We solve problems, not Bezos. In the new model, the first step in saving the world is to stop believing capital and meritocracy are good ways to structure a society. In the new model, popular organizing against concentrations of power will be the only reliable way to build a just world.
None of this will be surprising to you, if you are the kind of person who reads political hot-takes. But most people do not spend their waking hours thinking about politics. Most people are busy with other concerns, and they accept society’s model. This is why challenging the narrative is the first step in changing the world. A society’s operating model determines what is and what is not “possible.” Kings were never legitimate. Kings were never necessary. But for centuries nobody thought to question kings, because most people lived in monarchical societies. A society without a king was so far outside of the approved model that a crownless world seemed impossible.
For most Americans, the laws of politics seem as immutable as the laws of nature. It doesn’t occur to most people, for example, that debt scares are entirely bullshit. It doesn’t occur to most people that we have enough resources to take care of everyone. It doesn’t occur to most people that there’s nothing natural about having billionaires. When these ideas do get brought up, they’re immediately dismissed as “unrealistic.” But who decides what’s realistic? The model does.
Politics is the art of the possible, and what’s considered “possible” is about to change.
A new model is arriving. The world can be made legible. The story this week, of this year, is nothing more than the oldest story in the book—the oldest, and truest: a change is gonna come.