Why the Paradox of Scarcity Amidst Abundance is Driving the World Insane

Or, Will The World Ever Go Sane Again?

There’s a thought that’s been echoing in my head. Forgive me — it’s not a nice one. “Why the hell are Americans like this? Why don’t they fix their broken country when the solutions are both straightforward and obvious?”

I won’t bore you with the details — you should know them by now. Falling life expectancy? Healthcare. Young people who’ll never retire? Basic income, debt forgiveness. Etcetera. This much is common sense. But common sense seems hard to come by these days. There is Britain, bent on following America’s lead, destroying its own society, ruining its future. There is Poland, passing laws to forbid mentioning the Holocaust. There is Turkey, undoing democracy. There is Germany, where Neo-Nazis sit again in the Bundestag. The list is as long as it is dismal.

Why this plague of, well, madness? Let us be honest and admit that nothing about resurgent fascism, authoritarianism, extremism, tribalism, in this day and age, is sane — unless our definition of sanity is so impoverished it does not include decency, history, and thinking. Yet can we expect what’s sweeping the globe to go away anytime soon? Or is something happening to the world’s mind? Something strange, bizarre, and troubling — a kind of overwhelming, hammering pressure that a human psyche just can’t cope with?

the world now is anything but normal

The world you and I grew up in was normal: peaceful, stable, predictable, if not perfect, then at least comparatively sane. Leaders did not always make the best decisions. But by and large, rich societies made decent ones. Global prosperity grew by steps, and with it, the spectre of war and violence and tribalism and fascism receded. I oversimplify to make a point: the world now is anything but normal. It feels, to put it bluntly, quite insane in comparison to that of, say 2007, or 1997, doesn’t it? Those eras were not ruled singularly by delusion, paranoia, narcissism, and self-destruction, like this one is.

Hence, if you read the headlines, I bet that you think what I do: “why the hell are these people like this? Have they all gone bananas?” So what is it that drives people to these lengths? Those of a Trump, a Brexit, a Poland, a Hungary? It can’t be something unique to them, because these nations don’t share history or culture, much less social, economic or political institutions, let alone something in the drinking water. Here is what I suspect.

the average American lives a curious paradox

The reason the world is going mad is because of the overwhelming tension of extreme scarcity amidst abundance. Let me use the example of America to illustrate. Money is scarce, and so savings and incomes are, too. But so is healthcare, education, opportunity, security, stability, safety. The economy is predatory — it grows thus. Hence, the average American lives a curious paradox: a life which constantly threatens extreme scarcity, no matter how much abundance there is, or how much of it he ever seems to win. He is ever balanced on the razor’s edge of losing what he has the very next month — between being predator and prey. But the price of falling off that razor’s edge isn’t just losing his possessions temporarily — it is his dignity, his status and self-worth, and quite possibly his life. What is the effect on his mind? Can he keep it — or will he lose it?

This paradox of scarcity amidst abundance cuts like a psychic katana. It is one thing to face scarcity when everyone suffers, as in a famine or a drought.Those are natural disasters, and they do not produce abundance in anyone else. But it is quite another to face scarcity when there is plenty.

It should be possible to live well when there is extreme abundance — and for that very reason, scarcity cuts sharper emotionally. That “I should be able to but can’t” is a violation — a kind of forcible loss of self integrity, of meaning, of worth, of dignity, and humanity. It is an overwhelming of the self.

he who is servile soon enough demands servility, too

How? A mind facing scarcity amidst extreme abundance has two choices before it. It can repress the volcanic envy and rage it must feel at the injustice of being treated like a worthless commodity. The result is ever-present anxiety, as this rage and envy threaten always to bubble to the surface. Or it can react against that rage and envy, and become obedient, servile, and pliant to a fault. Thus are predators born: he who is servile soon enough demands servility, too. Either way yields trauma: the trauma of the mind perpetually scarred by being harmed, or the trauma of the predator seeking to be at the apex of the hierarchy of doing harm. One is violated either way.

Violation. Dignity and humanity are human necessities — but unaffordable luxuries. They are things one should have, especially when there is plenty, but can’t, because scarcity is all that one can attain. A self is left overwhelmed. There is no sense to be made of it — except that one is worthless, pointless, powerless, helpless, and useless. What does a self that feels that way do? It self-destructs (and takes down as many as it can around it, sometimes).

Hence, a world going mad. Scarcity in the midst of great abundance is driving it insane. Societies are destroying themselves because the people in them are self-destructing. I mean that quite literally. The paradox is making, day by day, step by step, violation by violation, little Machiavellian sociopaths, infantile narcissists, revenge-seeking obsessive-compulsives, and delusional paranoids of once relatively normal, sane people.

Don’t we see that much every day, if we are a little honest? Isn’t that what Brexit and Trump and so on are really all about, at root? Worthlessness, uselessness, powerlessness, and helplessness finally imploding human minds from the inside? Have you ever wondered why no amount of evidence makes the slightest bit of difference to a Trumpist or a Brexiter? It tells us their minds are not working in basic ways anymore.

We are beginning to see human minds self-destructing, unable to cope with an unbearable reality, taking down societies with them. Such a constant violation of the self, this forced loss of dignity and humanity, is every bit as traumatic, in the long run, as a regular physical beating, verbal lashing, or emotional battering — why else would people be seeking strongmen to protect them?

is the world going to go sane anytime soon?

Now. I want to come to the question at the heart of this essay. Is the world going to go sane anytime soon? Will something like normalcy — that is to say, not delusion, malignancy, and self-destruction — reign again? Well, what does the logic above suggest to you so far?

I am afraid that the answer is “probably not”. At least in our lifetimes. We are only at the beginning of this. It is a new megatrend. Whole nations being driven to the brink of insanity, by extreme scarcity amidst abundance. Yes, insanity — nothing about resurgent fascism and authoritarianism is remotely sane, healthy, or normal. Yet the simple fact is that we are entering an age where the great paradox of extreme scarcity within extreme abundance is going to go even more extreme — and so minds, even those of whole societies, will break harder, faster, and sharper.

Climate change is going to create whole new sets of scarcities — for water, land, food. Global inequality, baked into failing social contracts, is going to do much the same — not for water, land, and food, but for healthcare, education, savings, and opportunity. And automation is going to create scarcity for employment itself: “jobs” as we know them will become harder to win, and harder to keep, because there will be fewer of them. These three trends will amplify scarcity to a shattering extreme, putting tremendous pressure on the average person.

money, power, and information — are abundant like never before

And yet, all these scarcities will coexist alongside greater abundance still than the world has ever seen — of information, money, and power. Information overflowing from every sensor. Money — if one has it — pouring out of central banks, hedge funds, corporations. Power enough to put a whole labour force to work with a few lines of code — not endless layers of bureaucrats. These things — money, power, and information — are abundant like never before.

But only to those who already have them. Those who are busy fighting for the basics of existence, which are still somehow scarce in all this abundance, can scarcely amass more of what they do not have. As ever, with capital, it takes some to win more. And the truth is that most of the world does not have these three things: financial capital, intellectual capital, and political capital. It is destined merely to watch the winners win even more of them — while neighbor must battle neighbor for what little morsels those winners might throw their way.

But those morsels are unsatisfying. They confirm one’s uselessness, pointlessness, worthlessness, powerlessness, helplessness. What does a self filled with that do? Self-destruct. So these morsels do not feed much but rage, desolation, loneliness, and the eventual breakdown of sanity into a shattered, broken self — one that needs consolations like strongmen to protect it, or risks psychosis, self-destruction, unable to contend with an unbearable reality entirely. Don’t we see this much in America’s opioid crisis?

Extremes of scarcity amidst abundance. Dispossession and alienation. Envy and rage. Despair at the forced loss of dignity and humanity and meaning and integrity. Trauma and violation. Once healthy minds breaking down into paranoid delusion and sadomasochistic obsession and grandiose narcissism and malignant compulsion and sociopathy en masse. The pressure of living as a dehumanized, atomized, meaningless absence, a void, a worthless and useless thing, in a world of plenty, where it should be possible, is simply too much to bear (and far too explosive to be fixed by “self-care” or “self-help”.)

an atom bomb is being dropped into the world’s mind

The world is not going to go sane anytime soon. It is going to go crazier and crazier. One can’t live the way one should be able to, amid plenty — with dignity, humanity, meaning, and purpose — no matter how one tries. That violation of self-integrity is too much for even the strongest mind to bear without breaking down. It is as if an atom bomb is being dropped into the world’s mind.

The paradox of scarcity within abundance will go on sparking tribalism, nationalism, extremism, which will likely explode into a new age of authoritarianism, autocracy, and fascism. Pathologies of vengeance and rage and self-destruction will reign among human passions, not reason, grace, wisdom, and courage.

And that leaves you and I in a tough place. After all, if you are anything like me, you were never really sane to begin with. You were maybe depressed and anxious, or different and shy. Still, you strove, in your own way, for more sanity — not less. But in a world going the other way, it is easy to feel lonely, isn’t it? Welcome. I’m right here with you.

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