The Age of Disillusion
‘The age of illusion will continue as long as it’s profitable to continue the illusion. At the point where the illusion becomes too expensive to maintain, they will just take down the scenery, they will pull back the curtains, they will move the tables and chairs out of the way and you will see the brick wall at the back of the theater.’ Frank Zappa
At the end of last year, I was thinking of a blog to round things up and perhaps imagine things to come but then reality got in my face in the form of a Covid infection that left me struggling for breath — so a fittingly unpleasant reality check start to 2022.
I was looking for a title and found it in the quote from Frank Zappa which I think is very fitting since it is my prediction that we are entering the age of disillusion. Zappa frames illusion as a form of capitalist expedience and when it’s no longer profitable for them (presumably corporations and politicians) to maintain the illusion, we (ie the audience/consumers) are left facing a brick wall.
We’re quite not there yet though; the physical theatre has for the most part gone virtual, replaced by flat screen TVs, displays and our beloved slabs of glass and steel. It’s only a matter of time though before the big reveal and my prediction is that the countdown has already started in 2022.
Conspiracy theories loomed large in 2021, particularly around the efficacy of vaccines. I don’t doubt their importance, but I also question why so many need to be administered — particularly so, when a single variant was able to sweep the globe in a month infecting the vaccinated, like me with incredible efficiency. Nature it seems, is stronger than science, and faster too. The obscene profits reaped by the manufacturers who hold tight to their patents, while millions in developing countries are still to get a first shot also speaks of the illusion of global good will and the uneven application of public health.
It’s also easy to see how disillusion (fanned by conspiracy theories) spreads among people who initially buy into heavily marketed and efficiently communicated campaigns, like those for the vaccine. Public insurrection is a natural consequence of such disillusion, with inevitable consequences. Reveals like politicians offering lucrative public contracts for PPE equipment worth millions of Euros direct to cronies, and draconian lockdown rules flouted by the same politicians only adds to the sense of disillusion and resentment.
Brexit is another good case in point of false promises, betrayal, and a growing realization that the social contract has been irrevocably broken between state actors and the public. A recent poll in the UK revealed that a large volume of the electorate, both Leavers and Remainers, hold a negative view of how things turned out, just one year after the country’s exit. Expect more of the same disillusion as supply chain crises worsen, food bank queues lengthen, inflation spirals and public services collapse.
Perhaps the biggest source of disillusion globally is the pledge made by so many nations to limit carbon emissions to a 1.5 Celsius-heated world. We all should be resigned to their failure and its consequences. Not long after Joe Biden led the charge at Cop26, his administration was selling rights to mine oil off the Gulf of Mexico. Coal production everywhere is set to reach its highest levels in decades in the coming year, largely fueled by China and India. After the hottest year on record in 2021, we can only look forward to more extreme and disastrous weather events in a warmer wetter world.
Disillusion has even spread to streaming services when in December, Netflix released its most viewed film across the board, Don’t Look Up, which is a satirical critique of climate change denialism in the guise of an approaching extinction event asteroid. Critics panned it for its heavy handed approach, but audiences have appreciated it. The question is, will it work as satire should to expose the innate flaws in the system and enact change or will it be subsumed like all other content in the entertainment consumption cycle? I think you know the answer.
The pandemic may or may not end this year, but its fallout will deepen the sense of disillusion for years to come. Just as we are emerging from its worst effects, there will be no economic recovery to soften the blow, no magic technological bullet to fend off biodiversity loss or brake to halt climate change. The time to do anything seems irrevocably short. The tables and chairs are being moved as we speak.
Like you, I want to believe in a better world, but this cannot be reconciled with tipping points which are now moving beyond our control. Do we give up considering these facts? Of course not, but the rules of engagement have changed. After the Second World War, everyone lived in the shadow of the atomic bomb and the threat of mutually assured destruction. Nearly eight decades later, we still do, but nobody talks about it anymore. The threat has shifted to something far more powerful and all-encompassing but it’s not something we can point a finger at, threaten or mend with diplomacy as was the case during the cold war.
Instead, we are sleepwalking into disaster on the back of our bad habits, addicted to consumerism supercharged by fossil fuel extraction. The analogy of smoking is a fitting one (a habit that ultimately killed Zappa) — the perfect pleasure that leaves you unsatisfied. The world is addicted to smoking fossil fuels and our addiction is fed by powerful political and corporate forces and influencers. Our infrastructure is, however, dependent upon this bad habit until proper alternatives are available and widespread. Until that time, the carriage keeps rolling towards the cliff edge. And remember, even if you quit smoking, the damage caused is cumulative and systemic and mortality is assured.
Thinking about illusion, I used to like watching horror films when I was younger because the discomfort which they induced was always somehow stylized and special effects were far less convincing. Modern horror looks far too much like the real thing for it to be enjoyable. The same thing has happened with satire. What was once a clever way to make people think now gets too close to the reality for it to be an enjoyable as humour.
Disillusion is a funny concept because it manages to include a sense of disappointment with a dawning sense of reality. It’s a kind of starting point for change. In the film ‘Don’t look up’, the world is given six months and fourteen days to respond to an imminent threat and nobody does until it’s too late.
Given the ten year timeframe posed by climate change, few yet are looking up, most likely because its reality is far too vast to contemplate. But disillusion is where we must begin, so if this is the beginning of the end, hopefully disillusion provides us with an end to an illusion and the start of a proper discourse on our shrinking options.