Writing Music About

A Bloodless Coup:
There is Something Rotten in the State of Humanity

An essay published to coincide with the release of the album Specific Gravity.

The human race is facing an existential crisis. The very thing which many see as the greatest achievement of human civilisation – our uber-technological, resource-rich society – is wreaking havoc on the natural world which sustains us as living creatures. To say that human civilisation is unsustainable is, at this point, beyond trite: we are charging headlong towards the wholesale destruction of the biosphere, and likely leaving planet Earth largely uninhabitable for tens of thousands of years.

At the time of writing (April 2024) average global air temperatures for the past 12 months have already exceed the safe limits agreed in the 2015 Paris Agreement. And with atmospheric CO2 levels of more than 425ppm, further decades of warming are in the pipeline. That such ingenious creatures should have brought this upon themselves and been unable to change course to avert disaster is a tragedy of epic proportions.

A future being unearthing the remains of human civilisation thousands of years in the future will probably be mystified as to the actual chain of events. They will no doubt find evidence of our prodigious energy reliance and technology – how could they not? But without access to our live culture to put the artefacts they unearth in context, they might not make the connection between those artefacts and our demise. They might imagine that while living lives of luxurious plenty we succumbed to some random biological plague, or that some external factor such as an asteroid strike destroyed our earthly paradise.

An omniscient (but not omnipotent) being in our present time but observing from afar would no doubt be mystified too. The facts about greenhouse gases and climate change are commonly known and are publicised by the planet's experts, and yet humans do not change their behaviour. We know about unsurvivable 'wet bulb' temperatures. We know that the increased energy in the earth system will wreak havoc with the water cycle, with droughts and floods being widespread. We know that it will cause many more destructive storms and hurricanes. We know that crops will fail. We know that warmer oceans cannot sustain aquatic life, and that they will over time melt the polar ice caps that moderate our climate. We know that there are likely 'tipping points' which when crossed will result in irreversible runaway effects.

But the clearer the facts, the more the chiefs of every industry ramp up the very behaviour they know to be suicidal. It's as though humanity is drawn inexorably to its fate by some mysterious power, like the sailors of ancient mythology drawn to their deaths by the irresistible song of the Sirens.

In The Wealth of Nations Adam Smith famously wrote about the 'invisible hand' of the market directing economic activity. In Smith's formulation, the invisble hand was benign, gently guiding things along some quasi-natural path. Free market economists still think along these lines with the Darwinian concept of 'the survival of the fittest' often invoked to describe how some businesses fail while others flourish.

In reality, the 'invisible hand' is a rather more sinister spectre. In a world where monetization is the only criterion by which success is judged, basic biological needs (clean water, safe food, pollinated crops, survivable temperatures) are subordinated. Such a claim feels specious even as I write it. And yet, in the UK for example, water companies clearly feel less compelled to provide clean water to human citizens than to provide clear profits and fat payouts to directors and shareholders. This hand is not just invisible, but dead. It does not belong to a living, biological entity with blood running through its veins but to cold, dead, economic rationality.

I use the word 'dead' deliberately. While we are living things, with our biology defined in terms of DNA, cells, blood, hormones, neural activity etc., human civilisation is not in of itself organic at all. The way we 'network with each other' to use the modern expression, and construct our societies is through inorganic means – our culture. The culture we have built for ourselves is run through by profoundly inhumane practices and beliefs. The cementing of those inorganic ideas, and the ultimately arbitrary instruments they fashion, into dogma has manifestly imprisoned the human imagination and trammelled our ability to act.

That economics should be the principle that guides all human activity is patently absurd. Common sense tells us that life is precious. Yet, time and time again, the living world is overruled by the inorganic logic of economic gain. In the most exteme case the horrors of war inflicted on one people by another, compromising their ability to live (if that's not too mealy-mouthed a way of saying it), are a less pressing issue than continuation of the arms trade supplying the very weapons to wage the war. We watch news items showing the wholesale destruction of distant lands and foreign peoples, and the next item (without irony) will be on the financial markets whose indices reflect the profits being made at their expense.

At the less extreme end of the scale, when not directly blowing human bodies to pieces, the same prevailing economic order deprives certain groups of people of the necessities for reasonable life while grossly enriching others. Economic austerity is consciously and deliberately imposed on a powerless economic underclass forced to scrounge from foodbanks or leave their homes unheated while quantitative easing literally stuffs billions of pounds into the pockets of the financial elites.

Economic thinking has manifestly infected common sense in many areas of life. Handing over the provision of essential services such as clean water, or feeding school children to profit-driven companies, and then to judge those companies on their financial performance is obviously madness. And yet, these occurences go unchallenged by a media that is also infected by the same thinking (owned by oligarchs whose interests overlap completely with that of 'big business').

Politicians too are often in the pockets of the same business lobby, with many on the right using their political career to line up a boardroom career once they leave politics. The result is that the grimly inorganic logic of economics has come to define our cultural existence as surely as gravity circumscribes our actions within space-time. Like gravity, we seem unable to escape it. But unlike gravity, it is entirely of our own making.

When human culture as a whole is enslaved in this way, humankind starts to think financially about everything. And so, paradoxically, instead of taking steps to tackle the root causes of climate change, leaders turn to economists to put a price on the effects of the warmed planet and spend the crucial years where we could be acting quibbling over cost-benefit analyses. Human imagination itself has become proscribed by concepts of price, cost and value.

I am not the first to invoke imagery of enslavement when discussing consumerism, free-market economics, or addiction to technology. Herbert Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society published in 1964 talks in exactly those terms and describes how the power relations between the capitalist overlords and the oppressed play out in the world of commodification and industrialised production. Theorists employ the term 'hegemony' to describe this kind of oppression where the consent of the oppressed is given to the oppressor, usually as the result of some kind of trick having been pulled. In the case of consumer culture, the trick has been to provide the masses with cheap imitations of the luxury goods they crave, effected by the creation of desire by the advertising industry. Thus, in the standard Marxist analysis the financial elites are exploiting the masses, using their labour and also their individually modest purchasing power, to increase their own capital at the expense of everything else, including the natural world.

But what if it's not as simple as that? The standard analysis describes an assymetrical system in which the poor have no agency, and the rich and powerful have it all. But what if the system is subject to other factors? What if the system is not simply the binary opposition between two classes of humans? What if society as a whole is subject to some other force that compels it (us) to act in a certain way, and which is actively driving us all to destruction in the process?

Neuro-parasitology is an emerging branch of science that studies how parasites don't just leech nutrients from their host organisms, but can 'hack into' the host's nervous system and modify its behaviour. In the most extreme cases, parasites are able to completely take over the host organism altering their behaviour to the extent that they kill themselves in order to propagate the parasite's own genetic material.

The details read like something from horror fiction: infected creatures, eaten from the inside out, are driven by the parasite to perform acts contrary to their nature. For example, flies infected with the pathogenic fungus Entomophthora muscae are compelled to climb to the highest point they can find and spread themselves out while the spore-laden mycelium burst through their heads. Parasitic horsehair worms infect praying mantises as larvae, and when developed into adults compel their hosts to immerse themselves in water and drown themselves so that the worm can exit directly through the body to the water.

We humans might like to think that we are above that kind of mind control, but there are other examples where higher-order species are induced to behave in particular ways by an infecting agent. Dogs with Rabies, for example, don't just randomly start salivating to excess and go around biting other animals: the rabies virus enters the victim's brain and specifically induces that behaviour to create a vector for its propagation. When you next catch a cold, think about what is making you sneeze and eject viral material at high velocity. In whose interest is it that your body reacts like that?

What if behaviour at the cultural or societal level could be similarly infected?

Richard Dawkins coined the term 'meme' to refer to an idea or behaviour that spreads through cultural artefacts or practices. The term has since been rather debased by Internet culture to refer to the simple spreading of artefacts – images, videos and the like – rather than abstract ideas or beliefs. In Dawkins' theory, memes combine into 'memeplexes' – complex systems of beliefs, traditions and practices, explaining the formation of languages, institutions and doctrines that are found everywhere from religion to the scientific academy.

Natural scientists have dismissed the notion that memes can replicate in the same way as genes, since they have no observed mechanism for doing so – they are inorganic. So, they say, the concept of a meme is best taken as a metaphor rather than description of a real process. Of course we know that non-biological agents are propagated through the inorganic culture that we share: we experience it everyday, whether learning new things in school or being exposed to culture-wars misinformation on the Internet. We talk about 'germs of ideas' that take root. And the vector for such propagation, too, is patently clear: language describes ideas and linguistic discourse provides the medium through which those ideas travel. But if we were really touching upon such a straightforward conception of the propagation of 'thought germs', would we really need to have invented a new term like 'meme'? Surely, the word 'idea' already covers that simple notion?

Dawkins himself famously described religions as 'viruses of the mind'. Others in the field of memetic theory have gone further, suggesting that memes are literally a viral phenomenon that may evolve by natural selection in a manner analogous to that of biological evolution and which replicate even when they prove to be detrimental to the welfare of their hosts. The philosopher Daniel Dennett has posited that human consciousness itself is actually a vast complex of memes. Going one step further, panpsychists posit that consciousness is not an emergent property that flowers in individual beings – whether human brains or neural networks – but is 'substrate independent', and exists everywhere in the universe.

In truth, we are still scrabbling around in the dark trying to find scientific explanations what the universe is made of and what makes it and us tick. So all of this is conjecture. But if there is some field of consciousness that pervades our entire universe, then the notion that something akin to a virus could spread through it seems less absurd. It would be entirely plausible that something could infect this field, and that pathogenic 'thought elements' could affect behaviours and practices at the cultural level.

The idea that shared human consciousness has been hacked by something essentially anti-human that has now taken hold of the reins, driving our behaviour according to its agenda does sound a bit fanciful. But perhaps no more so than a mind-controlling fungus that turns flies into zombies and then erupts through their heads... Coming back to less fantastic territory, there is no denying that a thought-thing that exists in one human mind can be propagated to another mind and once there, influence the behaviour of recipient. There's no denying that ideas can take hold across groups of people leading to 'groupthink', mass delusion, and hysteria. Similarly, we recognise that patterns of thought and belief can become insitutionalised and allowed to establish themselves. We have words like 'ideology' and 'dogma' to describe it. Even if it is simply the fact that concepts like property and money are so potent to human psychology in and of themselves that even when spread by more mundane means (speech, writing) they still give rise to the runaway effects of financial thinking, and over time, to unshakeably embedded financial institutions and practices.

Whatever the means of their propagation, these anti-human ideas have certainly insinuated themselves into the human psyche, and they're not relinquishing control – even as human civilization itself is driven to the brink of destruction.

You have been reading the essay A Bloodless Coup © 2024.

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