Julie Turkewitz, writing for The New York Times, reveals the existence of an innovative sector of the economy represented by “a new group of real estate developers investing in the nation’s central prairies and Western foothills: doomsday capitalists.” Their business consists of following the wisdom of Dr. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 political satire. The German nuclear expert counseled taking refuge in the depth of mineshafts to escape the effects of an imminent nuclear holocaust. This would permit the survival of the government and other leaders accompanied by carefully selected individuals (mostly females) with the aim of renewing humanity underground while waiting to emerge into a post-fallout world.
The new trend has nothing to do with government or the renewal of the human race (Jeffrey Epstein’s Strangelovian obsession). The industry is called “personalized disaster prep.” It aims to supply the ultimate luxury product for high-end consumers hoping to safeguard their privileged lifestyle as the rest of civilization collapses.
Here is today’s 3D definition:
A tautological expression applied to a particular group among the class of individuals (capitalists) whose aim has always been to undermine human solidarity in the name of producing consumer goods that can be sold at a significant profit ensuring their own material well-being, however great the expense entailed for the rest of humanity and the health of the planet
The article reminds its readers of the fashion during the Cold War of building fallout shelters in one’s backyard to escape a Soviet attack. It goes on to describe the current trend: “But in recent years, personalized disaster prep has grown into a multimillion-dollar business, fueled by a seemingly endless stream of new and revamped threats, from climate change to terrorism, cyberattacks and civil unrest.” In short, wealthy Americans (apart from the Democratic National Committee and MSNBC) are no longer afraid of the Russkies, but of the collapse of civilization in whatever form it happens to occur, not necessarily nuclear. More and more appear to be convinced that it will occur.
The article observes that fear of catastrophe alone cannot explain the trend. Another object of fear appears to be deeply and paradoxically embedded in US culture: fear of anything that’s big. The US and Americans have always been proud of their bigness, from the “spacious skies” of the patriotic song, “America the Beautiful,” to supersized menus at McDonald’s and “big, beautiful” border walls. Many Americans are even proud to flaunt their obesity in public, seeing it as a sign of success in their role as patriotic consumers. For Americans, size matters.
One of the customers for an underground combo explains, “I don’t like to be dependent on anything, be it big government, big food sources or big pharma.” This reveals one of the major paradoxes of US culture: the fear of feeling inadequate precisely because everything in the environment is orientated toward competitive growth and increasing size. The US produces institutions and artifacts of inhuman proportion, from skyscrapers to Google. These serve to justify its claim to be the best ever, the richest and strongest in human history. At the same time, the extreme individualism of the culture, which finds its political expression in libertarianism, produces a contradictory effect: People may feel threatened and crushed by the bigness they so admire and that they believe makes their nation “exceptional.”
In some sense, this is the result of living in any increasingly hyperreal world, which is nevertheless still connected to reality. Reality increasingly appears to be a threatening force for many Americans. They need hyperreality, where the environment is entirely produced, managed and idealized by design. It makes them feel comfortable and secure. It could be an underground bunker or a Truman Show-style movie studio. Hollywood’s celluloid dream has infected the minds of an increasing number of Americans.
Post-World War II American culture appears to be rudderless when it isn’t guided by extreme fear. At the end of the Cold War, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union 30 years ago, the idea of living without an existential threat to American society and its values sent the nation into a curious panic of unfocused anguish. In a campaign speech in Iowa on January 21, 2000, presidential candidate George W. Bush, with his inimitable style, pithily expressed this sense of being adrift in history: “When I was coming up, it was a dangerous world, and you knew exactly who they were. It was us versus them, and it was clear who them was. Today we are not so sure who the they are, but we know they’re there.”
Bush’s observation, with its subtle hint of paranoia, tells us a lot about how US culture approaches (or ignores) geopolitics. All politicians appear to endorse the recently formulated notion of “American exceptionalism.” Although it serves to justify the US military presence across the globe and the nation’s pretension to rule over the world’s economy, it turns out to be the latest rebranded version of the traditional isolationism that dominated US foreign policy prior to World War II.
The only thing Americans need to know is that the enemy, even when unidentified, exists, that “they are there.” For some it may be communists; for others Muslim terrorists; for Donald Trump’s followers, Spanish-speaking invaders intent on rape and plunder; and for Fox News, socialists masquerading as liberals as well as doomsayers who seek to undermine the US economy by pretending to combat climate change. The fact that “they are there” means Americans will feel impelled to find ways of protecting their modes of consumption.
Politicians desperately want to keep people consuming. It’s good for the economy and their political survival. The rich, whose wealth keeps increasing through no additional effort on their part, want to ensure not just their survival, even if it means going underground, but also their hyperreal lifestyle as consumers of luxury conveniences.
The fashion over recent decades of moving to gated communities to escape what they perceive as a degraded social reality responded to the need to protect oneself and one’s possessions from a collapsing society. Now that the scale of the threat has grown because of issues such as climate change, Beltway chaos and hints of civil war or racial conflict, the timid hyperreality of gated communities offers insufficient protection. The photos in The NYT article show video screens that serve as the windows of underground bunkers permitting a view of the real world. That’s as close as one needs to get to reality. Life in one of Elon Musk’s future Mars colonies will not be very different. Both are about escaping a reality Americans no longer feel they can deal with.
The trend toward “disaster prep” recapitulates in a certain sense a major feature of the post-war US political economy, what some call military-industrial socialism. The New York Times article reminds us that during “the Cold War, the military spent billions of dollars constructing nuclear warheads and hiding them in underground lairs around the nation, often in Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and New Mexico. Those hideaways, emptied of their bombs, are now on the market and enterprising civilians are buying them (relatively) cheap and flipping the properties.”
This has been a constant in the development of an increasing economy dependent on its military budget (supplied by the taxpayer, of course). The military can spend lavishly because anything is justified in the name of defense, for which there has never been any serious accounting. This extends from strategic technological research and development to the building of military bases across the globe and installations to store weapons that will never be used. Since the government expects no return on investment other than the feeling of security and the fact that future entrepreneurs might be able to exploit what’s available for their own profit, the system has developed its own logic in direct contradiction with the neoliberal theories of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, who famously claimed that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The military has been very generous in feeding actors in the private sector who have made fortunes from public expenditure.
The ultimate and macabre irony is this: What the taxpayer paid for over the years is now a source of profit for “doomsday capitalists.”
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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