Translation of a piece by Santiago Alba Rico, published in Rebelión, 3rd January 2013.
A third of US citizens believe in the Apocalypse; 15% are sure that it will arrive in the course of their lives and 2% was convinced it would happen on the 21st of December. According to surveys and to show the quantitative difference of the US, whose norm is always the exaggeration, this percentage fell a little on a global scale: only 1 of each 10 human beings had accepted the irretrievable disappearance of planet Earth in 2012 in keeping with the supposed prediction of the Mayan calendar. We would be wrong, at any rate, to joke about the credulity of those –let’s say- 100 million people, since we know from experience that it is possible to believe in anything, from the superiority of the white race to the aphrodisiac power of the rhinoceros horn, without forgetting that the majority of humans have faith in science with the same irrationality and on account of the same absurdities –due to a kind of fiduciary tradition- as in the Holy Trinity or the revealed truths of the Koran.We would also be wrong to attribute this apocalyptic trembling to poverty or ignorance. Let’s say that this passion for the end of the world is a typical passion of the middle classes; that is, the wide social niche situated between the earthly grounding of the poorest, who have no time for silliness, and the cynical sovereignty of the richest, whose fears never take on a cosmic dimension. It is what the Mexican writer Juan Villoro has called “catastrophe tourism”: people who can reserve a hotel beside the Mayan ruins of Yucatán to watch the spectacle close up or rent a room at the peak of Rtanj Mountain in Serbia, ‘the navel of the world’, upon which extra-terrestrials were due on the 21st of December to activate a ‘protective screen’ to save a select few from the final cataclysm. People, then, with some money set aside and people, moreover, with sufficient intellectual capacity and computer skills to draw together certain inexact pieces of knowledge relating to history and astronomy and base their catastrophic certainties upon them. David Robinson, an astrobiologist at NASA, has spent three years responding patiently to the questions of hundreds of worried citizens, convinced of the imminent apocalypse, who based their questions on Sumerian texts, Mayan calendars and nearly accurate data about the alignment of planets and distances between galaxies.
It’s normal and human to believe in silliness; and it’s even good to make the intellectual effort to show what it is based on. What is really worrying is the depth of political and human defencelessness that this reveals. In a long article published in Skeptical Inquirer , the aforementioned David Robinson reproduces some of the enquiries received over recent months, as well as the aggressive reactions to his calming answers. Robinson is taken aback at the degree of aggression, often very threatening, on the part of those excited readers who do not seek out a rational antidote to their fears but rather their confirmation. What do they fear? The end of the world? No, they fear two things laterally related and intimately fused in their minds. They fear, first of all, their rulers. That is, the first idea they want to confirm is paradoxically –they believe in the end of the world- the one that says they cannot believe anything or anyone. They want to confirm that the scientists and the politicians are lying. The Apocalypse is not a speculation; it’s a certainty. What’s the proof? Not the discovery of the planet Nibiru nor the sudden centrality of the Earth in our galaxy. “The proof is that the government denies it”, replies a citizen, accusing Robinson of complicity. NASA does not convince; its explanations irritate, inflame, outrage. “Here’s what we wanted to show: they’re lying to us again”. We could say that this typical conspiranoia [‘complotismo’] of the middle class in the US –and now internationally- feeds on the absolute discredit of scientific and political institutions; it is easier to believe in silliness (especially if it’s tragic silliness, ‘total’ silliness) when one is no longer able to believe in Parliament or in astrophysicists.
But the second fear is even more worrying. If Robinson’s readers became furious when faced with his reasoned scientific arguments it was because they feared the opposite of what they said they feared: they feared that the astronomer was right and that in the end, this Apocalypse, in which they had placed so many hopes, would not come about. They feared that nothing would happen; that everything would remain the same. Because –let’s be honest- these conspiranoid [‘complotista’] consumerist middle classes, who have lost faith in their institutions and do not control their own lives, desire the end of the world. And today they feel frustrated, empty, disorientated by this unexpected and undesired survival.
Why do they desire the end of the world? In capitalism, the deepest desires always adhere to the most banal impulses, those which are in fact the most ‘authentic’ and ‘original’. They desire the Apocalypse because they have already seen all the films, climbed onto all the rollercoasters, tried all the dishes and used up all the photos. Because the Twin Towers set the bar for excitement very high. Because an inevitable cataclysm is a good pretext for taking up smoking again or going out whoring. Because it is relaxing to think about being suddenly exempt from keeping our little domestic world turning; and from the responsibility of taking decisions without knowing where they will lead. Because we are sick of not knowing how long this will last. And because we sure as heck don’t want to die alone.
This last reason is perhaps the least banal, the least ‘authentic’, and, if you will, the most social one of all. The desire for the end of the world on the part of the conspiranoid and consumerist North American –and now international- middle classes also, or above all, reveals a destructive thirst for community. The Apocalypse represents the end of solitude and not because it involves the end of all that exists but because it unites us all in time and in space, even if it is only to kill us; because it names humanity in its totality, even it if is only to annihilate it. The desire for Apocalypse, which is a desire for a party, is a desire for final loving fusión (as is the case, in popular tradition, with all true loving fusions). It is, if you will, a mortal protest against the absorption in consumerism.
‘Populism’ is the name often given to a government that satisfies the needs of its citizens. Well, fascism is only laterally a ‘populism’. Because its programme does not consist of satisfying the needs of men but their desires. To tell the truth, it is somewhat scary to think about that rather large sector of our capitalist society that has stopped believing in its political and scientific institutions, and whose deepest and most banal desires converge upon that thunderous final explosion that –once again- we have survived.