The New Normal

So is this the New Normal?   The question gets asked about lots of things—Washington politics, the economy, terrorism, infrastructure, the financial markets.   And the question gets asked anxiously because as a normal—as a baseline—this new normal (whatever it may be) is less than entirely believable.   To be sure, the New Normal is recognized in conversation—as in “Well, you know, this could be the new normal.”   But most often, it’s offered as a theoretical possibility acknowledged, but then quickly bracketed, because not quite believable.

Well, why isn’t the New Normal believable?

One reason, of course, is that it flies in the face of deep-seated American myths about collective and personal progress—about things getting better because well… things are supposed to get better.  Problems are supposed to get fixed.  Solutions are supposed to be found.  That’s the way it’s always been (not true) and that’s the way it always will be (surely not).

A second and more interesting reason that this New Normal isn’t quite believable is that we recognize that things are going to change.   Quantitative easing can’t go on forever.   Climate change will get worse.  Infrastructure, if we do nothing, will not remain at a D+.    Structural corruption of politics is self-compounding.  MOOC’s really are waiting in the wings to displace the traditional university.  Meanwhile in almost every field, (journalism, politics, business, etc.) the people who lead really are, for the most part, mediocre.  And unfortunately for us—it’s systemic: The triage, certification, and screening mechanisms designed to promote excellence and ward off decadence are themselves decadent—incapable of controlling for self-promotion effects, image manipulation or other forms of gaming.  More broadly, the mechanisms we usually rely upon to recognize, name, and correct for institutional breakdowns (e.g. mechanisms such as law, politics, journalism) are themselves broken.

The upshot?  Well, the affirmation that this is the New Normal really isn’t believable.   Unless, of course, the New Normal is defined as 1) a precarious state of affairs that will soon change radically but 2) in ways that are utterly out of our control (and out of the control of our institutions).   Now this “dynamic” conception of the New Normal, arguably does capture the moment—the recognition that things are slated to change, but in ways utterly out of our control.

And so we are waiting—essentially spectators waiting to see what is going to happen to our collective lives (and thus our individual lives).  It’s not apathy or indifference.   Nor is it that jaded 80’s or 90’s sense of postness—that everything worth happening already has.   It’s more a sense that we are profoundly irrelevant—except, perhaps in our own micro-activities.   It’s also a sense that the mindsets of the people who are relevant (think for example: Supreme Court Justices) are so historically askew to our times, so outdated in their frames, their preoccupations, their concerns, that they couldn’t possible help.

What then is this?  Full circle: It is the recognition that we are a very (very) old society and that the institutions and practices we have created over the decades (the  centuries) are too exhausted to deal with what they have wrought.   They are incapable of naming and comprehending—they have neither the language nor the motivation to register and articulate—the cultural, political, and economic forces and agencies that our constructing us and our world.    And so they just drone on (Supreme Court opinions) or they foment angry self-referential tirades (the media blogosphere) or pose and posture (Congress) or document the trivial with exacting rigor (academia) or… and so on.   And so meanwhile, we (who are also them) wait, wistfully wishing for a return to the old normal and yet knowing it’s not going to happen.

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3 Responses to The New Normal

  1. Michael Stuzynski says:

    The situation, and emotional state, you describe strikes me as one that is ripe for revolution. What does (can?) one do when stricken with the realization that “we are a very (very) old society and that the institutions and practices we have created over the decades (the centuries) are too exhausted to deal with what they have wrought?” There is of course the default setting of “nothing,” which has historically been embraced by the masses, yet such existential times also breed more radical–and in some cases even hysterical–frames of thinking.
    Lately I have taken quite fondly to a statement made by Bertolt Brecht: “what is the crime of breaking into a bank compared to the crime of founding a new one?” Though incredibly still very pertinent in our modern era, such a loaded, thought-provoking statement can be playfully inverted to draw even more profound conclusions. For example, “what is the terrorism of violent young men compared with the terrorism of Mahatma Ghandi, Mother Theresa, or the iconic gentleman from Tienenman’s Square?” It is precisely during such uncertain times that many young people can be easily lead to embrace fear, violence, and war as the only satisfactory response to banish the demons dreamed up by the leaders of the world. This hysterical and impotently violent reaction of hard-hearted individuals is precisely what the powerful rely on to leverage situations of uncertainty to their own narrow advantage. Ironically, the true mark of a terrorist (someone who is committed to disrupting the normal flow of events to bring about a historical rupture or new political paradigm) during these times is the trait of compassion, which emerges as the most powerful weapon available. Recall that one of the features that made the Tahir Squiare protesters so effective was not that they hurled stones and Molotov cocktails at the police forces sent in to repress them, but precisely the fact that their slogan of “Brothers, join us!” helped unite the political movement in Egypt that catalyzed the Arab Spring (and made the Western corporate media wary of shedding too much light on the secular movement, preferring instead to focus on the more fundamental-sounding Muslim Brotherhood).

  2. Zach says:

    Feels like you were channeling Guy Debord a little bit Pierre.

  3. David Eason says:

    The failure of cultural institutions on a mass scale is akin to extinction of a dominant genus/species. What emerges and dominates in the natural world are species adapted to the new/changed environment. Reactionaries would say the same for culture, which fits nicely with their tendency to power worship. But I don’t think natural selection functions to the same extent or the same way in human affairs. In retrospect, the emergence of the militant right, orchestrated by the rich, in the wake of the 2008 collapse and the election of Obama was nicely calculated to prevent a reemergence of New Deal type progressivism. It was planned. And it has worked — but is probably not sustainable given the ongoing systemic collapse. What counter-plans (and, more important, execution) should be made?

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