Now think about me. A dude who takes his little dog to the park three times a day. My life, as I used to ruefully say, is over. So what? The universe gave me a new one. With a tiny white cotton puff.
Snowy's a nervous, anxious dog. He was only child. Here I am — not exactly a well-adjusted human being. We're three misfits and a puppy, me, my wife, and my kid sis. We joke that we're all riddled by depression, anxiety, worry — about just existing — so what other kind of dog would we end up with, too?
Maybe it wasn't mere chance that they went out that one morning the night after I saw the little dude's tiny face on a website, and came home with him. Maybe it was…destiny.
And over the last year, as my exasperation and frustration with this tiny fuzzy ball of nerves turned into something much more like love and warmth, an epiphany happened.
We're stuck here, together. And we've got to take care of each other, dammit.
Now, this isn't really just a story about my puppy. It's about a kind of contest that's taken place in the world, call it a war if you like — a hidden war, which are always the greatest kinds. This war was between two moral philosophies — which came to be exemplified by two very different societies, America and Europe.
The last great quantum leap in human thought was existentialism. You know the idea by now — not as deeply as you should, but still. We're little bag of water and dust, walking apes, on a ball of dust lit by a flame, spinning through the endless darkness. We don't know why we're here, where we came from, how we came to be, or where we'll go.
The human condition, then, is made up of four elements: profound loneliness — wherever else we look, there only seems to be darkness; ignorance, as in there's no magic daddy in the sky to answer our great question; and a kind of terrible knowledge, a state of grief — we're all going to die. And there's not a damned thing we can do about any of that, really, which leads to the final element: powerlessness.
Now. This philosophy might seem a dark one, it's true. It was born amid the death and mayhem of the last world war, when, finally, the last question that were held sacred began to finally be asked. What if there was no god coming to save us? What if there was no happy place we went to after our last breath was taken? What did that mean for…everything? For morality? Society? Economics? Politics?
This great quantum leap in human thought, existentialism, came to a fork. One branch of the fork said: "If we are all tiny, little, vulnerable, alone — then our primary imperative is to take care of each other, goddamit. You see, if we are all that, then we are all equal, in ways that cannot be more profound: which cut to the core of who we are, and always will be. Therefore, we must take care of each other." Camus would say that "we must walk beside each other", Sartre would point out the uselessness of violence, Brecht would grieve over the fact that humanity couldn't accept this new morality yet.
For that was what the above was. A genuinely new morality. Which called for a new politics, a new economics, and a new society — heretofore unseen in human history. Yes, it's true that ancient prophets had spoken of the imperative to love one another as neighbours — but still, human societies fractured into violence along "religious" lines. My God was better than yours. Maybe I had to love you if you worshipped my god, or came from my tribe — but what if you didn't? Perhaps, then, you see how genuinely radical the existential breakthrough was — a true revolution in human thought, and the last one before that was Darwinism.
This branch of existentialism — existential humanism — moved towards the light, in other words.
But the other fork moved down into the darkness. It said: "If we're just here…and we die….then what difference doing anything for anyone else at all make? Surely our only imperative is self-preservation. My only goal in life should be to get rich, to possess and acquire as much as I can. If I exploit you, to achieve that goal, so much the better. Life has no intrinsic worth or meaning anyways." Now that's dark.
This branch of existentialism — what we might call existential nihilism — came to its culmination in the "thinking" of the now oft reviled, sometimes worshipped, Ayn Rand. Building on Nietszche's later, embittered stance, of "master morality" overcoming "slave morality" so that the Ubermensch, the Zarathustra, could rise, it said that the weak should perish, so that the strong survive. The only point of human existence is for each of us to try and amass more wealth, power, and possessions than others, to play out a kind of brutal game of conflict over scarce resources.
Existential humanism says: "we must take care of each other", since all life is impossible and therefore precious, worthy — but existential nihilism says: "we must exploit each other", since life doesn't seem to matter at all on any deeper level, since we're just meat and dust.
So. Which one was right?
First, let's talk a bit more about how these two ways of thinking were to lead to completely different societies, politics, economics, even cultures and attitudes.
See how moral action and thought have been completed twisted around? Where existential humanism says: "we have to take care of each other", existential nihilism says, "why bother? The only thing that matters is becoming one of the strong, who subjugate the weak, because life itself has no real meaning, apart from satisfying one's most corrosive desires." To be "strong", we must therefore be ruthless, selfish, and predatory. Good has become bad. Selfishness, cruelty, vanity, greed — these are the great virtues of existential nihilism. Morality itself has turned upside down. And so has the kind of society that can be built atop that twisted morality. What kind of collective action can a society really ever take, if it's central belief is that people should only wake up every day and exploit each other harder?
Now. The existentialist humanists — Camus, Sartre, de Beauvoir and so forth — were European. And while Europeans today might have forgotten this part of their history, they laid the foundations, with that simple, beautiful, powerful moral breakthrough, for modern European social democracy.
Europeans do take care of each other. No, not perfectly, of course. But to a degree unprecedented in human history. No other society, period, full stop, ever has guaranteed public goods like healthcare, retirement, education, income, childcare, elderly care, and so forth, as basic human rights. But Europe did, because it's social thought was built atop a scaffolding of existential humanism. And it's political institutions therefore had to be too. That is why European societies today have expansive and robust systems of healthcare, retirement, education, and so on.
The existential humanist revolution is why, by the year 2000, Europe was the first society in human history to develop post-national public goods. Like the idea of European citizenship, which guarantees you basic public goods across a whole continent.
The existential nihilists, by contrast, found a home in America. Rand's philosophy — as dark and ugly as it was — seemed to resonate with Americans. They'd always been individualists. A society with a long history of slavery, perhaps, found the idea that cruelty was kindness and exploitation generosity to be irresistibly seductive.
And so Randism began to launch it's own revolution in America. By the 1980s, where Europe was building the world's most pioneering social democracies, America, instead, was in the grip of a Randist revolution. Billionaires who came to see themselves as modern day Zarathustras funded huge networks of "thinktanks", which effectively regurgitated the fundamental ideas of existential nihilism like propaganda. They sold them to DC insiders and to political parties and to the American people themselves.
And their revolution was wildly successful. From the 1980s onwards, Americans have been the only people in the world who've voted consistently and predictably against, well, the idea that we have to take care of each other. They've voted down public healthcare, education, retirement, income, childcare, and so on…again…and again…and again. That is because America came to be consumed with the central ideas of existential nihilism. Greed became good. Exploitation came to be just another everyday experience. Abuse became normalized. Cruelty of the kind that would later shock the world grew by the day.
So here was an almost perfect experiment. A test of a kind the world had rarely ever seen before. Two great moral philosophies, in diametrical opposition — which led to completely different conclusions about which kinds of societies, politics, and economics were best for people. Existential humanism: "we have to take care of each other" is the prime imperative of every life, always. Existential nihilism: "we have to exploit each other" is the prime imperative of every life.
Which one was right?
The answer, today, should be obvious. And we should examine that answer, seek it out, if we are people for whom knowledge still counts.
America is a broken, collapsed society. The average person will die in debt. His or her life is one long exercise in exploitation. "Active shooter drills" in childhood, "lunch debt" in adolescence, "student debt" in early adulthood, work that doesn't pay the bills in adulthood proper, which is why 75% of Americans are broke and 50% work low-income jobs, and, because you've never been able to pay off those "debts", work that goes on till the day you die, maybe at Walmart, maybe driving an Uber.
That stunning plunge into neo poverty did what such falls always do: it tore a society apart. Social bonds disintegrated. People began to distrust each other, and then hate one another. Demagogues emerged, to exploit all that hatred even further — until, at last, one was President.
Existential nihilism didn't make America a society where people enjoyed much of any of the following things: wealth, income, happiness, trust, meaning, longevity, health, sanity, optimism, confidence, stability. Instead, life just fell apart by the year.
But Europe was a very different story. Thanks to existential humanism, living standards skyrocketed. Today, Western Europeans live the longest, healthiest, happiest, sanest, closest lives in human history. I know that to some Europeans it doesn't feel like that. But they should remind themselves of the epic, stunning nature of the European miracle. It took just one lifetime for Europe to become history's greatest socioeconomic success, ever — and America to become it's most gruesome, weird, surreal modern failure.
Now. Why do I say we should learn something from all that? The reason, duh, should be obvious.
What are going to have to do much more of? What is the lesson this pandemic is trying to each us? What do we have to do if we want a planet, life on it, a thriving civilization, prosperity across it?
We might look to the success — or failure — of these two great moral philosophies for insight. Should we take care of each other — or exploit each other?
And the conclusion should be as startling as it is obvious.
If we exploit each other, we collapse — like America. If we take care of each other, perhaps we prosper, into higher degrees of civilization and modernity — like Europe.
But to do that, we need to think about "taking care of each other" just as hard as the original existential humanists did. Yesterday, it meant giving everyone in a European society healthcare, retirement, education. What does it mean today, though?
It means three much, much bigger things.
One, "taking care of each other" as in all of us. Every last living being on earth, from a tree to a reef to a river to an ocean to a flock to a little baby elephant. All of us means all of us. Why? Because the fish clean our rivers, the insects turn our topsoil, the trees breathe out our air.
Two, taking much better care of the human "each other." What would really prevent tomorrow's pandemics? Giving every single person on planet earth decent healthcare, food, sanitation, and water. That's obvious, no? But do you see anyone much really having learned that lesson yet?
Three, just as real-world institutions had to be built to breathe life into the abstraction of "taking care of each other" yesterday, so too we are going to need to rebuild such institutions today. Why don't we have a World Health Organization which actually provides healthcare to the whole world? Why don't we have an agency or an organization that protects and nourishes the animals? And another one for the trees? Isn't climate change and eco collapse just going to wreck us until we do — because there's no agenda to do so otherwise?
The reason we don't have those institutions as a world is simple: we in the rich world don't want to fund them. Do you know how much the International Monetary Fund's capital reserves are? $1 trillion. How can an institution as poor as that do…much of anything? Even a simple pandemic cost vastly more than that to fight. So how about climate change? Eco collapse? Flood, famine, plague, ruin?
We haven't understood yet: how deep "we have to take care of each other" really goes. What it means. What kind of world it calls on us to build. That, by the way, is why the extreme right is winning, around the world. It's the embodiment of existential nihilism — and existential humanism isn't thinking big, bold, true, or beautiful enough right now to fight it. So the idea that "we should exploit each other" is simply taking control of our minds, politics, societies, worlds.
We're stuck here together. We didn't ask to be. We don't know why or how. Remember how I said maybe Snowy was destiny? So is this. You, me, here, now, together — us. All of us. We're stuck here. What are we to do? Shall we prey on each other, exploit each other, demean each other, dehumanize and subjugate each other, like Americans? That way lies only collapse — because we eat away our own economies, systems, culture, morality, ethics, confidence, optimism, common sense.
The only — the only — place that any sensible way of thinking begins right now is here, given all the evidence, the current state of human knowledge.
We must take care of each other. We must always be trying fiercely to find ways to take even better and better care of each other. We must always be redrawing the boundaries of empathy, generosity, beauty, goodness, compassion, fairness, decency. That is what it really means to be "civilized." Then a strange miracle happens: we rise, together, instead of falling apart.
This astonishingly simple and impossibly beautiful idea isn't hopeless sentimentalism or useless idealism — which is what foolish American pundits and intellectuals still think. It's the sharpest cutting edge of human knowledge. It built the most successful societies in human history, most recently. It's opposite — we must exploit each other — ruined the most powerful and richest country in the world, in a short matter of decades. What does that teach you?
If any civilization wants to survive, thrive, prosper, it must do one thing: learn from its mistakes. Existential nihilism — the American way of exploitation, cruelty, violence, greed — is modern history's greatest self-inflicted disaster. We must build a world where we take care of each other, in greater and truer and stronger ways, every single year now. All of us, each of us, every life, from the smallest — like Snowy — to the biggest, like the great old tree he plays under.
That is the future of our civilization. The alternative? That's life, right about now. Lockdown, demagogues, weariness, anxiety, despair, death. The alternative is that we don't have one.