Stock Market at 20,000, Doomsday Clock at 2.5 Minutes Till Midnight: WTF?
“Imagine the amazing good fortune of the generation that gets to see the end of the world. This is as marvellous as being there at the beginning.” — Jean Baudrillard
In the past week, the Dow Jones industrial average surpassed 20,000 for the first time and the Doomsday Clock was set at 2.5 minutes till midnight, the closest moment to apocalypse since the 1950s.
Is this merely a difference of opinion between optimistic investors and pessmisitic scientists? Differing visions of successful future or a scary future? Dollars or death? Cheer or gloom? Or do the stock market and Doomsday Clock reflect two trajectories of civilization that are deeply related.
The Evolution of Capital and Consumption
Karl Marx was essentially correct about the negative effects of the alienation of labor (too many meaningless jobs with meaningless tasks) and commodity fetishism (personal identity derived from consumer products), especially in an economic world of mass production and mass consumption. To subdue or neutralize the alienation, industrial capitalism produced an unprecedented abundance of goods and desires, all manifest in the consumer culture found in malls, Walmarts, and Amazon.
Capital has moved way, way beyond Marx’s world. Capital has evolved from scarcity of goods to the electronic-information capitalism of the 21st century, which is focused on satisfying scarcities among identities (with brands), desires (with luxury), and attention (with TV and the internet) and engagment (with social media)—all based on obscene levels of consumption and resource exploitation. It’s the culture of McMansions, SUVs, giant flat-screen TVs, grande lattes, massive malls, and huge credit card balances. 21st century capitalism features not only a consumer society, but a world of mass reproductions, as manifested in the “society of the spectacle,” the world emerging from television and the electronic media networks.
At first glance, it seems clear media exists with the system of capitalism. But the situation is the reverse. Capitalism exists within media, within the electronic media technologies that span the planet and power the “society of the spectacle.” Media technologies are accelerating culture and capitalism into a 24/7 spectacle of screens and links, tweets and text messages, selfies and celebrities, likes and flame wars, and videos and podcasts, along with an endless series of mega spectacles to celebrate and consume—World Cups, Super Bowls, Academy Awards, presidential elections.
Society of the Spectacle
The society of the spectacle means more than the proliferation of commodities and images. As explained by Guy Debord, the spectacle is “a worldview transformed into an objective force,” where the material world (commodity) and the media world (image) are transformed into a single “universe of speculation” via electronic media. In effect, the spectacle is a world of image fetishism, where the image is more important than the reality it stands for and obscures. Life becomes immersed in the consumption of images of life. Today, the spectacle functions on a global scale, including presidential elections, televised war, the Olympics, simulated cities in Las Vegas, self-surveillance in Facebook, daily weather terror on the Weather Channel, the flat-screen architecture of Times Square, Twitter feeds and Netflix binge-viewing, and the financial derivatives of Wall Street, among others.
In Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard extends Debord’s “society of the spectacle” into the society of simulation, where the “real world” has either disappeared or been destroyed and has been largely displaced by models and simulations — hyperreality now indistinguishable from original reality. For Baudrillard, this is the virtual apocalypse, the destruction of the real and/or authentic world, effected globally by the proliferation of media technologies and symbolized philosophically by Disneyland, Las Vegas, Facebook, Worlds Cups, and Super Bowls. Like the rest of culture, capital exists within the spectacle and hyperreality. This is the apocalypse not mentioned by the Clock watchers, but it might well trigger the other doomsdays.
Escape From Midnight
At first glance, the rising stock market suggests a super-successful species in the 21st century, with stock values having doubled since 2000 and increased 20-fold since 198o. Encircling the globe, the trajectory of the stock market is now oribital and damn near astronomical, as if it is seeking an escape velocity to exit the planet upon which capital and consumption are wreaking havoc, while tribal warfare (the Terror War), ecological destruction, and nuclear proliferation threaten the future of civilization.
As personified in the presidential election of Donald Trump, these are the very issues that prompted moving the hand on the Doomsday Clock. As the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists explain in the New York Times:
“Never before has the Bulletin decided to advance the clock largely because of the statements of a single person. But when that person is the new president of the United States, his words matter. … Unchecked climate change, global nuclear weapons modernizations, and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity (…). World leaders have failed to act with the speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe.”
The orbital stock market is the delusion that things are going great, the electronic escape from midnight.
“What if” Scenarios
At the most basic level, the Doomsday Clock offers a metaphorical “what if” scenario for humans to contemplate. It provides a warning about a possible apocalypse to come—be it political, cultural, ecological, or technological. Situated just before midnight, the Clock’s hands suggest we quickly transform our consciousness and change our behavior.
The Clock asks us to think about what might happen if global warming continued unchecked, if a nuclear war occurred, if we consumed too many resources, or if we completely polluted the natural world. These are warnings to alter our thinking and behavior. For example, we should plan to use alternative energies before we overheat the planet, dismantle all nuclear weapons, use renewable resources to preserve the ecosystems, and expand the wilderness to preserve nature.
But, we are doing very little to need these warnings. Thus, the Doomsday Clock ticks closer to midnight.
Effecting the Anthropocene
Science and technology are acclerating around the planet and into the cosmos, revealing a vast, ancient, and majestic cosmos—an expanding universe in which we are not central and not significant. That’s the legacy of Apollo and the Hubble Space Telescope, which have helped produce the paradox we face—we have simultaneously discovered an expanding universe and our shrinking relevance. In consolation, the 24/7 media spectacle is saturated with constant news and status updates on the human species’ antics, ultimately displaying our imaginary cosmic centrality via billions of selfies.
Our electrified metropolises have erased nature and the cosmos from our consciousness, producing a kaleidoscopic carnival of daily events while divorcing us from our impact on the planet and our origins in the universe. Consumer-entertainment society sells tribal and personal identities via an endless array of products, services, logos, tattoos, movies, television programs, and mobile technologies that provide ever more pleasure and feelings of super specialness. Meanwhile, our trash and pollution become the fossil layers of the Anthropocene period — the human epoch of planetary transformation that might well be producing the sixth extinction event on planet Earth.
Moonwalking Into the Future
So the 20,000 stock market and 2:30-till-midnight clock are not in conflict. They are the effect of two trajectories, both deeply related and happening at the same. As I explain in my forthcoming book, we are in a post-Apollo culture that appears to be going forward, but is also going backward at the same time—we’re moonwalking into the future.
My new book is Specter of the Monolith: Nihilism, the Sublime, and Human Destiny in Space — From Apollo and Hubble to 2001, Star Trek and Interstellar (2017). The book will be available in Summer 2017. You can follow me on Facebook and at my new Twitter page.