In the hope of trying to adequately summarize the phenomenon that consumes our present era, some social observers have zeroed in on the term “sexual recession.” This term was popularized by a feature published in the December 2018 issue of The Atlantic. The piece is sprawling, but the gist is fairly commonplace. Sexual culture is abundant in theory — sex is depicted more graphically on television and in film, pornography is more ubiquitous and accepted, dating apps offer quick unambiguous access to eager mates that could or could not be temporary, etc. But sexual culture is scarce in practice. The ubiquity of sex is more like an oversaturation, pornography addiction being especially prevalent; dating apps have made romantic socializing a more passive activity and sexual conquests more aimless. Testosterone levels are in freefall; estrogen levels are soaring. Oversaturation has removed enthusiasm for sex and relationships; the changing of sexual mores, on the other hand, has made their pursuit fraught. The idea of approaching an object of attraction (which I realize is a bad way of putting it) in person has gone from awkwardly camp to sinister.
I don’t disagree with these assessments. I have noted elsewhere that the decline from the Sexual Revolution of the Boomer generation has been steep since about the mid-2000s. Documentaries like Hot Girls Wanted, narrative films like Cam, and reality TV shows like The Bachelor/ette and Are You the One? capture the dystopian character sex has taken on in American culture today. But I also think that this is telling only part of the story. Its popularity can be at least partly attributed to the fact that it is not especially dire. It is even relatable. The pursuit of the human will to life has never been an easy one, as the arch-pessimist and proto-fuckboi Arthur Schopenhauer could well establish; but it is a very pathetic epidemic that affects a mostly well-adjusted cohort and the cure for which is to be discovered more or less from within. We should, in other words, be fixated less on the “sexual recession” and focused instead on something more alarming.
It is not so much that we have declined from Sexual Revolution to sexual recession, but that we’ve declined from Sexual Revolution to Suicidal Revolution. It is an altogether different matter that has been given mostly piecemeal attention, never as a whole concept. There is good reason why this is so, but still I believe we do this to its detriment and to our (continued) peril. It is a massive problem, given the form of an aggressive but much-shadowed beast eyeing us from striking distance and closing.
The Suicidal Revolution is much like the Sexual Revolution: societal restrictions placed upon a momentous human act were confronted; the taboos they concealed were embraced; and prohibitions on homosexuality, monogamy, pornography, gender norms, birth control, whether legal or traditional, were overturned. That members of a society wanted freedom from sexual repression and oppression was not itself unprecedented, though the durability of its outcomes stemming from the economic and social dominance of the generation that engendered them probably was. Yet we find this Revolution at its nadir, and its ultimate existence being threatened by our current Revolution aiming to embrace the taboos of death.
For all the surface similarities between the Revolutions, however, there are some important distinctions that affect how the latter Revolution is covered — or rather, not covered. It was always easy to pinpoint the peak of the Sexual Revolution in the 1960s and to chart its progress through to the 1990s. It had many facets and starting points, but each case involved a group of similarly minded young people taking control over something that had long been denied them and moreover asserting their right to take that control. It was a source of pride for that generation and they never let anyone who came after forget it.
The Suicidal Revolution operates differently. It does not involve oppression being reversed or inhibitions being liberated; no rights are being asserted nor are any levers of power being pulled the other way by libertine Jacobins. The Suicidal Revolution is not an assertion of rights but a resignation to circumstances. It is done en masse as the Sexual Revolution was, and from many starting points, but much more quietly, shamefully, and/or despairingly, with some notable exceptions of absolute and violent malice. In many respects it is not even undertaken consciously. As such I will not attempt to explain it historically unless where needed. I will instead try to showcase some of the main iterations of the Suicidal Revolution currently existing.
A note of clarification before I proceed. There are some who will claim that what I am writing about has long been in place, given the term “death culture.” I don’t deny the outcomes that have made the term viable — such as euthanasia, abortion, rampant drug use, risk-taking, and hedonism. But these are logical outcomes of the preexisting liberal order. They are seen as affirmative rather than negative expressions of individual choice and dignity, even if that is not usually the case in practice. What I am talking about is negative and post-liberal. The Suicidal Revolution is a reorientation towards decline as a virtue.
As pure poison that just happens to lift your well-being, heroin is the death drive embodied. Overdose deaths from heroin rose sharply in the United States from 1,960 in 1999 to 15,482 in 2017. Yet the prescription opioid epidemic, which saw deaths go from 3,442 in 1999 to 17,029 in 2017, compounds the issue, shifting our understanding of “junky” from toothless Fiona Apple video extra to someone’s mother, uncle, or sibling. People having had surgery or an injury being prescribed pain killers of potency incommensurate with the needs for relief quickly developing addictions. It has become the great political football of the moment because many of those deaths occur in states where Trump won. Nevertheless, the root of the Suicidal Revolution does not lie with the addicts so much as the corporate entities pushing the addictive products. In hawking their drugs with the most minimal attention to their practical effects — namely that they are far more addictive than they let on — companies like Purdue Pharma embraced the taboo that “health” and “healing” are mere social constructs. Whereas anti-vaxxers embrace this same construct by under-medicating out of fear, the pharmaceutical companies overmedicate out of greed.
The opioid epidemic is unusual, I think, for the largely intimate understanding we have of it. Everyone seems to know at least one person or knows someone who knows someone who is addicted to or died from opioids. Its national dimensions are less comprehended, perhaps intentionally. Those who understand it most are the local Fire Departments and EMT units in certain parts of the country whose activities seem to have been overshadowed by emergency resuscitations of fentanyl users who’ve nodded off in gas stations. It may be a generation until culture addresses the horror (and I use that word intently) of the epidemic with sufficient clarity.
Green New Dealers
The new generation of environmentalists are not suicidal, per se. In fact, they would appear to be the opposite, with an expressed aim to preserve biological life against the most extreme encroachments of climate change. Seeking this end has always required extreme thinking, particularly in what comforts and amenities we’ve taken for granted would have to be sacrificed to stave off disaster. With articles like “The Uninhabitable Earth,” however, the extreme thinking can only intensify. Proponents of the Green New Deal have made the assertion that our window for cutting carbon dioxide emissions in half and meaningfully managing climate change is little more than a decade. One response to this claim, in addition to voting for progressive national candidates and more public demonstrations of a conventional nature, is something that could be called a reproductive austerity program. Couples and aspirant couples are pledging that it is in the planet’s best interest to have fewer children or no children at all. As it is an individual decision it cannot constitute population control as such, and at present is treated as benignly as goat yoga, but it rests on a logic in which even a single human life is a detriment to sustainability. Taken to its utmost extreme, the guarantor of our survival is through our gradual extinction, an irony of Biercean proportions.
Assessing the mass shooter by his (and at least in one case her) specific motive is self-defeating, almost by design. Sometimes they have a motive, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the motive can be deduced to a kind of politics, sometimes it can’t. The degree, furthermore, to which mass shooters fit on a spectrum of “mental illness” is argued in the most imprecise and hardly clinical terms. Such diagnostics are only so sophisticated as to call for treatment by way of dowsing water supplies of select localities with Thorazine. Regardless, mass shootings have taken on a recognizable, near-identical model over the last 20 years, to the point that not calling terrorism is ridiculous. The mass shooter accepts the primary dictum of the terrorist: that safety in public spaces is relative. And simply leaving the house implies an agreement to subject your peace and well-being to someone else’s grievance or malice, should he decide to make the grievance known. It doesn’t matter that the grievance you, as a public person, represent is effectively TBD in most cases.
Of all the types and trends here listed, the doomer (sometimes known as the “black-pilled”) is the most revolutionary. The doomer is most cognizant of the state and character of its moment and all the more cognizant of how it is best responded to. The doomer accepts as granted the downward trajectory of society, which plunges like a magnet to metal. Flourishing, as we have understood it, is obsolete. The doomer sees everything I have listed and accedes to each of them in their individual enormity while also seeing them collectively as a preface to still further cataclysm. The notion of “humans” as “useful” is itself in jeopardy as progress, fueled by fixations on social conformity, the commodification of life itself, and artificial intelligence, careens it into a shrouded crevasse. To the doomer, modern society closely resembles at best Idiocracy consumed less by degenerative stupidity and more by depression and cluelessness. At worst it is more like a (presumably poorly run) simulation that they either wish to hack or to be unplugged out of sooner rather than later. They are not necessarily novel. In a previous generation they would have listened to Black Flag, sniffed glue, and made morbid collage art in lieu of sleeping or eating.
Doomers are not unknown to some sections of mainstream discourse, but they are derided in those sections. Thinkers of reputed eminence find it simpler to see them as 4chan-dwelling trolls who, out of raw spite, can manipulate perception by way of the internet. They are often blamed when polls favor “fringe” political candidates seemingly out of nowhere. They are seen as willfully detached from reality, preferring to envision utopias of strange new political orders, like James Harrington by way of Aeon Flux. Or they just pump out endless despairing memes, like @dasharez0ne without the in-jokes.
Though lately they’ve gained an advocate interested in making a coherent case for their concerns: Andrew Yang. He echoes their pessimistic visions while also putting forth the most sensible-seeming prescription of universal basic income. Though UBI’s outlandishness will probably not outlast this generation, it still seems far off in applicability. The closest the doomer will come to having his or her concerns addressed by “normal people” will be by way of reinstitutionalization. Once the increasing superfluity of humanity reaches a point where it can no longer be avoided, the remnants of the elite will call for a return to the human storage facility. It will be, ideally, more humane and efficient than its 20th century state-controlled predecessors, operated very conceivably by WeWork and supported by our cyberpunk Mugwumps. But it will retain the same Kirkbride-style concept.
Yet at the same time, the doomer understands that society has entered into a post-therapeutic future, wherein gestures of compassionate treatment and improvement by degrees are infeasible by all but a very small and especially privileged section of civilization. Everyone else is just passing time as unobtrusively as possible.
A (very) modest proposal
People looking for specific remedies for the reversal of these ills will find none. People looking for ironic acquiescence to them will find themselves similarly adrift. I am interested enough in the Suicidal Revolution to regret how poorly equipped I am to explore it further. I can postulate upon it in general terms until the cows come home, but more data and more direct input from the suicidal revolutionaries themselves are needed. So I wait for a new — doubtless very different — Alfred Kinsey to delve into this new abnormal normality; to bring it into a better, more nuanced light, and to give the ignorant onlooker a greater sense of its scope and reality. We need, in other words, an ascendance of the death researcher. That, at least, is my most optimistic hope.