A Vacuum of Thought
Have we run out of good ideas?
Whenever I find myself in a thought-stream of existential torrents, I try and peer in and identify the source. With the political, economic, and socio-cultural challenges of our times superimposed over a volatile network of existential risks, from climate disasters to escalating geopolitical conflicts, there is no shortage of torrential mental terrain to get lost in. I write these essays as a way of making sense of my own thought processes, of what I perceive to be occurring in the world (or at least those subjects and topics that interest me).
Yet recently I came to a realisation. Despite the semantic struggle to externalise some structure on my thinking, it never quite felt like I was finding the source of the angst. And the lightbulb moment came when realising that it wasn’t necessarily any specific event or issue, but something far deeper. And that deeper origin spring of angst is that the turmoils of our times are occurring in the context of a complete vacuum of good thinking and ideas. Our tumultuous epoch would not seem as daunting if we were living an age of bright ideas and thought, except we are not. We seem to be out of good ideas for what a less troubled future looks like.
Viewed through the prism of the strength of ideas, many of our contemporary issues appear as symptoms of a deeper malaise. The most recent 3am Thoughts essay, for example, turned the lens on the catastrophe of free market fundamentalism in Britain, described by reference to Ibsen as “dead ideas and beliefs”. And while that redundant ideology provides some explanatory power for our troubled socio-economic landscape, that it clings to us is itself a symptom of a deeper problem: the void of good, new ideas to replace it. Instead both the political class and commentariat alike exhibit an almost pathological incapacity to think beyond the faded pages of their obsolete manual of 1980’s economic theory, while others indulge in convenient amnesia and ahistorical cherrypicking for models like socialism.
That we are stuck in revisionist thinking brings to mind Keynes’ remark almost a century ago, that:
“the difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds.”
Perhaps it is our cognitive colonisation by distraction and triviality that renders us incapable of generating new concepts, captive to old beliefs. Our political leaders are rummaging through the rubble of a social order that shone briefly from the end of the Second World War up to the fall of the Wall, hoping to find some signs of life. That there is nothing but dust and destruction is perhaps why all they can muster is to close their eyes and regurgitate braindead jargon in the hope that someone can reset the clock back to when the answer to everything was “more democracy and more markets”. For a fleeting 20-year period from 1980 it seemed like it might have just been that simple. Perhaps this is why we are stuck in an ideas feedback loop, as if the ambers of the fire that burned in the early 1990’s still kindle with the promise of “the end of history”.
The war in Ukraine has placed a microscope over our rudderless sense of purpose. That the military conflict is something far more - a battle of ideas between visions of different world orders - is undisputed. Yet behind the rhetoric of “defending the West” or “defending democracy and freedom”, is little more than stale pieties from the Cold War and immediate aftermath, as if we’re all still basking in America’s brief moment in the unipolar sun, before the planes hit the towers and the banks crashed, and everything changed. Uncle Sam followed Icarus and flew too close to the sun, and as American credibility melted in Iraq and Afghanistan so too did the foundations of a “rules-based international order”. Now the best that the policy hawks and doves alike seem to be able to envision is a return to an institutions-based globalised world order, when any shred of possibility for this was left on a dusty runway in Kabul. The hesitancy shown in what level of support to give to Ukraine reflects this new post-War on Terror West, riddled with insecurities in the face of the rising illiberal global order, no longer certain of the true value proposition of democracy.
Socially and culturally, we are lost in search of answers to questions we can’t even seem to comprehend. The rise in censoriousness, our spiralling inability to agree on basic facts, the ascent of the alternate realities of the internet, and our fealty to the false idols of tech; these are all symptoms of a deep loss of stable sense of who we are, an erosion of shared sense of belonging. We use the term “community” to describe disparate groups of people who may have little to nothing in common; we celebrate “diversity” while flattening complexity and enforcing homogeneity in thought and perspective. We’re so desperate for ideas that we will elevate almost anyone to the status of “public intellectual”, from the veneration of corporatist megalomaniacs like Elon Musk or Peter Thiel, to contrarians like Jordan Peterson or Russell Brand. And now we are simply so tired of trying to think that we couldn’t herald in the era of large language models and generative AI any faster, as if to relieve us of the anguish of cognitive effort.
We have a spiritual vacuum with no good ideas for how to fill the void of meaning that we thought materialism would fill. We have stripped the concept of the Self bare, replaced it with hollowed out avatars of online identity. Nothing of interiority remains, or can remain, against the constant external projection of an empty Self for consumption by the hordes behind the screen. We have a culture so devoid of ideas for how to fill the spiritual void that pseudo-spiritual rhetoric wedded itself to hyper-individualism and materialism, and spawned a vapid culture of New Age namaste-narcissism. We cannot fill our spiritual emptiness, so instead we’ve repositioned self-interest and consumption as a spiritual journey. The resurgence of Paganism is a symptom of our spiritual ennui, a desire to reach back beyond the emergence of the Abrahamic monotheisms to something seemingly untainted by modernity.
We are not living in uniquely difficult times relative to the long arc of history. But these times are the years of our short lives, the only time we will live in this world, and so their difficulties feel exceptional. We can’t experience the difficulties of another age, because we were not alive to experience it. This is why the guiding hand of history is so crucial to placing measure and perspective on the present. Yet we appear to exist in a historical vacuum, to compound the vacuum of ideas. Our current age is one where, although in calendar years we remain part of the whole of the continuous passage of time, we are curiously removed from the past; we are unmoored from history. We are unmoored from our past, and so we cannot know ourselves in our present.
Yet while our times may not necessarily be uniquely difficult, they do pose unique risks relative to any previous period, characterised by the convergence of multiple existential risks. Behind the torrent of our socioeconomic and political turmoils lies the uncomfortable truth: we have nothing left for new thought, new ideas. Maybe an algorithm will solve it all for us. That seems to be where we are hedging our bets.
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