Shocks become us By Farrukh Khan Pitafi


The collapse of reality is an atrocious experience. An ordinary person treats at least a few things in life as fixed, immutable anchors to reality. Until the fall of the Twin Towers, to an average New Yorker, and perhaps even to an average American, they must have served just as the very anchor. Symbols of national pride, power and influence. To a Cold War Berliner, the Berlin Wall must have appeared as a tangible certain reality despite being a symbol of defeat and division. To an average Briton and many Europeans, a united EU must have felt like a foregone conclusion. But what happens when these anchors collapse? Are you disoriented momentarily or displaced permanently? This is a huge public concern today as our reality seems to be collapsing in on itself.

If you begin looking at the ever-accelerating shocks to the system with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War you may see a remarkable pattern of acceleration. Consider this order. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the Cold War. Saddam’s occupation of Kuwait and the first gulf war. Nine-eleven and the invasion of Afghanistan. The invasion of Iraq, the Arab Spring, the emergence of ISIS, the Syrian civil war and the refugee crisis. Modi’s surprising ascent to power, Brexit, Trump’s shock victory, the sudden return of Nazi-inspired racism, Covid-19 and Trump’s complicated defeat. The attack on the US Capitol, accelerating far-right domestic terrorism in America, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the sudden collapse of the Afghan government and the ensuing chaos. The pace of disruption is increasing. If we didn’t know better and were not aware of the dangerous QAnon like path it can lead us to, one would have conjectured that a bunch of aliens was playing mind games on us, shocking our reality with increasing rapidity, to study our responses. But sadly, there is no way to blame a hidden force because this world, this pain and this suffering, all are too real.

It, however, doesn’t mean that an explanation has not been attempted. Naomi Klein’s 2008 bestseller The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism took the explanation in an oblique direction. The book, of course, is seriously sourced and cogently argued. If you are acquainted with the works of Dr Milton Friedman, the economist who is solely responsible for my conversion to libertarianism, you will find the book’s assertions quite fascinating. Banking on CIA sponsored scientist Dr Ewen Cameron’s technique of shock therapy, Friedman and his cohorts called Chicago Boys used its economic version in pursuit of open market capitalism. While Dr Cameron’s attempts to erase the memory of his victims and create new ones employed tactics that would easily qualify as torture today like sensory deprivation, electroshocks, isolation, confusion, drug abuse and were later recorded in a document titled Kubark Manual giving birth to advance interrogation techniques, Friedman was Marx to Cameron’s Hegel. He and his Chicago Boys used moments of crises to push for free-market policies which profited the ultra-rich at the cost of these economies. And the result was achieved by muting dissent and often withholding debt to force countries to capitulate. Sounds a lot like Confessions of an Economic Hitman, doesn’t it? Could an elite group of businessmen be using and perhaps even manufacturing these shocks we endure for own profit? Before I could contemplate this question the deal was broken for me by the mention of MKUltra, which threatened to take me down the same rabbit hole as Alex Jones and Joe Rogan, and what I call the victimhood capitalism of the leftists. This book after all was sold in shops, not handed out free of cost. Not all profit-making is bad then.

The other explanation comes from Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Black swans are events thought impossible but still, they materialise out of blue. He asserts that the way our brains are structured, we do not foresee these earth-shattering events. Our minds are bombarded with a lot of information every day. To simplify our thought process we pick and choose only those variables which make sense to us or seem important. The ones that we ignore can often explain what then becomes a shock or a black swan. Could you not see Trump winning? You deliberately ignored his mammoth-sized rallies. Or the factors that caused it. Did you never think that al-Qaeda was capable of attacking the WTC? Or the fall of the Berlin Wall? You had all the information to reach these conclusions but your minds chose to ignore them. He calls it a narrative fallacy. But his neat theory does not explain the frequency of these events and the acceleration.

To understand the rapid pace of change you will have to go back to the best prophet of futurology. Alvin Toffler died only months before Trump’s shocking victory. But if he were alive on that day perhaps he would not have been surprised. In a raw form, all these shocks were predicted in his 1970 bestseller Future Shock which sold 6 million copies in 5 years. Future shock is the anxiety and fear of the future. There are many things he gets wrong. Mankind still hasn’t established subterranean or underwater cities. But that is only a matter of detail. The rise of disposable culture, the emergence of transient jobs where people frequently change jobs, professions, even their countries and become cultural nomads, kinetic organisations, technological competition, home becoming anchors and less reliance on outside markets and finally the death of permanence all resonate with our changing reality. He goes on to say that due to all these factors religious, economic, cultural and family structures will be disrupted with increasing frequency. In the end, he recommends embracing what he calls stability zones. If such change is inevitable find things that keep you tethered to the reality of your being, like monogamous relationships, exercise, diet and leisure routines. So to summarise this summary he believes that technological progress, population growth and lack of reliance on permanence will ensure the pace of disruptions of all kinds and shocks will accelerate. His book deserves to be read more than once. You have to read it to believe. Also his two other remarkable books. The Third Wave and Powershift.

While wholeheartedly endorsing Toffler’s works as plausible explanations let me invoke an interesting metaphor from scriptures that speaks volumes of human nature and why it takes a man on the path of ever-increasing disruptions. The story of man’s fall from heaven. Adam was in heaven, a perfect place to live, but even there he could not endure monotony and consequently fell. Curiosity and unhappiness towards the lack of change ensure that we never settle down. Stability is an illusion now that there are more of us. Expect more disruptions.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 28th, 2021.

SOURCEExpress Tribune