An Ode to Late Modernity
Corrosive hands gripped an empty husk, teasing it apart with instrumental precision. Clockwork eyes pierced the fragments, appraising their quality of substance. Mechanical teeth crunched and ground them to a paste, swallowed down to a congested gut. Unable to stomach its overflowing gluttony, it spits the particles back up, only to continue to the next. The fragments layed there scattered, but slowly crawled back together, amalgamating to familiar form. Yet their essence was lost, consumed, and an empty husk remained. Desolation gripped the Earth in the Beast’s wake, the fertility of the lands ripped asunder by its endless pursuit. Surrounded by the destruction, the husk sees no option but to retreat to the comforts of familiarity. Fleeing the flames, they chase after it, offering themselves once more for ingestion.
It was the start of the workday and the market-boards were about to be updated. Docile bodies wriggled and squirmed over one another, hungering about the scarce fruits before them. Ants swarming a moulding carcass, eager to prove themselves to the Queen. If one was lucky, they could get up to five contracts a day. Even luckier if they could remain in one for more than a few hours. Contractors orbited the market networks, constantly filtering in and out of employment. Rather than manning Ford’s assembly line, workers had become the assembly line. If not for credit to purchase things, then for merit to easier gain credit. Precarity. Anxious unease gripped the hearts of every body in the system. All the credit contracts were gobbled up as soon as they appeared, though tasks for merit were always available. It was a competition to get contracts, to put food on the table. It was a competition to get credit, and repay debts. Freedom was competition, cycling though the open market networks. To exist was competition, caught in the cycle of precarity.
Edward was lucky. He had the privilege of a fluent coding ability, PythonScript specifically, and found it easy to fit into the binary ones and zeros of the system. This gave him slightly more access to opportunities for contracts than most. On the average day he scored three contracts for credit, cycling through the endlessly abundant merit-tasks in the meantime. Edward could fit himself into whichever opportunity arose. He was at once a teacher and a student. A waiter and a chef. A fisherman and a farmer. A teller, broker, advisor, accountant. Edward was well-versed in roleplaying, as all who orbited the market networks had to be, floating from institution to institution, role to role. Time not spent contracting was time spent investing in oneself. Training and education. The more one could specialize themselves, the better chance they had of landing a contract. This was usually when Edward coded, surfing websites and filtering through the digital networks. He also refined his linguistic abilities, kept up with current affairs, and read the flows of financial streams. All manner of knowledge could be gained from the pocket devices and their infinite programs.
Today was an especially lively day. Edward had taught a finance class, reviewed a company’s digital security system, and provided marriage counselling for estranged lovers, all before lunch. It was never personal when one left the job. It was a mutually understood manner of doing the task, getting paid for it, and leaving. To stay anchored to a single position within this constantly revolving network was madness. One would simply be left behind in the wake of growth and the trailblaze of progress. The morning contracts had given enough credits for a nice lunch, with even a little bit left over. Edward had been planning to splurge and get a strawberry flavoured treat for dessert, rather than plain old vanilla. But he stopped himself, getting a modest lunch and snack and saving the remaining credits for later. Edward was good at making decisions like this. The few credits he managed to hold on to beyond feeding himself was a privilege that most were isolated from. The meagre stockpile he managed to accumulate was his private form of resistance, his own kernel of defiance to a system of hyper-consumption and spending. Edward found it frustrating how he was always told to consume, how everyone was always fixated on the now. What to eat now, where to go now, what to do now. How best to maximize pleasure in the now. Yet if you just stepped back for a second, and peaked forward to the future a little, it was easy to realize how much saving was needed. Debt consumed all bodies in the system, defining them and their time. Edward alone saved to pay back his debts to the state for his citizenship, to the institutions that had trained and educated him, to the market networks for utilizing them, and to his parents for raising him until the ripe contracting age of fourteen, as well as their incurred generational debts as a family. Even the smallest dint was something taken off, some fraction of the debt forgiven, some fragment of the self freed.
Yet Edward failed to realize the privileges of his position, occupying a place amongst the highest position of the precarious classes. Though constituting most of the population, the precarious held a minimal fraction of wealth, power, and freedom. The highest, though smallest, of these comprised the petty middle-class, whose day-to-day sustenance was generally secure and precarity lay in its vulnerabilities of regressing to the lower ranks. Right below lay the destitute, the largest class in society. Precarity governed the livelihood of the destitute. Throwing themselves endlessly into the ruthless competition of the market networks, even getting enough food to survive the day was an uncertainty. The destitute also tended to remain destitute, with less skills and less opportunities to improve their human capital. They could never hope to have savings, and simply worked and lived for the next meal. Yet, even below these were the indebted, slaves to the insurmountable debts collected in their name. The generational accumulation of debt by families reaching a critical point, they were stripped of the last thing they held onto – their names. Removed from the privilege of private property, they became property themselves. Completely commodified individuals stripped of their rights and identities. Slaves to the system, precarious in every essence of life. Precarity characterized the majority of Earthen life, yet existence was turmoil. Welfare initiatives provided enough of a social safety net for insufficients to struggle in the system a little longer. But each individual was a component of the greater organ of exploitation, struggling in their own singular world of suffering.
True power lay with a higher caste of humanity, constituting no more than 5% of the population: the assured classes. The affluent. Shielded in their castles atop their mountains of accumulation, precarity had long been eradicated from their world. Rather, they had bent precarity to their will and administered it as an instrument of segregation and control. The affluent occupied a higher sphere of existence in the sky, looking down on the precarious dominions below. Having long exhausted the planet and its people, they occupied realms beyond Earth. Separated from the rest of humanity, their only remaining connection to the ruins below was the government that represented them to the precarious, and the Pigs of Finance employed to protect their institutions. It was thanks to the affluent that society functioned. It was by their grace that the market-boards were updated, the credit systems legitimized, and the machine remained oiled with the financial grease of maximum efficiency. By their grace that the safety nets of welfare provisions remained there to entrap the precarious in the system. That the system even existed, imparting the gift of meaning to empty husks. The opportunity to better oneself for the destitute, and the courtesy of purpose for the indebted. Still, debt was a shackle binding them all to the darkness of precarity that defined them. And all debts traced back to the affluent, the ultimate creditors. The precarious paid their debts to society, and society paid its debts to the affluent. It was a self-accumulating prosperity, begetting more wealth, power, and freedom from this society. Yet at the very peak of the assured classes were whisperings of an ascended few. A class of gods among kings. The secret creators and shadowy administrators. The true rulers of the precarious and assured alike. The state and its institutions represented the voice of the affluent, but the final say was ultimately held by the ascended.
After lunch, Edward cycled through a few merit tasks before brushing up his metacom skills and touching up on the latest stock gambles. The workdays usually ended with morgue contracts, as there were always bodies to be disposed of. Society was built upon a foundation of precarious corpses. The system was all about growth, yet it bred infertility. Pumping out bodies to be crippled under the insurmountable weight of the system. Plastic bags, thrown away after a single use. The meat bags were picked up from the morgues, loaded onto the trucks and driven out to the cremation fields. Dumped into the ditches, doused in petroleum, and set alight. Like all other sectors in society, the process had been meticulously streamlined. Edward and his assigned partner could get through upwards of seven hundred bodies a day. His personal record was nine hundred and fifty and he was eager to break one thousand. It all rested on the commitment of his partners; how dedicated they were to the game. And they always wore different faces, different features shifting in and out of the same routine synchronicity. Edward sometimes even recognized those very faces among the bodies. Today was a good enough day with a good enough accomplice, a young man about the same age as him. The pair had managed to make eight hundred and seventy-five bodies, a valiant effort. Regardless of its interchangeable components, the process was always the same. As the sun set, the final crackles of the blackened bodies rang out the end of their contract. The embers sailed into the air, dancing into the crimson hues that bled across the sky. But the spectacle escaped occupied eyes, Edward and his colleague burrowed their faces into their pocket devices, busy raising their human capital levels in the game.
Edward returned home to find his sister midway through her daily report, recounting the quantities and values she had managed to transform this workday. Noticing her brother entering, she made an effort to accentuate her achievements. The sibling rivalry had always been fierce, each eagerly competing for parental attention and approval. It had prepared them for the brutal competitive mechanics underlying social relations in the system. Just as schooling prepared and accredited students for their cycles through the market networks as workers, families conditioned children of the societal norms modulating their lives as adults. All crucial steps along the body’s journey of subjectivation. The state’s arsenal of subjectivation was extensive. Among its regulation, education, coercion, and exploitation lay the media, which it spoke through in a commercialized manner, coaxing the winds of socialization to its desire. This was tantamount to culture. It was not exactly regulated, but heavily implied, that all families were to consist of a mother and a father, and a daughter and a son. This was the family model for all to strive for, perfectly formulated to nurture the right competitive environment in young subjects. Such idealizations rarely translate into the harshness of reality. Though, Edward and his family were such a case, hailing from the privileged petty middle-class after all. Over dinner, which the children provided and their mother prepared, Edward walked them through his accomplishments for the day.
“Eight hundred and seventy-five bodies!” his mother exclaimed. “That’s more than your father ever averaged, and certainly more than anything he could land today.”
Edward could feel his sister’s eyes glowing on him, he shot her a smug look.
“Well, you’re still not seeing any growth or improvement,” his father grumbled, keeping his eyes down on his plate.
“Why, yes. Of course,” Edward was quick to appraise himself. “Eight seventy-five is still far less than nine fifty, almost a whole ten percent. And I’ve yet to break the big triple O, just like you did Dad. It’s all these amateurs I’m always lumped with,” he breathed a dry laugh. “Obviously, I’ve still a ways to go to ever dream of reaching you—”
The last syllable caught in Edward’s throat, and his choked coughs echoed through the air. Glancing across at his sister, she stifled a grin.
“I wouldn’t be so quick to blame the system. It is thanks to the system that anything even works! You should really look at yourself, Edward. Two weeks ago, you were easily knocking down nine hundred a day. Now you are barely making that, if at all,” his father sniggered. “I mean, what’s happening? Are you even trying anymore?”
The room was uneasy, even his sister’s grin had vanished. Edward tried to begin on a response but was shot down by a burning glare from his mother. The meal carried on in silence, the clinking of utensils clacking through empty air. Edward tried to meet his father’s gaze but was met with a stone wall. He had to talk to him one-on-one, man-to-man, without an audience. In silence, each member slowly finished their meal before returning to their spaces in the house. After dinner, Edward looked over his savings, calculating and consolidating the right amount. With this, some of his parent’s debts could be repaid. Some fraction forgiven; some fragment of himself freed. Pushed with a hopeful breath, the money was transferred to his father’s account. Edward dared a smile. He skipped into the living room where his father was watching the evening broadcasts.
“Dad! Dad! Look!” waving his pocket device around. “I’ve just made this transfer to your account, look!” Edward could barely contain his excitement.
His father glanced from his screen to his son’s. “Oh wow, look at you! So much money to throw around.”
Edward was taken aback; this was debt forgiven for his family’s sake. “What do you mean? I worked hard to save this for us… Even if it’s just a little weight off your shoulders, off all of ours.”
His father snorted through his nostrils, before finally breaking his focus from the telescreen and looking at his son. “Great,” he smiled. “At this rate, maybe when you die, your kids will only have to deal with the weight of your own burdens.”
Edward winced. The words crippled him. Like a wounded animal, he retreated to his room with a feeble shuffle. His father did not look back as he left.
Edward was lucky to have his own room to escape to, a privilege unavailable to most. He even had his own computer. The precarious classes, in all their efforts to hold onto what they had, could never hope to own such luxuries as housing. This was a gift bestowed upon them by the assured, furthering them into the depths of indebtedness. On nights like these, Edward couldn’t focus on self-investment. Instead, he liked to indulge in somewhat of a taboo. Leisure. There were only two things time was valuable for: contracting and self-investment. There was no room for fun or games. Purposely spending time on anything but maximum efficiency was resistance against the system. Still, Edward enjoyed turning his mind off every so often, simply enjoying the passing time. He liked to peruse online art forums. Art had mostly died out long ago and was largely disdained by the system. Like the rest of culture, it was dictated by the state. People told him it was a waste, but art stirred something within Edward that he wasn’t familiar with. A sort of stillness in the chaos of a constantly revolving system. Tranquillity. This must have resonated in others as they congregated online. The UnderCommons was Edward’s favourite message board. Today people were discussing a picture of a man gazing into a sea of clouds, apparently made ages ago by a C.D. Friedrich.
“You’re pathetic, always trying to be the favourite,” hissed a voice from the door. It was his sister. “Know your place,” she spat, shaking her head, and continuing down the hall. Edward was alone in the world. The ruthless cycles of the market beat him down tirelessly. Competing in every aspect of his life had hollowed him out to an empty husk. Edward stared into the wanderer above the sea fog. He saw himself there among the waves. Felt the salt spittle of the seafoam, and the soft winds caressing him. It was an escape. A break from a system that insisted he was worthless, despite his best efforts to prove otherwise.
There is nothing nowadays. It’s all pointless. You spend every second of the day working, and every other working on your chances to find work. For what? To break down the unbreakable mountain restraining you? It’s not like you’re ever good enough, or you could ever really be forgiven. They tell you you’re worthless, and you spend every waking moment trying to prove them wrong. But they don’t see. They don’t even care. Onwards the troop marches, leaving behind their comrades, collapsed on the trail of ruin.
Edward was fuming, yet taken aback by his outburst. Ashamed, he hoped his venting fell on deaf ears. It was a radical position he had just taken and, if the wrong person saw, there could be trouble. Quickly, he deleted the post. Hopefully this was just a small morsel of weakness to be swept under the rug. The anxiety dulled his fury, and Edward was frantically removing his presence from the website. Panting, he reeled back from his computer. He had the sense of dancing on a fine string. As he paced, a message notification rang out into the room.
Hey there, I hope you’re okay. Our debts are the shackles they use to bind us. Even credit itself enters the system already as debt. Our debts define us in the system, and we are nothing more than our debts.
The digital stranger enticed him. They discussed their woes in the system and Edward was shocked to find his sentiments echoed through others. The stranger made him realize the futility of saving and the inescapability of debt. Even the tiny fragments he had managed to chip away were completely fruitless. The debt just accumulated without end, multiplied with interest, and proliferated throughout his lineage. There was no end to debt. It pierced the hearts of the precarious from their very conception, and hushed them goodnight on their deathbeds. Edward’s children would be the next target for its hungry jaws. The stranger had added him to a group-chat dubbed “Buddies of Study”. It was a formless assembly of estranged Others like Edward. Those not fully convinced of the system’s perfection, not fully content with the ways things worked. From just his own room, in being to himself and with others, Edward was mobilized against the system. Engaged in the radical act of being without purpose, beyond the cycles of markets, credits, or debts. The Buddies made him see beyond the binaries of the system – beyond simply yes or no, male or female, true or false – to grasp the multitudes and complexities constituting life.
With the newfound awareness Edward felt a sense of fulfilment, assured of the imperfections within the system and the mindlessness of people like his father. As he lay to rest, Edward closed another page in his chronicle of life, more convinced of his purpose in a system of purposelessness. And with that, another workday drew to a close, another cycle of society’s cyclical motion. Ultimately, his struggle would mean nothing. The machine would continue its path of extraction unhindered. Humanity was too deeply entrenched in its commitment to destruction. The Ever-Consuming Beast could not be swayed from its endless hunt for value.