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Beyond ethics and rationality: welcome to the assholocene

Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images, (Opens in a new window)

Dear friends,

What should we call a society in which a prominent Conservative party politician – that is to say, not a fascist oddball or some random talking head – calls for "violence against irregular migration" (Opens in a new window), i.e. for shooting migrants at the EU's borders; in which up to 30% believe that it is perfectly ok to vote for a party that is "in parts certified right-wing extremist", for which, read: fascist; in which "climate protection" means protection against climate activists, and "climate adaptation" does not mean building higher dikes, but building higher walls against migrants; in which migrants who, for completely incomprehensible reasons, want to migrate to the parts of the world that are still inhabitable (whereby of course the vast majority migrate to their home or neighbouring countries), are demonised as "criminal gangs of human traffickers", in order to legitimise a "war on migration/migrants"? A society that Anna Becker (Opens in a new window) sums up brutally and but aptly on Bluesky: "First we exploit countries, then we destroy a large part of global livelihoods, and instead of saving people from the consequences of our actions, we seal ourselves off by force and let them die in the Mediterranean. And the voters love it."

Precisely: an asshole-society (Opens in a new window).

A few definitions to start with, so we're all on the same page: assholes (Opens in a new window) are people who assume that other groups of people are inferior to them, and are therefore entitled to less. Think of it as group-specific misanthropy. Anyone who acts in a group-specific misanthropic manner is an asshole. The difference (Opens in a new window) between a society of ignorance (Verdrängungsgesellschaft) and an asshole society is that the first both has to repress its moral shitholeness (i.e. its structurally group-related misanthropic behaviour – think of rich societies as "externalisation societies (Opens in a new window)"), and has to justify it in intellectually extremely painful contortions employing the language of universalistic humanism, while the asshole society has made it a principle not to have to explain itself, to actually feel comfortable in its assholishness, to be proud of it instead of feeling ashamed. The "assholisation" of society has long since reached the "centre", and an asshole contest is now breaking out in politics (who can be the bigger...?), not only in Germany, but everywhere where there are privileges to defend.

The epoch in human history in which assholisation, i.e. the normalisation of group-specific misanthropy, is a dominant political dynamic, and the nationalist, patriarchal asshole replaces the neoliberal sociopath as the dominant subject: this is what I call the assholocene - the age of assholes.

Anthropocene and Anthropos

What distinguishes this "assholocene" from the much better-known anthropocene (Opens in a new window), the geological epoch that, depending on how you count, right around the middle of the 20th century replaced the holocene, the period of unusual climatic stability that made possible what we now, entirely without the requisite sense of dark irony, call “human civilisation”? “Anthropocene”, just as a brief reminder, refers to an age in which "man" ("il uomo", "l'homme" - anthropos) not only became the strongest geological transformation factor, but also the measure, owner and judge of all things.

To be sure, this concept has come under convincing criticism, inter alia from the left – firstly, of course, it is not "man" who is in charge, but very specific people, mostly rich, mostly white, mostly male; and secondly, it is not man "as such", but “man on capitalist steroids” who exploits the earth – but it has prevailed against much weaker competition, such as "capitalocene" (my term will of course suffer the exact same fate, but there's no harm in trying ;)), because it articulates a widespread affect, with Freud, a "discontent within the culture", a kind of repressed collective awareness, something like: "Wow, ok, right, we're charge, and, holy crap, are we fucking up this 'world domination' thing." The Anthropocene is thus not only the age of "human" causal and ecological dominance, it is also the age of “repressed failure" of those who were in any relevant way “deciders”. We're in charge, we know that our fossil capitalist mode of production and our imperial mode of living is an ethical disaster, we know what the rational and ethical choice would be (I dunno, let's call it global degrowth communism) - and yet we are entirely incapable of making that choice, of taking that path, of changing our “normal-and-yet-insane”, deeply fucked-up collective behaviour.

However, the fact is that our conception of man is one that - a bit like our idea of a future of eternal growth in which we produce ourselves out of the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom (Opens in a new window) - is deeply rooted in the enlightenment: our idea of what it means to be human, at least since Locke and Kant, since the emergence of classical economics and modern philosophy, has been based on the assumption that humans differ from animals in their ability to make ethical and rational decisions, rather than merely meandering through the world led by “mere” instincts, as (we used to believe) animals do. If being "man", anthropos, means being able to make rational and ethical decisions, then a quick look at the world shows that we are precisely not living in the anthropocene, but in a hell of irrationality and ethically abhorrent structures and decisions.

Ethics and rationality in the assholocene

So that's my point. Sure, I use conceptual terms embellished with expletives to capture attention, to generate engagement with my posts and texts, to increase my reach, yadayadayada. But I actually have a political reason to insist on the distinction between the anthropocene and the assholocene: in the anthropocene, it was reasonable to design political and social movement strategies in a way that would (attempt to) increase the likelihood of collectively rational and ethical (in the sense of a universalist humanist ethics) decision-making and transformation - we still see echoes of this in the Last Generation's (Just Stop Oil, Ultima Generazione, etc.) strategy of forcing society to be rational, as it were, through putting maximum pressure on it. But as I've previously argued, and as indicated by more and more anecdotal evidence: increasing pressure produces more irrationality and assholery, reducing pressure leads to nothing, and just continuing our business as usual doesn't work either. Nothing we can do will lead and/or force society to make rational and ethical choices.

And why is that? Because assholisation and assholocene, not anthropocene and “green transformation”. Because of the new climate consensus: ignore, repress, shoot. Because active ignorance, neocolonialism and fascisation. Because the assholes are no longer ashamed for what, for who they are.

Of course, this does not mean, as some have suggested, that I'm calling for an end to fighting for a better life; in recent weeks I have repeatedly tried to trace and point out ways forward (e.g. here (Opens in a new window) and here (Opens in a new window)). But it means that it will be increasingly ineffective, frustrating and disempowering to expect, demand, to try to force society to do something it neither can nor wants to do: not behave like an irrational asshole. And yes, by that I also mean the "keep asking nicely" strategy of the moderate wing of the climate movement.

The good life will be made from below, by us, or it won't.

Yours, in solidarity,


p.s.: If you are on Twitter / X (Twix?): I currently seem to be "ghostbanned" on that platform, which is why it will be difficult for me to spread this text there. If you like the text, I would be grateful if you could spread it there with a tweet of your own. Thank you, and: Elon sucks!

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