The Decay of Everyday Life – Charles Hugh Smith 5/16/24


This month I’ve described what can be summarized as The Decay of Everyday Life: the erosion of the fundamental elements of everyday life: work, opportunity, social mobility, security and well-being, which includes civility, conviviality and a functional, competent social-political order.

In other words, Everyday Life includes far more than the financial statistics of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the stock market, wealth and income. Everyday Life is fundamentally about relationships, agency (i.e. control of one’s life and ownership of one’s work), the fulfillment of life’s purposes (livelihood, family, friends, community and self-growth), leisure time and the experiences of everyday living, both the stressors and the joys.

As I’ve explored in recent posts, the experiential elements of Everyday Life have decayed over the past 40 years: life is more difficult and less secure in ways that are not offset by technological advances. Indeed, the most highly touted technological advances (Internet and mobile phones) have increased the burdens of shadow work and introduced new pathways of addiction and stress that have reduced well-being. Rather than being free, they include structures of control that we have yet to grasp, much less limit.

Here are my recent posts:

Precarious: One Misfortune Away from Insolvency
Squeezed for Decades, America’s Working Class Is Finally Up Against the Wall
Lost in the Vast Wasteland of Social Media
Hikikomori and Lying Flat: When “Making It” Becomes Hopeless
Withdrawing from the Rat Race Is Going Global

The Decay of Everyday Life echoes the title of one of the more important books I’ve long recommended, The Structures of Everyday Life Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century Volume 1 by Fernand Braudel. The book outlines how changes in the economic structure led to changes in everyday life.

The structures I outline in the five posts describe the economic structures that shape our daily lives and the political and social structures we inhabit. While I focus attention on the way globalization and financialization have hollowed out our economy and increased the precarity of labor, in the larger context we can identify these structural drivers of decay:

1. The balance between labor and capital has been skewed to capital for 50 years. Labor’s political power and share of the economy has declined while capital’s political and economic power has become dominant. This has driven income-wealth inequality to extremes that are destabilizing the economy and the political-social orders.

Increasing the sums labor can borrow to keep afloat only works until debt service consumes all disposable income, crushing consumption. The end result is mass default of debt and the erasure of debt-based “assets” held by the financial elites (top 10%).

Labor will have to restore the balance with capital or the system will collapse in disorder. History is rather definitive about this causal chain.

2. Process and narrative control have replaced outcomes as the operative mechanisms and goals of the status quo. The illusions of limitless “progress” and “prosperity” have generated a mindset in which outcomes no longer matter, as “progress” and “prosperity” are forces of Nature that can’t be stopped, so we can luxuriate in Process–completing forms and compliance documents, submitting reports to other offices, holding endless meetings to discuss our glacial “progress”, mandating more Process, elevating managers who excel at Process–with the net result that building permits that were once issued in a few days now take months, bridges take decades to build, and incompetence reigns supreme.

To obscure the dismal outcomes–failure, delays, poor quality, errors–narrative control is deployed, expanded and rewarded. The managerial class has been rewarded and advanced not for generating timely, on-budget, high-quality outcomes, but for managing Process and Narrative Control: everything’s going great, and if it isn’t, the fault lies elsewhere.

The net result of this structure is that the competent either quit in disgust or or assigned to Siberia, while the incompetent are elevated to the highest levels of corporate and public-sector management.

3. The dominance of monopolies and cartels has fatally distorted markets and politics, undermining the foundations of everyday life. By eliminating competition and buying political-regulatory complicity, monopolies and cartels lock in ample, stable profits, profits that are increased by squeezing labor and reducing the quality and quantity of goods and services, to the point that quality services and goods are either luxuries available only to the elite or simply unavailable at any price, as the knowledge, systems and values required to produce high-quality goods and services have been irrevocably lost.

4. The dominance of digital communications in everyday life has increased the unpaid shadow work we’re forced to do and injected new forms of narrative control, digital hypnosis, addiction and derangement into daily life that cannot be reversed in any meaningful way other than drastically limiting our exposure to the toxic flood tide.

So where does this leave us? We’re on our own. The status quo is incapable of unwinding the fatal distortions generated by the dominant economic structures, and so it is also incapable of “saving” us from being seated at the banquet of consequences. This is why the only rational response is to focus on increasing our Self-Reliance.

Rather than becoming enraptured by the apologists and cheerleaders proclaiming everything’s great, launching a lifeboat and setting a course for land is a strategy with much higher odds of success.