The Meaning Crisis Conspiracy
There's no meaning crisis; it's all spandrels and greebles
You’ve probably heard rumors of a “meaning crisis.” Maybe you even believe you’re caught up in it. Maybe you’re contemplating some sort of trad aesthetic turn to “solve” your personal version of it. Maybe you’re finding yourself attracted to various obscure, intriguing old intellectual traditions as a way out. Maybe you spent the pandemic lockdown picking out one to really sink your teeth into.
I have absolutely shocking news for you. The whole thing is fake. Completely made up. The product of a vast conspiracy. There is no meaning crisis.
I have a wall covered in leaked documents, whistleblower accounts, and red string to prove it, but it would be too dangerous to release it. I can share the conclusions I’ve drawn from my extended analysis of it though.
The meaning crisis was a psyop invented in a secret Murdoch-funded lab in 2015 to distract younger Millennials and Zoomers from the fact that the rent was too damn high, and it worked.
In 2014, only 13% of people in their 20s were worried about Meaning and Purpose. By 2017, 30% were. By 2019, 42% of people under the age of 30 had totally bought into the “meaning crisis,” and were off trying to solve the dissatisfaction in their lives through radical, subversive experiments in living exactly and unironically like their grand-parents did in 1954.
The Murdoch-lab project, code-named “Project Vegemite,” was cooked up in an underground lair in Western Australia between 2015 and 2017. It was triggered by the sharp global rise in the popularity of avocado toast, driven by older Millennials, which began around 2014. This led a lot of conservatives, perennially haunted by the suspicion that someone, somewhere might be happy,to fear that the apocalypse was nigh.
That led to a super-extra-secret conclave at Davos in 2014. A panel of conservative sociologists and psychologists deliberated for three days, and concluded that the emerging avocado toast trend was a sign that an unacceptably high number of young people had figured out how to be mildly, nihilistically happy despite the rent being too high.
There was no consensus on precisely why this was a problem (though The Decline of the West was, as always, a popular theory), but the panel unanimously concluded that it was a problem, and that Something Must Be Done.
After seriously considering organizing an invasion of Mexico to destroy the avocado industry, the panel recommended a coordinated global psyop to create a meaning crisis instead, as a cheaper option.
That led to Project Vegemite being kicked off in 2015. Dozens of researchers and ex-spooks from around the world were involved. A dozen major world leaders and media moguls signed on.
While Project Vegemite was too late to stop the avocado toast trend, it worked to ensure that the cancer spread no further than premium mediocre brunch menus.
And thus was born the “meaning crisis.”
Like any good psyop, the “meaning crisis” leveraged existing trends and basic features of the human psyche, rather than trying to invent an addressable FUD market out of whole cloth.
In 2015, the basic trends the Project Vegemite researchers had available to work with were: concern over the rise of tech, and the rise of inequality. That would provide the momentum to drive the judo move. To pivot the momentum in a new direction, a basic feature of the psyche was required as a fulcrum.
In this case, the basic feature Project Vegemite converged on was the fact that there are two kinds of people in the world: Those who dislike thinking, and those who think too much. How good you are at thinking is largely irrelevant. It’s how much you want to think that matters.
I like to call them Type N for “non-thinkers” or “normies,” vs. Type M, for “morbidly thinky” or “meta.” Or as Shakespeare put it, “fat, sleek-headed men, such as sleep ‘o nights” versus “men with lean and hungry looks who think too much.”
The meaning crisis was invented to make the morbidly thinky meta crowd indistinguishable from the non-thinking normie crowd, and prevent avocado-toast energy from snowballing into apocalyptic, civilization-threatening revolutionary fervor.
Type N is people who choose life pretty much unconditionally. They want to remain alive, hopeful, and striving at any cost, no matter how miserable life gets. Not only will obviously false hope suffice to keep them on their treadmills, they actually demand to be only fed obviously false hope, preferably centered around rather gaudy, tasteless visions of an afterlife, or airbrushed glorious histories. Real hope, the kind that demands intellectually engaged striving in the face of debilitating doubt, is too much work for type N’s. Only masochistically morbid minds would actively seek out that kind of grief. Type N’s are the bread and circuses crowd. More lazily sadistic than energetically masochistic. They will viciously punish anyone who offers true hope.
Type N was not the problem for Project Vegemite. It was the model of the solution.
As the researchers at the secret underground Murdoch Lab knew very well, Type N’s can take any amount of punishment you care to dish out, and keep going, so long as you keep the clearly false hope flowing. All you need to do is avoid making them mad with true hope. For that, you need is something like a large, homogenizing religion, a national anthem, or a sufficiently bloody sport. Throw in a few paternalistic authority figures with strong halos, and they’ll eagerly, willingly fall in line.
Their life is largely meaningless by choice anyway, and they studiously avoid all morbid meta-thinking that might reveal that, so they cannot experience a meaning crisis. They can only be miserable, which is not the same thing at all. They’ll labor away miserably five days a week without really complaining. Give them the sixth day off, and a booster shot of patently false hope via something like a sermon, an anthem, or a football game on the seventh day, and they’ll be good to go for another week. Afterlife visions sufficient to sustain them can be constructed by extrapolating from however they choose to spend their Saturdays. On Sundays you merely hold up an eternal mirror to their Saturdays to inspire hope, while casting the misery of Monday to Friday as an inescapable paying of dues.
But an important point is to be noted here: you cannot immanetize the eschaton for the Type N crowd unless you want a civil war on your hands. If, for instance, you replaced them with robots at their weekday jobs but let them keep their salaries for life, they’d get really angry about it, because then they’d have to do some morbid thinking about what to do with their 5 newfound days of leisure per week. They need, even demand, the 5 days of dignified misery to enjoy the 6th day of succor, and to help suspend disbelief during the 7th day of false-hope reinforcement.
If the world were 100% type N’s, there would have been no need for Project Vegemite.
The Type M crowd though (about 48% of the population by recent estimates), was the problem. They represented a vast, restless cognitive surplus that sought unpredictably stimulating outlets. Unfortunately, they like to think, and the also like to believe they’re thinking for themselves, which means they must occasionally be allowed to arrive at mostly harmless unique and novel conclusions about Life, the Universe, and Everything.
For Project Vegemite, this cognitive surplus was an unfortunate spandrel in cultural evolution. One that needed to be absorbed before avocado toast snowballed into The End of Civilization.
The thing is, below a certain minimum level of real hope for expected happiness in this life, Type M’s will check out and sink into a sort of nihilistic hedonism. They’ll stop playing whatever part is required of them in the workings of various machines that keep civilization humming and Boomer stock portfolios and property values growing. That won’t do because their willingness to think, properly channeled, sustains a lot of critical activities.
And above a certain maximum level of realized life happiness, they’ll check out as well. With this crowd, unfortunately, you can immanetize the eschaton. It will just be unevenly distributed. If you took away miserable striving for basic sustenance using robots, and just handed them an income, they’d actually be pretty happy about it. Since Type M enjoys morbid meta-thinking, they’d find new things to get morbidly thinky about, to occupy any amount of time (Type N’s get mad at free money because they have just enough imagination to fill up their Saturdays by copying their neighbors, and need to believe that they are earning just rewards).
The trick to keeping Type M’s productively involved in the workings of civilization is to keep them hopeful, but frustrated. For the sufficiently neurotic, happiness is morbid wallowing in unnecessary thought. If you can maintain a band for them to enjoy this, above a minimum, but below a maximum, you can rule the world.
This is the band where life feels “meaningful.” The art of meaning-making, at least on the supply side, is the art of keeping Type M’s hopeful but frustrated. The secret Murdoch lab has an entire team dedicated to tracking the boundaries of this band using sophisticated economic models. They don’t directly try to shape the thoughts of the Type M’s, but instead use the Type N’s as control rods. It’s a beautiful system, and until 2015, it was working really well. Until the damn millennials discovered the secret of a little happiness in avocado toast.
In this band, mere hedonistic pleasures and sermons on weekends will not do. There must be real hope for immanetizing the eschaton, and a lucky 0.1% visibly enjoying paradise on earth on Instagram (but no more than 0.5% — at somewhere around 5% immanetizing the eschaton, civilization as Boomers know it collapses).
In 2014, older Millennials were on the verge of falling below the minimum happiness levels to stave off nihilism. According to secret models constructed by economists at the Heritage Foundation, the nihilism threshold around that time happened to correspond nearly exactly to one slice of avocado toast per day. Around 2014, if you ate one slice of avocado toast a day, you wouldn’t just stop believing in the false hope of owning a home on a minimum-wage salary, you’d stop caring about anything past having a little fun today. And that was way more dangerous than mere disbelief.
It is historically rare for the nihilism threshold to correlate so precisely to such a visible and instagrammable viral symbol, but in 2014 it did, and avocado toast nihilism was already spreading exponentially by the time Project Vegemite kicked off. So it is no coincidence that the astute panel of conservative scholars figured out that this was the thin end of the wedge, and that Something Must Be Done.
In 2015, the obvious solution was to ratchet up the general misery levels so that avocado toast would no longer work as an entry drug into checked-out hedonistic nihilism.
But this was a fraught plan.
As several Project Vegemite researchers pointed out at the time, the type N’s wouldn’t care, but the risk was that the Type M’s, the morbid-thinking crowd, would actually start thinking hard enough to potentially figure out a way to immanetize the eschaton at scale.
That would not do. To rule the world, you must deploy the Type M crowd to do all the thinking work, and give them enough opportunity to get morbidly thinky during their off hours, but you must not motivate them to the point that they start paying attention to real, solvable problems and figuring out how to actually immanetize the eschaton for more than 0.5% of the population.
By 2015, the divide-and-conquer lottery system that generated just enough winners to keep hope alive (I documented this in my 2017 blog post Premium Mediocre) was already beginning to unravel. By 2019, it was in tatters. With the pandemic in 2020, it collapsed entirely.
Here’s the secret plan Project Vegemite came up with to make sure that the fallout of the collapse of premium mediocrity was contained: Manufacture a meaning crisis to make the M’s more like the N’s.
It was a bold and radical plan. Make the group that enjoys thinking effectively indistinguishable from the group that doesn’t. Make non-normies and normies interchangeable.
According to secret leaked documents I was given a peek at, the plan that came out of Project Vegemite in 2015 was a simple three-step plan:
Manufacture next-generation false hopes palatable to Type M’s
Ratchet up misery to the point avocado toast wouldn’t cut it
Advertise a meaning crisis to draw them to the false hopes
Step 2 was fairly obvious — get a bunch of Trump-like characters elected around the world to make Type M’s too miserable to find relief in avocado toast. Ratcheting up misery for people who like to think is never very hard.
Step 3 was a no-brainer — dozens of commentators were lined up and ready to project their pet cultural theories and moral panics onto the zeitgeist and declare a meaning crisis. They didn’t even need to be paid, just misery to explain. They’d naturally generate a rich smorgasbord of meaning crisis theories across the political spectrum, to suit all tastes (you may have noticed the unusual spike in such writing between 2015 and 2018 — Project Vegemite was behind it).
The hard part was step 1: constructing safe places for the discontent to flow once it had been triggered and fueled.
The thing is, the obviously, tastelessly, false hopes that worked on the Type N’s would not work on the Type M’s. They enjoyed thinking too much to be satisfied by a glib sermon and a football game on Sundays.
What was called for was fodder for morbidly thinky brains that would occupy between 10 to 20 hours a week, and redirect attention that was, in 2015, flowing with alarming energy towards Real Problems.™
But crucially, the fodder had to be such that it posed no risk of the Type M’s actually figuring out how to immanetize the eschaton. At the same time, it couldn’t be fodder based on obviously false hopes. Where the Type N’s demand only false hopes, the Type M’s call for vaguely plausible hopes. The kind that require years of hard thinking to get disillusioned with.
Hopes that are revealed to be false by some light googling on a Sunday afternoon would not do. Googling would have to reinforce the false hopes, not undermine them.
And because Type M’s like to think of themselves as uniquely thoughtful, tasteful, differentiated individuals, one-sized-fits-all mass produced plausible hopes wouldn’t do. It would have to be mass-customized plausible hopes that would allow each type M person to believe they had discovered a unique vein of meaning in the universe.
As one of the participants of Project Vegemite put it, it was a challenge on par with the Manhattan Project. Pseudo-meaning for everybody.
The solution, it turned out, was greebles.
The solution was discovered by accident. In early 2016, one of the researchers on Project Vegemite happened to notice that a lot of underemployed Type M’s online were going around sneering at each other for having no taste (presumably between bites of avocado toast), and fragmenting into increasingly smaller subcultures as a result. He went to one of the other researchers to talk about it.
Fortunately, I managed to get my hands on a transcript of the conversation.
“How are we going to manufacture plausible hope in a million subcultural varieties to fit so many refined palates? How do we make opiate for these masses? We have to find a way to curb and limit the variety to a manageable number of types.”
“Hmm. What if the variety is the solution rather than the problem? What if manufacturing more subcultural variety is the key to manufacturing vaguely plausible mass-customized hope at scale?”
“You’re out of your mind! We have to curb variety. Cheap, mass-produced meaning is the only way out. It’s what’s worked for a century.”
“Hear me out. Take something like a basic, medieval afterlife vision, an endless Saturday of sex, drinking without hangovers, and football games. The kind we’ve been peddling to the Type N’s for a century. That doesn’t work on M’s because it doesn’t offer enough fodder for morbid thinking, right?”
“Maybe we just need a bigger marketing budget. Or a war. That would do too. Maybe we should put the Mexico invasion back on the table.”
“No! We just need greebles. Lots and lots of greebles.”
“Meaningless surface detailing to make simple things look complex. Like, a Borg cube is just a regular cube with lots of fractal greebles added.”
“Ah, so we need more greebles in, say, religion or sports? Hold up architecture with more greebles as better than architecture with fewer greebles? That sort of psyop?”
“Exactly. A vaguely plausible hope is just a false hope with lots of greebling.”
“But isn’t this expensive? I suppose we could procedurally generate it like special effects in movies, but will that that fool morbidly thinky types? I still think invading Mexico would be cheaper and simpler.”
“You’re missing the point! You don’t produce the greebles. They produce the greebles. That’s what they do with their morbid thinky energy. Meaning lies in producing greebles more than in consuming them. Only variety can absorb variety. Only greebles can consume spandrels before they turn into dangerous evolutionary tendencies.”
“Really? But that seems like dull, tedious work. No way we can pay them enough to do it. We can barely get them to work in fast food restaurants. This sounds worse.”
“You’re missing the point! They’ll do it for free! In fact, they have to do it for free for it to be meaningful. Anime, Harry Potter, Minecraft… they’ve been training for this all their lives!”
“But that’s just pop culture fandoms. It’s what they get into while waiting for more deep and meaningful adult things to happen in their lives.”
“Yes, but the principle is the same. Fandoms, nerd-out subcultures. Young people pouring endless cognitive energy into creating and exploring greebles around things. That’s the energy we must tap into. We just have to redirect that energy towards more humorless, less fun things so they think it is serious and adult.”
“Hmm. You might be on to something. They do seem to think being adult is just a less fun version of being a kid. They just might buy it. We’ll just have to ratchet up the misery to exactly the right level.”
“Exactly. Anything dull, largely useless, time-consuming to learn about, and demanding average fandom levels of brains, will do. Best if it is old, so there’s a lot of ready raw material. Religion, sacred architecture, stoicism, enlightenment philosophy, classic movies, obscure 19th century political theories, mysticism, woo theories of trauma, getting off the internet to do woodworking. Plenty of things we could boost with lots of room for infinite fractal levels of harmless greebling in world views.”
“Won’t all that be too old-fashioned to hold their attention? Should we throw in some irony to help it stick?”
“No! That’s how we ended up losing half of Gen X. It was a disaster. Irony is too temperamental an ingredient for such a delicate operation. In fact, now that you bring it up, I think we need a whole separate psyop to actively counter-program irony. We must make young people suspicious of it.”
“Hmm. Yeah, you’re right. Where are kids these days learning about irony? Maybe we can ban the sources?”
“Same as in the 80s, cartoons and postmodernism. But we can’t ban those things. Too obvious and almost certain to trigger a massive Streisand effect. We need a a subtler angle.”
“How about we poison pill it? Link all irony and doubt to Marxism or something. Let’s get a team on that.”
“That’s brilliant! There’s bound to be useful idiots at American universities already doing the grunt work there. We’d only need to supply a buzzword and train a spotlight on it. Cultural Marxism might work.”
“And how about adding some humor to the greebling? Young people love humor right? They’ll line up for the lulz.”
“Too risky with all this nihilism going around. We made that mistake with Gen X too. They might laugh at the wrong things, and then we’re back to avocado toast nihilism.”
“So what we want is miserably humorless nerds who are suspicious of irony, think postmodernism is the same thing as Marxism, and are willing to direct all their political energy to adding greebles to safely dead ideas?”
“Exactly! We’ll call it New Earnestness or trad or something. We can workshop all that. And obviously, we won’t call it greebling. Let’s run some tests on what language might stick. Try words like exegesis and hermeneutics. And let’s make a clean separation from nerdy fandom. Any ideas there? Something that sounds more adult and serious. Less like hobbies.”
“We could call it aesthetics. Sounds more adult. Definitely more humorless.”
“Ah! The old truth-is-beauty, beauty-is-truth misdirection trick.”
“Exactly. Half the battle with this sort of psyop is getting people to look away from anything they find ugly. The Type N’s do that without prompting. The Type M’s just need a little help with intellectual justification.”
“That can’t possibly work forever though. They’ll eventually figure it out!”
“By the time they figure it out, they’ll be in too deep. With any luck, half of them will have turned 30 and conservative before they do.”
So there you have it. There’s no meaning crisis. It was all a big scam to get you wasting your time and energy on greebles. You can set it aside and get on with your life now.
Top-secret Russian intelligence data
According to research conducted by H. L. Mencken in 1917.
Hat-tip to Benjamin Taylor for introducing me to the concept of greebles via this post on LinkedIn.
A very late April 1st posting?