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Is Andrew Yang the Doomer Candidate?

Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

How will Democratic candidates respond to the crisis of climate change? Over the course of two early August debates, the front-runners outlined their ambitious plans to save the future. Elizabeth Warren pledged to put $2 trillion toward research into energy innovation, creating millions of jobs and producing technology the world can use. Joe Biden promised to gather world leaders to raise global emissions standards, and hugely expand infrastructure for electric vehicles. Bernie Sanders wants to “take on the fossil fuel industry” and stop its “criminal activity.” And Andrew Yang? “We are too late,” he said on Wednesday night’s debate. “We are ten years too late … we need to start moving our people to higher ground, and the best way to do that is to put economic resources into your hands so you can protect yourself and your families.” Andrew Yang 2020: The world is fucked, you’re on your own, take some money, head to higher ground.

Until last night, Yang’s cheerfully goofy demeanor, rapidly improving skills as a politician, background as a technology entrepreneur and investor, and brightly colored website might have made him seem, at a distance, like the techno-optimist’s candidate. His central issue, the universal basic income, or UBI — through which every American citizen would get a yearly, no-strings-attached check — has the veneer of a science-fictional dream, the central pillar of a prosperous, automated utopia free from daily drudgery or scarcity. You’d be forgiven for thinking that Yang had been embraced by the internet’s foremost memers, who churn out #YangGang emblazoned cartoons and Photoshops every time their hero hits the news, because of this perceived techno-optimism — just another instance of tech-obsessed internet dorks celebrating one of their own.

But as his performance at Wednesday’s debate indicates, Yang’s vision of the coming century is not always articulated as the gleaming futurist paradise that a shallow reading of his campaign would suggest. In most cases, Yang frames his UBI as an initiative to revitalize forgotten or left-behind communities, but his answer on climate last night cast it less as policy intended to catapult America into an internet-age Elysium and more as a way to mitigate a Yang-prophesied dystopia, in which artificial intelligence and automation puts Americans out of jobs just as rising waters swallow their homes.

It’s possible that Yang just misspoke, awkwardly attempting to cram his signature policy innovation into an answer where it didn’t much make sense. Either way, my sense is that what makes Yang the choice of “the internet” — or, specifically, of its political memers — is the way his diagnosis of, and solution to, American problems fits neatly into a darker, we’re-ten-years-too-late dystopian worldview that’s become fashionable in some of the internet’s less supervised spaces, as Trump-era channers, trolls, and memers, facing down widening inequality on a rapidly warming planet, turn to new and forgotten strains of nihilism, egoism, and “post-left” politics. As imagined by at least some of his fans, Yang isn’t the techno optimist’s candidate. He’s the doomer candidate.

Trigger warning: This post gets pretty weird, starting now. What is a “doomer?” A character archetype first fleshed out on 4chan last year, the doomer is a depressed, purposeless 20-something usually depicted smoking a cigarette and wearing a beanie. The doomer isn’t necessarily a NEET — that is, a basement-dwelling, unemployed loser “not in education, employment, or training,” as the acronym suggests. He simply doesn’t believe he, or his society, or, for that matter, the planet have much of a future. He has, to use the 4chan phrase, been “black-pilled” into nihilism and despair. The doomer, according to various meme portraits, is “at high risk for opioid addiction,” has “no hope of career advancement,” and “cares … but knows there’s nothing he can do.” He “likes the unabomber” but “still uses technology.” He is “black-pilled on climate change/peak oil,” and “genuinely believes the end of civilization is imminent.” His “true political views only come out when drunk.”

This deep, black-pilled despair — plus the doomer’s lack of faith in the ability of contemporary liberal-democratic politics to give him a future — plus also the fact that he’s probably a weird guy who spent too much time on message boards in high school — is why, at least in some incarnations, the doomer turns to highly reactionary or hard-left revolutionary politics, reading de Maistre or Mao (or both!), inwardly fantasizing about a catastrophic restructuring of society even as he goes through the motions of participation in society at large. Out of their nihilism, doomers construct barely coherent fusion ideologies, some of which are listed in the artist Joshua Citarella’s study of Politigram, a loose Instagram community where political-philosophy obsessed teenagers and young adults gather to shitpost and make memes: “National Trotskyism, Dharmic Eco-Reactionaryism, Libertarian Neo-Monarchism, Traditional Primitivist Caliphatism, Christian Bolshevism.”

What is this ambiguously ironic, endlessly shifting kaleidoscope of abject nihilism and new or forgotten world-remaking political tendencies? The many claimed ideologies of the most vocal doomers can seem less like proper visions of an ideal society, and more like, as Citarella observes, the performances of highly individuated identity you’d find in “the identity politics culture of Tumblr.” My sense is that “Libertarian Neo-Monarchism” and “Dharmic Eco-Reactionaryism” (to pick out two examples) aren’t really two different philosophies, but two manifestations of a broader ideology —  a “doomerism” that’s recently taken root in the internet’s weirder, darker corners.

Let’s call it “anti-socialism,” in part because its adherents tend to position themselves, from both the right and the left, against millennial socialism, and in part because it is quite literally “anti-social,” in that it rejects the idea of “the social” at all. Drawing on esoteric sources like the UFO-obsessed, eschatological Marxist J. Posadas, who advocated for a thermonuclear war (essentially to create the conditions from which communism could be built), or the somewhat forgotten 19th-century radical Max Stirner, who proposed a nihilistic, individualistic anarchism in which social constructs like human rights, governments, and even society itself are regarded as “spooks” or illusions to be negated, anti-socialism rejects not just the idea that society can be redeemed, but that society should (or does) exist at all. How this kind of thinking is supposed to manifest itself in everyday life is unclear, in part because anti-socialists are, well, anti-social: As the doomer memes indicate, they regard their “normie” peers with something between contempt and fear, and decline to even discuss politics with them, let alone join political organizations or agitate for the change they purportedly seek, instead mulling it over on Instagram and 4chan, intricately weaving together exciting new ideologies to meme about.

So what do doomers actually want? Marianne Williamson, bless her heart, might suggest that they want a vision of the future they can believe in, and probably also the love and respect of other human beings. (And she wouldn’t be wrong.) But barring that, they want (1) a complete restructuring of a society they reject, and, barring, or perhaps in addition to that, (2), financial security and freedom from the obligations of that society. (Deep down, anti-socialism might just be a sort of deep-fried, heavily ironized mutation of the libertarianism that once seemed to be the internet’s native ideology.) This is where Andrew Yang comes in.

Yang is obviously not himself a doomer, or an anti-socialist; he’s running for president, after all. His sense of what the future holds is not necessarily wrong: Automation isn’t putting people out of work at the scale he frets about, but as any liberal or left economist will tell you (probably without you even needing to ask), we’ve seen vastly improved labor productivity over the last 30 years without concurrent wage increases. And whether or not we’re “ten years” too late to address climate change, I did admire the bluntness of Yang’s point in the debate: We’re now late enough in the warming process that a significant portion of any real climate change plan will need to be the mitigation of catastrophic effects, not prevention. His solution, at least to the labor-market problems we face, isn’t entirely wrongheaded: There is a version of the UBI that envisions wealth as the product of a society as a whole, to be shared among that society’s members, based on need, in order to empower them.

But taken all together, Yang’s dystopian vision and proposed answer can fit uncomfortably well within doomerist attitudes — especially for his climate answer last night. As Robinson Meyer puts it in the Atlantic, “Asked about climate change on national television, Yang said that climate change is an inexorable problem, that the U.S. can’t do much of anything about it, and that if the seas take your house — that is, if a problem outside your control deprives you of your most expensive asset — then the government shouldn’t do anything specifically to help you.” I’d just note that it’s not precisely that the government shouldn’t do anything specific; it’s that the government should give you some money so you can figure it out as an individual, rather than addressing it as a collective, societal problem. Another way of putting it might be: “The world is fucked, so let’s pay people off to disband society.” That sounds anti-socialist to me.

Of course, Andrew Yang isn’t going to be president, and doomers and anti-socialists, for their part, constitute a tiny fraction of people, let alone voters. What worries me more than a few thousand too-smart-for-their-own-good sad sacks on Instagram, rigging internet polls to make Yang appear popular, is the way their climatological fatalism and every-man-for-himself egoism is echoed among some of the tech industry’s wealthiest and most prominent people. Tech and financial elites, as Evan Osnos documented in The New Yorker in 2017, have been buying up property in remote places, and teaching themselves survival skills in preparation for a coming societal breakdown. Peter Thiel has New Zealand citizenship now. Jeff Bezos seems more interested in building space colonies to help (some of) us escape from “pollution” than he does in addressing climate change on Earth. At some point, when we’re talking about people with billions of dollars and powerful political connections, these fantasies of collapse and escape become self-fulfilling prophecies. Which actually makes me like Andrew Yang more. I don’t always agree his futuristic libertarianism, but at least he’s running for president of the United States — not CEO of a breakaway seastead, not captain of the Good Spaceship Bezos, and not Grand Vizier of the First Traditional Primitivist Caliphate.

Is Andrew Yang the Doomer Candidate?