Thomas Maruskanic on apathy, politics, and society
Apathetic. This is how Walter describes himself as a child, trying to decide how he felt about life and society. Now a man sporting a thick, full, dark beard, and a Dali moustache, he enters the video call with his long hair tied up in a professional manner. “Do you mind if I have a cigarette?”
“Society is the most complex organism we know…when it comes to society, there’s only one way to describe it: complex.” He takes a drag from his cigarette; his eyes look withdrawn. I wouldn’t describe him as apathetic in his current state – rather, I would describe him as passionate. This is also obvious in his Facebook rants. Apathetic people don’t get twenty-four-hour bans; they simply don’t participate. The amount of times he has debated, aggressively and sometimes cynically, is innumerable - this is who he is, “It’s a cynical pleasure of mine – it doesn’t give me joy”.
Walter is a man of simple pleasures. He likes to play RuneScape, drink cheap beer “with the taste of metal”, smoke his cigarettes and post political memes to the “normies” on the Young Liberal’s Facebook page, the source of his bans. Just like every other mid-20’s male, his X-Wing Lego ship hanging from the ceiling, a Rick and Morty poster on the wall behind him, he finds himself languishing under the expectation of the state to get a “bullshit” job. He has a bullshit job, and he works hard in a role at a large corporation. He feels the sting of corporatism as much as everyone. Except - he appreciates how unnecessary it is - how unnecessary most people’s jobs are. Just because they must perform a role in a society that demands you to be a wage-slave, to be a ‘functioning member’ of consumer-capitalism. He studies hard at university, with aspirations of completing a PhD after a Masters and maybe a couple of post-graduate certificates.
His blue eyes pierce through the computer screen. “I want to be taken seriously.” But, he continues, it’s hard to be taken seriously when you’re not emblematic of the status quo. People don’t respect you because they can’t measure your worth and success if there is no capital or material means to base it upon. Your ideas may be amazing, revolutionary, even radical. But how can one put these things into action if they don’t have the power, money, or agency to do so? By disproportionally maintaining the power and wealth, those with it manage to keep it away from the rest of us. And, he argues, the apathy bred by this discourse maintains a status quo with people too indifferent to do anything about it.
Walter suggests that the lack of agency is a result of our state-based, hierarchal society; that the grief and shame we feel from not achieving the things we are passionate about is an important part of the system. The hopelessness this system breeds creates an atmosphere of obedience.
And those who claim they are indifferent to these sufferings - because they have no power to change anything and thus do not worry themselves with it - are supposed to be free? Walter doesn’t think so. These ostensibly apathetic people have been blinded by a discourse that ignores other options: this is the status quo. You cannot change it, so you must learn to live within it.
Walter comments that the state maintains its control by deflecting collective issues onto the individual: We are told that we have the agency to keep ourselves happy and healthy, that the status quo and the state aren’t responsible for mental health issues; that homelessness and starvation are individual issues – “make sure you’re being mindful” “make sure you exercise” “make sure you drink plenty of water” – essentially, don’t let your apathy reduce your ability to participate in consumerism; make sure you are a functional cog of the machine.
So, I ask him, what role apathy plays in ensuring people conform to the status quo? Apathy is a hallmark of division; he remarks that if we don’t care about others it is easy to agree with the rhetoric that people must make the right choices to succeed If they don’t make the right choices, they deserve to be poor and unfulfilled. “Consumer capitalism relies on individualism and competition,” he continues. To arrive at competition, people need to think that everyone is in a race – a dog-eat-dog world, where everyone starts with equal opportunity. We enter today’s neo-Liberal model that relies on deceit and suppression by creating division, removing commonality, by taking away the foundation of constructive discussion.
He takes a sip from his metallic beer and butts his cigarette. He puts it succinctly – for others, considering anything outside of this state-based system would be “bat shit insane”.
“An example: try to talk to anyone about how money isn’t necessary, and we can move towards a more designed, market-based economy, they won’t just tell you it’s impossible, they’ll disregard you as bat shit insane.” This is the plight of anyone who seeks a solution outside of the state-box we are within, they are not only ignored but considered crazy, a “radical”.
He pauses; we are confined to a linearized curriculum at school that places immense pressure on high grades, completion of a state-mandated, standardised assessment that ranks how smart you are. Go to university, get a high paying job, enter the real estate market, have kids so they can do the same. Walter comments on the wage-slavery that exists in the corporate world and the dictatorship it engenders. Do what the boss says, even if you know it’s wrong. There is no accountability; it’s hidden in bureaucracy. This continual degradation of the individual, the removal of personal agency is a design. The apathy Walter describes as plaguing his early life is designed by these systems. “I simply didn’t care about politics because I didn’t think it affected my life, or that it could be improved.” But things changed.
“As I learnt more about history, I learnt about how politics does impact my life and others, how the state controls our individual lives. I became less apathetic. The more I read, the more I realised how antithetical right-wing politics was to how I truly feel: I want less authoritarianism, I want less state-control.” He talks about Communism and Marxism seeming like the solution.
“It looks really good from a position of ‘I don’t know what’s good anymore.’ I latched onto any rhetoric that sounded really good: rise up of the workers, take power from the few and redistribute it to the many.”
“Surely this was the right way to go, it’s the direct opposite of the status quo,” he remarked.
But the issue remained; the examples of Communism were still state based. They had failed miserably. As he sees it, the “checks and balances were not in place.” Corruption polluted these ideologies, and the state proved again to be a malignant tumour on the people. It still relied on an “all-knowing vanguard party” that could represent hundreds of thousands of people.
Walter juxtaposes this issue with today’s representational capitalist democracy: “How is our society truly democratic if one person can represent thousands, hundreds of thousands, even millions of people?” The core of Walter’s ideology is closer to democracy as a concept than the fabled “western democracies” we exist in. The state has fed us the narrative that we exist in a glorious democratic system where everybody is represented and everyone is considered. This is nothing but a fallacy – “is it really that different to feudalism?”.
“As I learnt more,” he arrived at his present-day ideology, which he explains, is, “simply put, ‘Libertarian Socialism’.”
“It’s difficult to describe, as there are several ways I could define it, but each way conjures different spectres in people’s minds.” He furrows his brow while searching for the right words. “I could say I’m an anarchist, but this triggers people. I could say I’m a leftist, but this pigeonholes me into a vague and ambiguous field of ideology. Libertarian socialist – these are two keywords to pick out.
He continues to explain his ideology. Even then, libertarianism has been misappropriated. Libertarianism originally derives from liberty, the idea of being free. It begs for transparency and a lack of State-control. To be a socialist places value in the people around you, for equity and equality. Combined, it manifests as libertarian socialism – anti-authoritarian, anti-state, favouring decentralised structures of political organisation. It focuses on mutual aid, individual freedom and agency, freedom of association, a localised political system where those who wish to participate can and do with efficacy. We embody this every day when discussing what to go and eat with friends, what game to play, where we want to go drinking. There is a communal discussion, a consensus, and maybe a compromise if someone violently disagrees. It takes advantage of the human condition as social animals – the desire to be in a group. We are anarchists every day.
However, these issues are difficult to confront. What can one do in the face of such power and wealth? Is it enough for me to be happy while others around me suffer? For I suffer as well. Why should I be concerned?
Walter arrives at his conclusion - this is apathy. Calculated social engineering in which you are only given enough to exist, not to thrive, not to question. It’s difficult to consider the Australian population ever becoming radicalised enough to have a revolution. The mental health epidemic has only been getting worse in recent years. Unemployment is at an all-time high, underemployment rising too. The system tells us that it’s up to us to stay fit and healthy. When are we allowed to turn around and ask, why am I willing to live like this? Too often do people joke about being a wage slave without realising the existence within this neoliberal frame – I guess this is what apathy creates. “Sounds like slavery with extra steps.”
Walter ends the interview with a serious message: “It’s all about mutual aid.” Walter knows this revolution won’t occur overnight; he acknowledges how unlikely it is for the current system to change anything in a meaningful way. He also knows how unlikely it is that Australia will rise against the status quo in a violent revolution – nor does he want this. He just thinks, if everyone realised the anarchist within themselves, organised themselves with the ideas of mutual aid and some activism - that maybe the apathy that plagues the lives of many might begin to dissipate. That life under the neoliberal model might change and with it, the status quo that grinds us down might itself be ground away.
If people mutually respect each other and are aware of their impact on the world around them, Walter thinks that we might enter a new society; a society where people feel meaning, passion, and a sense of belonging.