It was an icy, ultra-realist lyric that rang out of my little car’s speakers in college. The words made me feel mature and wise and, frankly, smug as shit.
“There is no you,” Trent Reznor growls in the Nine Inch Nails song, Only, “there is only me.”
Maybe Reznor wrote this lyric to make a metaphysical point about the concept of oneself and everything that exists outside of the self, the multidimensional examination of the self and its preeminence over everything else. A fascinating concept, to be sure, but one I wasn’t going to ruminate on when I could easily apply political context to the work of a musician who had become hyper political in the late George W. Bush years.
I took Reznor’s words as a distillation of the monstrosity that is consumer culture, one in which the self must be served at all times, no matter the context, no matter who must suffer to deliver the pleasure we seek. It wasn’t that there is no You, I thought. It’s that You cannot exist in a universe where I am conscious and sniffing every crevice of life for any morsel of good feelings I can find, where everyone and everything around me is confirming as vociferously as possible that there is nothing more than the eternal mission to feel alright.
There is no room, in this reality, for both you and me. There is only me.
It’s about as bleak a political reality – if it is indeed a reality – one can conjure. It creates a political culture rife with grifters and conmen and cynics telling you that you deserve pleasure and happiness (the self-care industrial complex, I think, is an extension of this). They tell you to keep chasing the promise of pleasure, and if you chase hard enough, you’ll find it, and you’ll be happy and content and yes, accomplished. You will have won the war that rages in your head. You are the victor in the one-sided battle. Even helping others is a form of pleasure seeking. I think of Bill Murray’s character in 1988’s Scrooged when he tells a captured audience that helping those in need is a direct path to good feelings. “You’ll get greedy for it,” Murray says of procuring pleasure from selflessness.
Folks who preach pleasure seeking as a way of life will tell you with set jaws and furrowed brows that anyone who gets in the way of your heroic pursuit of sweet, sweet dopamine is not only misguided or foolish, but evil and a threat to your very reason for existence. They should be ignored or punished. Or both.
Jimmy Carter’s Goddamn Sweater
We pursue pleasure like starved beasts in the wilderness, our bellies empty and aching, our minds lost to the reckless whims of desire, focused on what we want: A big slab of bloody meat being mashed between our jaws.
Now imagine telling the hungry wolf – I’m in a Duran Duran phase – that they must moderate how much meat they consume once they find their poor, unsuspecting prey and dig in. You sit down before the crazed animal and succinctly lay out the case that too much meat consumption is bad for the environment and for the ecosystem. We must, you say, think of others before we indulge in the consumption of the prey. It’s at this point that your face is bitten off entirely and your flesh becomes dinner. Well done.
This is the predicament in which the left has always found itself: Offering kindly pleas for conservation to rabid animals guided by an instinct to eat. It’s a horrific position in a culture of heedless consumption based on eternal growth. To be forced into the role of moderator in an immoderate society that treats the earth’s exhaustible resources as very much inexhaustible means you’re trapped in a loser’s game. Capitalism and all its trappings – advertising especially – has created a population that treats the pursuit of daily pleasures like the wolf pursues its meal: With abandon, with no thought, with great, frightening vigor.
Ask Jimmy Carter, who in February 1977 addressed the American public in a speech officially called President Carter’s Report To the American People on Energy but has since been dubbed (smeared) as Jimmy Carter’s sweater speech. With a fire crackling behind him, Carter suggested people lower their thermostat to 65 degrees at night to save on heating oil in the midst of an oil crisis. Carter asked for “cooperation and mutual effort” from Americans to get through the energy shortage in what might be the quaintest speech in U.S. political history.
This was met with blistering anger from a public that had long been primed to do what it wants when it wants, to have anything and everything at their disposal, including a toasty house in subfreezing winter weather. We are entitled, the people told Carter, to any comfort, any pleasure we can obtain. How dare you suggest otherwise. Take your little sweater and shove it up your peanut-farming ass.
Carter told hard truths and tried more than any modern president to connect with everyday Americans; it’s how he diagnosed the nation with a “crisis of spirit” in 1979 after days of meeting with middle and working class voters concerned about the country’s energy crisis, among other crises. Carter asked the American electorate to improve society somewhat and was dispatched after one term in the White House (perhaps due to Ronald Reagan working closely with foreign adversaries, but that’s neither here nor there).
The political lesson of Jimmy Carter's sweater speech was obscenely loud and terribly clear. Democrats had learned to never, under any circumstance, ask for shared sacrifice if they were at all interested in taking and maintaining power. Even Barack Obama’s message of hope and change – so wonderfully vague and empty – asked for zero sacrifice from those desperate for a shift in our politics after the apocalyptic Bush years. Obama did not ask us to set aside our pleasure seeking because, well, he wanted to win the presidency. You can't do that in a nation full of Me's, where there are no You's.
There is, Democrats have learned, a religious fervor to American consumption, for it is God Almighty who has endowed us with the bountiful neon feast before our eyes, glowing and beeping and flashing and begging for our attention and our dirty dollar. It is both natural and good for humans to perpetually attend this neon feast, complete with eleven kinds of Oreos. It is our obligation to the Creator to remain seated at this glorious feast, and to convince ourselves that we are the eaters, not the eaten.
As George W. Bush told us so profoundly after the traumas and horrors of September 11, the best way to serve the nation is to keep shopping, keep spending, keep consuming. The terrorists, we were told in no uncertain terms, will win if we do not continue our consumption. It is our duty to both country and God to remain pleasure seekers. The pleasure, we knew, was not going to seek itself. Dispatch with the images of people throwing themselves out of the burning towers and mangled bodies being dragged from the New York City rubble and get your ass to the mall and buy something. It was the least we could do.
The idea of pleasure seeking as sacrifice has warped the national consciousness. By the time the novel coronavirus was killing 3,000 Americans every single day for months and months, humble requests from government officials to sometimes wear a mask indoors and occasionally wash your hands were met with violent protests from people who had been told since childhood that it is their birthright to have whatever they want at any time. That includes appetizers at TGI Friday’s while a pandemic rages on. Freedom, in this way, has become a suicide pact.
A Doomed Compromise With Pleasure
The right wing is not burdened by the responsibility to suggest we seek pleasure a little bit less to conserve our resources and make sure the planet is hospitable for our kids and grandkids and their grandkids (the right also has the distinct advantage of not caring about anything). That’s because the right is completely captured by capital and its destructive logic, serving as both its biggest fan and its most ardent defender.
The left – the American left in particular – is capital’s second most ardent defender, and only by a whisker. But liberals, unlike their conservative counterparts, are often in the unenviable position of asking folks to do something they don’t want to do – something for the greater good, if only to keep society functioning. It’s their part to play in our twisted little political game. This is, as you know well, an untenable policy stance in a nation beholden to the perpetual expansion of capital. And it leads to economic policies like the ones we saw during the darkest days of COVID: Creating policy carve outs for so-called essential workers who had been deemed expendable sacrifices at the bloody altar of capital.
This dynamic gives us mealymouthed Democratic policies on a range of issues, including, most significantly, the environment. Oregon Governor Kate Brown (D) in 2022 signed legislation that purportedly created some environmental protections while allowing industry to continue ravaging wildlife to make the line go up quarter after quarter in the name of "job growth." Laws like these are forged by Democratic lawmakers in good faith, and almost always with input (or direction) from industrial interests, as a sort of half measure: We can keep expanding economic growth without totally destroying everything around us. Right?
I’m not writing from a hut in the wilderness, wearing a potato sack and sporting a ZZ Top-style beard. I do not live off the land. In fact, I’ve never hunted anything, and if I had to kill my food I would probably vomit like the little girl in the Exorcist. So I’m not blameless in the cultivation and perpetuation of our pleasure-obsessed modern lives. I use plastic shit all the time. I sometimes take long showers and I use that face wash with the beads that apparently kill fish. I drive a van that doesn’t get great mileage and I got rid of my Toyota Prius because it was too small and generally sucked as a motor vehicle. I, like you, am a pleasure-seeking animal largely because that is what I was taught to be. And I guess I’m teaching my kids to be the same way.
The primacy of feeling good, of achieving some modicum of happiness, runs counter to the sort of sustainability and conservation and hearty civic life of a functional democratic society. Not everyone can feel good all the time. Yet that is how we operate, now more than ever. The politics of pleasure is one that favors the right, and unless I’m missing something in the calculus of dopamine pursuit, there’s no way to appeal to people by telling them they can’t have what they think they want, to tell them there is a You and there is a Me.
Follow Denny Carter on BlueSky at @cdcarter13.bsky.social and on Threads and X at @CDCarter13.