Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Monday, July 20, 2020

What if your government has decided to kill you? An interpretation by Antonio Turiel

In the 1976 movie, "Logan's Run," the law is that everyone must die when they turn 30. And everyone accepts that law. 

"Necroeconomics" is a concept used by some economists to describe the results of the collapse of the Soviet Economy, in the 1990s. Apart from the pure economic disaster, the collapse led to a trend of population decrease that, in some cases, is continuing to this day. The term may have a more general meaning and Warren Montag discusses how a purely market economy might deal with workers in a situation in which there are no sufficient resources to keep all of them alive. The idea that the state might decide that some people need to be eliminated has been called "necropolitics."

These concepts do not necessarily imply that your government has decided to kill you. The extermination may be the unwanted result of wrong policies or one of the unavoidable consequences of the overexploitation of the resources that make people live. But what if the government secretly decided to eliminate a fraction of the population, judged to be a useless burden for society? We all know that it happened in some states in a non-remote past. What form could it take today?

This idea has been explored by Antonio Turiel of the "Oil Crash" blog in a story published in Spanish two years ago and titled "Good Vibrations." When I read it the first time, I found it fascinating but hardly prophetic. It seemed to me just farfetched that people, anywhere in the world, would meekly accept to be ordered by their government to take a drug that they knew would kill them. But, today, I think that Antonio may have been more prophetic than he himself could have imagined. So, I translated the story into English, and here it is. Not for the faint hearted!

Good Vibrations. A story by Antonio Turiel 

From "The Oil Crash" Sept 2018 

I was coming down the stairs and I was almost on the street. In a hurry, as usual. I had to find a taxi to go to the airport or the station, I don't remember anymore; I know I was going, once again, on a business trip. I had just left my house and right there, in the doorway, they were waiting for me. No, they were not: they had just arrived, because they were getting out of the car when I showed up.

I immediately saw my sister Marcela. She wasn't crying, but she had certainly been crying until maybe a few seconds before. When she saw me, she came running towards me and hugged me. I was perplexed: I didn't expect to see her there, because she lived far away; but when I saw other members of my family I understood at once that they had brought her and that it must be an important matter.

I hugged my sister and gave her a kiss on the head, almost on the crown of her head. The years had passed for her, just as they had for me, but she still had very beautiful hair. My little sister, my poor little sister.

I had to hold back the crying. I hadn't been a good brother to her. I don't mean when we were little: when we were children and lived together and happy, she was everything to me and I was everything to her. But everything was easier when we were kids. We had grown up, I had an important job, obligations, a family... And so did she. Well, she did.

I held her tight. When her family died, in that terrible way, I called her right away. I said words of comfort and encouragement that sounded hollow and hackneyed to me - why wasn't I able to say things that didn't sound like gibberish a thousand times over? -and I listened to her crying with a heavy heart. On the day of the funeral I had a very important meeting on the other side of Europe - a contract with many zeros - but I cancelled everything and was there. My hand on his shoulder, my shoulders like his handkerchief. They were all in black, everything was black and dark on that day which had the little decorum of being bright. The contrast made it seem as if we lived in black and white, and so it has always been my mood remembering sad things, in black and white. As the coffins descended I was reminded of her husband - an admirable and loving man - and her precious children - my nephews and nieces. It hurt to remember. I looked at my wife and children and realized, not for the first time but perhaps more intensely than ever, how happy I was.

Afterward, I can't explain it. Nobody likes to look at the bottom of a dark well. I loved Marcela and I called her often, I forced myself to call her because I felt I owed it to her. Maybe I was too aware that I was forcing it, but I really wanted to help her. I had put a reminder in my mobile phone book and, wherever she was, every Friday at the same time, I called her. Like an on-call service. Almost mechanically.

She gently slipped out of my arms and out of my guilt. Marcela knew a lot about guilt. How many times would she have blamed herself if she hadn't been there? She couldn't reproach herself for surviving the accident where others perished because she wasn't even there at the time, and that, instead of making her feel less guilty, made her feel more guilty. Because she would have liked to have had the opportunity to die with his loved ones, even if in the end the (bad) luck would have made her survive. But she didn't even have the option to die with them when it happened. It had been a year now, my sister, and she was still dead in life, receiving my empty calls every week, without being clear who was consoling whom from the absence of happiness.

Marcela looked me in the eyes and said:

- I can't take it anymore. I'm going to vibrate.

I looked at her in astonishment, not understanding - or not wanting to understand - what she was saying to me. I raised my eyes and my wife gave me a meaningful look. I looked at my sister again, in her eyes, after having avoided them for a year.

- They say - and she tilted her face slightly while with a slight movement of her shoulder she designated our relatives behind her - that I should first talk to you. That you understand much more of these things, and that you always give sensible advice, - suddenly, I felt her piercing gaze overwhelming mine - and it had been a long time since she had given me one. So that's why she came.

There are times in a person's life when they have to know exactly what to do. These are things that happen quickly, where there is not much time to decide, but where what is decided will be crucial. That is why it is so important to know how to recognize those moments when they come. And there are not many of them: perhaps three or four in a lifetime, but they are the ones that define it entirely. At that time I didn't know that my sister needed me - because I had already known that for a year - but that this time I really had to help her. That I had to commit myself. I understood it in one second, I accepted it in another. Something changed inside me and she certainly saw it in my eyes.

- You'll stay with us, Marcela. All the time you need. I have to take a trip, right now, for two days. But I am going to find information and make a couple of phone calls. Please, don't do anything, for now. My request must have sounded to my sister like a plea, but also like something she needed to hear. She nodded, shaking his head quickly several times. I kissed her on the forehead and turned to my wife and asked her to keep an eye on her. Then, with a quick gesture I called a taxi and left.
Vibrate. I had heard of "vibrating", but always as something distant, something that others do, and always referring to marginal people. I remembered having read a text in a weekly, entitled something like "Vibrating Times". It was all about a medicine for depression or something like that, which was called Vibr, hence the "vibrating", "taking Vibr". The kind of linguistic simplification that ordinary people like so much.

Once in the taxi, I looked up information and downloaded relevant documentation from reference databases - because, effectively, if I was any good at something it was at sifting through data, searching for data and correlating information - and I spent half the plane ride going through the contract documents I was going to sign and the other half studying Vibr. Antidepressant, anti-anxiety, in the amphetamine family. Neurotoxic effect, proven neuronal degeneration even at moderate doses if long exposure occurs, high addictiveness, withdrawal syndrome requiring shock treatment to avoid the most adverse effects - including cardiac arrest... Come on, it was clear that this stuff was shit. But the most surprising thing is that it had been approved as a drug for human use (with specialist follow-up, though). Highly recommended for pathological pain - as I'm sure my sister had been labeled by people much more pathological than she was, people incapable of knowing what love and its loss is.

That Vibr (commercial name of the drug, whose active ingredient had such a long name that ended in "mine" that it could fill in a crossword puzzle by itself) was a drug was even more surprising after reading the few clinical trials that had been done with it, all of them on compassionate therapies. The alarming number of premature deaths with respect to the control had been attributed to the poor baseline condition of the patients (and what the hell was the control group for then, if not to adjust that parameter?) You didn't have to be a big public health expert - I'm not - to know that in light of those studies Vibr should not have been approved as a drug. But it had been approved, about six months ago, for God knows what obscure economic interests.

After comparing the scientific evidence, I was entertained by reading some reports in the general press. What I was reading really seemed like a science fiction story, with certain common points in all the articles (surely, the manufacturer had set certain script guidelines when they "hired" those "advertisers"). Vibr was the new wonder drug for depression. The patients' testimonies testified how all their worries and anguish had disappeared, and how they were once again productive and perfectly integrated members of society. Pure rubbish, I thought.

I didn't have much more time to think about Vibr since I landed, but that night when I got to the hotel, I called an old friend, a schoolmate with whom I had shared decades of life and who at that time was a senior official in the Ministry of Health.

After the cordial greetings and the usual jokes, I let him out point-blank, with the familiarity that came from the years that we had known and appreciated each other:

- Manuel, what can you tell me about the Vibr?

He was silent for two seconds, and answered me, with a hurried tone:

- You're not thinking of taking that shit?

I couldn't see his face, but I sensed that he was regretting his haste. Someone who aspires to be Secretary of State someday cannot say words like "shit", let alone refer to the star product of a major fund provider for an election campaign.

- No, relax, Manuel. It's about a close friend. He was considering it and consulted me. I didn't know anything about that... medicine, but from what I've read I have a clear idea. Thanks for your time, you've helped me a lot.

Manuel didn't say anything else, but because of the trust that existed between us there was no need to say anything else. I already knew what I needed to know, and he knew that I would never expose him. That's how friendship works.

I called my wife right away. I summed up the situation for her:

- Maria, Vibr is a very dangerous substance, very addictive and sure to kill you in a few years at most if taken regularly. It doesn't remove depression, it turns you into a zombie. Under no circumstances should you allow Marcela to take it.

Maria nodded.

- I think it's best if she stays with us for a while," I continued.

- For as long as she needs to - said Maria - as if she wants to stay with us. The children love her, and she is a sweet and good person, I want her to stay too.

- I love you, Mary.

- I know - she told me, and I imagined the mischievous smile she always put on when she told me that.

After two days I returned home, and everything went back to that thing we call normality but which is not, but rather the frenzied frenzy of our usual life. Marcela became part of our daily routine and I was grateful that she was there many times, especially on the days when Mary or I were absent.

Years went by. Vibr went from being a marginal drug to being the big star. It began to be used not only to treat depression, but also for anxiety and conduct disorders, and even for attention deficits in children. I was holding my hands to my head, but like many other issues, as usual, I looked the other way and went about my business. After all, it wasn't something that affected me personally.

There was a moment when the truth of the Vibr was completely exposed. Those who started taking Vibr could no longer stop, there were very few cases of people trying to detoxify, fewer of them survived the withdrawal symptoms and those who did were left with terrible consequences for life. Many of them ended up relapsing. In addition, statistics showed that from the time one started taking Vibr until death came, about five years usually passed. In fact, no one reached the age of 6, although there were quite a few people who died quite a bit earlier, especially the most depressed people. The newspapers were full of reports denouncing the situation of the "vibrants" (that was the name given to the consumers of Vibr, continuing with the same joke), especially when they were terminal. It was no longer so rare to find a vibrant in the street. You could recognize them by their appearance. Somehow, it seemed as if someone was pulling their strings: they were too complacent, too quiet, too moderate. Nothing ever bothered them, they were kind to the point of nausea. That's how they were all, even though the vibrant "terminals" were slower, less reactive. Their kindness gradually turned into indifference. On one occasion I myself had met a very thin, emaciated and dirty young man sitting motionless on a bench, with a lost look and all the typical pose of a vibrant: he was a terminal. I deduced that he no longer bothered to eat. He didn't even look for a suitable place to relieve himself. It lasted a couple of days, I even saw the moment when they took him away in an ambulance.

I thought that when the horror of the Vibr was exposed there would be a popular reaction and that its prohibition would be demanded first in the streets and then in Parliament. But this was not the case. Suddenly, all the media began to publish studies (perhaps it would be more appropriate to say "the study", because in reality they were all the same, a thousand times repeated), in which it was "shown" that although it was true that Vibr killed you "generally in 5 years" people who took Vibr would have "half-dead within 5 years if they had not taken Vibr". Thus, the central idea of the study is that these were equally condemned people, to whom the Vibr gave a better quality of life and that in addition during this "period of grace" that the Vibr gave them "they were productive and valuable members of our society.  which they illustrated with graphs about productivity improvements and decreased morbidity (because the vibrant ones went much less to the doctor and much more to work).

I was convinced that, once the truth was exposed and seeing the low quality of the arguments in favor of Vibr, the fate of the drug was sealed. But, to my surprise, society as a whole swallowed the toad, and Vibr continued to be socially acceptable. No doubt boosted by the success of their marketing campaign, the producers of Vibr managed to curl the curl even more, and spread the idea that when the doctor prescribed Vibr to you, you were undoubtedly already "in the middle" of your life and that therefore taking Vibr was the best option, because the few years that you had left to live would not be a burden to your loved ones and even with your effort and work you would improve the pension that you would leave them. And society swallowed the toad again. I was indignant at what was happening. But I did not exteriorize it in any way: it was an inner indignation. Later, as in many other issues, like most, I looked the other way and continued with my work. After all, it was not something that affected me personally.

It was around that time that I first met a vibrant on the plane, on one of my many trips. It was a woman, middle-aged. She noticed that I had been startled to realize that she was vibrant, and gave me a reasoned and thoughtful analysis of why I had made the decision to become vibrant. After all, with her age she had only a few years left in the company, and she was in danger of being fired sooner. By becoming vibrant, she had demonstrated her commitment to the company, which in turn guaranteed her a five-year contract and a good pension. Her children would have finished university "by the time she stopped vibrating" (I swear she put it that way; my stomach turned) and with her contribution they could start a prosperous and fruitful life. I thought of refuting one by one all the logical fallacies of what she had said, but when I looked into her eyes I gave up. It was obvious that I was already condemned. What was the point, then, of arguing. I am not of a morbid nature, and I felt that if I argued with her, I would end up getting excited and showing off. So I kept quiet and looked, literally, the other way. To her my position, moral and even physical, seemed natural and she respected my wall of silence all the way. I came out of that plane with my head resonating like a drum and with a stiff neck.

Maybe my memory is failing me or I'm reinventing the scene, but I'd swear the following happened right after I got back from that trip, maybe right after that uncomfortable flight. I arrived home wanting to spend a few days with the family when Marcela showed up in front of me. Next to her was my oldest daughter, Clara. I didn't understand anything about that performance, until Marcela opened her hand and showed me a blue pill, which had some letters engraved on it: "VIBR". I had never seen one before. I looked at it in horror, thinking that perhaps it had finally succumbed, but the reality was more horrible. "I found this in Clara's backpack," announced Marcela, and her voice broke from her anguish. I looked at my daughter with a face of dread. But, no, Clara was not a vibrant. At least not yet. I didn't know how many pills it took to become a vibrant, although I knew you were hooked from the first one.

- I'm sorry, Dad," said Clara in tears, "but don't worry, I haven't tried it. Some girls offered it to me at school, and they got so heavy that I had to try it that I finally took it to keep them quiet. But I didn't take any, I swear.

I believed her. It's true I wanted to believe her, but somehow I knew she was telling me the truth. She was my daughter, after all.

- Clara - I said, in the calmest voice I could articulate - do you know what THAT does?

- Everybody talks about it, Dad. The kids say it's for fun, to get rid of all the bad stuff.

- And you know THAT kills?

- Yeah, well, everyone knows that the Vibr kills you in five years if you take it often, but the kids say that if you take just one a week nothing bad happens to you and you have a much better time...

- Clara, one a week is exactly the dosage given to Vibrants. One a week, exactly. - I couldn't help but stress that.

I kept looking at my daughter. I was furious. It was clear that the Vibr was a temptation for her: a 16-year-old girl, a good student but, like those of her generation, a bit lazy, always complaining about how much is required of her The offer of an artificial paradise was too tempting, it was clear.

It wasn't her fault. It was my fault. For not having conveyed to her some clear ideas about that poison. For not having been at home more, helping her to lift her burden, supporting her, encouraging her. My daughter had almost fallen into the trap, right under my nose. I looked at Marcela with tears in my eyes and as I could I mumbled:

- Thank you. You're the best thing that's ever happened to this family.

- This is my family too.

The three of us hugged each other in tears.

I cancelled all my appointments that week and asked to have all the days free. In less than a week, I changed my kids from school and high school. It was not difficult to find a place to take them: on their websites the new (and expensive) institutions announced "Vibr-free space" and detailed their strict controls to prevent their students from falling into such a destructive addiction. I did not even imagine that there were schools that made such publicity. Society had changed, adapting to the Vibr.

Of course, my youngest son Juan's new school and Clara's oldest school were far more expensive than the public school and high school they attended before. Fortunately, both my wife and I were "successful professionals", so we could afford it, although the classist stench that distilled out of that bothered me. But it was clear that the Vibr was running at full speed in public schools, even in primary school. Reading confidential reports passed on to me by Manuel (now Under-Secretary of State) I saw that up to 25% of high school students were vibrants. People who no longer even chose to go to university, because it was a waste of the little time they had left.

The government's reaction to the growing Vibr epidemic was not exactly what I would have expected. As more and more children were orphaned, the welfare state was greatly expanded, so that public health and education were completely free, and programs were set up to take orphans of Vibr to university (fortunately, the children of addicts did not develop any addiction per se). The only condition required of orphaned students was that they prove their academic worth; if they did so, they could go wherever they wanted. I always wondered what happened to those who didn't measure up. Besides, I was surprised by the generosity of the state, and I did not understand where the resources to keep the system going came from. Years before such a development of the Welfare State would have been considered too expensive. What had changed?

I understood the world less and less, and I got more and more fed up with it. On the plane, the number of vibrant people had long exceeded the number of non-vibrant people. In fact, those of us who weren't vibrating couldn't stand to talk to the vibrant ones: it was exasperating. A vibrant seems to speak with logic and reason, but in his arguments there is always a lack of attachment to things. Deep down, a Vibrant doesn't care about anything, he doesn't really have any preference. A Vibrant has no vision of how society should be, he or she adapts to whatever society there is, and nothing, however aberrant, seems to him or her to be a social injustice; for him or her it is a simple fact that must be taken into account, but it is never something that he or she wishes to change for the better because a Vibrant desires nothing.

That is why, after several unpleasant experiences talking to vibrant, he had started paying more for the "non-vibrant" premium bills. We were a caste apart, a frightened minority, sheltering in the front of the plane so that we could get out of it as soon as possible, hastily even, in front of the shapeless mass that patiently and obediently waited behind us to leave in an orderly, martial way.

And then it happened. The Government introduced a bill on the compulsory use of behavioural substances. I couldn't believe it when I read it. I downloaded the document and spent the rest of the day reading it, analyzing it carefully. Then I called Manuel.

- I knew you were going to call me - that was the first thing he told me - we can't talk on the phone. We'll meet at the Café Central at seven. Be punctual, at eight I'll be gone.

Something in Manuel's voice sounded like goodbye. Something was terribly wrong.

I arrived at the Café Central at a quarter to seven. I sat down at our table, and slowly drank the coffee with milk that a solicitous waiter brought me right away. At seven o'clock Manuel entered the café, ordered a cognac and sat directly at my table.

- What's going on, Manuel? - I said, without further ado.

- More respect, young man, you are talking to the new Minister of Health - he let go. He left me no time to wonder - payment for the many services rendered, I suppose. Also, because they have no one left who is medium sized and who does not vibrate.

- Did you write the new law? - I said, and my voice perhaps sounded a little louder than it should.

He smiled bitterly.

- I have fought with all my might, for years, to keep that law from seeing the light. Do you know me so little? But this comes from above. From the very top. Far higher than the President. It's global and concerted.

I kept quiet, assimilating what Manuel was telling me. He took advantage of my silence to take a huge slab off his head.

- Do you know all the times you've asked me where the money to pay for the new welfare state came from? Well, from the Vibr. Not from the sale of the Vibr, of course: the Vibr doesn't cost anything to make, and it's sold at a throwaway price. But the Vibr pays handsomely. Vibr has greatly reduced social security contributions, and productivity has skyrocketed. Did you know that part of the citizen's aid programme is paid for by the companies themselves, for whom the new system is much more profitable than the previous one? No, of course you don't, because we keep it a secret.

Manuel drank his cognac, I remained in silence.

- Many people with little training die when they are still young and highly productive in their unskilled jobs. They don't give costs, only benefits. And there's no shortage of manpower for those jobs. We regulate the migratory flow from much less developed countries with surgical precision. The least skilled workers are always young. Have you seen how the Café Central vibrates?

I looked at him strangely, and suddenly I saw him. All the waiters. Very young, helpful. All vibrant. A chill ran down my back.

- Of course, in the higher categories the replacement is not so fast," continued Manuel, "we don't have many qualified and prepared people like you," and he raised his glass as if toasting to me. - That's why there have been many suitable incentives to prevent the most valuable people from falling into the Vibr.

- But, Manuel, what the hell is this? - That's all I was able to say.

- You know it well, but you don't want to accept it," said Manuel, softly, with a sad smile. "In the end, more than being a big business for the pharmaceutical companies, the Vibr is and always has been an experiment in large-scale social control, which was very suitable for adapting to a world where resources are beginning to be scarce and the environment is very destabilized. Thanks to the Vibr, global consumption is following a gentle downward curve, a controlled and piloted decrease. And everyone is participating in this decline happily and collaboratively. That's the way it has to be.

- But, with the new proposal...

- With the new law we adapt to a faster descent phase - Manuel's gaze was lost at the bottom of his cup - only exceptional people can afford not to be vibrants. Like you. That's why I'm telling you: to leave some memory of this. You know? This descent won't last forever, and it will take someone who knows how to stop it, who will apply the brakes when we have come down far enough and before we crash.

- That's crazy...

- "Crazy or not, it's a done deal," said Manuel, and in one gulp he knocked down his glass. Save yourself. - And after saying this he got up and left.

I stayed there still for a couple of minutes, stupefied, assimilating the new reality. Then I remembered that I was surrounded by vibrant people and I was flooded with a feeling of suffocation; I jumped up and walked out the door. I had been walking for a few meters when I realized that I had not paid. Neither had Manuel. I instinctively pulled a ticket out of my wallet, as a clumsy excuse, as if to stop the scrounger accusation of the waiter who had rushed out behind me and whose hand I sensed was going to land on my shoulder. But no waiter was following me. It was then that I understood. Vibrant people don't care, they have no preference. Society was maintained only by habit, only by appearance. The vibrant ones were already lost and wouldn't fight for anything.

I called my wife, Marcela and my children and I'm meeting all of them at home. I had to talk to them, that very night.

Marcela improvised a snack and set it on the table where we all sat. I presided over it. I didn't like having to preside over anything. But on that occasion I had to do it. And I would.

- I suppose you know why I called you, I said.

- "The new law," said Clara.

- "The one that's going to get us all killed," said John.

His mother frowned slightly, rebuking him.

- That's right, to kill us," I said, and Mary stared at me with her mouth open. If I, who always took the iron out of things, said that, then the situation was serious.

- With the new law - I continued - it will be obligatory to consume Vibr "to improve productivity" if certain objectives are not achieved, which will depend fundamentally on age and level of training. What counts, basically, is how much you earn. This is how people will be valued: by what they earn.

I looked at Marcela:

- You, Marcela, with your classes and your crafts, you don't make minimum wage. At your age, which is almost my age, you will be forced to take Vibr as soon as the law comes into effect, the day after tomorrow.

I looked at my wife:

- You, Maria, are a qualified employee. You won't have to take Vibr for the time being, but when you turn 55 they'll check your file again and your salary should have practically doubled from what it is now, and I'm sure that won't happen. So you're not gonna get to retire. I'm sorry.

I looked at my kids:

- You guys are going to college, so you're exempt from taking Vibr until you're 30. It may seem like a long time, but it's not that long. At 30 you'll have to have a job and your salary should be at least 4 times the minimum wage. According to the statistics, the chances are that one of you won't make it. At 35 your salary should be 6 times the minimum wage. It will be very difficult for both of you to make it, but if you work like beasts you might make it. At 40, the salary of the one who is still alive should be 12 times the minimum wage. According to the statistics, even taking into account that you belong to the most privileged 10% of society, you have - the one who survives - a 5% chance of achieving it. To get to 45, 1 in a thousand. I think we can take it for granted that you will not meet your grandchildren.

They were all looking at me in desolation, taking the hit.

- As for me - I said to finish - I am too important for them, and although my salary is not so extraordinary they have made a special chapter for people like me. I'll be retired by the time I'm 70 if my body can take it. After that, they will leave me two years to sort out my affairs, and then I will have the choice between killing myself or the Vibr. Redundancy is worthwhile.

- What are we going to do, Dad? - said Clara, distressed

I looked at my face in the dining room mirror. So many years of hard work and bad life had left me a face that was a cross between Santa Claus and George Clooney. With more of the former than the latter. I laughed, literally, at my face.

I stood up. My back hurt a little, I felt my bones tired from so much traveling here and there, from so many meetings. So much effort to get to this point. What idiocy! What immense foolishness, that of the human race!

One second to think about it, another to decide. I took the ticket for the Café Central out of my pocket, and I left it with a strong hand on the table.

- Now, Clara," I said, in a loud voice, "now we are going to war.

Antonio Turiel
September 2018


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)