Voluntary Extinction

In J.G. Ballard’s groundbreaking 1975 novel High-Rise, the residents of a high-rise tower block, after a period of apparent contentment with their living-machines, turn on each other in an orgy of violence. This causes the tower to descend into murder, robbery, and worst of all, littering, with the residents of the lower flaws declaring war on the upper, and vice versa, in an apparent instance of class warfare. In the novel, the inherent violence of the human animal is laid bare, rendered as stark as the grey concrete of the tower. This is literalised in the 2015 film adaptation by Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump, which features a scene where Tom Hiddleston’s Doctor Laing dissects a human head before a group of medical students, noting that: “As you can see, the facial mask simply slips off the skull.” This scene is repeated later in montage as the building descends further into anarchy.

All of this is probably a metaphor, presumably to do with society or something, but the novel repeatedly frames the tower as both discretely individualised and otherworldly. Laing reflects that the tower is “less a habitable architecture… than the unconscious diagram of a mysterious psychic event”, and that from this vantage point “the office buildings of central London belonged to a different world, in time as well as space.” Whatever the tower’s problems, they do not belong to the wider world which eventually strikes Laing as an “alien planet” but to itself. In the high-rise, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and their families, and their delicious, edible house-pets. The high-rise is a concrete desert island, cut off from planet Earth, and J.G. Ballard the William Golding to this Lord of the Flyovers.

The theme of entrapment is expanded on by Wheatley and Jump, who, with the benefit of foresight, explicitly build up the high-rise as a herald of neoliberalism. Laing’s pondering in the novel’s sixteenth chapter that “he found it difficult not to believe that they were living in a future that had already taken place, and was now exhausted” is moved up to the film’s prologue, and the film ends with the architect’s bastard child listening to a speech by Margaret Thatcher. Given that the Iron Lady would be co-architect for an even grander project at the End of History, this represents a canny extension on Ballard’s themes, with potential space for a new conservatory. Jeremy Irons’ architect, Royal, even frames his project as a concretisation of free market economics:

“There will be five towers in all, encircling the lake. Something like an open hand. The lake is the palm and we stand on the distal phalanx of the index finger.”

The invisible hand has been forced into being, by a powerful man with a big dream and ambitions to disrupt the market. It’s like Uber, but for social collapse.

All of which is somewhat undermined by the fact that nothing about this apocalypse is necessary. And not just in the sense of being an avoidable catastrophe; the high-rise is an entirely voluntary system, which goes to hell for no other reason than that its inhabitants want it to. It is the perfect embodiment of the Non-Aggression Principle of American Libertarianism. (For the unfamiliar, the NAP is the sacred political principle by which taxation is violence but slavery is not).

As the tower continues its slow trajectory, it sees a gradual abandonment by the hired help. The supermarket is increasingly short-staffed, and then empty. When Royal and his wife visit the tower’s exclusive restaurant in chapter 7, we are told that “the two waiters had already gone”, and by chapter 9, “After serving a last lunch to the Royals the chef and his wife had left for good.” This leaves only the building’s actual residents, who are hardly a diverse bunch. As Laing observes:

“The two thousand tenants formed a virtually homogeneous collection of well-to-do professional people – lawyers, doctors, tax consultants, senior academics and advertising executives, along with a smaller group of airline pilots, film-industry technicians and trios of air-hostesses sharing apartments. By the usual financial and educational yardsticks they were probably closer to each other than the members of any conceivable social mix, with the same tastes and attitudes, fads and styles – clearly reflected in the choice of automobiles in the parking-lots that surrounded the high-rise, in the elegant but somehow standardized way in which they furnished their apartments, in the selection of sophisticated foods in the supermarket delicatessen, in the tones of their self-confident voices.”

This apocalypse is exclusively a middle-class pastime. The working, and indeed the upper classes are almost entirely absent. The Hobbesian war of all against all is no more than a spat between the clientele of Waitrose and Marks & Spencer. The real horror is not that all humans are really like this; it is that the middle class wants to be like this, and thinks everyone else does, too.

And they may be right. After all, apocalypse is a middle-class pastime. It’s an aspiration. A recreational activity which grows increasingly popular, especially now that tech-savvy entrepreneurs have created scrolling towers of infinite hate which fit neatly in our pockets, and white supremacy is an agreeable time-waster that fits neatly between the big grocery shop and picking the kids up from school. Laing ends the novel gazing out at the second tower in the ongoing global development project:

“Already torch-beams were moving about in the darkness, as the residents made their first confused attempts to discover where they were. Laing watched them contentedly, ready to welcome them to their new world.”

Journalist Hayes Brown writes about the collective denial of the middle classes in the global North about the high-rise project we are building for all the world. These people, “the massively wealthy on a global scale, the powerless compared to the truly rich in this world, the average human in the United States of America”; these are the architects of the end of the world, simultaneously villains, victims, fall guys, and ultimately dust that will not even have the satisfaction of a pension plan. In a peculiarly Ballardian passage, Brown writes:

“We do our best to go about our days, filling them with a constant stream of distractions.

I’m right there with them, making my way home from the store, arms laden with groceries, sweat forcing my T-shirt to cling to my back, yet already pondering whether my craving for a chopped cheese from the bodega is more important to me in this moment than using up the fresh vegetables already in my refrigerator before they rot. But then my phone vibrates and there’s another push alert imploring that I read a fellow journalist’s new report on the fate rushing towards us.

There’s a moment’s hesitation before I swipe up, sending it into oblivion, forgotten as so many other divinations before it.”

The horror is not that we choose this world, and this end of the world. The horror is that we choose it. You and I choose it. I choose it.

I’m still choosing it.

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