One dizzying aspect of our high-stakes, late-stage capitalist milieu is the sheer scale of the numbers that emerge to express certain aspects of economy and government. Numbers encompassing the collective activities of entire nations and global populations are proclaimed by serious men warning of consequences if the numbers are not of sufficient magnitude to encapsulate the matter at hand. Total GDP, tons of carbon dioxide, number of people displaced—the barrage of figures is nearly constant, but in times of exceptional events, the numbers become pervasive, and nearly inescapable. In 2020, in the Coronavirus springtime, the numbers are everywhere. Number of confirmed cases. Number of dead. Number of recovered. Numbers of test kits and ventilators. But the aforementioned are still manageable, comparable to things we can understand and imagine, things we can compute. However, alongside these numbers a second set has arisen, made up of quantities of such scale that they press up against the boundaries of reality itself, inviting for comparison such concepts as the grains of sand on a beach, the operations per second of a supercomputer, even the total sum of atoms in the known universe. In the last several days America’s Coronavirus stimulus package has ballooned beyond the realm of billions and into the realm of trillions, the twelve-zero territory where the conceptual reach of the common individual frays and comes apart, destroyed for want of analogies residing within the lived experience of the ordinary human being.
What, after all, is 1.6 trillion to the barista? What does it mean to the painter or the machinist or to the layer of bricks?
This breach between these vast conceptual sums and the individual’s power of understanding has been widening for decades, growing in tandem with inflation, population, mass communication, and the veneration of the growth economy model. Many years ago, Dutch punk band The Ex decided that to make sense of such numbers, they would have to make nonsense of them first. And thus was born “Headache by Numbers,” the lead track from 1988’s Aural Guerrilla.
The construction of the song is revealed straightaway—a burst of squealing feedback flays the eardrum, clearing the way for an undulating floor of skronking, atonal guitars, a groovy, manic bassline and insistent, off-kilter snare hits. In the midst of this racket, a man shouts, reciting numbers with little context or reason behind them.
But “Headache” is more than an irritating art piece; The Ex know better than to patronize the listener with concepts that are too-clever-by-half.[i] On “Headache,” they deftly locate the fulcrum point of the satire and balance their statement across it. Vocalist G.W. Sok does not just start in with the numbers—he strides breathless to the podium, a rumpled clutch of papers under his arm and a vision of budgetary doom at his back. His framing is key. “According to last year’s expectation,” he begins, “the gap between receipt and expenditure would be forty-two-point-one billion!”
(But which one is it? 42,100,000,000, or 43,400,000,000?)
“[Forty-]three-point-four, forty-three-point-five, forty-six-point-seven, forty-seven-point-nine, twenty-three-point-four, twenty-seven-point-six!” bellows Sok, his run of figures hovering over a buzzing hotbed of guitars, which churns alongside a sizzling storm of cymbals and snare.
And so the conference continues, proceeding onto “this year’s calculation,” and “next year’s estimation,” with similar number sets appended. Despite his apparent frenzy, Sok takes the time to arrange a consonant and rhyming progression out of “expectation,” “calculation,” and “estimation.” Likewise, while Sok’s crazed outbursts sound akin to psychiatric distress, the cadence of their delivery is punchy and satisfying, indicating a level of songcraft that goes beyond mere statement.
Who among those listening are equipped to discern the true numbers from the false? The numbers—all of the big official numbers—have become dilute by overuse, too arbitrary to map to reality, too absurd to be taken seriously. By ubiquity and repetition they have become just another stream of modern, meaningless noise… and so we have the Headache by Numbers, a racket composed of arbitrary figures and tuneless cacophony, drilled into the head of the citizen and bouncing around inside, inducing jumbled feelings of aversion and fascination during those occasions in which decimals and trailing zeroes are solemnly invoked.
The song works wonderfully on this level—try not to smile as Sok belts out his numbers, or gasps and sputters about his “New economy—New economy measures!” But while Sok’s numbers man is an entertaining caricature of an entire system, the casualties of said system become prominent in the fourth “stanza” of the lyrics, and a humanist subtext emerges. “Due to new economy measures,” Sok reports, “three-hundred thousand households will reach the edge of financial collapse.”
“Three-hundred-and-twelve thousand households!”
“Three-hundred-twelve thousand five-hundred, five-hundred thousand four-hundred-sixty, four-hundred-sixty thousand five-hundred, five-hundred thousand four-hundred-twelve!”
Suddenly the numbers represent human stakes and casualties, and the numbers of precarious households loom dangerously large—in any of their brief incarnations. The “new economy measures” suddenly seem sinister and harmful. Sok’s shouting man—confused and out of touch buffoon though he may be—has nonetheless injected a touch of the prophetic into his pronouncements. The meaningless and absurd numbers from the first three “stanzas” have “trickled down” onto the households of real citizens—but what is the nature of these so-called households? Are they families of flesh-and-blood working people, or more abstractions churned out by the “serious” men at the top?
There is a statement, often attributed to Stalin that expresses a moral paradox. According to the statement, a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic. Put another way in a 1916 edition of anarchist publication The Blast:
There is double the pathos for us in the death of one little New York waif from hunger than there is in a million deaths from famine in China. It is not that distance glosses over the terrible picture of the Chinese horror, or that a feeling of national kinship with the waif impresses us the more sincerely with his plight. It is merely that the mind is unable to grasp a suffering in the gross. Suffering is so intimately personal a thing that it must be explained through the personal equation, if at all.[ii]
And so The Ex’s satire balances on a fulcrum. It swings between an incisive mockery of absurd policymakers and a reckoning with the confusing and dehumanizing effects of sustained numerical overload. Sok’s bellowing, revisionist blowhard may well be crazy like a fox, intentionally bungling his numbers to create a sustained obfuscation of the processes underlying his work. Mindful observers may think themselves clever as they lampoon him and the unreality of the system he represents, but existing as they do at the mercy of economic winds, they mock at their own peril. By shouting bizarre statements like “any figures will increase with a ten percent cut or a twelve percent rise,” Sok and the economancers he represents have created a shell language incomprehensible to the common person. [iii] By these means the market puppeteers are able to conceal any number of heinous skullduggeries behind screen of numerical and terminological smoke. Headache by Numbers indeed.
…Which brings us back to the day’s news. According to this week’s negotiations, the funds allocated for stimulus will be one-point-six trillion!
Up to one-point-eight, under two-point-four, up to four-point-three, under three-point-six…
[i] Too clever by a third, too clever by a quarter, too clever by an eighth, too clever by a sixth.
[iii] There are several shouted utterances in the late part of the song that I simply cannot understand.