“Three Hard Truths About American Collapse”
by Umair Haque
“I’m going to keep this short and bittersweet. America’s probably not going to recover in our lifetimes, if ever. Let me start with some alarming and necessary factoids. America’s a country whose three main indicators are all blinking nine-alarm red – they’re what “collapse” really means. Life expectancy’s falling. Real incomes are shrinking. And 80% of people live paycheck to paycheck. By all means – elect anyone you want to. An electoral change might mitigate those, but it’s not going to magically alter the downwards trajectory. The American future is a grim choice between a return to yesterday’s slow collapse and the continuation of today’s light-speed implosion – probably not anything remotely like Europe or Canada’s gentle, hopeful upwards trend in quality of life.
That’s because these megatrends of collapse are the culmination of decades of self-destructive choices, trickle-down economics, neoliberalism, market fundamentalism, a total lack of investment in people, a culture of cruelty, a modern day caste society, Walmart capitalism, all of which added up to Weimar republic style ruin – letting middle classes implode, leaving the poor to die in the streets, because a predatory elite was allowed to capture more than 100% of society’s gains, and worse still, Americans were told to believe, by wise men, that all that was noble, righteous, and true: only the strong should survive. So these megatrends, because they took decades to gather momentum, and carry great inertia, are not going to be undone overnight, or even in a year, or even in a decade. Reversing them is the work of a generation, at the very least. Why?
America doesn’t have any functioning institutions whatsoever – and it’s not going to anytime soon. Government, media, corporations, judiciary, “jobs”, healthcare, transportation, finance, banking, pensions, retirement, education - go down the list. Do any of these function as they should – even remotely, in a healthy society? Its media is still fawningly profiling Nazis. Its opposition party is the most craven thing since Neville Longbottom. It has no agenda whatsoever. Its “best” educational institutions turn out little soulless predators aspiring to be hedge fund managers – hardly statesmen, intellectuals, and decent human beings. And so on.
For these three megatrends of collapse to be reversed, America’s going to have to be remade whole – first institutionally, and then via a new social contract. Think of Britain’s NHS or BBC, the German idea that unions sit on company boards, the French national pension system, Scandinavian social democracy as a whole. Institutions that make up a better social contract. But every single one of America’s institutions is broken. The question isn’t so much reforming dysfunctional ones as building functional ones. But the idea that America should have an NHS or BBC or debt-free education or a Public Retirement System is science fiction, and it always has been. Not only does neither party support it – though maybe the “democratic socialists” come mildly close – but nobody in any position of power in society seems aware that such a problem of broken institutions even exists. So who’s going to build them?
America doesn’t have the values to prosper without self-destructing – and it probably never did – because its prosperity has always been predatory. America doesn’t have working institutions because Americans, quite frankly, don’t care about each other. American prosperity has been based more on predation, people keeping others down, than it has on people lifting each other up. But that approach can only end in collapse. I know you’ll find that harsh.
And yet, the logic is very simple. America never developed what we might call the values of a genuinely civilized society. Empathy, compassion, truth, wisdom, benevolence, humanity. Fundamentally, that if everyone’s only out for themselves, then there is nothing that everyone in a society can enjoy as a basic human right. But if that’s the case, quite obviously, people will go without decent healthcare, education, finance, media, and so on. Worse, if everyone’s trying to compete for those things, punching everyone else down, by definition, those very things will always be absent in society – even when they can and should be available to all.
Public institutions provide social goods for all people to enjoy. America is the only – the only – rich society in the world that never built them. Why? Well, the premise of America until 1965 or so was segregation – and before that, slavery. But you can’t build public institutions that work for everyone if the point of your society is to discriminate, subjugate, and repress.
And yet, even after 1965, every single time the issue of working public institutions was raised, American whites, especially elites, flatly, absolutely refused them. They didn’t want anything that belonged to everyone in society, not healthcare, not education, not income, not retirement – their attitude was more or less, “As long as I get mine, why should I care about those dirty blacks, immigrants, Mexicans, gays, Jews, Muslims? They don’t deserve anything!” And that attitude still what prevails. It’s what kept America from building the working institutions of a functioning society, which might have provided good lives for everyone. But without those institutions, America was only getting rich by preying on itself – and that game had to run out sometime. That time is now, when 80% of Americans are broke. Bang! Prosperity based on predation leads to collapse.
Do you see the irony? Americans just don’t value one another as human beings, really – and they never have. Only some people – whites value whites, elites value elites, and so on. Hence, Americans would rather keep the basics of life from one another, in order to preserve superiority and dominance over others, than grant them to everyone, and live better lives. They have always thought this way – and nothing has ever changed that underlying logic. But that logic is not only immoral – it’s also self-destructive. Because there comes a point when the price of dominance is self-destruction. If I’m denying you healthcare, so that I keep you down, and retain a higher social status, stratum and income, but it costs me and my kids and our very own healthcare, sanity, and life expectancy, too – then what’s the purpose of the game I’m playing, except spiteful ruin? And yet, that’s what America is, and what it always has been.
The irony of America, if you ask me, is that it never understood this most basic lesson of history. The problem with a Promised Land is that it tempts people to believe that its abundance must belong only to them, and to them alone. In that way, a Promised Land can never be a place for everyone. It will be a bitter, bruising war for conquest, possession, and domination, forever – instead of being something like a healthy, sane, caring society. And yet a war against itself is what America has always been – and what, if you ask me, it will go on being. Unless, improbably, it grows up, and recognizes the dignity and possibility in every life is worth more than any Promised Land will ever be.
America probably isn’t going to make it. If you are, though, I think that a life worth living begins there.”