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What I Mean By American Collapse

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How Four Waves of Collapse Rippled Through America Like an Earthquake, and Tore it Apart

I want to talk to you about a phrase that I use a lot these days, that I think some of you have heard me use, and that you see other people using as well lately. That phrase is “American collapse.” I want to specify what I mean by it precisely — I don’t mean it in a casual way, and yet I also don’t mean it in a judgmental way, nor do I mean it to condemn. I mean it in a kind of precise technical sense — in the way of gentle observation.

What I mean by “American collapse” is if we look at America — not from any kind of particularly partisan lens, or with any kind of preconceptions — if we just look at America as unsparing observers, we see a people fighting bitterly among itself, a country struggling desperately to, and not to, gain a deeper self-awareness, a place in profound upheaval and turmoil. It’s not a happy place to be. It’s as if this America is hell-bent on confirming, as visibly and proudly as possible, the worst suspicions that its fiercest critics had about who it really was, about what it really wanted to be, if its heroic veneer was allowed to slip (suspicions like in the old Soviet poster above, which I chose not because I “agree” with it, but to illustrate a point). Something has failed, eroded, come undone. Something is going badly wrong. But what exactly?

When I look at America what I see is a nation that is collapsing in four specific ways. Economically, socially, culturally, and politically. Ironically, much like the Soviet Union before it, like Weimar Germany before that, like Rome before that, with eerie echoes of history’s great fallen empires. And so the question is: are these forms of collapse related? Are they interwoven, interlinked? Because if they are, then we can begin to make sense of them — to trace cause and effect, how this earthquake rippling outwards through the social fabric — but if they’re not, if each one is kind of an independent event, then it’s very difficult for us to understand: well, how could all these strange and terrible things be happening to us at once? Do you see what I mean? So let’s take these one by one.

Economically: that’s the most visible way in which America is collapsing. America used to be a place that had this famous unifying principle, this shared aspiration, called the American dream. And while we can criticize the American dream in many ways, still, in some sense there was a feeling of optimism — that things would get better economically for you and yours, if you simply played by the rules, and paid your dues, so to speak. Even if we take the illusory term “most people” — maybe they didn’t have it, but they believed in it. That’s not true anymore. 80% of Americans — and these are really damning and dismal statistics — 80% percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and they can’t raise a thousand dollars for an emergency: the result of incomes flatlining for decades, while the costs of the essentials of life, whether healthcare, education, rent, finance, food, or media, have all skyrocketed.

That is a state of pretty profound economic collapse. It’s what Marx — and I know that many of you for many of you bringing up Marx is a kind of dirty word, because American economics thinks him as Jack the Ripper, but American economics, it turns out, was badly, wrong, and Marx was right about many things, in the end, if we are able to look at him a little bit more objectively — Marx would have said the average American is in a state of immiseration. What that means is that the poor fellow is exploited if he takes a job — he’s not paid what he’s worth, AKA the “income productivity gap”, much, maybe most of the value of his labour, by which we mean his creativity, effort, ideas, time, energy, is skimmed off by capitalism — yet if he doesn’t accede to being exploited, he’s simply abandoned and left to die. Do you see the terrible dilemma a collapsing economy has left Americans with? That dilemma is how you get to a situation of 80% of people and paycheck to paycheck, who can’t raise a thousand dollars in savings — while capitalists, who are a tiny fraction of the economy, buy private jets and summer mansions and Senators like they were toys.

When an economy goes through those kinds of profound, shattering changes — negative changes — what I would call implosive changes, in fact — the social structure of a nation changes, too. What we see in America now is that for the first time the middle class has become a minority, because that average American isn’t able to make ends meet — it’s very very difficult for him, and if we think about you know the kind of bills that people have, they’ve gone through the roof: “Damn it! How am I going to pay for all this? How am I going to educate my kids, feed my family, and pay my mortgage or rent?” A full one third to half of Americans struggle to do all that — which is to say, just to juggle and manage the basics of living. So the middle class is collapsing, while inequality has skyrocketed — and that means the vast majority of Americans live right at the edge of ruin — every single day.

This profound change to the structure of a society, driven by the economy, is essential to any understanding of American collapse. What that means is that in a nation that is doing well — genuinely prospering, in a stable and enduring manner — we should see a middle class that’s expanding. Think of a bell curve. Draw it with your hands. Here’s the middle-class family. They have a good chance of staying there. Imagine that bell curve slowly, gently expanding as the middle class grows, saves, secures its position. That also means, by definition, that there are fewer and fewer people who are ultra rich and very poor. But in America we see the bell curve go in exactly the wrong direction. Its bell narrows, and then splits. We see it becoming something more like a bimodal distribution. There are the extremely rich, and the new poor — who join the ranks of the old poor — with an imploded middle. That’s a very, very different social structure to the one we’d expect to see in a healthy society. It means, bluntly, that society is sick, unhealthy.

When a society goes through that sudden, profound change in social structure — going from gentle, expanding bell curve to bipolar — when the middle-class implodes with such a dramatic

“pop!”, or maybe “bang!”, what it really means is that people have grown impoverished. Hence, I often say America is the world’s first poor rich country — what it means is that in terms of people’s lives, their lived experience is one of frustration, resignation, anger, and despair. Their expectations haven’t been fulfilled.

So a nation’s culture is going to change — in fairly predictable ways — too as a result of these profound changes to social structure and economics. If you think about what such crushing disappointments might do to people, the sense that life is not getting better, that the bell curve turned into this bimodal distribution, where society is marred by new poverty, and extreme riches, with no chance for people to really earn a decent middle-class living anymore — it also means that the formative unifying idea that simply by playing by the rules, you’ll prosper, that if you work hard enough, you’ll move up — that idea has shattered like glass. But that idea was the one thing holding everything — everything, from institutions to norms to values, to cities, towns, communities, states, the whole social contract upon which such a country was founded — together.

Hence, people are going to grow mistrustful of their institutions and systems. They’re going to grow resentful of each other. They will grow afraid of the future. And probably hostile to the world, too. The rules are broken — why follow them anymore? Why bother with democracy, with civility, with decency, with any of these things? What did they ever do for you?

Those sentiments of rage, fury, and despair, those very real feelings — which American economics doesn’t consider, since to it people are only “producers” and “consumers”, but not human beings with moral needs and desires — are going to go on to shatter the norms and values of such a society. Norms and values of gentleness, of tolerance, of equality — genuinely democratic norms — will soon enough erode. Bitter, probably furious, suspicion and hostility and cruelty will replace them. Remember — the rules didn’t work for you — so why bother with ones of equality and justice and freedom at all? Maybe by dehumanizing and scapegoating those dirty, filthy animals, those Mexicans, those Jews, those Latinos, those blacks, those Muslims — just like those strong, strutting men who tell you will be great again — you will get ahead. Maybe these new rules will work for you — where the old ones failed you so badly.

Let me make that sharper. The entire rest of the world, rich or poor, developed or undeveloped, thinks it’s crazy — totally, absolutely, flatly bonkers — that Americans let their kids shoot each other at schools, and then say, “Hey, little buddy! Let’s do an active shooter drill! Let’s go to Walmart, and buy you a bulletproof backpack.” The rest of the world thinks this is literally i-n-s-a-n-e. Or that people have to crowdfund insulin in America — in the rest of the world, rich or poor, insulin doesn’t cost $1,000 a month. What is wrong with these people? Do they genuinely enjoy inflicting violence and suffering on one another? Is there something not working in their brains anymore? That’s what the world wonders.

They’re not wrong. These are examples of norms and values shattering — genuinely democratic ones being smashed like a fist through glass. All of these things Americans have come to accept as normal in America are not normal in any way whatsoever. They are completely and utterly abnormal — signs of pathology, distress signals sent out from imploding social structures, alarms blared by ruinous economics of capitalist exploitation. But Americans appear unable to make sense of all these signals and messages. They appear unable — enough of them, at least — to understand what they really mean.

What they portend, what they mean, what they are trying so desperately to warn of, is the last set of implosive changes that make up American collapse. A society stops becoming a democratic place. Not just “a democracy!” in the triumphant way that Americans say it — but a genuinely democratic place, substantively, not just superficially, in essence, in daily life, not just in name. As people give up, as they lose faith in the system, in their institutions, to provide genuinely better lives for them anymore, they turn away from democracy, and they turn towards other systems of politics. They turn towards authoritarianism and fascism and kleptocracy and theocracy — or maybe especially lethal cocktails which mix them all, adding venom to poison, ruin to destruction.

History teaches us this great lesson over and over again. Democracy depends on prosperity, on rising living standards, to unify people, critically, crucially, like a heart depends on blood. Then in the quest for better lives, people can put aside their differences, which don’t seem to loom so large. But those differences always — always — resurface when people grow suddenly poorer, and they come back, often, with a new vengeance. Then there is a reason to hate your neighbor, to resent him, to detest him — to want all that is his, which should have rightly been yours because it was promised to you.

In America, the blood of prosperity was not shared with the body — it was hoarded by the dumb muscle of capitalism — and so the body is dying. The poisons and venoms of authoritarianism, of kleptocracy, of fascism, of theocracy, are now beginning to really kill the body social, political, cultural, and economic. But the body grew weak because too little blood flowed through it. What could it fight off? This too is the story, for example, of Weimar Germany — and America’s reliving all over again, having learned, foolishly, it seems, not a damned thing.

So. The question that we were trying to answer was this. Are these four strands of American collapse — political, economic, social, and cultural — linked? The answer to me is self-evident. Yes, they’re interwoven. Yes, they’re tightly linked. Collapse spread like a meteor smashing into a nation, rippling outwards in great and terrible waves of fire and ashes. Implosive economic changes went on to collapse the structure of society, which went on to implode American norms and values. Genuinely democratic norms and values shattered, as people turned away from democracy, and sought better lives elsewhere. Now Americans — enough of them, at least — are going in a much more authoritarian, extremist, fascist — you can choose your descriptor — direction, because democracy seems to have failed them, and so they are turning their back on its principles, its ideals, its values: justice, freedom, equality, and so forth..

(And part of the problem is that American democracy was never really very much of one to begin with — only in 1971 was personhood really granted to all, finally. That’s within a lifetime — so the idea that America can go back to that old world, that old America, isn’t a distant implausibility — for many Americans, sadly, it’s something more like a fond childhood memory. Maybe those rules, they imagine, will work better for me. Such a place is a very, very unhealthy place for a society to be — because of course both history and reality tell us that adding extremism to collapse only turns it into implosion. It doesn’t fix any of the four underlying problems at all, in any way — it only makes then worse and worse.)

And so the question, if you ask me — and again, it’s not a partisan question, in the true sense, and it’s not a judgemental one, I don’t mean to judge anyone, just to observe — the question if you ask me is not just “will Americans do better at the next election than electing the really bad guys?” It’s reversing this very very dramatic and transformative set of changes in systems institutions that caused America to collapse in these four key ways, economic, social, cultural, and political, one rippling outwards to the next. Those four key waves of collapse have to be undone if America is going to endure, at least as a democracy, as a member of the league of mature, growing nations, and as a place in which the world respects.

Are Americans up to that challenge? I don’t know. I don’t think you know. I don’t think anybody knows. But I think we’re about to find out.

October 2018

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