Until just a couple of weeks ago, I had not, that I can recall, heard of Umair Haque. Then, our friend David sent me a piece by him that I found to be thoughtful and thought-provoking, so I did a bit of research on the man. Umair is a London-based consultant, and author of at least three books1. I read several articles by him, in addition to the one David sent, until Medium, where he publishes, told me I had reached my limit of free articles. While I do not necessarily agree with all he says … after much pondering, I mostly agree. I have highlighted in red the parts that really made me sit up and take note. Please read the following and give it some thought. I’m interested in hearing your thoughts.
Here’s a tiny observation. Forgive me. You might not like it.
I’ve seen many countries collapse. Pakistan. Afghanistan. The Soviet Union. Turkey. Iran. Sri Lanka. Egypt. Some, first-hand. Some from afar, through the eyes of friends and colleagues.
But I’ve never seen a country collapse as fast, as severely, and as hard as America is.
America’s collapsing at an unprecedented rate. Light-speed. Terminal velocity. Turbo-charged implosion. I don’t think a country has collapsed as fast as America — maybe not in all of history. Especially not a rich and powerful one. Rome took centuries. The Soviet Union’s took decades, and it’s still rolling on. Maybe only small countries which had never really built strong institutions, barely-democracies, have I seen crash this fast, hard, and badly — but that’s the point. American collapse is something unique in modern history.
Of course, that’s a subjective judgment — we don’t have an objective speedometer for the collapse of societies. But that is what this essay will be about. To show you, a little bit, what leads me to the idea that America’s crashing and burning at light speed. I want to take a moment to share what I see, by pinning down precisely what I mean by collapse.
First, of course, there is political collapse. From democracy to autocracy, kleptocracy, and authoritarianism. America’s political institutions simply don’t function anymore. It’s [sic] democracy doesn’t represent the 70% of people who want functioning healthcare, gun control, education, safety nets — but only the 25–30% of immovable extremists who apparently want to live in the Handmaid’s Tale meets 1984 by way of Mein Kampf. Its rule of law has devolved to mass trials and mass disappearances and mothers being separated from their kids at the border. It’s critical systems of governance are so broken that 5000 people died from negligence after…a storm.
The American polity doesn’t resemble the French or German one — in fact, it looks very much like the Pakistani polity, the Saudi, or maybe the Soviet polity. It is completely and utterly dysfunctional, to a degree that is unimaginable among its rich peers. And all that took perhaps a decade or two.
Then there is cultural collapse — from a culture of thought, reason, and accomplishment, to one of superstition, violence, and extremism . Kids shoot one another in schools regularly. People die for a lack of basic medicines like insulin — and the average American appears not to know that insulin doesn’t cost $1000 a month, but pennies, even in the world’s poorest countries. Why is that? It is because the are misinformed and kept ignorant by a media that feeds them a diet of Ancient Aliens and Paranormal Files. Hence, what should be a functioning culture is now rife with dark age style superstition.
Vaccinate my kids? No way! Never mind that humanity only eradicated smallpox in 1977. But vaccination is the least of America’s descent into superstition: then there is conspiracy theory, “truth” movements, a kind of hypocritical religious fundamentalism that’s quite happy to let kids shoot each other, bigotry, supremacism. And among the professional classes who look down on that, there is a culture of overwork and abuse and greed and cruelty — followed by lowest-common-denominator consumerism as a salve for the wounds of its emptiness. All these things rising are a function of a culture that fails to educate, inform, connect, or bond people together anymore.
A culture’s role is to help people makes sense of the world, as Marcel Mauss once argued — but American culture appears only to drive people into a kind of madness, either a frenzy of violence, a paralytic resignation, or a blind rage of fear and ignorance now. How fast did that happen? Well, it didn’t seem to do that so much even a decade ago, did it?
Then there is social collapse — from a modern society of broad-based prosperity, to something more like a dystopian caste society, where each stratum bitterly resents the next, and tries to pull it down, no one lifting anyone else up. The structure of American society is not that of a healthy society any longer. A once prosperous middle class has imploded into a new poor — while a tiny number of rich grew ultra rich. American society now resembles something more like Latin America in its darker times, Egypt, or Pakistan, perhaps. But even that understates the issue, because in America, trust imploded. People don’t trust institutions. They don’t trust society. They don’t trust their neighbours. Social bonds have completely imploded — predatory capitalism’s dream of a disintegrated society of atomized human commodities has finally come true.
As a result, of social bonds imploding, norms and rules no longer appear to work at all in America. Kids shooting each other? Ah, that’s terrible — but what can you do? Shrug. Every day brings a fresh scandal — this TV star is a supremacist, that celebrity is a bigot, that politician is a wife-beater ,and so on. How far have norms of decency shattered? There is an open pedophile and rapist running for public office.2 I don’t think that has happened anywhere in the modern world, ever, so far as I know. Not even in Pakistan, Iran, or Rwanda. And it would have been unimaginable even in the America of the 2000s.
Then there is economic collapse — from modernity’s rising living standards to a new kind of poverty. America has pioneered a new kind of impoverishment — precarity, living at the knife’s edge, in constant anxiety and panic and trauma. The average person has less than $500 in emergency savings. His or her income has been stagnant for decades — and even that economic “number” vastly understates the issue, because while their parents had jobs with benefits, pensions, retirements, protections, they have none of those things. Meanwhile, the price of the basics of life — healthcare, education, finance, food, housing — has exploded, skyrocketed, gone supernova.
How much? So much so that just the hospital bill for having a child costs half of median income. Who can afford to live a decent life in a society like that? Not even in Pakistan, Iran, or Afghanistan does having a child cost so much. Not even in severely broken countries do relatively well off people face so constantly the plight of living every day right at the razor’s edge — there, they have, at least, informal safety nets, family support systems, communities to shield them, and public goods to protect them. But Americans have none of these — because predatory capitalism has reduced them to prey.
For all these reasons, the average American has no optimism left in the future. He doesn’t believe that his children will live a better life. He is right, sadly. And that is because America is now collapsing at terminal velocity — faster than any society in history, as far as I can tell.
And I think that while Americans have a sense things are breaking down around them, they don’t really understand — because they aren’t often told — that a) this is the real thing, genuine collapse b) it is happening not slower or better than elsewhere, but in fact far faster, worse and harder, and c) because it is happening so fast, there is added to the constant stress of predatory capitalism, the heart-stopping turmoil of all these kinds of collapse, political, cultural, social, and economic.
Terminal velocity. So what happens when a society hits the ground? Usually, like anything, it shatters, breaks, and explodes.
1 The New Capitalist Manifesto: Building a Disruptively Better Business (2011); Betterness: Economics for Humans (2011); Why Are Europeans (So Much) Happier Than Americans? (2019)
2 The pedophile and rapist running for office was Nathan Larson, who in 2018 was running for election to Congress from the 10th congressional district of Virginia, an election he lost by a landslide. Larson served 14 months in prison for the felony of threatening President George W. Bush’s life.