When I ask my European friends to describe us — Americans, Brits, who I’ll call Anglo-Americans in this essay — they shake their heads gently. And over and over, three themes emerge. They say we’re a little thoughtless. They say we’re selfish and arrogant. And they say that we’re cruel and brutal.
I can’t help but think there’s more than a grain of truth. That they’re being kind. Anglo-American society is now the world’s preeminent example of willful self-destruction. It’s jaw-dropping folly and stupidity is breathtaking to the rest of the world.
The hard truth is this. America and Britain aren’t just collapsing by the day…they aren’t even just choosing to collapse by the day. They’re entering a death spiral, from which there’s probably no return. Yes, really. Simple economics dictate that, just like they did for the Soviet Union — and I’ll come to them.
And yet what’s even weirder and more grotesque than that is that…wel…nobody much seems to have noticed. There’s a deafening silence from pundits and elites and columnists and politicians on the joint self-destruction of the Anglo-American world. Nobody seems to have noticed: the only two rich societies in the world with falling life expectancies, incomes, savings, happiness, trust — every single social indicator you can imagine — are America and Britain. It’s not one of history’s most improbable coincidences that America and Britain are collapsing in eerily similar ways, at precisely the same time. It’s a relationship. What connects the dots?
Let me pause to note that my European friends’ first criticism — that we’re thoughtless — is therefore accurate. We’re not even capable of noticing — much less understanding — our twin collapse. Our entire thinking and leadership class seems not to have even noticed, like idiots grinning and dancing, setting their own house on fire. They are simply going on pretending it isn’t happening — that the English speaking world isn’t fast becoming something very much like the new Soviet Union.
So what caused this joint collapse? How did the English speaking world end up like the new Soviet Union? To understand that point, consider the fact that you yourself probably think that’s an overstatement. But it’s an empirical reality. The Soviet Union stagnated for thirty years. America’s stagnated for fifty, and Britain for twenty. The Soviet Union couldn’t provide basics for its citizens — hence the famous breadlines. In America, people beg each other for money to pay for insulin and antibiotics, decent food is unavailable in vast swathes of the country, and retirement and paying off one’s debt are impossibilities: just like in the Soviet Union, basics are becoming both unavailable and unaffordable. What happens? People…die.
(The same is true in Britain. In both societies, upwards of 20% of children live in poverty, the middle class has imploded, and upward mobility has all but vanished. These are Soviet statistics — lethally real ones.)
Politics, too, has become a sclerotic Soviet affair. Anglo-American societies aren’t really democracies in any sensible meaning of the word anymore. They’re run by and for a class of elites, who could care less, literally, whether the average person lives or dies. In America, that class is a bizarre coterie of Ivy Leaguers pretending to be aw-shucks-good-ole-boys on the one side, like Ted Cruz, and Ivy Leaguers pretending to be do-gooders on the other, like Zuck and Silicon Valley. In Britain, it’s the notorious public school boys, the Etonians and Oxbridge set.
That brings me to arrogance. What’s astonishing about our elites is how…arrogant they are…and how ignorant they are…at precisely the same time. Finland just elected a 34 year old woman as a Prime Minister from the Social Democrats. Finland is a society that outperforms ours in every way — every way — imaginable. Finnish happiness is way, way higher — and so is life expectancy, mobility, savings, real incomes, trust, among others. And yet instead of learning a thing from a miracle like that, our elites profess to know a better way…while they’ve run our societies into the ground. What the? Hubris would be an understatement. I don’t think the English language has a word for this weird, fatal combination of arrogance amidst ignorance. Maybe cocksure stupidity comes close.
And yet our elites have succeeded in one vital task — what an Emile Durkheim might have called “social reproduction.” They’ve managed to reproduce society in their image. What does the average Anglo-American aspire to be, do, have? To be rich, powerful, careless, selfish, and dumb, now, mostly. We don’t, as societies or cultures, value learning or knowledge or magnanimity or great and noble things, anymore. We shower millions on reality TV stars and billions on “investment bankers.” The average person has become a tiny microcosm of the aspirations and norms of elites — they’re not curious, empathetic, decent, humane, noble, kind, in pursuit of wisdom, truth, beauty, meaning, purpose. We’ve become cruel, indecent, obscene, comically shallow, and astonishingly foolish people.
That’s not some kind of jeremiad. It’s an objective, easily observed truth. Who else in a rich society denies their neighbours healthcare and retirement? Nobody. Who else denies their own kids education? Nobody. Who else denies themselves childcare and elderly care? Nobody. Who else doesn’t want safety nets, opportunities, mobility, protection, savings, higher incomes? Nobody. Literally nobody on planet earth wants worse lives excepts us. We’re the only people on earth who thwart our own social progress, over and over again — and cheer about it.
How did we become these people? How did we become tiny microcosms of our arrogant, ignorant, breathtakingly stupid elites? Because we are perpetually battling for self-preservation. Life has become a kind of brutal combat to the death. For jobs, for healthcare, for money, for the tiniest shreds of resources necessary to live. We wake up and fight one another for these things, over and over again. That is what our lives amount to now — gladiatorial combat. Meanwhile, elites and billionaires sit back and enjoy not just the spectacle — but the winnings.
People who are battling for self-preservation can’t take care of anyone else. If I ask the average Brit or American to consider paying for their society’s healthcare, education, elderly care, childcare, increasingly, the answer is: LOL. In America, it always has been. Why is that? The reason couldn’t be simpler. People can’t even take care of themselves and their own. How can they take care of anyone else — let alone everyone else?
The average person is living right at the edge. Not at the edge of the middle class dream and an even better one. But at the edge of poverty and destitution. They struggle to pay basic bills and never make ends meet. They can’t afford to educate their children, and retire, or retire and have healthcare, and so on. Let me say it again: the average person can’t take care of themselves and their own — so how can they take care of anyone else, let alone everyone else?
A more technical, formal way to say that is: our societies have now become too poor to afford public goods and social systems. But public goods and social systems are what make a modern, rich society. What’s a society without decent healthcare, schools, universities, libraries, education, parks, transport, media — available to all, without life-crippling “debt”? It’s not a modern society at all. But more and more, it’s not America or Britain, either.
What makes European societies — which are far, far more successful than ours — successful is that people are not battling for self-preservation, and so they are able to cooperate to better one another instead. At least not nearly so much and so lethally as we are. They are assured of survival. They therefore have resources to share with others. They don’t have to battle for the very things we take away from each other — because they simply give them to one another. That has kept them richer than us, too. The average American now lives in effective poverty — unable to afford healthcare, housing, and basic bills. They must choose. The European doesn’t have to, precisely because they invested in one another — and those investment made them richer than us.
We are caught in a death spiral now. A vicious cycle from which there is probably no escape. The average person is too poor to fund the very things — the only things — which can offer him a better life: healthcare, education, childcare, healthcare, and so on. The average person is too poor to fund public goods and social systems. The average person is too poor now to able to give anything to anyone else, to invest anything in anyone else. He lives and dies in debt to begin with — so what does he have left over to give back, put back, invest?
A more technical, formal way to put all that is this. Europeans distributed their social surplus more fairly than we did. They didn’t give all the winnings to idiot billionaires like Zucks and con men like Trump. They kept middle and working classes better off than us. As a result, those middle and working classes were able to invest in expansive public goods and social systems. Those things — good healthcare, education, transport, media — kept life improving for everyone. That virtuous circle of investing a fairly distributed social surplus created a true economic miracle over just one human lifetime: Europe rose from the ashes of war to enjoy history’s highest living standards, ever, period.
That’s changing in Europe, to be sure. But that is because Europe is becoming Americanized, Anglicized. It has a generation of leaders foolish enough to follow our lead — now remember the greatest lesson of European history, which is one of the greatest lessons of history, full stop. That lesson goes like this.
- People who are made to live right at the edge must battle each other for self-preservation. But such people have nothing left to give one another. And that way, a society enters a death spiral of poverty — like ours have.
- People who can’t make ends meet can’t even invest in themselves — let alone anyone else. Such a society has to eat through whatever public goods and social systems it has, just to survive. It never develops or expands new ones.
- The result is that a whole society grows poorer and poorer. Unable to invest in themselves or one another, people’s only real way out is to fight each other for self-preservation, by taking away their neighbor’s rights, privileges, and opportunities — instead of being able to give any new ones to anyone. Why give everyone healthcare and education when you can’t even afford your own? How are you supposed to?
- Society melts down into a spiral of extremism and fascism, as ever increasing poverty brings hate, violence, fear, and rage with it. Trust erodes, democracy corrodes, social bonds are torn apart, and the only norms left are Darwinian-fascist ones: the strong survive, and the weak must perish.
(Let me spend a second or two on that last point. As they become poorer, people begin to distrust each other — and then hate each other. Why wouldn’t they? After all, the grim reality is that they actually are fighting each other for existence, for the basic resources of life, like medicine, money, and food.
As distrust becomes hate, people who have nothing to give anyways end up having no reason to even hope to give anything back to anyone else. Why give anything to those people you are fighting, every single day, for the most meagre resources necessary to live? Why give the very people who denied you healthcare and education anything? Isn’t the only real point of life to show that you beat them by having a bigger house, faster car, prettier wife or husband?)
That is how a society dies. That is the death spiral of a rich society. In technical terms, it goes like this. A social surplus isn’t distributed equitably. That leaves the average person too poor to invest anything back in society. He’s just battling for self-preservation, and the stakes are life or death. But that battle itself only breeds even more poverty. Because without investment, nurturance, nourishment — nothing can grow. Having become poor, the average person only grows poorer — because he will never have decent public goods or social systems, let alone the rights and privileges and jobs and careers and trajectories they become and lead to.
A society of people so poor they have nothing left over to invest in one another is dying. It goes from prosperity to poverty, from optimism to pessimism, from cohesion to distrust and hate, from peace to violence — at light speed, in the space of a generation. That’s America and Britain’s story today, just as it was the Soviet Union’s, yesterday, and Weimar Germany’s, before that.
You can see how a society dies — with horrific, brutal clarity — in the self-destruction of America and Britain. The hate-filled vitriol of Trumpism, the barely-hidden hate of Brexit. Why wouldn’t people who have grown suddenly poor hate everyone else? Why wouldn’t they blame anyone and everyone they can — from Mexicans to Muslims to Europeans — for their own decline? The truth, as always, is harder. America and Britain’s collapse is nobody’s fault — nobody’s — but their own.
They are in a death spiral now, but no opponent or adversary brought them there. It was their own fault, and yet they still go on choosing it. They don’t know any other way now. Their elites succeeded at making the average person truly, fervently believe that battling perpetually for self-preservation was the only way a society could exist.
And though it’s too late to escape for them, let us hope that the rest of the world, from Europe to Asia to Africa, learns the lesson of the sad, gruesome, stupid, astonishing tragedy of self-inflicted collapse.
December 2019Eudaimonia and Co