Voices from Russia

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Why We’re Underestimating American Collapse: The Strange New Pathologies of the World’s First Rich Failed State


You might say, having read some of my recent essays:

Umair! Don’t worry! Everything’ll be fine! It isn’t that bad!

I’d look at you politely, and then say gently:

To tell you the truth, I don’t think we’re taking collapse nearly seriously enough.

Why? When we take a hard look at US collapse, we see a number of social pathologies on the rise… not just any kind… not even troubling, worrying, and dangerous ones. However, they’re strange and bizarre ones… unique ones. They’re singular and gruesomely weird… I’ve never really seen such before, and outside of a dystopia written by Dickens and Orwell, nor have you, and neither has history. They suggest that whatever “numbers” we use to represent decline… shrinking real incomes, inequality, and so on… in fact, we’re grossly underestimating what pundits call the “human toll”, but which sensible human beings like you and I should simply think of as the overwhelming despair, rage, and anxiety of living in a collapsing society. Let me give you just five examples of what I call the social pathologies of collapse … strange, weird, and gruesome new diseases, not just ones we don’t usually see in healthy societies, but ones that we’ve never really seen before in any modern society.

America had 11 school shootings in the last 23 days. That’s one every other day, more or less. That statistic is alarming enough… but it’s just a number. Perspective asks us for comparison. So, let me put that another way. America had 11 school shootings in the last 23 days, which is more than anywhere else in the world, even Afghanistan or Iraq. In fact, the phenomenon of regular school shootings appears to be a unique feature of American collapse… it just doesn’t happen in any other country… that’s what I mean by “social pathologies of collapse”… a new bizarre terrible disease striking society. Why are American kids killing each other? Why doesn’t their society care enough to intervene? Well, probably because those kids have given up on life… and their elders have given up on them. On the other hand, maybe you’re right… and it’s not that simple. Still, what do the kids who aren’t killing each other do? Well, a lot of them are busy killing themselves.

Of course, there’s also an “opioid epidemic”. We use that phrase too casually, but it’s much more troubling than it appears on first glance. Here is what’s curious about it. In many countries… most of Asia and Africa… one can buy all the opioids one wants from any local pharmacy, without a prescription. You might suppose then that opioid abuse as a mass epidemic would be a global phenomenon. Yet, we don’t see opioid epidemics anywhere but America… especially, not ones so vicious and widespread they shrink life expectancy. Therefore, the “opioid epidemic”… mass self-medication with the hardest of hard drugs… is again a social pathology of collapse unique to American life. The numbers don’t quite capture it, but it’s only through comparison… when we see it in global perspective, we get a sense of just how singularly troubled American life really is.

Why would people abuse opioids en masse unlike anywhere else in the world? They must be living genuinely traumatic and desperate lives, in which there’s little healthcare, so they have to self-medicate the terror away. However, what’s so desperate about them? Well, consider another example… “nomadic retirees”. They live in their cars. They go from place to place, season after season, chasing whatever low-wage work they can find… spring, an Amazon warehouse, Christmas, Wal-Mart. Now, you might say:

Well, poor people have always chased seasonal work!

That isn’t really the point… absolute powerlessness and complete indignity are. In no other country do retirees who should’ve been able to save up enough to live on now live in their cars in order to find work just to go on eating before they die… not even in desperately poor ones, where at least families live together, share resources, and care for one another. This pathology of collapse is unique to America… utter powerlessness to live with dignity. Numbers don’t capture it… but comparisons paint a bleak picture. How did America’s elderly end up cheated of dignity? After all, even desperately poor countries have “informal social support systems”… otherwise, known as families and communities. However, in America, there’s a catastrophic collapse of social bonds. Extreme capitalism blew apart American society so totally that people can’t even care for one another as much as they do in places like Pakistan and Nigeria. Social bonds, relationships themselves, are unaffordable luxuries, more so than even in poor countries… this is yet another social pathology unique to American collapse. Yet, those once poor countries are making great strides. Costa Ricans now have higher life expectancy than Americans do… because they have public healthcare. American life expectancy is falling, unlike nearly anywhere else in the world, save the UK… because it doesn’t.

That’s my last pathology… it’s one of the soul, not one of the limbs, like the others above. Americans appear to be quite happy simply watching one another die, in all the ways above. They just don’t appear to be disturbed, moved, or even affected by the four pathologies above… their kids killing each other, their social bonds collapsing, being powerless to live with dignity, or having to numb the pain of it all away. If these pathologies happened in any other rich country.. even in most poor ones… people would be aghast, shocked, and stunned, and certainly moved to make them not happen. Nevertheless, in America, well, they’re not even resigned. They’re indifferent, mostly.

Therefore, my last pathology is a predatory society. A predatory society doesn’t just mean oligarchs ripping people off financially. In a truer way, it means people nodding and smiling and going about their everyday business as their neighbours, friends, and colleagues die early deaths in shallow graves. The predator in American society isn’t just its super-rich… but an invisible and insatiable force… the normalisation of what the rest of the world would see as shameful, historic, generational moral failures, if not crimes, becoming mere mundane everyday affairs not to be too worried by or troubled about. Perhaps that sounds strong to you. Is it?

Now that I’ve given you a few examples… there are many more… of the social pathologies of collapse, let me share with you three points that they raise for me. These social pathologies are something like strange and gruesome new strains of a disease infecting the body social. America has always been a pioneer… only today, it’s host not just to problems not just rarely seen in healthy societies… it’s pioneering novel social pathologies never seen in the modern world outside present-day America. What does that tell us? American collapse is much more severe than we suppose it is. We’re underestimating its magnitude, not overestimating it. American intellectuals, media, and thought don’t put any of its problems in global or historical perspective… but when we see them that way, America’s problems are not just the everyday nuisances of a declining nation, but something more like a body suddenly attacked by unimagined diseases.

Seen accurately, American collapse is a catastrophe of human possibility without modern parallel. Then, because the mess that America has made of itself is so especially unique, so singular, so perversely special… the treatment must be novel, too. The uniqueness of these social pathologies tells us that American collapse isn’t like a reversion to any mean or the downswing of a trend. It is something outside the norm, something beyond the data, and past the statistics. It’s like the meteor that hit the dinosaurs: an outlier beyond outliers, an event at the extreme of the extremes. That is why our narratives, frames, and theories can’t really capture it.. much less explain it. We need a completely new language… a new way of seeing… to begin to even make sense of it. Nevertheless, that’s America’s task, not the world’s. The world’s task is this. Should the world follow the American model… extreme capitalism, no public investment, cruelty as a way of life, the perversion of everyday virtue… then, these new social pathologies will follow, too. They are new diseases of the body social that emerged from the diet of junk food… junk media, junk science, junk culture, junk punditry, junk economics, people treating one another and their society like junk… that America has fed upon for too long.

25 January 2018

Umair Haque



Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: