Voices from Russia

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Why America Should Have Had the World’s Best Social Contract (Instead of Settling For the Worst)


I worry about Americans. It seems to me that they just aren’t aware as they should be that they could and should have the world’s best working social contract (with vibrant, robust healthcare, education, income, savings, safety nets, media) instead of settling for the most dysfunctional broken one (after all, even nations like Costa Rica and Rwanda are developing basic public healthcare). Hence, it appears to me that Americans believe in a series of backward myths about themselves, the world, and society. Recited constantly, they keep them in the dark, which is why they settle for the worst.

Myth: Only small countries can have working social contracts 

One of the greatest ironies in the world to me is that the very opposite is true… big countries can have by far better ones. How? Think about insurance, the bigger a pool is, the lower the cost for each member. Now, what does that really mean?

Reality: People in bigger countries can enjoy (way) greater benefits from working social contracts than people in little ones 

A small nation like Denmark or Sweden or even a medium-sized one like France or Britain can’t realise the same economies of scale that a big one like America can… there are only 10 million people, each of whom pays more to insure one another. However, American has 300 million people. Yet, by a long way, American healthcare is the most expensive in the world and delivers the least benefits. Precisely the opposite could and should be true… as there are more Americans to insure one another, it could be the cheapest in the world, with the greatest benefits, by a very long way. However, it requires a true public healthcare institution, like an American Healthcare Service, to make that true. That same principle is true for every component of a social contract, whether education, media, or safety nets… more people share the high fixed costs, so they’re (way) cheaper for a bigger society like America than a small one like Sweden. Then, isn’t it funny that American thought doesn’t ever seem to consider that?

Myth: It’s impossible to build institutions for 300 million people, we wouldn’t know how to manage or run them

LOL. What do you think your local Apple store is? If Apple can do it for gadgets, why can’t we do it for healthcare? Wal-Mart, Google, Amazon, and the government already do it every day without breaking a sweat. We know how to do it in spades.

Reality: Building working public institutions, like an American BBC or NHS, is how to repair broken bonds, renew communities, and rebuild the economy one life and town a time 

Let’s say you’re a poor kid in West Virginia with no income, savings, mobility, opportunity, hope, life. You’ve seen your friends, in despair, with no futures, OD… you’re thinking about turning to drugs, too, but you harbour a great desire to help people like you, to be an abuse counsellor, only you have no idea or way to be one. Your only option is what capitalism can provide, insanely-expensive twelve step “rehab” programs that never address your severe trauma of living through collapse with real psychotherapy, not just “drug abuse counselling”, because that’s more costly than just putting you in a boot camp, so it goes untreated, and you cycle on and off drugs forever.

Now imagine that our AHS was there in your neighbourhood. It would need just such counsellors, right? Voila, supply and demand meet… you might get training for just the job they need… where they don’t right now because there’s a “market failure”, which is to say, a void. That broken town might come back to life. Now fast-forward five years into the future. That AHS needs managers, there you are… suddenly, and you have a career, and all it brought with it, opportunity, mobility, security, optimism, belonging, meaning purpose. How wonderful. Now multiply that by a thousand times, and ten million lives. How beautiful. That’s how a society and economy begins to heal, mature, and grow… when institutions, both public and private, allow lives to flourish.

Myth: Public institutions provide low-quality crap! It’s usually expensive! I don’t want to pay taxes for that… in fact, I don’t want to pay taxes at all! 

Look. You’re going to get taxed either way, by monopolistic corporations or a government, and if you really can’t abide that, if you don’t want, say, water and roads, be my guest and move to Somalia. The question is, which one is a better deal? Let’s consider the BBC. I pay about two hundred bucks a year. What do I get? I get three TV channels and six radio stations. I pay about two hundred bucks a month in the States for a billion channels. Now, here’s the irony that’s often impossible for American to understand… less, in this case, is infinitely more. I click around in the States and rarely find something to watch, I decline porn, cop and surgery shows, it’s all mostly catastrophe vaudeville about the victims of late capitalism. However, I can watch the BBC endlessly, and so do you, maybe you just don’t know it, because its shows are rebranded for Americans, Masterpiece Theatre and so on. For that BBC licence, I get Blue Planet, Civilisation, all those cop and detective shows, the Great Bake-Off, movies, soaps, and so on. Do you see the difference? I pay a tenth of what I do in the States, and I get infinitely higher quality. So much higher quality that most of the shows ripped off by American media come from the Beeb… The Voice, The Bake-Off, etc. The level of quality isn’t just high, it’s beyond what capitalism can give you, whole categories of shows like documentaries by famed academics and writers and artists and wildlife docs like Blue Oceans exist there that can’t in America, all those cute fun Bake-Off style shows you love watching on Netflix, films tackling tough social issues, and so on.

Reality: You’ll save (a lot of) money and have a better life by paying society way less for much higher-quality public goods, instead of trying to buy healthcare, media, education, and safety from capitalism, which it’ll never really provide well to begin with, and only give you at nosebleed high prices 

Now let’s think about it from the BBC’s side. It only needs a fixed amount to produce all that stuff, those three TV and six radio channels. Crucially, that amount doesn’t change depending on how many people are in a society, right? So again, a BBC would be way cheaper in America than it is in Britain, simply because there are more people to pay for it, a hundred bucks a year, not even two hundred. Are you telling me you wouldn’t pay a hundred bucks a year for a BBC, instead of a few thousand to Comcast, now that I’ve explained it to you? (If you want to do both, be my guest… I do.) Here’s the point, not only does a working social contract cost less, the benefits are way greater too, social institutions provide goods to a quality that capitalism is simply unable to even usually dream of.

Myth: We can’t afford a working social contract 

Have you followed me so far? If you have, we’ve learned that a working social contract is:

  • cheaper for a big country
  • a better deal for people than capitalism
  • offers quality that capitalism alone can’t ever really provide
  • the only thing that can repair a broken society, one town and one life at a time

A deficit doesn’t matter much when people are giving up on democracy because they don’t have decent lives of dignity, belonging, and purpose.

Reality: A working social contract isn’t what’s unaffordable, not having one is what’s unaffordable. That’s American decline’s fundamental lesson. 

I want to drive that home to you. Consider our poor West Virginia kid again. He gets addicted. His parents mortgage their home to pay for “rehab”… no AHS, remember? However, because there’s no AHS, too, “rehab” means a twelve-step program… all capitalism can provide … not real psychotherapy that addresses the profound trauma he’s lived through. Therefore, he cycles in and out of this subpar capitalist rehab. His parents are renting a little place now. He’s living on the streets. What was unaffordable for them… a working social contract or the lack of one? Multiply that by a million… what happens to a society? Now… people lose faith in the future, each other, and themselves. They give up and numb the pain away. Therefore, like any traumatised abused soul, they end up believing what’s backwards… what might save them is unaffordable, unattainable, and impossible, so going on this way, in this terrible suffering, is the only option that they have. Thus, democracy falls apart and people turn to authoritarianism… that’s the story of every falling empire, from Rome to the Reich.

How sad. How wrong. There are already millions of stories just like that. Imagine how different all these lives would and could be with a working social contract. America could and should have the world’s best one, as it’s one of the world’s biggest and richest societies. Nevertheless, Americans don’t quite understand that as their intellectuals, leaders, and thinkers have never explained it to them. Irony teaches us tragedy, and the tragedy of ignorance about the most fundamental lesson of all is the irony of American collapse… Americans settled for the worst social contract of all, but they could and should have had the best.

9 March 2018

Umair Haque



Sunday, 4 February 2018

How Societies Collapse: Or, The Eerie Parallels Between Rome, Nazi Germany, and America


A little reflection occurs to me every time I write about American collapse. Societies collapse in much the same way… there’s something like a universal way of collapse. Yet, the whole problem begins with the fact that human beings, having needy egos, find their own downfall difficult to accept. Perhaps, you yourself will object… you’re a mighty citizen of a proud society. Ah. Do you think the Incas, Mayas, Romans, or Nazis ever thought that they obeyed the laws of history? Of course not. Becoming a powerful society makes us vulnerable to collapse because it leaves us puffed up with hubris. We cry:

We shall never fall! Our thousand-year reign has barely begun!

To think one is above history is precisely where collapse begins… people who don’t understand how societies fall can’t do a whole lot to stop it. We begin the story of how a society falls thus… there’s an almost hysterical atmosphere of denial that it ever could.

Step One

The economy stagnates. Life becomes harder and meaner. An atmosphere of cruelty permeates. However, élites must deny stagnation… otherwise, they admit that they failed… in this way, society never repairs the social contract.

Step Two

Neighbour turns on neighbour for a constant share of a dwindling pie. They must compete more and more viciously to maintain the living standards of their parents and grandparents. Social bonds blow apart. Norms begin to disintegrate.

Step Three

Growing ever more anxious and desperate, seeking a truce in what has become an unwinnable battle for survival, people turn to strongmen, glorified thugs, revelling in indecency, thus flaunting their power over broken norms and failed social contract. If they live in a democracy, people turn to strongmen for the very safety democracy failed at giving them. This is the authoritarian moment. The moment at which decline implodes into true collapse… irreversibly, usually.

Step Four 

The strongest tribe begins to exterminate the weaker ones (not illegally, but perfectly legally, in little steps of scapegoating, exclusion, blame, and expropriation). This is the poisoned womb of authoritarianism giving unholy birth to fascism. This thus preserves the illusion of constancy… that is, the insiders’ economic portions remain stable, but all that happened is that a society achieved it by excluding or eliminating whole social groups altogether, leaving more for the pure. This fact is a secret from the people, officially… but who can’t be aware?

Step Five

However, because simply exterminating the weak didn’t solve the original problem of stagnation, a society dooms itself to forever taking its neighbours’ harvests or falling apart. This is how fascism leads to atrocity, war, and mass murder.

Do you see how this all fits together, like pieces of a puzzle? Ignorance of this great and terrible cycle underpins so much human suffering that perhaps it’s the single greatest evil in history. Yet, our first tendency is to deny that it’s happening to us, isn’t it? Therefore, every step is harder and harder to untake… a gravity created by our own weaknesses… our needs for superiority, for belonging, for infantile security. Now, it’s easy to see how universal collapse was the case in Nazi Germany. Nevertheless, what’s harder to see is that it has also been the case throughout history… right down to today. All that really differs is what lights the spark of stagnation… the rest of the steps then follow predictably, if living standards do not rise.

In agricultural societies, this spark was literally often a failed harvest. Perhaps the rains or rivers ran dry for a season. Soon enough, they sacrificed virgins atop the temples. However, the gods stayed deaf. Tribes then went to war, to prove their worthiness to the gods. This was more or less the story of South America, India, and pre-imperial China, for millennia. In industrial and mercantile societies, the spark of stagnation was a shortage of raw materials. Hence, the drive for constantly-expanding empire and conquest. Nevertheless, as soon as those basic inputs dried up… whether cotton, sugar, or tea … then, again nations went to war (when they weren’t busy warring, they were putting people to work in fields, to stave off stagnation and collapse again). This was the story of post-Enlightenment Europe, in which men claimed to be people of reason, but the simple truth was they were just as much victims and perpetrators of the economics of collapse as ever before in human history, perhaps, even more so.

How do modern economies differ? It isn’t because they don’t run out of raw materials, like information… they do, eminently: the raw materials in our case are money, human possibility, and opportunity. They haven’t “run out” in an absolute sense, but in a relative one… they are in shortage because the top layer hoards them. We learned this much from giants like Keynes… no economy has to stagnate anymore. Harvests may fail and raw materials run out, but there’s a better way out of stagnation than war and violence. It’s to invest in economies at the precise moment they are failing, employ the desperate in realising themselves, and that way, avert the rage, fury, and despair that lead to scapegoating, tribalism, extremism, war, and ultimately, self-destruction. Those old agricultural economies might better have put people to work building aqueducts instead of fighting their neighbours. However, they didn’t… and we aren’t, either. Our mistake is to learn nothing from theirs. Do you see the genius of Keynes’ insight? It was to say that we can best stop collapse at its first step… the other four, if taken, are usually too late, each leading inevitably to the next.

Now that I have given you a tiny theory of collapse, let’s place America upon it, as an example. America grew short of the raw materials of a modern economy… money, possibility, and opportunity. The average person’s income began to stagnate in the 70s. They began to live shorter, meaner, more brutal and disconnected and inhumane lives. Any competent economist should have predicted, on this basis alone, an eventual crisis. That is, if not resolved, it’d lead to a textbook social collapse. Nevertheless, America doesn’t have many good minds left… so few did predict such… and no one listened to them very much.

Therefore, the fuse of stagnation lit the bomb of collapse. It inflamed America’s old racial wounds, as neighbour turned on neighbour, forced to compete viciously for a constant share of a shrinking social pie. However, to maintain a constant share of a shrinking pie is an impossible task for everyone in a society. So, just a few decades later, weary of this bruising everyday battle that life had become, Americans gave up, en masse, on democracy… trust collapsed, social bonds blew apart, turnout was meagre, and civic engagement was nonexistent. Instead, they turned to drugs, violence, escapism, and extremism for consolation. Eventually, along came a strongman… who offered them not just consolation but a solution. This was an authoritarian moment… an instant when decline implodes into collapse. Now, the rest might not be history… but that much certainly is, isn’t it? When you think about it, what’s striking isn’t America’s exceptionalism… but that no amount of power, might, or glory made it immune from history. American collapse follows precisely the same steps as every other great and memorable one in history. Nevertheless, why would we have ever thought otherwise?

Here is the point inside the point. I think about it a great deal these days, brooding, a little sadly. Americans are interested in the symptoms of collapse… but not the causes. In this way, they became something like tourists of democracy… not participants in it. How can a people who don’t understand collapse then address it, let alone rebuild the ruined institutions, norms, and values it points to? Collapse is a universal process of human societies. We’re no better than our ancestors, neighbours, or our descendants… we never will be. The sooner that we understand how, why, and when a collapse occurs… even though it conflicts with our own need to feel mighty, special, and privileged… perhaps, the less prone to it we’ll be.

30 January 2018

Umair Haque



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



The End of the American Experiment: It’s Over… So What Can the World Learn?


I think that it’s safe to say that the American experiment is at an end. No, America might not be finished as in civil war and secession. However, it’s clearly at an end in three ways. First, to the world, as a serious democracy. Second, to itself, as a nation with dignity and self-respect. Third, its potential lies in ruins. Even if its authoritarianism topples tomorrow, the problems of falling life expectancy, an imploding middle class, skyrocketing inequality, and so on, won’t. Now, like many fallen nations, maybe America won’t learn much from the failure of its own experiment… but history and the world surely can. So what has the experiment disproven? What was the null hypothesis? We don’t have to look very far. What does America not have that the rest of the rich world does? Public healthcare, transport, education, and so on. Every single rich nation in the world has sophisticated, broad, and expansive public goods, that improve by the year. Today, many medium-income and even poor nations are building public healthcare, transport, etc. America is the only one that never developed any. Public goods protect societies in deep, profound, invisible ways (we’ll get to that).

First, here’s the curious thing. American leaders pretend like the relationship above is a great confounding mystery. Like dumbfounded dinosaurs watching the mushroom cloud engulf the land, never… not once… in American media will you read a column, hear a voice, or see a face discussing the above. It’s never happened a single time in my adult life as far as I can remember. Yet, the relationship couldn’t be any more obvious, clear, or striking… no public goods are what uniquely separate America, the uniquely failed state, from the rest of the world. Why is that? It’d be easy for me to say that public goods represent a hard-fought compromise between left and right. However, I think there’s a social truth greater that’s far more substantial than the surface political reality.

Working societies… if they’re to endure, grow, and cohere… if they’re to prosper, hang together, and really mature… need moral universals. Moral universals are simply things that people believe everyone should have. In the UK, those things… those moral universals… are healthcare, media, and welfare. In Germany, they’re healthcare, media, welfare, and higher education. And so on. Moral universals anchor a society in a genuinely shared prosperity. Not just because they “spread the wealth”… although they do… it’s because more deeply moral universals civilise people. They’re what let people grow to become sane, humane, intelligent human beings. A person that’s desperate for a meal will resort to whatever they must to feed their kids. A person constantly fed a stream of nonsense by Fox News will end up believing the earth is flat. Moral universals let people act morally, and acting morally is what the process of civilisation is. Therefore, democracy depends on moral universals. It’s probably fairly hard, in the scope of human history, to establish a democracy. Nevertheless, it’s harder still to keep it going. A democracy requires before it demands votes, sane, humane, civilised people to vote. Consequently, a society that can’t create sane, humane, civilised people can no more reasonably stay a democracy than you can power the global economy with fossil fuels forever. At some point, without moral universals to create citizens worthy of the word, democracy runs out of gas.

Then, what really went wrong in America? Moral universals civilise people, but there aren’t any moral universals. The public goods universals result in educate, inform, train, school people, let them live long and peaceful lives. However, Americans… whether it is today’s extremists or yesterday’s slave-auctioneers and owners… believe that moral universals are just a “cost”, a “tax”, and so forth. They’ve never seen… and still don’t see… the benefits… the civilising process that democracy depends vitally on.

Thus, in America today, there are no broad, genuine, or accessible civilising mechanisms left. As an example, America’s best universities churn out… hedge-fund traders. Its economy is largely composed of… paper gains to the .01 percent. Its media debates… climate change. And so on. The natural consequence of failing to civilise is breaking down as a democracy… democracy no longer exists in the sense of “people cooperating by voting to give each other greater prosperity”. They’ve merely learned to take prosperity away from one another by denying one another doctors, schools, trains, and so on. That’s what a lack of civilisation really results in, or to put more prosaically, there’s no sanity or humanity, much less reason, wisdom, or virtue in such decisions… only nihilism, fatalism, and despair.

That’s what the end of the American experiment proves. Without moral universals, there’s no process of civilisation, and democracy itself can no longer continue to grow and develop. The painful irony is that American intellectuals are concerned about Western civilisation. LOL. The West, such as it is, will be just fine… in America, civilisation, as a verb, a process, a way of moral being in the world, has broken down. Even prisons have moral universals. There’s only one other place in the world I can think of with none… a jungle.

17 July 2017

Umair Haque



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