What American Collapse Teaches Us About Capitalism (and Fascism)
It’s become something of a global urban legend. People in other countries ask me often, aghast, curious: “Do Americans really sometimes have to choose between medicine and food and shelter? I can’t believe it! Is it true?” I nod, having had acquaintances who’ve made just that choice. But now we know a hard number — 42% of Americans who get cancer will go bankrupt as a result. A shocking, bizarre, and horrific fact of daily American life — yet somehow also totally unsurprising.
About half of Americans will face the gruesome choice — your money, or your life. If that reminds you of being mugged for your life savings at gunpoint, you’re not wrong. And yet it’s just one grim daily reality among many, all of which can be summed up this way.
If it feels like capitalism’s killing you — that’s because it is. (No, you’re not alone.) Now, I don’t mean mom-and-pop soda shoppe capitalism, I set up a small scale business hoping to earn a decent living doing something interesting and fun — I mean mega-scale Walmart Wall St capitalism: the predatory kind. Instead of telling the story with statistics — which in the present case, hide more than they reveal, since those statistics were designed to tell us how ultra-rich capitalists are getting, whether or not the average person’s life, democracy, the planet, the old, and the young all burst into roaring flames — I’ll tell it a different, and to me at least, a truer way.
Imagine the life of an American, somewhere in a rust belt town. How many ways is predatory capitalism killing him? Well, first it took away his livelihood, not just his income, but his means of earning one — and offered him precisely nothing in return. Then it took away his community, his home. With those went his sense of belonging, of mattering, of counting and providing. Maybe, in depression, or despair, or disability, he went to the doctor, who prescribed him opioids — capitalism again. Maybe he went to rehab, now big business. Maybe he ended up in a private prison. Probably, he lost his family, home, belongings, what little savings he had along the way. Perhaps you think I’m overstating it. Good — I am, deliberately, a little bit. Let’s imagine none of that happened at all — instead, he just got cancer. Bang! He has an even chance of ending up in exactly the same place. Do you see the moral of my story? Let me make it clearer. No exit. All roads lead more or less to the same destination for the average American now — nowhere. But what happens to a life that goes nowhere?
Capitalism’s killing Americans with trauma, poverty, loneliness, stress, despair, stagnation, futility, disconnection, the heart-stopping panic of living perpetually at the edge, the crushing fear of always losing it all, hopelessness, a sense that there is no escape from it all — not to mention a lack of healthcare, decent jobs, retirement, schools you can send to your kids to where they won’t be shot, or even decent food and water, in many places, by now. Do you think all these things don’t affect us severely and negatively if they are re-experienced every day — dramatically shrinking the quantity and quality of our lives? That they don’t alter our bodies and minds in profound and lasting ways? People can survive all the above, sure — some of them, at least. But that is the point. Many simply won’t — and now aren’t. Which ones? I’ll come back to that, too.
The question isn’t: how is capitalism killing us — the question is how isn’t it?Perhaps you think I exaggerate. Then why is life expectancy plummeting — something that isn’t even happening in the world’s poorest countries? Why is the suicide rate skyrocketing? Was there a plague, a meteor strike, the long-feared communist invasion (LOL)? Of course not. Capitalism is what’s killing Americans, my friends. (Ironically, funnily, sadly, though, many Americans are more wedded to capitalism than their very own lives, let alone those of loved ones, let alone those of their neighbours and peers — a point I’ll return to, when we discuss how fascism rises.)
Marx called all this immiseration — just think of all the forms of human misery. Aren’t they what capitalism really produces, by now, in America? It’s (objectively) not, after all, producing happiness, trust, kindness, riches, longevity, truth — but the very opposite: trauma, despair, fear, hopelessness, powerlessness, panic, stress, poverty, and the consequent rage, anger, and cruelty they ignite.
How many ways, just in my little example above, is capitalism killing Americans? It is killing them with fear and stress — will my kids survive at school today? It is killing them with overwork — and underpay (at a job, usually, in which they have no autonomy or are assigned no worth, whose only purpose is making the ultra rich ultra richer.) It is killing them with the relentless, bone-crushing pressure of endless competition. With the trauma of never quite being able to make ends meet, and going deeper into debt every year. With never being able to retire. Through eviscerating the social bonds in their towns and communities — where once there was a high street, now there’s a Walmart at the edge of town. By giving them cheap thrills or addictive escapes to numb away all the above with — Fox News, or worse yet, perhaps, Facebook and Fentanyl. Wham! That is what immiseration — all the forms of human misery — really means.
(Think about immiseration as capitalism’s great dilemma. You are exploited ruthlessly and relentlessly if you’re fortunate enough to have a job, and abandoned, neglected, and preyed upon, if you don’t. Either way, you will have a life of trauma, which, of course, shatters you. It’s capitalism’s dilemma writ large — your money, or your life. But no one can live under such abusive, vicious terms every single day, or even the threat of them, and have a long, happy, sane, healthy life. Bang! Soon enough, the mind, body, and heart give way — and that is precisely what we see in America, whether in explicit ways, like soaring suicide and depression, or implicit ways, like falling life expectancy and rising mortality rates.)
The point is this. America is something like history’s greatest experiment, that much is true. But not really in freedom, justice, or bravery — come now, it was a segregated country until 1971. American was an experiment in capitalism — what would happen if we built the world’s most capitalist society, ever, one where everything from healthcare to education to energy to media was privatized by the bucketload, concerned only with profit, whose shares were traded by hedge funds relentlessly by the nanosecond to maximize it, not a moment’s peace, sanity, or reflection allowed? The results are in, and they’re grim. Capitalism’s a spectacular failure — or an equally spectacular success, depending. What do I mean by that?
Capitalism is doing to Americans exactly and precisely what it promised to do — act as history’s great Darwinian engine of natural selection. It is winnowing the weak out ruthlessly, mercilessly, constantly, relentlessly. Every nanosecond of every day of the year. Watching, tracking, counting, judging. What is really happening in America today? Any kind of infirmity is punished with increasingly absurd severity — to the point that by now, getting sick, or losing your job, might just very well end up costing you your money, or your life, and maybe both. Capitalism institutionalizes the idea that only the strong should survive.
But it’s mechanism of selection isn’t by any means natural — it’s artificial. “Strength”, in capitalist terms, means the most selfish, greedy, ruthless, cunning, violent, narrow-minded, short-term, and crude — the most predatory, in other words. And so what we are seeing in America today is that capitalism is working spectacularly well at doing what it promised — to make sure only the strong survive. Now, the problem is that being “strong” in this warped and stunted way, this predatory fashion, is inimical to everything that a sensible person should value more than money: democracy, love, truth, meaning, purpose, goodness. If there seems to be a shortage of those things around today, it’s not a coincidence — capitalism killed them, too, because to it, they are all forms of weakness to be eradicated.
So capitalism’s success is also society’s failure. And that is why America is imploding violently into neo fascism. Let me make the link clearer.
When people who have been indoctrinated all their lives long to believe that only the strong should survive, that weakness is a crime, that this law of the jungle is the only correct and just moral law, and therefore basis for a political economy — and yet they seem to be the ones getting selected out, what are they likely to do? Human beings do not give up on their cherished beliefs easily, do they? And so people who have been told, over and over again, that only the strong should survive, when capitalism appears to be failing them, will quite naturally turn to fascism.
Fascism also promises that only the strong should survive — and the weak should perish. Only it does it a little more explicitly — but do you see how closely aligned these two ideologies are, fascism and capitalism, already? It is no great leap from to the other, then — because one does not have to give up one’s fundamental beliefs at all, but only redouble them. That is much easier, because it does not require any real thinking, examination, it does not ask one to change one’s mind.
So there is the American — or some of them, perhaps enough of them, anyways. Capitalism has failed him spectacularly — he is immiserated, living a day to day existence in which the fundamental principle is: your money, or your life. But only the strong should survive. Maybe if he finds someone weaker, someone to abuse, hurt, harm, someone to prey upon himself — then he will survive, too.
Do you see how easily the mental leap from capitalism to fascism is made? Bang! It happens in the blink of an eye, precisely because there is a natural path from one to the other. Both say that the strong should prey on the weak, and that way, everyone is better off — and so all the frustrated, exploited prole has to do is have the epiphany that if he begins to see himself as a predator, rather than a loser, the world is restored to moral order. Now he can do what is right — which is to cause the weak to perish, and that way, be one of the strong, who survives.
But now society is imploding. A vicious spiral has begun, from which there may be no unravelling. As the immiserated prole becomes a predator, as a way out of a meaningless, pointless life of pressure, stress, despair, pain, and fear, he is just doing what he has been taught — only the strong should survive! The weak must perish! But with that one small step also go democracy, civilization, and freedom.
All that is what the sad, funny, strange story of America teaches us. Capitalism left to its own devices implodes naturally into fascism, because, just like in America, it doesn’t care if people live or die, which is to say, it’s quite happy killing them — hence, people in a rich nation who get cancer end up bankrupt, or send their kids to school wearing bulletproof backpacks. And yet it also teaches them that law of ruthlessness, greed, and cruelty is what is moral, just, fair, and noble — and what is immoral is gentleness, humility, selflessness, and equality — because only the strong should survive. But if only the strong should survive — and you are the weak one — then maybe if you prey on someone weaker, a little more abusively than you have been preyed on yourself, you will be a strong one, too.
Capitalism is trying to kill you. Maybe, to prove you are strong, you should try to hurt, abuse, harm, kill someone more powerless than yourself. Bang! That is the fascist moment. (It continues like this. Dehumanize them…scapegoat them…ban them…expropriate them…eliminate them.)
If it feels like capitalism’s killing you — that’s because it is. The problem is that human beings, the funny and foolish things that they are, do not often do what is commonsensical. If capitalism’s killing you — it’s probably also killing everyone else, too. So maybe the answer is to choose an ideology which does not believe in killing anyone at all. One where everyone is a genuine equal, so no one needs to destroy anyone else in order to rise higher in the first place. Such a system is made of public goods — things like public healthcare systems, which we can all use, without me having to exclude and deny you — and we often call it social democracy, to put things simply.
And yet the problem is, for Americans at least, making that leap would require changing their cherished fundamental beliefs — the very ones capitalism has taught them. “But wait — that would mean only the strong don’t survive, and the weak don’t perish. And if that happens, then everything falls apart! The weak will overwhelm society, and there will be no strong ones left to fight them! We can’t allow that to happen. Or at least I can’t!” LOL — you laugh, perhaps.
And yet, so seems to go the thinking of many Americans. So much so that they are willing, quite literally, to sacrifice their lives for capitalism. But capitalism is just an ideology. Or is it a god now? It’s hard to tell, sometimes. Still, that makes America something more like the Soviet Union before it. Americans are now happy, willing martyrs for capitalism. The question is how many of them know it.
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