How Failed Ideology, Self-Delusion, Greed, and Exploitation Made America the World’s First Poor Rich Country
A lunatic President who just made a Space Force…that wears desert camouflage…tweeting about being the “best in the universe!!”…on his way to meet the leaders of the world…where he’ll deny climate change is a threat (never mind a burning…uhhh…continent.)
Masked, armed men waving machine guns and chanting neo-fascist slogans massed on the steps of a state capitol — on the anniversary of a society’s major civil rights leader…who was gunned down to death.
An opposition who’s trying that President for…minor-league bribes…not, for example, putting children in concentration camps after tearing families apart — what the last living Nuremberg Prosecutor has literally called a “crime against humanity.”
50% of people working “low-income” jobs that’ll never go anywhere…75% who struggle to pay the bills…80% who can’t raise a tiny amount for an emergency…all of them, more or less, will die indebted— buried under debt they have never been able to pay off. Who do they “owe” to? A tiny handful of men who are richer than kings or dukes or barons of old.
This is what a collapsing society looks like, my friends. America, here and now. The story of American collapse is a grim and strange one. America’s simultaneously the globe’s laughingstock, bully, nightmare, villain, tragedy, and bad joke. And yet the strangest part of it all is how little Americans understand their own collapse — or whether the world has really learned the lessons therein.
American collapse is the most spectacular global event since Soviet collapse. The implosion of one of the world’s great powers, into lunacy, despair, catastrophe. The cataclysmic, bizarre, surreal suicide of a society.
So what brought America this unbelievably low? A toxic cocktail of crackpot economics, deranged intellectuals, spineless leaders, insanely greedy elites, predatory billionaires, a right that turned fascist, a left that thinks pronouns matter more than concentration camps, a middle class that never cared to vote for its own betterment, and a working class that never understood that, to its elites, it was just a commodity, to be used and abused. Nobody’s really blameless in America. Every social group has played its part in American collapse — save perhaps the most abused of minorities. Short of them, though? Collapse is a burden laid at everyone’s doorstep.
Let me take some of those elements one by one.
The most powerful force behind American collapse was crackpot economics. Soviet collapse happened because of failed economics, too — the Soviet Union was unable to provide basics for its citizens, hence the famous breadlines. That’s exactly where America is, too: unable to provide the basics of life for its citizens anymore. Hence, cratering life expectancy, among other things. Consider all the things Americans are short of: basic medicine, like insulin, for which there’s a booming black market. Healthcare, which nobody can afford, if it’s available at all. Retirement — which is nonexistent. Decent food and drinking water are in shortage in much of the country, which have become food deserts, or have poisonous, carcinogenic water (no, it’s not just Flint.) Then there’s the big one: money. The average American dies in debt now precisely because he never has enough money to pay the bills — and that’s because a tiny number of people are so ultra rich, the Bezoses and Buffetts and Zucks, that they could fund the entire education budget…multiple times over…all by themselves. What the?
Just as in the Soviet Union, the basics of life have are in constant, perpetual shortage in America — even for nominally middle class people. The result is that basic things are astronomically expensive. When I tell my European friends how much a piece of fresh fruit or a cut of decent meat costs in America, they’re astounded — the price isn’t just a few percent more, it’s usually four or five times as much. But everything you need to live a decent life is in shortage in America: medicine, money, retirement, and so on. Why did America end up with shortages of everything? Because its crackpot economists thought capitalism was the answer to everything, never understanding that capitalism has no incentive whatsoever to sell people things that aren’t as profitable as humanly possible — and every incentive to create artificial shortages which jack up prices. It’s not a coincidence healthcare is so expensive — and no one can really get it. It’s a relationship.
Hence, the second great force of American collapse: culture. Crackpot economics can only go so far — a people have to be foolish enough to swallow it. The only things you can buy cheap in America, ironically, are TVs and guns. That’s not a coincidence — it’s a giveaway: that American society is premised on violence, which American economics has been a polite justification for. If we put it in equations — it’s OK, right?!
What do I mean by that? Americans find it oh so controversial when I say: “violence is the single force that runs American life.” But consider what it means to live a life where you know — know — that if you lose your job, you’ll lose your healthcare, that even if you have it, if you get seriously ill, you’ll probably lose your home, that if you want to keep a roof over your head, you have to keep your head down and be abused and demeaned by someone called a “boss” for an unfair share of what you produce, that if you want to educate your kids and retire, that’s an impossibility. All those things are forms of violence — very real violence — used as a mechanism of sociologists call “social control”: to keep people obedient. Weary. Afraid quite literally for their and their loved ones’ lives, health, sanity, safety. So they never step out of line.
Americans don’t understand it, but tying healthcare to jobs, being made to choose between medicine and your life savings, being forced to pay off unpayable debts forever, or else — these are all very real forms of violence. When mafias make people make these choices, we call them “extortion” and “blackmail” and “intimidation.” For some reason, when corporations do — and economist cheer them on — we call it “capitalism.” But there is absolutely no difference between them whatsoever. Life, health, prosperity, longevity, safety, are all very much at stake.
That is why Americans — singularly among nations — learned to love their very own exploitation. Why is it that the American middle class is the only one in the world that votes against its own healthcare, retirement, education, raises — time and time again? So predictably you can set your watch by it? What the? What other people are so foolish they don’t want better lives? You can say “North Koreans”, but you’d be wrong: they don’t live in a democracy. Americans do. The really bizarre thing is that Americans choose to live the worst lives in the rich world — and when you tell them that, they attack you for it. But that doesn’t change reality.
So American collapse was a choice, made by a certain attitude, psychology, of contempt and neglect by Americans for one another. Not just one made by elites. But also by a middle class that refused to have the decency to care about whether or not its very own neighbors and friends and families lived or died or went broke or prospered. How did that deep, pervasive psychology come to be?
That brings me to the third great force of American collapse: history. MLK’s great insight — or one of them — which Americans have never, ever understood, because, well, who teaches them anything, was this: a society premised on exploitation is going to collapse. It cannot last, endure, grow, mature, develop. And he was…exactly right.
Americans never vote for public healthcare, education, income, savings, media, retirement, childcare, to this day…for a very simple reason. They stand neck deep in the grim and terrible residue of slavery. “Me? I’m not going to invest a penny in their education and retirement! Why, they’re not even human beings at all! My grandaddy used to own a hundred of them! Dirty, filthy, lazy things!!” Do you see the obvious and terrible link at work here? Slavery — it’s mindset of supremacy, contempt, scorn, which is so omnipresent in America still — made it impossible to ever develop a modern social contract of expansive public goods.
Americans hate it when I state a simple fact. America was, until the 1970s, the world’s largest apartheid state. They hate it because it’s true — and because of what it implies: that collapse was their own foolish choice. You see, one of the greatest prices of being an apartheid state is that you can never have public goods, things for all — because your economy and society are premised on exploiting the subhumans. How can you build a public healthcare or retirement system when a large part of your society isn’t human at all? Then your institutions must do a different job: repression, separation, division, dehumanization. Not elevation.
So while Europeans were busy building the foundations of what was to become modern social democracy, from the 1950s through the 1980s, with astonishingly effective public institutions, that for the first time in human history, were to provide entire societies with things healthcare and retirement and higher education — America couldn’t do any of that, because an apartheid state can’t have anything for all. It’s institutions couldn’t ever develop in the direction of offering more sophisticated, inclusive, expansive, generous, beautiful, true social contracts.They stayed what they always were — exploitative (but I’ll come back to that). See the connection: segregation meant America could never mature into a social democracy. Why should I invest in you — when you were my inferior? But a society of people thinking like that had no reason to ever develop any great social systems of public goods at all.
A few decades later, that was to mean that even white Americans didn’t enjoy modern healthcare, retirement, education, jobs, incomes, savings — but nobody understood that at the time. Remember what I said about crackpot economics? American economics has always been one long justification for exploitation and violence in this way —right down to now, where me “denying” you healthcare is an economically “rational” choice, LOL — because it began as a defense of slavery, and ended as a defense of capitalism.
But what’s the difference between capitalism and slavery? Have you ever wondered? Do I go too far? Then why is it that there were slave traders and auction houses on every Main Street in America not so long ago? Can you even imagine the horror of a society like that — literally buying and selling people? Capitalism and slavery are inextricable. At least in the American context — but again, Americans don’t really understand how or why.
That brings me to my fourth force: gravity. I mean it in a socioeconomic way that’s going to be very, very difficult to explain to Americans — but Europeans will grasp naturally. I’ll come to a precise definition — for now, you can think of it as something as something like humanity, decency, being fair to others, not wanting to exploit them, cooperation, solidarity, camaraderie, what Camus meant by “walking beside one another.” It means a lot of things, because what it really means is that there’s a kind of gravity to human prosperity — a natural force behind it — which America has never really understood.
How did America become the world’s largest economy, at least for a time? It wasn’t because of neatly-suited Mad Men, or their pretty, depressed housewives, or computers, or any of the rest of it. America rose to power on the backs of slaves. Who picked the cotton and tilled the fields and so on. All that created enough of a social surplus that rich whites could then begin to formalize this thing called “capitalism”, in newly created “stock markets”, like on Wall St. But without the towering social surplus created by slavery, American capitalism would never have had much…capital in the first place. That surplus was only a “surplus” because…well..slaves are people who don’t get paid, just abused, exploited, and then die. Maybe you see my point. All that wondrous capital could then be invested in “companies” that made all kinds of amazing things, from lightbulbs to radios to guns. But none of that could ever have come to be without slaves creating the surplus in the first place. Without slavery, America would never have risen to power at all — it would have just been a dusty footnote in history, probably.
So slavery had another poisonous effect that’s little understood to this very day. It didn’t just make Americans incapable of ever developing public goods and a working modern social contract: it also made the linchpin of America’s socioeconomy exploitation…permanently.
America could never develop towards social democracy, because it was an apartheid state until recently in history. What choice did that leave it? Just one: capitalism. But capitalism’s rule is to exploit. I don’t pay you more out of the kindness of my heart, or because I care for you. I discard when you’re useless to me — and you’re only just another commodity. In fact, I can’t care for you in any real way under capitalism. My “shareholders” demand I pay you as little as possible, so there’s more profit for them. Do you see my point? Slavery caused segregation which made it impossible for America to turn socially democratic — but that in turn meant America could only ever become more and more capitalist.
So what was going to become of a society which could only ever grow more and more capitalist? Where would it end up? It could never have any of the following things: public goods, social institutions, norms of kindness and gentleness, a functioning intellectual class, elites who cared about it, people who thought of themselves as anything and each other as more than disposable commodities. Hence, MLK thought such a society would only collapse — as did Marx, and every great European thinker, really, from the dawn of modernity onwards. Why?Capitalism’s fundamental logic is that of exploitation. It is in that sense that capitalism and slavery are inextricable. They are variants of the same morality, ethics — and politics and economics, too.
If I am exploiting you — and you are exploiting me — where is there left for a society to go? Nowhere, really. It can only degenerate and devolve. Backwards. Its norms become ruled by greed. Its morality reverts to the principle of the strong surviving, and the weak perishing. Its economy becomes dominated by the most predatory and ruthless — while everyone else grows poor. Its politics can’t sustain democracy, because in a democracy, people consider one another equals — not just rivals in a game of exploitation, opponents, adversaries, enemies. Culturally, people regard one another only as commodities. So why give that worthless commodity next door…healthcare? Why give that rival for your next job…retirement?
Wait — doesn’t all that sound exactly like American collapse? Americans have to “crowdfund” — beg each other — for basic medicine that’s free in most of the rich world. They never retire, because there’s nothing to retire on. There’s nothing to retire on because nobody has enough money. Nobody has enough money because the mega rich became the ultra rich, and they’re hoarding it all. More money simply can’t be created, because crackpot economists “advise” the government. But the government turned into a clique of lunatic fascists anyways, since people growing poorer finally exploded in rage, despair, and hate. And what’s left of any intellectual class hems and haws about all the above, wondering whether it’s because Americans don’t work hard enough or make enough wars or hate their already hated minorities enough. LOL.
Doesn’t the simple logic that a society of people exploiting each other can only ends up right back in the dark ages eerily and precisely describe America today? Europe’s principle was different: we all lift each other up together. Americans say to each other, with a sneer and a kick, “pick yourself up by your own bootstraps!” Oh, the astonishing idiocy of that belief. Levitation? You see, my friends, gravity is real. America has always been premised on the belief that it wasn’t.
Economic gravity goes like this. When we are fair to each other, when we give one another a fair share of what we produce and create, then each of us has more to invest right back in all of us. Together, we can create these things called social institutions and public goods — healthcare systems, retirement systems, education systems — which lift all us up higher than we could ever climb atop each other. How high can an exploitative hedge fund lift a society, really? Nowhere. I get rich, you get poor, together, we’ve gone nowhere.
“A society can go nowhere under more and more extreme forms of capitalism except right back to medieval servitude, fascism, or both — just like America” is the correct answer to the question of prosperity — because however high I rise, it only comes at your own expense, and yours at mine, and soon enough, we find ourselves climbing all the way…down the abyss. The only thing that truly lifts us up is… all of us. When we are not climbing over each other now. We are just walking together, up and down these hills of life. Sometimes we rise, sometimes we fall — it’s OK. At least we are together. When we fall, there’s laughter. When we rise, we marvel at the green fields, the blue rivers, the white sea.
America’s been trying to fight gravity it’s whole existence long. But you can’t fight gravity. Nobody in the history of the world has ever “lifted themselves up by their own bootstraps.” Nobody can levitate. Bezos’s billions are built on the backs of all those dead slaves. Yes, really. And Americans who won’t give one another healthcare are the flipside: martyrs for capitalism, willing to die young, just for the thrill of hating each other.
A society rises towards modernity, towards civilization, towards progress together — as a whole — or it doesn’t rise at all. It just falls. Or maybe plunges. That’s what I mean by “gravity.” I doubt America’s ever going to understand any of the above. Let us hope then that the world is wise enough to learn the lesson of America’s strange, weird, self-inflicted collapse.
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