by Umair Haque
the House of
There's a question that's been on my mind - and maybe on yours.
Why did (North)
America make it so easy for itself to collapse?
Let me explain what I
(North) American collapse has many causes. One cause is that it
(North) America grew socially destabilized, ruptured, fractured. It
was undone. Through, most recently, social-scale propaganda,
disinformation, organized campaigns to brainwash the average person
into believing up is down.
That's just one cause,
though. Somehow, (North) America made it easy for itself to topple
into authoritarian implosion, economic ruin, and social upheaval.
Why? Why was (North) America so vulnerable to destabilization and
collapse in the first place?
So much so that within a
decade, it went from a reasonable place, to what seems to have
become a society stunningly dysfunctional at the most basic levels
of self-governance, self-direction, norms, values, goals,
Other societies haven't
collapsed so badly, after all - and perhaps they can learn from
(North) America's mistakes.
There are three interrelated factors, to my mind.
adversaries, enemies. Not as peers, colleagues, fellow
think I'm overstating it.
How else do we
explain (North) American cruelty, in all its strange and gruesome
guises - whether regular school shootings, crushing
overwork for little pay, the young and old never retiring,
no margin of error, sanity, or safety, lives lived at the
razor's edge of survival?
person has just a thousand dollars in savings, falling life
expectancy, and no faith in the future.
How did he get
capitalism, the variant that evolved in (North) America, and is
being exported globally, is premised on ruthless
negative-sum competition for the average person:
the rich get
ultra richer, but the middle class person forever lives
at the edge of a life imploding into poverty.
He is pitted
against his neighbor in a desperate struggle for the basics
education, finance, housing.
If he wishes to
have these things, extreme capitalism tells him, he can only
gain them by taking them away from someone else.
Hence, norms and
economics are linked - people hate one another because
they are constantly competing with everyone else for a
slightly less bad, but always declining, life. It would
drive anyone mad.
Think of it as a massive, social-scale Prisoners' Dilemma:
the costs of
cooperation (towards say building a functioning
healthcare system) have been raised so high (by
lobbying, gerrymandering, disinformation, and so on)
that the least costly option is to renege on the social
All that a person
who's life is collapsing, to whom everyone is already an
opponent, enemy, needs is a tiny nudge - to take his
bitter anger towards his neighbor, peer, society itself, and
turn it into outright spite and hate, pointing the finger at
a convenient scapegoat.
Perhaps you think
I overstate it, but how else are we to make sense of a
nation where people are always denying each other the basics
of a good life - instead of endowing each other with them?
is an attitude of scorn and contempt for institutions, the
rule of law, and government.
I've lived all
over the world - in war-torn nations, failing states, and
rich ones, too.
But nowhere have I seen a nation that
despises and loathes government as much as, as hard, as
often, as viciously, as (North) America.
It's the result
of decades of, to put it simply, brainwashing, by extremist
fringes on both left and right - which infected the center
soon enough, too. And now (North) Americans have been taught
to hate - genuinely really feel a sense of bitter scorn
at - their government, to the point that many of them
vehemently believe they'd be
better off without it.
Hence, (North) Americans don't invest in governance much - about half as
much as rich nations - and most of that investment is
subsidies to well-lobbied industries.
But without investment in governance, what happens?
something like Mad Max, only in yoga pants instead of
leather - the result is that the strong trample the weak,
mercilessly, systematically, with a laugh and a sneer, as
institutions and the rule of law are decimated.
And that too is
the case in (North) America today - the rule of law is an
institution that is easily flaunted, by shunting money
offshore, by exploiting loopholes, by changing the law
itself, and so on.
It's easy to
destabilize a nation that has been taught to fiercely hate
its own institutions - because it's been primed to
collapse, the foundations of prosperity rotted from the
factor is social distance, which results in mistrust.
A society, if it
is to stay one, must hang together:
cohere, connect, be
capable of seeing itself as a group of people.
Americans don't really see themselves that way anymore.
They put their
tribal affiliations first, before their sense of (North) Americanness.
How did that
happen? Well, social distance grew and grew, as a result
of inequality. As
inequality skyrocketed, (North) Americans stopped having
things in common.
Today, the rich,
imploded middle, and poor share almost nothing:
don't attend the same schools, take the same trains, wait in
the same lines, travel from the same airports, or even drive
on the same roads.
When social distance grows to such a degree, a society stops
being capable of collective action.
There is the
sense that all of them - all those other groups, the rich,
the landed, the poor, whomever - are out to get you.
And in a sense
distance increases too much, society's incentives go out
Better for the
ultra rich to become kings after a certain point -
there is too much to lose. Better for the imploded middle
to stamp down the poor if the ultra rich are untouchable.
These are optimal
decisions from the groups' viewpoint - but they are deeply
destructive to a society.
Just like my first two factors, negative-sum competition and
contempt for governance, social distance made (North) America easy to hack
as a society.
Groups were ready to turn
on one another viciously - they'd already begun to do so, after
all. That is what the anti-politics of the 1990s and 2010s, where no
one was able to agree on a working social contract, really meant.
The wood had gone bad -
all that someone had to do was to come along and pull the last few
planks of trust, decency, and comity out from the foundation of the
house of prosperity.
So here we are.
What can we learn...?
There is a place which
societies should never go to. They must never take dignity,
stability, opportunity, meaning, connection, and optimism away from
people - as (North) America's leaders foolishly did.
It's true to say those
things matter in themselves - but even if you don't believe that,
because you are a die-hard individualist, rationalist, materialist,
there is still a reason for you to value human beings and their
possibility - is insurance for the future.
Take too much of people's
lives away, and a whole society becomes easy to hack.
By removing people's
dignity, you are also corroding the foundation of the house of
prosperity - making it easier and easier for them to turn on each
other, themselves, and society itself.
All that an adversary has to do is come along and give it a little
Such a house is ready to