by Umair Haque
isn't the First World
Life expectancy in Chile's higher. Kids in Pakistan, Nigeria, and Thailand don't get massacred at school. Even Rwanda's building a public healthcare system.
So if "first-world" means
"well-off", then something's gone badly wrong...
This model of thinking
was made for and by capitalism - and so it's no surprise that it
limits to thinking of capitalism as the Best Thing That Can Ever Be.
(North) America might be a "first world country"... but so what? If Chileans live longer, LOL - what does it matter? Such a model of thinking basically said:
But in (North) American collapse we see the fact that riches alone are no guarantee that people live decent lives.
In fact, those very riches, especially if they're earned through greed, hate, and injustice - in predatory ways - seem to cause a nation to collapse.
So riches alone aren't
sufficient for prosperity today. They must turn into something else.
But what, precisely...?
Think of Western Europe. Scandinavia. Canada. Why are these societies so much more successful than (North) America?
"Social democracy," you'll probably say... And in a way, you're right. But I think there's a reason underlying even that - which makes social democracy, as a kind of political economy, possible in the first place.
All these nations have human history's most sophisticated and advanced sets of rights.
... all these as genuine constitutional, inalienable rights.
Because they belong to everyone, all of a society's institutions, from governments to corporations, must go on innovating to provide them, at higher levels.
Because they're rights,
these societies have evolved norms and values of decency, dignity,
gentleness, and sanity... at least to a degree.
Who didn't? (North) America...
Why not? It's not just that "social democracy could never happen" - more deeply social democracy could never happen because rights simply cannot ever seem to change in (North) America.
Americans just don't understand - and they're never taught - that those sets of rights they consider the world's best are in fact now poor and threadbare ones.
God don't help you much you much when what you need is
healthcare and an education. "Freedom of speech" doesn't mean a
whole lot when you have no real public media to give voice to
anything that matters much in the first place.
The problem, though, is that one can't stay at this level of development - industrialization - forever.
Industrialization is a
phase, a period - a way to get richer - and its gains should be
reinvested in hospitals, schools, libraries, and so forth, before
all those factories, jobs, and sectors, migrate, as they inevitably
will, to places who can do the same work, cheaper - unless, like
Florence, perhaps, you place artisanship over innovation.
And so industrial
capitalism, instead of maturing into social democracy,
undergoing a process of humanization, by investing in healthcare,
education, and so on, imploded instead into monopoly capitalism by
the 2000s, which, by the 2010s, had degenerated into the
quasi-fascism today, as falling middle classes turn to extremism and
authoritarianism, just as in the 1930s.
America's elites got rich by impoverishing the middle classes into precarity, turning their every day into a constant struggle against perpetual ruin. Such "growth" was really a nation eating itself, and it's still going on today.
But the price of that growth, ultimately, is political - the people being preyed upon will eventually revolt, usually by turning to authoritarians, fascists, and demagogues.
And when a nation reaches that point, it usually begins to regress at light-speed, doesn't it?
Let me explain it by going to the next level.
Below this level lie nations which are struggling to achieve capitalism and democracy - what you might call basic liberalism - at all.
Take Pakistan. It's always on the edge - is it a democracy? Is this election valid? Can people speak freely? And so forth.
Here, the challenges are something like the basic freedoms that were established by the 1800s in the West - the freedom to trade, freedom from caste, the abolition of feudalism, the end of serfdom, freedom of speech, and so forth.
Now, remember the idea of (North) American regression? Well, what happens if, like (North) America, a nation starts to go backwards? Where does it end up? Maybe right back here...
Let me explain.
If a nation chooses to do
what (North) America does - and treat getting rich as the end in
itself, not a means to genuinely creating decent lives for everyone,
then it will, like (North) American, implode too - start to go
backwards, instead of forwards.
Well, it's economy changes - radically. You see, the (North) American economy is still 75% consumption - McMansions, SUVs, designer jeans, and so forth. The problem is that 80% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. They can't afford those things anymore.
But if (North) America
had invested in public goods, then the economy would be made less of
consumption, and more of investment.
Instead, humanizes societies grow through investment.
They invest in people, and people grow,
It's a virtuous circle - one far more powerful than capitalism's, which was about financial capital growing at a few percent a year, often at the price of people's lives.
And yet the stuff of that
virtuous circle is what economics should really be about.
Does that make sense?
Think of the old Denmark vs. (North) America debate. Denmark is obviously a vastly more successful society.
But why? Not because it's "homogeneous" (so is Somalia) - but because it has a far more powerful set of rights than (North) America does, which then established a set of institutions which lifted people up, instead of punched them down.
That changed the
composition of the economy radically - not mostly things to
consume, but more invested in people, which meant people, in turn,
had more of themselves to invest, right back in each other.
We should probably begin to see it as a kind of dangerously unstable place, something like trying to walk a tightrope, between regress and futurity, between caste feudalism and humanized societies where people live with dignity and equality.
This is a phase societies should try furiously to outgrow, as fast and as hard as possible, because every moment you linger there, you're on a knife edge:
I don't know if (North)
American will ever learn the lesson - but the world should...