Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
Maybe you’ve noticed that I don’t write much about the political economy anymore. Why not? Because, quite frankly, there’s nothing much left to say. Let me distill three little lessons about tomorrow that are already probably becoming hazily clear.
The English-speaking world is the new Soviet Union. The best way to understand what has gone wrong with the Anglo world, and America in particular, is simply to think of it as a staggeringly ironic repeat of history. A few short decades ago, the Soviet Union fell, after thirty or so years of stagnation, which its complacent, pampered leaders, utterly divorced from lived reality, vociferously denied could ever be happening to begin with. That steadfast denial opened up the possibility of sudden collapse, and collapse it did: into authoritarianism, extreme inequality, superstition, cults of personality, tribalism, vendetta, violence, corruption, and kleptocracy. That is exactly what is happening to America, from the denial to the pampering to the sudden shock. Falling life expectancy, flat incomes, a shrinking middle class — short of war, or a giant meteor striking the earth, more severe indicators of collapse simply don’t exist. So. What led to the collapse?
The English-speaking world is in an ideological bubble. The fall of the Soviet Union was the failure of pure socialism. Now, ironically, the fall of the Anglo world is it’s perfect, almost precise, mirror image: the failure of pure capitalism. The simple lesson of the last century is this: either system alone cannot last, endure, or work. Now, the rest of the world knows this. Even Rwanda is building public healthcare — Rwanda, which just three decades ago, was the byword for genocide. Even Pakistan is building public transport and hospitals and schools. The entire rest of the world knows that capitalism is just one tool in the box of building genuinely prosperous societies — and quite often it is precisely the wrong tool. Yet on the Anglo world goes, impotent but still monogamously wedded to capitalism, so now you can get same-day drone delivery of anything at all from Amazon, recommended by your Fakebook friends — but you can die for lack of basic medicine, you don’t have savings, and you’ll never retire, while everyone else knows that trying to use capitalism alone to build, say, working healthcare or educational or financial systems is like trying to water a garden with napalm.
Limited by that childish belief, in America, for example, public investment has become completely verboten, sacrosanct, beyond imagining, to the point that hospitals are closing down. Have you ever heard of a society closing hospitals? Why would a sane society ever do that, if its population is growing (or even if it isn’t, because healthcare is always advancing)? Such insensible, unreasonable, thoughtless, inhumane, grotesquely foolish extremism is the precise mirror image of a few decades ago, when, it was forbidden in the Soviet Union to, say, even set up a little dry cleaning shop. In just this way, the ideological bubble that the Anglo world is in trapped in, like a web holding a fly, condemns it to fall behind the world, and it’s future resembles that of Russia’s. We’ll discuss that more in a moment.
(Now, I want you to really understand what I mean by “ideological bubble”, so let me give you a simple, nerdy example, but you can skip this paragraph if you get the big picture. Imagine that your wife and child fell gravely ill. Only you didn’t have the money to pay for their treatment. I came along and said: here’s the money. You can pay me back in the future, anytime at all, and I won’t charge you interest. If you were smart, you’d take my money. Because it is free. You could heal your wife and child, invest in Apple shares, and pay me back without ever lifting a finger. And, bonus, since you’re not a sociopath, you wouldn’t have let your wife and child die. But all that is exactly what the Anglo world is not doing, because under the tenets of extreme capitalism, social investment, which decades of Soviet style indoctrination have transformed into “entitlements” or “spending” or “deficits”, as if saving your family were “spending” a “deficit”, not making an investment in life and happiness itself, is minimized. Even if money is free, as it is today, when interest rates are zero. Yet to fail to invest in, for example, public healthcare when even Rwanda is, isn’t just economically foolish — it is the kind of moral catastrophe that dooms a society, that says a way of thinking about the world is impotent. We will return to that.)
No one has an incentive to improve anything, so nothing can or will improve. The fine flourishes of an impotent figurehead like an Obama aside, what is the true picture of institutional function — or dysfunction — in the Anglo world? Let me give you three examples. Nate Silver, who misjudged and mispredicted the election, is more famous and revered now than before. Ezra Klein, who failed to consider even superficially the very real peril of authoritarianism rising in a stagnant economy, is more celebrated and admired now than before. The New York Times, which spent the whole of the election year actively dismissing experts from all kinds of fields — politics, economics, leadership — warning of autocracy and implosion, whether Stiglitz, Kendzior, or little old me, is more profitable now than before. Those are just three tiny examples. The point is this. Not a single head has rolled, or even wobbled. The leaders who failed to shield democracy from autocracy are all even more firmly, solidly entrenched now than they were before. The point is not to blame, but to understand. What does that say?
There is no incentive to get it right. By “it”, I simply mean the basics of institutional functioning, for statisticians to predict, pundits and intellectuals to consider and reflect, the media to contextualize and warn, opposition parties to oppose, and so on. Where there is no incentive to get it right, there is no punishment for getting it wrong — there are in fact rewards for getting it lethally, catastrophically wrong. Where there are only rewards for getting it badly wrong, then there is the opposite of accountability: ideological fealty and absolutism. Where there is only ideology without accountability, there is no possibility of even minimally functional institutions, only dysfunctional ones. And in that dysfunction, of course, charlatans, buffoons, and con artists will rise to the top, which is precisely the story of now, in which every day is a fresh comedy of horrors.
And so. There is very little point left in discussing the political economy, at least of the English-speaking world, only to say that the UK might yet escape what America cannot. America’s future, and those who follow in its footsteps, is very simple, very straighforward, and now almost inescapable. Like the Soviet Union, it is a fly caught in a web of stagnation, ideology, and perverse incentives. Thus, it is collapsing, and the end of that collapse resembles Russia: a tiny elite of cronies that control nominally privatized institutions, whether energy grids or healthcare, and jet off into the horizon, having used them as extractive mechanisms to siphon off the wealth of people who are trapped in social classes, dead end jobs, go nowhere lives, and those people then take their bitter frustration out on scapegoats, whom they have been zealously schooled to hate by the very people that laugh and thus doubly exploit them. All that, only with more guns.
Now, of course, just as after the fall of the Soviet Union, there will be bright spots. Just as Estonia is probably a nicer place to be than Russia, so New Zealand and Australia probably aren’t going to end up as badly off as America, which is going to be Moscow on the Potomac, more or less, if it already isn’t.
So. The future of the Anglo world is the politics of the obvious: the fly and the web, collapse, implosion. The only interesting question is why. Why is this folly unique to it? I think it has to do not with politics per se, but with a lack of ontological sophistication, a failure to treat life as an end, only as a means to the end of material riches. One has to be a fly, after all, to be trapped by the web. But that is for future essays.
I want to leave you on a personal note. I am very happy not to have to discuss this anymore. I only ever did so as a kind of public warning, and it was always a painful, tedious exercise. And now even if my society, even if the whole world, even if every last city on earth, is stuck fast to a broken way of thinking about life, still, I must grow, stretch, and go on becoming, and so must you, too. There is more to life than the politics of the obvious. And so. I encourage you, too, to let the foolish and false not-really-debates-only-masquerades-of-Soviet-ideology (“Wait, Bob. Are Nazis really bad?! Is healthcare good?!! Gee, I don’t know. Let’s debate!!!!11111”) of the Anglo world go. You were made for better, truer things.