Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
Umair Haque has a profound understanding of collapse in America. He claims, and I think he is right, that the United States has already collapsed. The collapse he elucidates is not a technological collapse, i.e. not a shortage of material goods, food, water, power and transport, but a uniquely social collapse, in which no one connects with anyone else in a meaningful and supportive way, in which every relationship is subject to market forces, which results in a predatory society. Kill or be killed; a war of ‘all against all.’
And the question for us here at Engage! is what happens when western Buddhism, in the form of individual salvation through solo meditation, begins to thrive in a place where society has collapsed? Does the practice enable the individual to survive the collapse, or does it actually contribute to the problem? Do ‘church models’, such as ‘Black church’ or Christian mega-churches, fill a need for social connection where society has collapsed? Do Buddhist sanghas provide any meaningful social connection that can support people in a predatory market society?
Following this thesis of social collapse, doesn’t it now make sense that Steve Bannon and Donald Trump offered a promise of ‘white nationalism’, uniting an aging white Christian population against ‘illegal aliens’, and an authoritarian state, as a remedy for social collapse, and why 35% of Americans, the aging white Christian population, are so resolutely behind Donald Trump?
In “Why We’re Underestimating American Collapse”, I told the story of five new, bizarre, and unseen social pathologies. The symptoms are surely sensational — but they are easy to describe. What matters more, to thinking people, should be the causes.
So. How did America collapse? Did it collapse like an avalanche, or collapse like a house? Neither. The story I will tell you is that a once thriving political economy collapsed like a black hole: into a place of absolute totalist nihilism. What does that curious phrase mean?
The story I have told in recent essays is that stagnation, by inflaming old tribal and racial wounds, allows fascism to rise, in a series of authoritarian moments, reaching to the heights of power in a society. A failing social contract causes people to give up on the very democracy that cannot provide it, turn on their neighbors, and claim whatever is left of a dwindling society for themselves — and thus every catastrophe of human possibility ends in a contest over the purity of blood and race. This cycle is precisely the same in America as it was in Nazi Germany, and that is why the parallels feel eerier every day now — from ethnic “bans” to immigrant detentions to neo-Nazi marches.
But what causes the lack of a working social contract? Well, the unforgiving truth is that both sides of a polity must fail for people to give up on democracy, and turn to strongmen instead, rejecting democracy, civilization, and enlightenment in favour of authoritarianism, barbarism, and a childlike need for safety. The “sides” fail in different ways — but oddly, those ways are historically precisely the same. Simply put, the right fails to stand for conserving, and the left for liberating. Let us explore how that has been the case in America.
The first step in American collapse was that the right gave up on entirely the idea of social order. Unpersuaded? Consider how in the 1950s, Republicanism believed in a social contract, taxes, and public gooods — but by the 2000s, it believed in, well, none of these whatsoever. The GOP stopped offer people any active aspect of a social contract at all — its only agenda was to “drown government in a bathtub”. Now, what can a social order — or the social contract that grounds it — consist of when a government does not exist? Who will rise to the top of such a society? Only strong-men, mafias, and thugs. In Germany, too, the right simply gave up, allowing the currency to spiral out of control, and violence to stalk the streets. The ideology is different — in America, it is named “libertarianism”, not “capitulation” — but the idea is precisely the same: there need be no social order whatsoever.
How did the American left respond? Did it fill the vacuum left by the right? For example, with a vision for not just a “better” social order — but any kind of social order at all, not just the rule of the strong over the weak, which is the lack of a social order? One grounded in a functioning, real-world social contract? Not at all. It, too, gave up any interest in providing average, everyday people the basics of a good life, or of moderating the gain of winners — and hence, the bottom fell out of the social order, while the top floated off into another galaxy. Healthcare, finance, transport, education, retirement, and so on — the deconstruction of all these were in fact pioneered by the Democrats, not the Republicans. But what did they deconstruct them into?
American politics is famous for being “hyperpolarized”. But if we look at it carefully, that appears to be just half the story — the superficial half. What is truer is that both its “sides” converged to exactly the same point. The right and left both now appear to disagree, but in fact they do not disagree much at all: they agree on one crucial idea — and it is the only agenda left in American politics whatsoever, just as there was only one agenda left in Soviet politics before it. Both came, ironically, to a place of absolutism, totalitarianism.
Markets are seen to be the cure-alls for every kind of social ill, challenge, or issue — the last, best, and only ways to coordinate every last aspect of human thought, action, effort, or ideas. Therefore, predatory capitalism — for there are many kinds of capitalism, but this one is a totalist ideology, which leaves no room to breathe, no space for consideration, no chance for anything else at all — was quickly applied to every sphere of life, from healthcare to education to energy to finance, and it was quickly assumed to be history’s final endpoint. But how can a social order and a social contract exist if everything is a market?
Nobody much bothered to ask. So while the minor points of the designs of such markets differed — the left wanted “exchanges” and the right wanted “free markets” — politics quickly collapsed like a black hole, into a one-dimensional exercise: expanding the reach of a single idea, markets, into every sphere of human life, without a moment’s thought about whether any kind of totalism is ever a good idea.
“So what?!! What is wrong with that?!”, you will probably ask, having been taught that markets are indeed the end of history. As it turns, out everything. Markets are just one kind of social organization. A healthy society is made up of many others — whether civic organizations, great public institutions, or just families and communities. Markets maximize profits. What do these other kinds of organizations exist to maximize? Have you ever thought about it? They maximize things that are worth more: trust, meaning, purpose, dignity, belonging, lifespans. So how can a working social contract then be made solely of markets — if it’s really made up of these worthier things?
It’s an oxymoron, isn’t it?
Perhaps, by now, you disagree. Yet the evidence of just this breakdown is abundant. Corporate profits have never been higher — since records were kept. But the well-being of Americans has been shattered like never before in modern history. Even Costa Ricans have longer life expectancies. All of Europe lives longer, healthier, happier, saner lives. No other society in all the world has regular school shootings, an over-the-counter opioid epidemic, and shrinking real incomes. These are not coincidences, misfortunes, anomalies — they are cause and effect, two sides of a coin. Markets did what they do: maximized profits — but only at the ruinous expense of a catastrophe of human possibility.
Imagine the average American: a person who has less than a thousand dollars in savings — but just having a child now costs $30,000. Imagine nomadic retirees living in their cars, in search of seasonal work, markets superceding families and communities, who are not able to care for them. Young people living in such grim despair that they turn to opioids and shoot each other every other day in schools. Imagine Americans turning, in the desperation and hopelessness of it all, to strong-men, conspiracy theories, extremists, and propaganda.
What do all these cries of pain — for that is what they are — really say? I think they say something like: “I am just a interchangeable, invisible commodity of ever dwindling value in an infinite, endless market. I am not a valued member of a community, a vital part of a social order, or a human being with dignity. My life holds no meaning, belonging, purpose, or possibility anymore.”
Perhaps you think that is strong. But that is seeing the symptoms, again, not the lesson. What is that lesson? A society cannot do both at once: either one maximizes profits using markets, or maximizes well-being, using a richer, more historic, more humane set of organizations. So the relentless, one-dimensional use of markets blew life apart in America — because impersonal, anonymous, profit-maximizing markets are arenas for arms-length exchanges, not enduring social bonds, relationships, trust, nurturance, care, social growth, and human development. Do you see the difference?
The problem, though, is that their leaders, intellectual, and politicians do not appear interested in explaining collapse to Americans — probably because they do not understand it themselves. That what links all these new, bizarre social pathologies is the despair and rage that ideologically totalitarian capitalism, every bit as rigid and immovable as Soviet communism before it, has induced, by ripping the heart out of society, and the floor out from beneath a livable life.
Now. Let me tie all that up. American political economy is not fragmented. It is unified by a kind of absolute totalist nihilism. Whether left or right, it stopped believing that any kind of social organization, whether governments, communities, families, or public institutions needed to exist at all — and indeed, that all those were impediments to the rightful end of history, which was the reign of markets. Markets coordinating every last human action, thought, and behaviour became the utopian goal of American thought — but every utopianism is a totalism, too. So the result was that a working social contract quickly became impossible — because markets maximize profits, but it is only the full spectrum of richer, larger, historical social organizations which maximize human well-being.
Perhaps you feel I am being unfair. Am I? I think that if you understand the above, you will also see that both conservatives and liberals have failed profoundly — not just at “policy”, but at thinking and knowing. Conservatives should have championed just those higher values beyond profit — dignity, meaning, belonging— but they did not. Liberals should have gleaned long ago the fact that profits do not equal human equality, justice, possibility — that the two are often at odds. But neither side was interested in questioning the totalism of markets.
So, through a belief that it had reached the final point of history — Germany too, once believed in a Thousand Year Reich — America’s social contract began, inevitably, to fail catastrophically. Nothing was allowed to exist but winner-take-all markets and their values, interactions, consequences, modes. Totalitarianism took hold, just as in Soviet Russia. But such an invisible collapse of the mind ever precedes the later, visible, collapse of the social body.
What happens to such countries, in which political economy collapses into a black hole of totalitarian nihilism, in which the many diverse kinds of institutions that a society needs maximize well-being are simply no longer allowed to exist? When a society only believes fervently in one single kind of institution, at the expense of all the others — whether the one is market, tribe, military, government, or religion?
Well, no matter how mighty they are, their people lose faith in democracy, as their social contracts fail, and their lives wither, becoming easy marks for authoritarian strong-men. They turn on one another, hoping to seize for themselves and their tribes whatever dwindling, moldy fruit is left of the failed social harvest, damning the rest, and calling them impure.
And that is the sad tale, full of hubris and irony, of how a once proud nation called America — once a place that learned from history, which became a place that forgot history — collapsed.