[Editor: Umair Haque continues to write some of the most insightful reflections on the social and spiritual indicators of collapse.]
Why A Collapsing Society is Like a Broken Heart, not a Broken Machine
“I love your writing. But please, PLEASE, give us some solutions!!”
Sure. How about this?
On one level, the solutions to American collapse are obvious. Social investments in the public goods that are the primary determinants of quality of life — which, because it’s collapsing, is turning people away from democracy, and towards extremism, tribalism, and authoritarianism. Healthcare, education, income, savings, retirement, “safety nets” and so on. Create a social contract like the rest of the rich world. Pretty easy, right?
Wrong. All this is — LOL — quite impossible. It is beyond America’s institutional capacity. It’s academics don’t understand it, it’s politicians won’t support it, it’s media won’t discuss it, it’s people don’t demand it, and it’s thinkers don’t think about it. Catch-22. You see, thinking about “solutions” doesn’t get us anywhere much when it comes to social collapse.
A collapsing society is like a broken heart. Much more than it is like a broken machine. And like a broken heart, it needs not just to be “fixed” or “repaired”, but to heal. Ew, ugh, gross. No. I don’t mean that in the way pundits do — “go out and hug a Nazi!” Quite the opposite. What does it mean for a society to heal? We’ll get there, together, in the end.
Individualism, selfishness, and hierarchy — these are the three essential components of American thought, belief, ideology. But they are also what keep it utterly unable not just to progress — but even to fail to understand why and how it is collapsing.
Individualism makes any kind of social investment in America impossible. The problem is that there are some goods that can only best be supplied socially — by a society, at a social level, on a social scale — and these goods are the most important ones, because they are the primary ones: healthcare, education, safety nets, and so on. Now the average American, believing steadfastly in individualism, goes on choosing instead to “buy his own”, instead of “paying for his neighbors’”, not ever quite being taught that “investing in everyone’s” is the correct way to think about it, because then he too will have the most of it, at the least cost.
Hierarchy makes any kind of equality impossible in America. Now. Americans might say they are against inequality — but are they for equality? Do you see the point? Let me make it clearer. Black people have made less than no progress in fifty years. How can that be? It sounds impossible, doesn’t it? The reason is that the average American, inculcated into a culture of bitter competition, greed, and domination, would rather be above someone else than be a part of a flatter society. So whites self-segregate and discriminate — what other reason can there be for blacks to remain in exactly the same place? But the problem is that by demanding they always sit above someone else, whites themselves do not ever demand egalitarian, universal rights and goods (for example, healthcare for all) either. They are on the top, sure — but now the top they are on is falling down. So Americans are the victims of their own folly — being for inequality, not against it, has come back to bite even the once prosperous middle class, as it had to, eventually.
Greed and selfishness make any kind of economy but history’s most purely capitalist one flatly impossible. Now, the rest of the world finds it frankly strange, weird, and baffling that Americans cling to capitalism — even when private offshore entities maximizing profits via hedge-fund bots as the basis of an entire economy is obviously LOL failing. Canada’s economy, for example, is roughly about forty percent social — and the number is higher still in France, Sweden, and Germany. But you will never learn this in America — not in school, university, on the news. Americans are too busy being indoctrinated into a cold war that has long since been fought and lost — no one won it, in the end. Both Russia and America collapsed into the same kind of failed kleptocratic mafia state. Yet there is simply no room in American public, private, political, or academic life to contemplate, reflect on, much less create, on the most basic fact of global economic reality.
Let me make that concrete. Who will appoint a commission to study how to build an American BBC or CBC? A task force for different designs for an American NHS? Is there a single academic centre devoted to the study of maximizing what lies beyond profit and GDP? Why not? There are plenty in the rest of the world. That is how possibility becomes reality.
Hence, “solutions” in America always boil down to some slightly more saccharine flavour of engineered utopian capitalism. Elon Musk will save us! Amazon will give us healthcare! Uber will send us ambulances!! No one seems to inform Americans much that these dreams are just that — fantasies that will not come true because they cannot. If capitalism could provide the things Americans need, wouldn’t it have done so long ago? Why would tycoons interested in getting rich give people healthcare and transportation? Why should people depend on them to have to? Isn’t democracy an exercise in self-determination, after all?
So there is the average American. Still believing in individualism, selfishness, and hierarchy. Not just a little bit — but absolutely. As if to give up a little room, just a tiny space, is to surrender the whole past in one fell blow. With a grim and unforgiving determination never to give an inch.
He does not really understand that these things are the opposite of democracy. A democracy must be an egalitarian place — not a hierachical one — if it is to cohere. It must be have some notion of the common good — not only self-interest, no matter how “enlightened”. And a democracy is not really made of individual profit-maximizers — but human beings cooperating — otherwise, it is just a marketplace, a corporation, a hedge fund, a ponzi scheme. But is he never taught any of that. Why not?
Ah, now we have come to the real question. It is not because American politics or leadership or any of the rest of it has failed — it is because American thought has failed. It is obsolete now. Individualism, selfishness, and hierarchy are relics of the past — for the very reason that their power to elevate human lives has been exhausted now. We have learned in the last difficult century that people rise higher faster when they lift one another up than when they are busy pulling one another down. That is when they can invest best in things like their own longevity, health, happiness, sanity, freedom, and opportunity. It may seem a simple lesson, but it took human beings millennia to learn it.
Still, there are nations that just will not learn it. There is China, still trying to command prosperity into place, as if it were a recalcitrant child. There is Russia, trying to bribe prosperity forward, as if it were a reluctant servant. And there is America. Whose people have been taught prosperity is something they must fight one another for, right down to the death. Like a sentence that can only be lifted by defeating all the other weaker ones. That is what the survival of the fittest really means.
How sad. How funny. How foolish. How can prosperity be anything like that? If it is something that we must fight one another for, destroy and ruin one another over, you see, then it is nothing at all. Because your loss simply equals my gain, and in the end, nothing much new has been created. This is where individualism, greed, and selfishness lead us—to the folly of war, the blindness of authoritarianism, the hubris of decline — but Americans have yet to really discover that lesson. After all, who is teaching it to them?
American thought will not think it. American economics cannot understand it. American law, which is built on American economics, will not decide for it. American media will not say it. American politicians therefore have no reason to stand for it. They are too busy reciting a single mantra — “the survival of the fittest!! the survival of the fittest!!” over and over again, like a broken, obsessed mind.
In the middle of this is our average American. He is not a bad person. He is not a good person. He is just a person. Only his whole way of thinking, acting, feeling, and reasoning has been turned upside down thus, believing, essentially, that others must suffer for him to prosper — seven little words that still keep the full weight of all the millennia of human ignorance since the dawn of time beating right there within him.
Yet it is up to him to untwist this tangled thread of folly.
That is how a society heals. If that sounds difficult, and dubious, it is. Much more so than “solutions”. None of the above can be engineered or plumbed or “fixed”. It can only happen, or not happen, organically, naturally, slowly, with time, grace, wisdom, and truth. With fire and dust, person by person, one little beat of a heart at a time, coming back to life. In that way, a collapsing society is something like a broken heart. It heals when it grows, at last, beyond itself.