Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
Why American Collapse is Only Just Beginning (Not Ending): Six Megatrends That Will Shape the Future
What do people whose lives are falling apart do? Well, the first thing they usually do is take it out on each other. Americans have been doing that for a long time now, so much that it is a way of life. This is my fourth megatrend — it is an emotional one: rage, despair, and anxiety as a way of life. Americans will go on taking the bitter anger and grim despair of living in a collapsing society out on each other.
There are many beliefs America holds that the rest of the world finds gruesome and strange: guns, capitalism, greed, cruelty. But among these is a new one: that this dark period in American history is an anomaly — and therefore, things will revert to normal. Sorry. American collapse is not an anomaly — it is the very opposite: the culmination of decades-long trends. Those trends, which I’ll discuss in this essay, have not ended — and so collapse has barely only really begun.
Let me begin by dashing your hopes. There’s much talk of a “Blue Wave” — excited and hopeful talk. Alas, when we look closely at the wave of politicians that are to turn the country around, it’s all too easy to see that there is no transformative agenda that unites them — mostly, they stand for minor incremental changes, not exactly a New Bill of Rights. And as they are elected, they will quickly meet the reality of American politics: lobbying dollars which control a two-party system that offers the barest illusion of choice. Would you prefer armed teachers — or merely armies at school? Would you like greed with a sugarcoating — or lethally savage capitalism? And so on. The Blue Wave has as little chance of turning America around as Houdini might actually turning water into wine.
So the longest-running trend in America — that its democracy has long been broken (or never really been much of one at all, if you want to count the inconvenient fact that it was a segregated nation until 1971, which is usually too much reality for most Americans to bear) — can only continue. Today’s noble Blue Wave idealist is tomorrow’s capitulating Obamacrat — they must either compromise, toeing the party line, or they will quickly find themselves powerless, unheard, and invisible. So Blue Wave or no Blue wave — it is quite irrelevant — American political reality means it will simply go on having little chance of gaining working healthcare, higher education, public media, safety nets, or retirement, because it lacks the capacity to create it — though that is precisely what most Americans, by many measures, want.
But they do not just want it. They need it. The average American’s plight is so desperate that people in other rich countries can scarcely comprehend it. Dying from a lack of insulin? The elderly working at Walmart? Less than a week’s pay in savings?It sounds like a dystopian film, not reality. Yet this points to my second megatrend. American incomes have been flat since the 70s — but all the while, the basics of life, all the things above, from retirement to healthcare, have grown in price. First creeping up, and now skyrocketing. Of course, this shatters the average person economic hopes — but it makes those at the top ultra-wealthy. So America’s two great economic megatrends — rising inequality, growing poverty, and an imploding middle class, are likely to bite harder as well.
People who must choose between food and healthcare, of course, enjoy poorer and poorer standards of living. And that is America’s third big trend — a declining real quality of life. America yesterday was an optimistic nation — perhaps falsely so — yet still, there was the sense that eventually, life would get better for “all”, as each generation outdid the last. But now that hope is gone. Life is not getting better — it is getting worse, by the day. Life, however you would like to define it. Life expectancy? Shrinking. Infant mortality? Rising. Loneliness, despair, depression? Spiking. Trust, bonds, relationships? Imploding. American life will go on getting harder, meaner, nastier, crueller, and more dismal in every way — because a decent life, at least to the rest of the world, has become an unaffordable luxury.
What do people whose lives are falling apart do? Well, the first thing they usually do is take it out on each other. Americans have been doing that for a long time now, so much that it is a way of life. This is my fourth megatrend — it is an emotional one: rage, despair, and anxiety as a way of life. Americans will go on taking the bitter anger and grim despair of living in a collapsing society out on each other. After all, they have no way not to — no mental healthcare, universal education, functioning media, or even norms of basic decency anymore. They will go on hurting one another in every imaginable way — destroying each other in hard and soft ways, denying one another retirement, degrading and bullying each other at work and school and play, refusing to invest in the barest bits of society, walking around with machine guns, building tomorrow’s predatory systems, whether Ubers or hedge funds — precisely because there is no way to aspire to anything better, since the political system is broken, and the economy is irreparable.
Because it all seems so hopeless, societies governed by rage and despair also give up on democracy. So we are likely to see a constant “tussle” between authoritarians and the comic Marco Rubio-esque charade that passes for American leadership. But I put “tussle” in quotes for a reason. Authoritarians don’t need a majority — they never have, and that is foolish myth promoted by American intellectuals. It’s enough for fascists and tyrants to capture perhaps 30–40% of a nation to take over its institutions, norms, and future — because that 30% is like a wrecking ball, that can be used to intimidate, bluster, threaten, and bully (as long as the rest is split). That fringe, lunatic 30% now controls America wholesale — not just making any kind of progress not just impossible, but demanding wholesale regress: banning books, taking science out of schools, putting fundamentalist religion into public life, and so forth. That is my fifth megatrend, authoritarianism, and I am sorry to have to tell you that it will not stop with this President — it will continue, gain strength, and shape America for the foreseeable future.
I am sure that by now, perhaps, you find all this quite unbelievable. Ah, but wouldn’t you yourself have said where America is today was absurdly, absolutely impossible even two years ago? Wouldn’t you have laughed if someone had read you today’s headlines then, and cried, “LOL. Get real, dude. No way!!!!!”?
That is my sixth megatrend: ignorance. It is not just American economics, politics, society, and culture which have failed — at a deeper level, American thought has failed. Its intellectuals cannot explain decline, its pundits predict it, its gurus understand it, or its leaders fix it. That is because American ideas became ideologies — capitalism, individualism, aggression, cruelty, rationalism, selfishness, greed — which are all obsolete now. Perhaps they will be needed in some distant future again, though I doubt it — but right now, they are quite useless, because this age of human history demands what is truer in us, whether empathy for suffering, respect for difference, courage to stand naked, intimacy with ourselves. But because those are qualities that can only be nurtured, evoked, and cultivated, not “monetized” and “captured” and bottled and manufactured, American thought simply cannot produce them anymore than all the hedge funds, algorithms, or stock markets in the world can produce even a glimmer of sanity, grace, or wisdom.
And so. American thought will go on thinking that every year that it cannot possibly get much worse — which is what it has done for the last decade — and at every juncture, it will go on being painfully wrong. Collapse is only just beginning in America. The question is not if the broken hearts, minds, and spirits of Americans can hold back the flood — they cannot — but rather, if they can learn, at long last, to see the obvious coming, before it hits them like a freight train.