Great Leaps in America That Collapsed

How The World’s Richest Country Became a Failed State Plunging Down the Authoritarian Abyss

You might rightly chuckle, groan, or even scream — the weekend that America’s set to appoint an accused rapist as a Supreme Court justice for life, the Nobel Peace Prize goes to a man and a woman who’ve fought to define mass rape as a war crime. It’s vivid evidence: the world’s richest country is a ruinously failed state, plunging into an authoritarian abyss. A place where a Nobel Laureate sells his prize to pay for healthcare. Where people die without insulin, never retire, buy their kids bulletproof backpacks — and now, quite possibly, one where they will be tried and judged by a bellowing, screeching man who thinks all of that is pretty wonderful and grand.
How funny. How strange. How sad. How did America get here? When the history of American collapse is written, I think it will be seen as a series of great leaps, which punctuated slow, steady erosions, corrosions, and crumblings. In norms and values, among institutions and expectations, of rules and responsibilities — until at last democracy itself was a smoking, belching wreck, and in its place arose every kind of backwardness, from authoritarianism and kleptocracy to theocracy and fascism. Do you think I exaggerate? Am I being unfair? I will make my case, and you be the judge.
The first of these giant leaps — or the first one that I want to discuss, at any rate — is what happened in the aftermath of 9/11. The Department of Homeland Security was created — a new institution. Now, it’s not that Americans shouldn’t have wanted safety from terrorists — of course they should have. And yet every society makes choices. You see, the real threat to America wasn’t mullahs in a cave — how could it be? — it was that American incomes had been stagnant since the 70s, and a sense of unease was growing. People were losing faith in institutions to give them decent lives again — and so they were tuning out of democracy, “polarizing”, or to put it more accurately, becoming mistrustful and resentful of one another, as they had always been. The American experiment was beginning to fail from within — and as any great strategist knows, if you can get a society to collapse from inside, you don’t need to fire a bullet.
What would have happened at precisely that point if America had built a National Healthcare System instead of a DHS? Let’s actually think about it. Europeans live about five years longer. Given America’s population, if an American NHS system raised life expectancy by five years, that would be the equivalent of 20 million lives saved. (Of course, I’m comparing abstractions, so the point is just a general order of magnitude). Even if Americans (heaven forbid) had had a 9/11 every year, and 3000 people lost their lives, which would be a terrible thing — 20 million is a much greater number. I’m not trying to justify or excuse anything — just making a difficult, perhaps even unfair, point. But life is not fair. Societies must make choices. They choose to make investments — and America made all the wrong ones, which is why it collapsed. The only public good it invested in was military might — not in any of the rest of the following: healthcare, education, retirement, finance, childcare, safety nets — but when you need a doctor and a retirement plan, a predator drone isn’t going to help you.
So now American collapse was gathering steam. America invested in institutions like the DHS — instead of an NHS. But what it needed much more than bombs and guns was healthcare, education, finance, retirement, and so on. The essentials of life. Without these things, people might feel safe from bombs — but would they feel safe in a truer sense: that the essentials of life were ever really secure, attainable, could be had in plenitude? Would they feel like they were living in a working, fair, and decent society — or an unsurvivable, hostile, unfair one? And if they felt unsafe, deprived, threatened, in danger — not from (LOL) unbathed mullahs in a cave, but of genuinely losing access to the essentials of life — what would happen then?
Reaganomics had prevent Americans from ever investing in themselves — so they lived shorter, poorer, uglier lives than Europeans by the 90s — and then 9/11 happened, which caused America to have another decade of underinvestment in itself, all over again. But few societies can bear such a thing, for long — precisely because people do not feel safe anymore, as systems crumble around them, as the chance to live a better life fades, as society becomes a kind of jungle, where it’s every man and woman for themselves.
(What a society invests in — and doesn’t — also goes on to shape its norms and values. A society which feels it must protect its “homeland”, with all the eerie and sinister echoes such a phrase carries, is also one which is becoming paranoid, fragile, delusional — unable to grapple with reality. The “homeland” matters more than the people in it — and that means such a society is now beginning to enshrine authoritarian values and codes. It is beginning to evaluate citizens as “good” and “bad” with respect to who is an “enemy” of the “homeland” and who is a true person at all. I’ll come back to all that — which is obviously self-evident today.)
The second great leap in America collapse was the financial crisis of 2008. Now, at this point, American living standards had been flatlining for decades, largely thanks to predatory capitalism, which took all the gains for itself, and gave none to average people. The result was skyrocketing inequality, which meant that the average American had gone deeply into debt, to try and sustain his wealth with the only real appreciating asset he could afford — his home. Then home prices collapsed — on the back of rampant speculation amongst predatory finance. What did the government — this time Obama, not Bush — do? It bailed out the banks — but didn’t reform them in any way whatsoever. It gave the financial sector infinite (literally) free money — but not the struggling, fracturing middle class, and the desperate poor.
The result was eminently predictable. Because the state had absorbed the costs of the banks’ and hedge funds’ speculation, it couldn’t then invest in public goods — all over again, remember, that is exactly what happened after 9/11. So by this point, America had had thirty to forty years of underinvestment in public goods — first, thanks to Reagonomics, then, thanks to 9/11, and then, thanks to the financial crisis.
By now, Americans were growing truly desperate. Just five years later, the American middle class became a minority for the first time. People began to experience medical bankruptcy. They couldn’t make ends meet. But meanwhile, the rich were growing richer than kings of old. Why? well, capitalism had won — and Americans had lost. The lack of reform after the financial crisis meant that banks and hedge funds were bigger and more powerful after the crisis than before it (LOL) — and that meant that the average American was exploited more, not less — his income as a portion of his productivity just went on shrinking.
Such people — immiserated, in Marxist terms, which means they are exploited if work, but left to die if they don’t — soon enough lose faith in the systems which govern them. And that is precisely what began to happen in America. People began to grow resentful, angry, furious — so much so that they were ready to question the basics of democracy itself. Are those dirty Mexicans, Jews, women, minorities even people at all? Why should they have anything — rights, powers, income, savings — when I don’t? Why shouldn’t I take away their rights to exist in safety and peace? Isn’t all that where predatory capitalism left me?
You see, one of the greatest ironies of American collapse is that American leaders thought that it was defeating the terrorists which would give Americans a sense of safety. But predatory capitalism was producing a greater feeling of unsafety, threat, danger, the sense of living in a hostile, unsurvivable world, among Americans than cave-dwelling terrorists ever really could. America beat the terrorists — but it never beat the capitalists. And yet the average American wasn’t nearly as worried about al-Qaeda on an everyday basis as he was coping — unsuccessfuly — with the crushing, bruising, traumatizing panic, dread, and anxiety of being remorselessly exploited by capitalism. How will I choose between chemotherapy and my mortgage? What happens if I can’t those bills? How will I educate my kids? Why don’t I have any way to have a decent life, even though I’ve worked hard and played by the rules — only one where I have panic attacks every sleepless night?
That brings me to the third giant leap in American collapse — the election of Trump. But I don’t just mean the literal election — I mean the atmosphere of denial, complicity, obliviousness, and foolishness by elites which surrounded it. Throughout that year — do you remember? — elites declared it flatly impossible that America would elect such an obviously unfit leader. Meanwhile, they pilloried Hillary at every opportunity — since they were sure she would win. They hadn’t understood any of the above yet — that from within, America was something like a volcano, ready to explode. The previous three giant leaps had created huge stress fractures, jaggedly ripping down the sides of the great mountain of American prosperity. Whenever anyone told them they were standing atop a volcano, not a mountain, American elites laughed, and said, “you fool! Of course this is a mountain! And we will stand atop it forever!”
So America’s best and brightest, its leaders and luminaries, made the fatal, funny, foolish mistake of imagining that American prosperity was Everest — not St Helens. They never once imagined it could explode into a fireball of rage, hate, spite, and delusion. Why not? Well, because American elites didn’t think any of the above was a problem — they thought it was quite wonderful, in fact. The economy was booming!! — never mind people were getting poorer. We’ve beaten the terrorists!! — never mind predatory capitalism has left people feeling more unsafe and precarious than ever. Capitalism is the answer to everything!! — meanwhile, the middle class imploded and life expectancy fell. For America’s elites, these things weren’t issues, challenges, or obstructions — they were noble and good things, not disgraceful and bad ones. That is because to American elites, Darwinian survival of the fittest had become the only thought which was allowed, encouraged, or discussed. If people weren’t surviving — they must not be fit — and therefore, their elimination was for the best, anyways.
Bang!! With a thunderous crack, the great volcano of American collapse exploded. That sense of rage, mistrust, fury, and despair led directly to the election of Trump, defying all the expectations of cosseted elites, who stood there dumbfounded.
Quite naturally then, in order to save face, to preserve the illusion of their wisdom, elites began to deny that such a President could do any damage at all — which made collapse infinitely worse, by enabling him to do his worst. “He’s not a fascist! Don’t you ever say that!!”, they sternly warned, “Everything will be fine. American institutions are strong and mighty!” Quite naturally, then, within two years, little children were in camps, ethnic cleansing raids had begun, and white supremacy proudly marched in cities in towns, while a President beamed over all of it — when he wasn’t insulting minorities, taunting women, and flouting the basic principles of democracy. Denial is a form of complicity, my friends — yet American elites were too foolish to know even that lesson of history. So again and again, they were “shocked” and “surprised” that a President who openly cheered fascist and supremacist movements and ideals…enacted just such policies, with an especial swiftness and fury.
And yet many Americans cheered him on. Why? Because they had been told capitalism’s lie, over and over again — you will get rich one day, if you work hard enough!! You’ll live like a capitalist, too!! The financial crisis was the moment when American elites might have helped them understand this lie — and guide people towards a fairer, better social contract — but how could they? They never understood it themselves. And so all that was left for rage to erupt, like a great volcano, when the lie was finally discovered.
Capitalism, of course, had no intention of giving Americans anything but subsistence wages, and exploiting them as ruthlessly as possible — when has it ever done anything else? So now the American, the Trumpist, discovering capitalism was a clever and terrible lie, a con game, a cheat, did what a falling middle class in that position always does — they turned to fascism instead. They would take the glittering dream that capitalism had promised them, but never delivered, by force, when they couldn’t have it by democratic consent. They would unpeople citizens and put children in camps and make this a land of the pure again. You see, when proles have been promised upward mobility, but discover the grim reality that they are falling downwards, they don’t often turn on their superiors — they turn on their inferiors, precisely so that they can have more superiority, not more equality.
Proles tend to obey the authoritarian norms which they have learned by being proles, too long. And those norms, of course — which America had always had — were strengthened by institutions like homeland security and needless wars and Presidents declaring “mission accomplished” when America didn’t have a working social contract. Remember how three decades of a lack of public investment had led to all this?
Now America was imploding, not just exploding. The volcano had erupted into a great and terrible fireball — which had set fire to American institutions, norms, values, systems — and in its place, stood a great, smoking wreck. America was a caldera now, not a mountain of prosperity anymore, upon which ashes rained that smoldered crimson with the fury of rage. Most people lived paycheck to paycheck, couldn’t raise $1000 for an emergency, sent their kids to schools hoping they wouldn’t be massacred, might one day have to choose between chemotherapy and a roof over their heads. It was the kind of gruesome, weird, terrible place where an elderly Nobel laureate had to auction his prize to pay for his healthcare. It was the world’s first poor rich country, the modern world’s first failed state — and where it had once aspired to democracy, people had mostly given up on that, and had turned to authoritarianism instead.
And that brings me to the fourth great leap. America has just one barely working institution left — the judiciary. That is not so strange — in many, if not most, failed states, that is the last one to go. But now, with the likely appointment of a Brett Kavanaugh, that will be the last institution, gone. Captured. Shattered. Destroyed.
What do I mean? I mean that then all of America’s great institutions will be in the hands of a strange, fatal, bizarre cocktail of extremists — fascists, supremacists, theocrats, kleptocrats.
And when a society has no institutions of democracy left, really, what hope is there for it? How can a society with no democratic institutions use any to save the rest?
You see my point, perhaps — and you are still thinking, “but there is the election!” Of course there is. But do not underestimate the gravity of the situation. With no democratic institutions left, America faces an historic challenge. Not just “rebuilding democracy”, now — but undoing authoritarianism, too. That is no easy feat. The societies which have done that can be counted on one’s hands. Most societies that fall take generation to recover, if they do at all.
American collapse, then, happened in stages. First came the cracks down the mountain, that should have been a signal it wasn’t a mountain at all — but elites, laughing, cried, “Of course this is a mountain! You fool! What do think this is, a volcano?” Bang! The volcano erupted, decades of pent up rage and fury shattering the heavens with a great thunderclap. Those with reason ran for cover, from the rain of ashes and fire roaring their way. In the mountain’s place was left a smoking wreck. Just a caldera. And yet, despite all this — it seemed that Americans knew no way other than to fall down that caldera, not to build something truer upon the ashes. Down, down where the glittering abyss beckoned.

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