GUEST WORDS--I wake every day and watch their implosion with a combination of fascination, horror, and disbelief.
Like you do, perhaps. “Our societies” means Anglo ones: America, Britain, Australia perhaps. You can judge for yourself if your society is on the list. What underlies all this? How did we get here? To things like today: a fresh-faced new government advisor supports “eugenics”, because he thinks minorities are genetically inferior…all of which, of course, is a literal form of genocide as defined by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. He was hired….by the way…for his…blog comments. What the? What on earth? Genocide stalking the halls of power…by way of the comments section?
Such stuff isn’t just horrific. It’s surreal and absurd. It makes the jaw drop like a stone and the head spin in whiplash. It’s now just as if we now live in a dystopia written by pedophiles, wannabe basement-dwelling fascists, militant authoritarians, men who put kids in camps, silent majorities who shrug at it all, elites who wonder what the problem is, billionaires who profit in glee at all the above, and other assorted forms of human failure…we do. But I digress.
When I look at our societies, I see three obvious patterns. They tell me our societies aren’t going to make it. Not just because, well, those patterns are there…but also because as societies we don’t seem capable of understanding or acknowledging they’re there…we won’t own up, confront, recognize, admit them. All that put together is the stuff of something very much like an inevitable social collapse. How do you treat a patient who won’t admit how sick he really is? My patterns link the hard stuff to the soft stuff — economics, politics, society, to values, priorities, what we genuinely consider worthy. They are subtle things. They’re about why we make and go on making the astonishingly foolish choices we do.
The first thing I see when I look at our societies is a pattern of staggering economic mismanagement. How is it that we had endless money for wars, for aggression, for intelligence agencies to launch covert plots to install dictators (I’m not making that up), for rage, for violence? For bank bailout? But none to bail out…the working class, the middle class, the average family? How is it that hedge funds get endless free money from the government, every single nanosecond of every single day — but literally a full half of American work “low-wage jobs”? What the? You see what I mean by staggering economic mismanagement.
And yet elites, as a whole, refuse to own up to this. Just today I saw Barack Obama tweeting how successful his economic policies were. Sorry, reality says the opposite: 75% of Americans struggle to pay the bills, 80% can’t raise a tiny amount for an emergency, incomes have stagnated for decades. Hardly the stuff of an economic miracle. But when Barack says it, you probably believe it. I get it. He’s a nice guy. His heart is in the right place. But that’s not enough to create a working society, much less economy. Every pattern I’ll speak about is a hidden one — we refuse, as a society, to own up to it. And so what can we do about it?
Underlying that pattern of staggering economic mismanagement is a set of values. We value, as a society, violence, cruelty, aggression, hostility, over and above everything else, especially their opposites: kindness, decency, gentleness. What kind of society do those values build? Can they yield anything but the dystopia we live in?
The second pattern I see when I look at our societies is a history of shocking institutional failure, built on moral degradation. We’re the societies who built an international slave trade. We literally plundered a continent for its people, and made them our slaves. We then put them to work, and created the kind of society so horrific that “escapees” were hunted down by informers and police. Can you imagine? Or have you blocked it all out?
(Go ahead and tell me what moral atrocity ranks up there with building a centuries long slave trade that engulfed the planet. But morality isn’t, as we think, a thing of no consequences, a thing to have on a Sunday, and then forget about on Monday. That is our big mistake, perhaps our biggest.)
That history of horror shapes us to this very day: it deprived us of ever being able to build the institutions of a functioning modern democracy.Why are we literally the only societies in the rich world without working healthcare, education, retirement, and so on? Why do what of those we have degrade by the day? Because the residue of slavery haunts us: too many (white) people think: “I won’t invest in them! They’re dirty, filthy subhumans! Why, their grandparents were my grandparent’s slaves!” Maybe they don’t say it. But they certainly think it. It’s hardly a coincidence the societies which pioneered the global slave trade and then segregation are today the ones without decent public goods, which require a whole society to cooperate, and accept one another as equals. It’s a relationship. Slavery and segregation were to mean that America would never develop any functioning modern social systems, really.
And yet that thread of institutional failure, too, we refuse to accept and own up to. When have you seen the obvious link above discussed seriously — that a) public healthcare, retirement, college, childcare etc are what make a society civilized, and b) our barbarism’s long hangover is what prevented us ever becoming a civilized society? I haven’t — ever, really. Maybe it’s hinted at, or intimated. Maybe we go so far as condemning our brutal and sordid past. But we don’t really own up to the social consequences of our history of horrific immorality: that such immorality had profound real-world effects. It left us institutionally stunted, underdeveloped, broken, unable to treat each other like human beings. But societies who can’t build institutions to treat each other like human beings can scarcely ever progress beyond exploitation, abuse, authoritarianism, tribalism, and hate. Wait — isn’t that exactly where we’re trapped?
The third pattern I see is a kind of shattering mismanagement of social norms and expectations. Who else in the world denies their neighbors things like healthcare, education, and retirement? Nobody — especially nobody in societies that have the means. Yet we do. Why is that? Why are we so indifferent to each other? So cruel, so aggressive, so hostile?
Probably because we are too busy teaching our kids, and each other, that the only point in life is something like this: to be more “competitive” than the next person, so you can accumulate more stuff than them, so you can make them envious, so you can feel supreme. The point of life isn’t to care for your neighbour, to do great and beautiful things, to write a world-changing book or make a life-changing discovery — it’s to make more money. Why? Because that’s how you show you are strong. And weakness is death. Because only the strong deserve to survive, after all. Capitalism and patriarchy and supremacy intertwine to make the survival of the fittest our deepest and only true moral law.
That’s what I mean by “a kind of shattering mismanagement of social norms and expectations.” We’ve internalized that value, most of us: that the weak deserve to perish, and the strong survive. We might not think we have, and we might not say we do, but our actions belie us. We grin at our reality shows and long for our perfect pecs and boobs and sigh wistfully over this billionaire or that celebrity. My God! Aren’t they a perfect person? We’ll happily spend a small fortune on the plastic stuff of self-aggrandization. But invest in healthcare or retirement for all? LOL.
So we go on dehumanizing ourselves, and everyone around us, as a necessary consequence. We buy into the systems of our own undoing. Sorry, you aren’t good enough, pretty enough, tough enough, mean enough, selfish enough. You’re just not competitive enough to make it, son. We don’t value things like gentleness and humanity and decency — not really. They’re a sure way to get fired or demeaned or picked on or bullied, if you dare to show them, really. The story’s the same, from grade school to working life.
We’ve become societies of bullies, in other words. But societies of bullies are also societies of cowards. And that cowardice is easy to see. We’re happy to “call out” celebrities for using the wrong pronoun. But calling men who puts kids in cages fascists…that’s over the line. We’re happy to spend hours a day on Facebook…which makes us feel miserable and unhappy…and who do we take our fury out on? Each other and ourselves, mostly. We don’t stick up for people much. We don’t put ourselves on the line. Why bother, when the stakes or life or death? Ah, but that is the precise moment we accept that rule of the strong over the weak, too. Cowards and bullies, united in predation.
We’re the world’s great materialists, and materialist individualism of this kind has been our downfall. It has led us, through greed and selfishness, to settle for the moral law that the strong should survive, and the weak perish. What other destination can materialist individualism yield? When enough of us say: the only that counts in life is my “happiness”, and my happiness is a function of how much stuff I have…then by definition, our society can’t be a place that has things like healthcare, retirement, education. We can’t really have a democracy, in which equality, freedom, and justice are valued. We can’t have a society in which things like inherent self-worth exist and are given by all to all. Societies of bullies and cowards, competing to accumulate more things they can’t afford in the first place, like the ones we’ve become, are doomed to exploit and abuse and prey on each other all the way down the abyss. And that is where we are self-evidently heading, fast.
Let me sum up my thre patterns. We mismanaged our economies, because we valued violence and aggression and cruelty over simply, gently, wisely, investing in each other. We mismanaged our institutions and moral possibilities because we valued comfortable denial and numbing complicity and dim-witted pleasure over growth, forgiveness, self-understanding, the struggle of becoming something truer and better, the test of maturity. We mismanaged our societies because we chose individualism and competitiveness and greed over cooperation and fellowship and generosity. Those choices have now caught up with us. How are we to unmake them?
Those patterns outlive any one leader. Or party. Or institution. They are so, so deep in us it’s hard to see what could excise or extricate them. They are inoperable tumours of the soul, not just little flaws in the mind. They aren’t simple or easy or straightforward to understand — much less transcend. Is there a blade sharp enough to cut them out of us?
That is why I don’t think our societies have much of a future, my friends. Societies don’t often rise to the challenge of reinventing their foundational values, their defining sets of priorities. Rome was brought down by its callousness and hunger for empire in the end. Soviet Russia, by its craving for power and control.
What about us? I don’t think that we are going to transcend what by now are so visibly our foundational values: hostility, aggression, cruelty, violence, selfishness, greed, individualism, materialism, pleasure-seeking over truth-telling. They seem to be the only things we really, genuinely care about as societies, cultures, people. Give enough of us enough of those — and there is no level of degradation and despair we won’t settle for. And so I think the real story of our collapse is that those old, old values are toppling us, eroding our foundations, while corroding our pinnacles. And we are becoming dust in history’s wind. Perhaps, in the end, that is all we deserved.
(Umair Haque writes for Eudaimonia and Co … where this perspective was first posted.)