By Umair Haque
A death toll approaching 100,000 lives. A Greater Depression on the cards. A nation “reopening” despite all that. Congress offering no real support or aid, gridlocked. A lunatic President telling people to inject bleach. Guess what he’s doing this weekend? Golfing. Do I really need to go on?
About a decade ago, I did something unusual. I warned that America was on the way to becoming a failed state, in the august pages of Harvard Business Review. Now, the reaction was swift and furious. Americans tend to react to things they don’t like in the only way they know how: with cruelty and brutality, bullying and mockery. And so among those attacking me were authors from the New York Times, Vox, the Atlantic, and more — a veritable who’s-who of American punditry. The wise of men of the establishment were not pleased with this little brown punk. Who the hell did he think he was?
As it turned out, I was…right. And no, don’t cry for me. That’s not the point. The point is this. My little warning couldn’t have been proven any truer. What does America, the failed state, look like? Like this, here, now.
These are shocking events. They stun the rest of the world. America has the world’s highest death toll, by a very long way. And there appears to still be no strategy, plan, or agenda. None. For dealing with the economic or public health consequences of the greatest catastrophe in modern history. What the?
Nothing works in America, those Americans left who are still thoughtful and reasonable people say, shaking their heads. That’s another way to say: America’s become a failed state.
Failed states tend to share a few key criteria. First, what it says on the box: governments aren’t able to govern anymore. The rule of law has broken down, democracy has been shredded, elites get away with whatever they like. Second, failed states aren’t able to provide basics for people anymore. And third, because they aren’t able to provide basics, life becomes a brutal battle for self-preservation, and norms change: to ones of cruelty, brutality, even hate and violence. Sound like America to you, yet?
Let’s start backwards, with the erosion of the norms of a decent and civilized society. The first kind of American Idiot is the malicious one. He protests lockdown because he wants his free-dumb. He doesn’t care if he infects a dozen people, of whom three die. So what?
It’s not his responsibility, his fault.
Think a little harder with me about that. What are the American Idiots of this variety really protesting for? They wants the ability to “work” again. They’ve been so conditioned to accept brutality and exploitation as a way of life, it’s all they can see now. To them, the choice is: stay home, and lose your livelihood, or go back to work, and so what if more people die? They can’t see or imagine the alternative, because they’ve never really experienced it: you stay home, don’t infect anybody, don’t lose your livelihood, because the government — aka society — takes care of you.
That is precisely the change of norms we’d expect to see in a failed state. People stop caring about others, as a society — because the battle for self-preservation has become too bitter, too relentless, too unwinnable. When it takes everything you’ve got just to put food on the table, then what room do you really have to care about anyone else? Why should you? That’s how societies die in the deepest way: their values and norms are shredded. What’s left at the end is precisely what we see in America: people can’t even imagine the notion of collective action anymore, because they’ve been beaten down so long.
Often, political scientists and economists will call that “a loss of trust and faith in institutions.” And it is — but that overlooks the deeper point, I feel. Which is the change in norms and values.
My European and Canadian and Asian friends are baffled. Why are Americans so cruel? So heartless? So brutal with one another? What they don’t understand is that American norms have broken like a twig. Americans can’t imagine any other way, because they’ve never really known one. They treat each other like disposable commodities because that’s the only world they’ve ever known, the only one they can see. They lost hope in anything else long ago — the 60s, perhaps. And by now, the only norm left is: everyone else can go to hell, as long as I can survive another day.
You might think that norm only applies to the spectacular kind of American Idiot — the bleach-drinking Trumpist. (And yes, Trump is the ultimate example of the American Idiot.) But it doesn’t. Now let’s cover the next aspect of failed states: they aren’t able to provide basics for people anymore.
Think about the basics America can’t provide. Really think about them with me for a moment. Healthcare, retirement, medicine, education. But that’s just a start. Money — why else are Americans now poor? Good food and water, which are absent across much of the country. Safety and security. The list goes on, right down to the most basic fundamentals of a civilized society, like bodily integrity, privacy, dignity.
Now, Americans can’t often quite see this list — because they’ve lived in such a society forever. They don’t really know what it is have good water or go to the store and get fresh food, like in more or less all of Western Europe — much less go to the doctor when you want to, retire when you’re weary, and so forth. They simply don’t know, which is why some of them react angrily.
But how did this kind of a society come to be? It’s not just the malicious kind of American Idiot who made it — it’s also the other kind: the well-meaning, good-hearted, self-respecting American Idiot. Think about just a few months ago. Americans on the left voted against better healthcare, true public healthcare for all, from Bernie and Liz, as a global pandemic was literally igniting. What the? What kind of people do that? Who on earth votes against better healthcare…during a literal pandemic? Only Americans, the world says.
Even Americans on the left. You see, the first kind of American Idiot, the Trumpist, the bleach-drinker, never wanted a working society. The crucial vote, the defining one, comes from the other kind of American Idiot — the good liberal…who never, ever votes for a better society, a decent place to live, a nation which takes care of its people. You’d expect the Reaganite who became the Trumpist not to care…but the truly horrifying thing about America is that even the “good” American doesn’t.
Which kind of American Idiot is more dangerous, then? The malicious one, or the negligent one? The whose vote makes the crucial difference against working systems and institutions, over and over again — or the one whose doesn’t?
The result, though, is that America is now a society in a league of its own in terms of being a gruesome dystopia. You won’t find school shootings in place like Nigeria or Pakistan. You won’t find people paying $250K for an operation or $50K for childbirth anywhere else. You won’t find people begging strangers online to pay the bills. And so forth. America has become a failed state in a class of it’s own, thanks to the American Idiot — the world’s first poor rich country, the world’s first rich country which failed to modernise, the world’s most powerful country, of broke, powerless people.
By the way, most of the rest of the world wanted to be a place where people had the basics — why isn’t it? Because whenever a country wanted to become a social democracy, America bombed or invaded it into oblivion. Wasn’t all that…stupidity….brutality…violence…eventually going to come home? Free-dumb as me installing a dictator or army in your country to “liberate” you, like in Chile, Pakistan, or Nicaragua? But I digress.
The result of people voting against public goods over and over again is that Americans shredded their own country of governance. You see, when you don’t want any public institutions — like say a healthcare system — then elites can get away with anything, because you’re really saying you want as little governance as possible. And they do. Did you know that Democrats funded Trump’s concentration camps? So is it any surprise that crime against humanity led to this one — a hundred thousand dead and counting? America’s total lack of governance, which means elites as corrupt as Trumps rule over it all, is a consequence of Americans of all stripes becoming Idiots, voting to have a lawless society in the first place.
What happens when elites take all there is to take in a society, and more — like in America, where the middle and working class receive just about 50% of the economy’s gains, and a full half is skimmed off the top by the ultra rich and their minions? America can’t provide basics to people anymore — the most basic basics, by now, decent food, clean water, medicine, money. But not just because of the malicious American Idiot, the gun-toting Republican: also because of the good American, the Democrat, who’s not nearly good enough, whose norms still reflect a kind of cruelty and brutality which leaves the rest of the world’s jaw dropping in disbelief. Bang! That’s what a failed state really is: elites who cream all they can off a society. And at this point American elites, skimming off a full 50% of the economy before the average person sees a dime, make Soviet elites look like amateurs.
What the world doesn’t understand about America becoming a failed state, though, is this. It was a trajectory that was locked in, a decade or more ago. Let me explain.
Why does the American — even the ones who imagine they’re “good” — vote against becoming a decent society so predictably and consistently that someone like me could predict all this a decade out?
Because they’re now too poor to choose anything else. 80% of Americans live right at the edge. Of not being able to pay their bills. What happens when it’s time to vote? They can barely afford to support themselves — how can they support healthcare, or retirement, or education, for a whole society? They can’t.
That explains the central paradox of the American Idiot. You see, about 70% of Americans say they want a better society — a social contract much like Canada’s or Europe’s. But then something strange happens between the polling place and the voting booth. They never, ever vote for it. Why not? Well, they can’t. If you’re living right at the edge, giving up 10% of your income is impossible. So when it comes time to vote, Americans do the opposite of what they say they want. They vote, over and over again, for the same old trajectory — no public goods, no governance, elites taking it all, a shredded rule of law, norms of brutality — instead of what they say they want.
The polling place is where you tell pundits about your ideal world. The voting booth is where you confront harsh reality. In America’s case, nobody now can afford to have a functioning society anymore. So there’s no possibility of one left. The world looks at all this, and sees the American Idiot — what kind of people say they want a better society…but keep voting against it? What the? That’s why my European, Canadian, Asian friends laugh at Americans now. They don’t understand the deep, bitter impossibility of fixing America now.
Let me put that another way. In the 60s, and maybe the 70s, there was a glimmer of hope. America seemed to be reaching towards a better society. But the right wing went on a campaign of violence. It killed off every leader — every single one — of the left, from JFK to MLK right down to Lennon.
By the time of Reagan, a vicious circle was beginning to set in. The American Idiot of the right never wanted a working society, sure. But the American Idiot of the left, voting against one, was ensuring having one was soon to become impossible. Reagan cut taxes, and slashed investment in public goods. By the 90s, all that was coming home. Americans were beginning to pay vastly more than anyone else for the same things — healthcare, retirement, education. Sure — they paid lower taxes. But so what? What was given with one hand was simply taken with the other.
By the 2000s, Americans were becoming truly poor, a society in which the average person began to live and die in unpayable debt. That led economists like me — good ones, of which America had very few left — to a very simple and stunning conclusion: Americans were about to be too poor to ever have a functioning society again.
A modern society, a civilized one, is a luxury. It’s something that you have to work hard to afford — and value, cherish, treasure, to keep reinvesting in. America did none of that. And now it’s simply too poor to probably ever have one. It will never become a place like Canada or Europe, because nobody can afford to be that kind of a society now.
The American Idiot made America a failed state. The malicious one, the gun-toting Republican, never wanted a functioning, modern society — something more like a Neo-segregated state, still. But the negligent one, the good liberal, was indifferent, unlocking a vicious spiral of underinvestment and poverty. In the vacuum, everything broke apart. Instead of investing in itself, America didn’t, thanks to both kinds of Idiots, and the result today is a society that can’t provide much for anyone, and won’t be able to in the future, having grown impoverished.
The results are all too grim to see today. America’s having the greatest catastrophe in modern history. A hundred thousand dead. A Greater Depression on the way. Only because there’s still no plan to deal for this catastrophe, it’s doing what catastrophes do: rolling on, and on, and on.
What does a failed state look like? Mass death and depression. On an unimaginable scale to rival any war. Which is needless. It’s not pretty. I tried to warn of all this a decade ago not to be a preening prima donna, but because I was alarmed. I felt sick. I had a metallic taste in my mouth. I could see it all unfolding. This, here, now. A collapsing society meeting a historic catastrophe. Bang. Game over.
The good news, I suppose, is this. The fireworks of American collapse have only really just begun.
*Umair Haque first published this in Medium.