By Umair Haque
Every historic, crucial election isn’t really just a referendum on the candidates. Just as much, or often more so, it’s a referendum on a society. On a people. On what kind of people make up a society. Are they ignorant? Foolish? Brave? Wise? Gentle? Do they value timeless and noble virtues like truth, beauty, goodness, humility? Or have they slunk into a kind of fatalism, apathy, cowardice, and are ruled, now, by folly? Democracy is, in that sense, a sword that cuts both ways. History wields it. And never has that notion, that democracy is a referendum on a society, been more true than in America’s upcoming election.
Over the last four years, America’s become a global laughingstock. When I say global, I’m not kidding. My little focus group is the gentle group of friends at my local dog park in Europe, from around the world. France, Germany, East Asia, South Asia, North Africa, Australia, and beyond. And their daily discussion now is about America. They regard America as a farce. “Hey, Ben,” I say to the grizzled London copper, “I hear you’re moving to the States next week!” He shudders. Everyone laughs.
America, the laughingstock, is a disgraced nation. What my friends around the globe can’t believe, what drops their jaws, is…everything. Over the last four years. And then some. For example, it’s not just that Trump built camps, put kids in cages in them, then ripped them away from their families, and then “lost” the paperwork, thus creating an army of orphans. It’s that nobody, and I mean nobody, in a figure of power American cultural or political life bothered to call that what it is, a crime against humanity and an attempted genocide. (Yes, really, read the definition for yourself.) It’s that nobody much in America cared to pressure its leading political and social figures to do any of that. What the?
The world sees America in three ways. One group sees it charitably, still — “Americans are good people, many of them — they’ve just lost their way.” That group has shrunk considerably over the last few years. Most of the people in this camp were Europeans — America’s only real natural friends, being the only continent it hasn’t invaded or bombed lately — but even they’re baffled and aghast at America’s widespread failure to say fascism, without which you can’t exactly do justice to it, try it, fight it legally, institutionally culturally. Europeans are bewildered that Americans just seem to…tolerate…fascism — even the good ones — because their experience of it still resounds with horror. They can’t understand what made Americans such…sorry, I have to say it…cowards. Who just sits there while kids are put in cages? Who turns a blind eye when hated minorities are hunted in the streets? What the? They literally cannot understand how Americans became…these meek, timid, beaten people. At the hands of someone like Donald Trump, no less — a buffoon, an idiot, a pretend billionaire.
The second way the world sees Americans is a little more neutrally. As, mostly, idiots. Hence, the American Idiot is now a figure of global renown. You might object to me saying neutrally, so let’s look at the facts. Americans are the only people in the world — apart from their cousins, Brits — who vote, predictably, against their own healthcare, retirement, education, childcare, incomes, labour protections, unions, safety nets. What the? What kinds of people want worse lives? What gives?
They can see that the average American has made the following choice: “I’ll deny those people a decent life, by withholding public goods — healthcare, education, retirement, and so on — from them!” And they can see too something the average American apparently doesn’t see: “everyone” includes them, too.
This hilarious illogic is why much of the world, thinks of Americans as the world’s leading idiots these days. Who wants to give teachers guns, and traumatises kids by having “active shooter drills” where masked armed men burst into classrooms, pretend to kill them, and they have to pretend to die? What the? What on earth? Don’t they get that their own kids are being traumatised by all this? Who wants to die in thousands of dollars of medical debt — after choosing not to have that life-saving surgery, just so that your family could keep their home? What the? What kinds of idiots are these people?
It’s not just Europeans who take laugh at the American Idiot, by the way. My friend David from Malaysia points out that even they have working healthcare — people there would shudder to treat each other the way Americans do, as disposable commodities. My friend Bai from China says that Americans treat each other as disposable commodities precisely because they live in a consumerist society, where the only thing that matters is money, as a symbolic form of power — I have more than you, I killed you, I own you — and in such a capitalist society it’s impossible for people to grant each other inherent worth. My friend Sara from Pakistan points out that you can buy AK-47s at gun shops there, and grenade launchers too, if you so desire — but nobody’s shooting up schools there.
So this group, the ones that think of American as the world’s idiots, and laugh at them, is composed, often of people from middle income countries. That’s precisely because those countries are now beginning to develop the public goods America lacks — like Malaysia having decent healthcare and good schools. In middle income countries — at least most of them — growth and development are far more balanced than in America: the gains don’t just go to the very top 1%, but flow down to the middle and even working class, who are then able to invest in things like better hospitals, schools, retirement, roads, trains and so forth.
What this group doesn’t understand is the economics behind the American Idiot: most Americans are now too poor to invest in each other. Even if they wanted to, they can’t. So what this group sees as idiocy — the way Americans treat each other like disposable commodities, not investing in one another, not caring if they live or die — is, in fact, the fatal results of poverty. The average American dies in $62,000 of debt: he literally can’t fund a working social contract if he wants to. Those in middle incomes countries can’t often understand this: they can’t quite grasp that Americas has grown poor, that it has become an impoverished nation that can’t afford to be a modern society, while they have grown richer, reaching the point where a modern society of hospitals and high-speed trains is fast becoming a reality.
How did America end up impoverished, though? How did American life end up in such a dystopian place that 70% of Americans struggle to pay basic bills, while 60% can’t raise a tiny amount for an emergency, while half of the entire working population works low-wage menial jobs? What the?
That brings me my third group around the globe. Let’s call them the karmic retributionists. These are the folks that laugh at America — in a hostile way. Don’t condemn them too fast — learn from them. Their message is: “It is finally happening to you, now. Just as we knew it would. Just as we said it would.” What is the “it” that they’re talking about? “You are finally descending into the chaos, poverty, ruin, fascism, and hate that you brought to our countries,” this group of people says.
They’re not wrong. Do you know how many countries America has invaded or bombed by now? Almost half the world. That’s not just some kind of abstraction. I’m not going to moralize. Instead, I want to point out three hardcore political and socioeconomic realities.
One, if your politics is built on aggression and violence and brutality, then such ideas will ultimately come to permeate it. If you can’t follow international law — then what will the rule of law mean to you domestically? If you can’t respect democracy in other countries — as America didn’t in Chile or Nicaragua— then what respect will you have for your own, ultimately? The people in this group are trying to teach Americans a deep political lesson. It’s not often that a nation can have such gaping, yawning double standards. Democracy for us, but none for you. Peace for us, but none for you. Freedom for us, but none for you.
That’s not how a society works. More often, the values of aggression, hostility, brutality, cruelty, violence, arrogance, and hubris come to permeate it. Those who think they have the right to abuse and exploit others — as Americans have for so long — ultimately can’t help thinking such things about those within their societies, as well. Societies like that turn on themselves. Their institutions collapse. Their democracies erode. Power and money become all that count, and violence and brutality become acceptable ways to get them.
Doesn’t that sound a lot like…what happened to America? Think about violence for a moment. Kids dying in school, so some moron has the right to carry guns to Starbucks, which is apparently free-dumb. Everyone owing $62,000 dollars in death…to biillionaires…while life expectancy declines, because nobody much can get decent healthcare. People begging strangers online for the money for basic medicine like insulin. That’s violence and brutality too. That’s what this group, the retributionists, is trying to tell America. “You were violent and aggressive and brutal people. Those values were always going to come home. You were always going to turn on each other. Your democracy was always going to suffer. Just like you did to us. You were going to do it to yourselves, one day.”
Can you blame them for laughing, bitterly? People in nations where America installed death squads and fascists? Where it toppled democratically elected government after government — just because their people wanted a measure of social democracy, but America’s Dr Strangelove’s were fighting some paranoid delusion of communism, which apparently gave them the right to take democracy away from whole countries? I don’t blame them, and you shouldn’t either. You should learn from them. They were right.
America’s aggression and hostility and violence and brutality did come home. Along the way, it cost it dearly. How much did America spend on building history’s most perfect killing machine — a system of drones that can assassinate anyone anywhere on earth within minutes, with laser-guided perfection? Enough, anyways, that the average American was left too poor to afford their own healthcare, retirement, and so on. When it came to fighting endless wars, America had an endless amount of money — but when it came to malign social investments, America had none. These things aren’t a coincidence. They’re not just substitutes, either — military spending over social spending. Rather, they are ideology: America was busy fighting against communism, against socialism — so how could Americans ever understand they would need social investments in public goods of their own?
They never did, and that is why today they don’t have any public goods. Almost uniquely in the world, apart from hardcore failed states, Americans have almost nothing. No public healthcare, retirement, higher education, income, and so forth. And then they die in $62,000 of debt. That’s not a coincidence, either: it’s a relationship.
Americans grew impoverished because under the ideology of American economics, no investment in public goods was possible, since it was “socialism.” That meant the private sector was going to provide it, bountifully and cheaply. No one else in the world, by the way, thought that would work out. Why would corporations give you decent hospitals? Why would a profit motive yield a better school, clinic, transport system? The world was right, and America’s economists, politicians, thinkers, and intellectuals were wrong. What happened was that the private sector began charging Americans through the nose for what should have been public goods, offered at no profit — healthcare, education, and so forth. By the 2010s, the prices of those things — privatised public goods — had reached astronomical proportions that bewildered the world: healthcare cost more than a home, educating a child could have paid off a mortgage, god forbid you fell seriously ill, forget about ever retiring.
Americans grew impoverished because the private sector was bleeding them dry for things that were free in much of the rest of the world. Need a doctor in France or Germany? Sure, just go see one. It’s taken care of. In America? Shudder, then try not to look at the bill. When you were paying hundreds of thousands over a lifetime like Americans were, for the basics, healthcare, medicine, education, food, water — how could you not end up impoverished? That’s how the average American ended up dying in $62,000 of debt, in the bizarre, gruesome position of a neo-serf: someone who has never effectively owned, saved, or earned anything all their life long.
The exploitation and abuse came home. Americans had treated the rest of the world like their plaything — wait, that’s generous. More like their possession. We’ll pay you as little as we can get away with. Your democracy? It belongs to us, and we’ll decide for you, thanks. We want your oil, your cheap labour, your resources. We’ll send in whomever and do whatever we have to to get it.
The retributionists weren’t wrong, they were right. The aggression and brutality and violence did corrode America. It made it a selfish society of atomised individuals only interested, seemingly, in money and power — and that kind of a nation never invested in itself. By 2010, the middle class was a minority — which, to economists like me, predicted a wave of hardcore fascist authoritarianism. Bang! It arrived right on time, by 2015. The rest, as they say, is history.
This election is a referendum on all that. On the three groups around the world, and what they think of Americans. “Is America really a nation of idiots?” asks the neutral world, amused. “Is America really a nation of hateful, violent fascists, just like we said it was, and would ultimately become, unable to change the pattern of brutality and aggression and cruelty?” asks the world left traumatised and battered by America’s wars and coups. “Was America really a nation of enough good people — or were we wrong, and now it will never be one of us, because it’s been revealed as ignorant, selfish, and backwards?” asks the modern world, safe from America’s violence, like Canada and Europe, giving it the benefit of the doubt for so long, but now unable to do so any longer.
All that is what’s at stake. Trump? He’ll go away, eventually. This election is about bigger things. What he symbolises, represents, what he’s the culmination of. The pattern of history. The attitudes and values of a society — what they really are, not just what they pretend and purport to be. What kind of people Americans really are.
The world is watching. I suppose we’re all about to find out.
*Umair Haque published this article in Medium