“Seen accurately. American collapse is a catastrophe of human possibility without modern parallel.”
By Umair Haque
You might say, having read some of my recent essays, “Umair! Don’t worry! Everything will be fine! It’s not that bad!” I would look at you politely, and then say gently, “To tell you the truth, I don’t think we’re taking collapse nearly seriously enough.”
Why? When we take a hard look at US collapse, we see a number of social pathologies on the rise. Not just any kind. Not even troubling, worrying, and dangerous ones. But strange and bizarre ones. Unique ones. Singular and gruesomely weird ones I’ve never really seen before, and outside of a dystopia written by Dickens and Orwell, nor have you, and neither has history. They suggest that whatever “numbers” we use to represent decline — shrinking real incomes, inequality, and so on —we are in fact grossly underestimating what pundits call the “human toll”, but which sensible human beings like you and I should simply think of as the overwhelming despair, rage, and anxiety of living in a collapsing society.
Gruesome new diseases
Let me give you just five examples of what I’ll call the social pathologies of collapse — strange, weird, and gruesome new diseases, not just ones we don’t usually see in healthy societies, but ones that we have never really seen before in any modern society.
“The predator in American society isn’t just its super-rich — but an invisible and insatiable force: the normalization of what in the rest of the world would be seen as shameful, historic, generational moral failures, if not crimes, becoming mere mundane everyday affairs not to be too worried by or troubled about.”
America has had 11 school shootings in the last 23 days. That’s one every other day, more or less. That statistic is alarming enough — but it is just a number. Perspective asks us for comparison. So let me put that another way. America has had 11 school shootings in the last 23 days, which is more than anywhere else in the world, even Afghanistan or Iraq. In fact, the phenomenon of regular school shootings appears to be a unique feature of American collapse — it just doesn’t happen in any other country — and that is what I mean by “social pathologies of collapse”: a new, bizarre, terrible disease striking society.
Why are kids killing each other? Why don’t we care?
Why are American kids killing each other? Why doesn’t their society care enough to intervene? Well, probably because those kids have given up on life — and their elders have given up on them. Or maybe you’re right — and it’s not that simple. Still, what do the kids who aren’t killing each other do? Well, a lot of them are busy killing themselves.
So there is of course also an “opioid epidemic”. We use that phrase too casually, but it much more troubling than it appears on first glance. Here is what is really curious about it. In many countries in the world — most of Asia and Africa — one can buy all the opioids one wants from any local pharmacy, without a prescription. You might suppose then that opioid abuse as a mass epidemic would be a global phenomenon. Yet we don’t see opioid epidemics anywhere but America — especially not ones so vicious and widespread they shrink life expectancy. So the “opioid epidemic” — mass self-medication with the hardest of hard drugs — is again a social pathology of collapse: unique to American life. It is not quite captured in the numbers, but only through comparison — and when we see it in global perspective, we get a sense of just how singularly troubled American life really is.
Why would people abuse opioids en masse unlike anywhere else in the world? They must be living genuinely traumatic and desperate lives, in which there is little healthcare, so they have to self-medicate the terror away. But what is so desperate about them? Well, consider another example: the “nomadic retirees”. They live in their cars. They go from place to place, season after season, chasing whatever low-wage work they can find — spring, an Amazon warehouse, Christmas, Walmart.
Powerlessness & indignity
Now, you might say — “well, poor people have always chased seasonal work!” But that is not really the point: absolute powerlessness and complete indignity is. In no other country I can see do retirees who should have been able to save up enough to live on now living in their cars in order to find work just to go on eating before they die — not even in desperately poor ones, where at least families live together, share resources, and care for one another. This is another pathology of collapse that is unique to America — utter powerlessness to live with dignity. Numbers don’t capture it — but comparisons paint a bleak picture.
How did America’s elderly end up cheated of dignity? After all, even desperately poor countries have “informal social support systems” — otherwise known as families and communities. But in America, there is the catastrophic collapse of social bonds. Extreme capitalism has blown apart American society so totally that people cannot even care for one another as much as they do in places like Pakistan and Nigeria. Social bonds, relationships themselves, have become unaffordable luxuries, more so than even in poor countries: this is yet another social pathology unique to American collapse.
Yet those once poor countries are making great strides. Costa Ricans now have higher life expectancy than Americans — because they have public healthcare. American life expectancy is falling, unlike nearly anywhere else in the world, save the UK — because it doesn’t.
And that is my last pathology: it is one of the soul, not one of the limbs, like the others above. Americans appear to be quite happy simply watching one another die, in all the ways above. …
(Commoner Call photo by Mark L. Taylor, 2017. Open source and free to use for non-derivative use with link to www.thecommonercall.org )