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Friday, November 19, 2021

Why Don’t Societies See Their Own Collapse Coming?

What America and Britain Teach Us About the Willful Ignorance of Failing States


Photo by Will Collette
It’s a peculiar pattern of history. Like the axis around which a cycle of ruin spins. Societies — even civilizations — don’t see their own collapses coming. And not seeing them coming, they can hardly take steps to avert them. They’re left like deer in the headlights. And you know what happens next. If anything, curiously, societies tend to lean into their collapses.

So why don’t societies see their own collapses coming? Why do they accelerate and intensify them? It’s an especially relevant question, because, well, look around. Things aren’t exactly going too well for our civilization. 

We’re threatened by everything from global warming to ecological implosion to mass extinction to the pandemics and poverty and fascisms they’re already breeding.

If I think about it, four reasons jump out at me. In this little essay, I’ll use the examples of everyone’s favorite collapsing societies, America and Britain, to illustrate them.

The first reason’s simple: entrenched elites want to preserve the status quo. Think about America. The average American’s life is in freefall. 

Every single social indicator imaginable — from longevity to trust to happiness to income — is either flatlining or plummeting. Every single one. As a result, it’s not too hard to see why Americans are turning to hatred, superstition, fanaticism and other assorted forms of stupidity. They’re literally losing their minds as their lives fall apart.

And yet the really curious thing is that that’s been going for decades now — and the whole while, America’s ruling classes have pretended that everything’s OK. Which classes are those? Well, there are the political class, the intellectual class and the capitalist class. None of these three classes can even brook the idea that America is in serious, deep trouble, which adds up to a collapsing society.

Photo by Will Collette
Hence, American pundits will say, on cue, every quarter, that the “economy’s roaring” and that “confidence is rising” and all the other flavors of canned doublespeak they’re renowned for. Meanwhile, life keeps on falling apart.

The Soviet Union’s laughing in its grave, because it’s seen all this before. 

Why do entrenched elites want to preserve the status quo? You’re right to say that it preserves their power. But in a subtler way than I think is often understood. To say that a society is collapsing would be for elites to admit they mismanaged them. 

They’d have to admit they were badly, badly wrong — ideologically, theoretically, paradigmatically. Who wants to do that? And that, of course, would probably cost them. Fancy sinecures and “consulting” contracts and high office and all the rest of it.

So entrenched elites go on pretending nothing’s wrong — even in societies like America, where social collapse has reached breathtaking proportions. Kids shoot each other in schools, people just…die…because they can’t afford insulin which is profiteered on…the average American lives and dies in debt, with little to no real freedoms or choices. And elites just whistle, shrug and walk away.

I have to give a special mention to intellectual elites. America’s in a funny place. It thinks of itself as having the finest thinkers in the world — and yet practically none of these fine thinkers can see that America’s collapsing, much less explain why, much less offer many ideas to stave it off. Intellectual elites, too, are complicit in the game of self-preservation, perhaps most of all so — because a collapsing society means their ideologies and theories were all badly wrong, too. Just ask the Soviets.

That brings me to the next reason that societies don’t foresee their own collapses. If elites want to preserve the status quo, then why don’t people…do something about those elites? Because elites in collapsing societies are entrenched. That means they’re dug tight into impregnable bunkers — and nobody can force them out and regain control of a society’s resources and decisions.

Corruption Run Rampant

Why can’t elites be forced out? How do they end up entrenched? Well, again, take a hard look at America. It has probably the most openly corrupt set of elites since the Soviet Union. In Europe, if politicians took “donations” the way American politicians do, it’d be a scandal every hour for decades. But in America, it’s just business as usual. The pervasive corruption of elites is another grand theme in collapsing societies. 

Who cares if Rome falls — as long as you’ve got your villa and your servants? That seems to be the feeling among elites when it comes to American collapse, too. Corruption saps incentives for elites to do anything but aggressively pursue self-preservation in the most antisocial and corrosive ways imaginable.

And yet it’s not just corruption that entrenches elites. That’s necessary, but not sufficient. A deeper force is at play: the disempowerment of the demos, as in, the democratic unit that is “the people.”

Think about that mouthful this way. The average American is completely disenchanted with their elites. Nobody much likes Biden or Pelosi or McConnell or any of the rest of them. But the problem is that Americans don’t have the time or energy or spirit or willpower to do anything about their failed elites. The American demos has little to no power over its elites.

Why not? Because they’re too busy just trying to survive. Just trying to make it through another day in America is a wearying affair. Life is an endless game of brutal competition, right down to death. Lose that job? Whoops, there goes everything, from health care to a home. So Americans, caught in the trap of capitalism, have to work every single day, to the bone, just to make ends meet. And even then, they can’t. Remember, the average American dies in debt — “credit card debt,” “medical debt,” “mortgage debt” and so on.

Trapped in Debt

To a good economist, societies where the average person dies in debt are also societies incapable of forcing entrenched elites out — at least short of a grand revolution. That’s the trap Americans are in. Elites have made sure they’re indebted…to elites…so Americans, worn out, broken, defeated, having to fight each other every day, over and over again…to pay off those debts…don’t have the energy or power left to dislodge those very entrenched elites.

Why don’t Americans protest? At least the way, say, the French famously do? It’s not just a cultural thing, though any proper Frenchman or woman is practically born waving a placard and shouting non! It’s also, more to the point, a matter of political economy: the French have time and energy left over to protest, like Europe and Canada generally do. 

From an American point of view, those societies hardly work at all — Americans work twice as long and receive less in return. No wonder Americans are indebted — and don’t have the energy left over to remove their entrenched yet failed elites from power.

If you’re working 80 hours a week at some crap job — like many Americans are — what time or energy do you really have left over for serious reflection about your society? Protesting? Giving “voice,” as political scientists, call it, to your discontents? Who’s going to organize and coordinate and fund all that, anyway? Maybe you see the problem. America’s ended up a democracy in name only, one without a demos exerting any real power over entrenched, failed elites.

Result? The grim, disheartening choice between Biden and Trump.

And yet there’s an even starker, darker path to collapse. Often, there is someone who sees a society’s in trouble, serious trouble, even beginning to collapse. The demagogueThe demagogue sees that a society’s not doing well, that things are beginning to break and crumble and fall apart. But he or she then scapegoats the most powerless groups in society for those problems — instead of fixing them. The obvious result is that the problems afflicting a society only get worse, while people are incited to hate, and so the vicious cycle of collapse only accelerates, usually hard and fast. Societies like this lean into their collapse — baffling and bewildering those around them, usually, too.

Britain Turns on Europe

It’s modern-day Britain that exemplifies this weird, sinister path to social collapse best. Britain was beset by problems after the financial crisis of the 2000s. But those problems came from a bungled bank bailout, which simply shifted costs to the public balance sheet, and led to a decade of austerity. In this vacuum, demagoguery arose — an entire generation of British leaders blamed Europe for Britain’s woes. 

Europe had nothing — nothing whatsoever — to do with British austerity, which led to falling living standards. And yet this class of demagogues — expertly scapegoated Europe, to the point that you’d turn on the BBC, and see someone called an “economist” or “analyst,” with no credentials whatsoever, just spouting folly, lies and hate…every day.

The catastrophic result was Brexit. And the consequences of Brexit, today, are as funny and absurd as they are shocking. Brits can’t get food — they see cardboard cutouts of food at supermarkets. The country’s running out of beer. Raw sewage is floating down waterways because the chemicals to treat it can’t be found. All that stuff came from Europe. And now it doesn’t come from anywhere.

Meanwhile, nobody in Britain, at least in a position of power, is allowed to say the word “Brexit.” It’s Voldemort, at idiot Hogwarts. Even the leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer, won’t say the obvious, which is that Brits can’t get food or fuel or, shortly, medicine, because it all used to come from Europe, and Britain is still busy picking fights with Europe, instead of trying to figure out how to supply itself with basic goods.

Meanwhile, Europe’s baffled — and at this point, infuriated — with Britain. It has little appetite left to be scapegoated. Give Europe some credit — it took Britain’s insults for five years, with grace and kindness, just out of friendship. Shortly, though, Europe’s going to do things like stop supplying Britain with power and gas, because Britain keeps on provoking it, demonizing it, attacking it. And then the real chaos will begin.

In this form of social collapse — let’s call it the Brexit Pattern — nobody sees collapse coming because they’re too busy cheering it on. The demagogue’s lies appeal to people because their lives really are hurting — and it’s always easiest to blame it on a scapegoat. Hence, Britain became literally a “hostile” country to foreigners — as its own government puts it — and especially to Europeans.

But attacking and insulting and provoking Europeans didn’t fix Britain’s problems. It only created far, far bigger ones — ones that have led Britain squarely to the point of collapse. What else do you call a society where people are given…cardboard cutouts of food…raw sewage is floating down rivers…where the lights are likely going to go off in the winter…while the people who created this mess are riding higher in the polls than ever…because, still, idiotically, astonishingly, it’s all someone else’s fault? Britain’s still so busy blaming Europe that it can’t see it’s collapsing because it began blaming Europe from the start.

It’s hard to unpack and unpick the layers of stupidity and irony therein, so many abound.

Five Decades of Decline

America took about half a century to collapse. Incomes began stagnating in the ’70s, social mobility began to stall in the ’80s, living standards began to flatline in the ’90s, by the end of the ’00s, America’s famed middle class was a minority and an underclass. That was the point at which debt, drugs and despair began to ravage (even white) America in earnest. That’s a pretty standard form of social collapse — it took the Soviet Union about three decades of stagnation and falling living standards to come undone.

Britain, though, is something closer to Weimar Germany. It took Weimar Germany a decade, maybe 15 years, depending on how you count it, to really implode into Nazi Germany. Britain’s much closer to that pattern, that form of collapse. Just 20 years ago, it was the envy of the world, with one of the world’s highest living standards, finest healthcare system, most renowned public broadcaster. Today? All that’s in tatters,  precisely because Britain leaned into collapse even harder than America did.

In that respect, Britain and America teach us different lessons about how societies collapse. America teaches us that time, neglect, ignorance and poverty can slowly crumble the foundations of even the mightiest empires until they totter and fall. Britain teaches us an even darker lesson: Give a society a crisis, a demagogue and a scapegoat — and it takes just a decade or two of stupidity and anger to turn into hate and venom to the point of total and utter self-destruction.

America teaches us that small amounts of the social poisons of greed and indifference and inequality can add up to a very big collapse, in the end, given time. But Britain teaches us that societies can implode with lightning quickness, too; that even wise and gentle people like the British are not immune to the Big Lies of hate and nationalism and intolerance and unkindness, that anyone can be seduced by a demagogue offering a nation growing poorer a convenient scapegoat for its ills.

Does that get us a little closer to understanding why societies don’t see their own collapses coming? Perhaps it does — you’ll have to tell me. In the end, the answer may be as simple as this. Societies don’t see their own collapses coming because they grow weak, blind, dull, defeated in the spirit, corroded in the heart, hubristic in the mind. 

They’ve been warned, time and again, that it can’t happen here — and left too weary to fight it much, anyways. That’s America’s case. But that’s the kind case. Even more revealing, some societies, like Nazi Germany, end up leaning aggressively into their own collapse, cheering it all on in a frenzy, attacking every scapegoat in sight, provoking newly made enemies, instead of fixing their own problems. A weird Orwellian freedom-is-slavery perversion of reality takes place. That’s Britain’s case right about now.

Which one, I wonder, will hit which nation next?

The essay first appeared on Umair Haque’s Medium site.

Umair Haque is a London-based consultant. He is director of Havas Media Lab, founder of Bubblegeneration and frequent tweeter and contributor to the online Harvard Business Review. He is the author of The New Capitalist Manifesto: Building a Disruptively Better Business (2011).