PERSPECTIVE--If you’re American, take a moment to congratulate yourself. You’ve just survived the tenure of the worst President in American history.
Trump’s given the green light for the transfer of power to proceed, which means that his coup has failed. That’s as close as he’s ever going to get to conceding. Yes, really. Probably, you did your own part — small or large — to help that along. So breathe a sigh of relief.
All of which raises the question: were the Trump years America’s rock bottom? As in, the worst things are going to get? Is it all uphill, maybe, from here — which, admittedly, is a low, low point, America standing at the bottom of the abyss? Maybe it’s a long way up — but were the last four years rock bottom?
Let me put my question in perspective.
America’s pundits and intellectuals make Trump out to be some kind of anomaly — a random catastrophe that appeared from nowhere. But that’s eminently not the case. Many of us, particularly scholars of social collapse, predicted Trumpism well in advance — in my case, almost a decade out.
American decline began a long, long time ago. America’s thinking class doesn’t quite get it, or want to admit it. But if you’re an average person, you know it.
When, exactly? If we take a harder look at American history than its pundits are willing to do, a set of eerie facts strikes us. American wages began to flatline in the 1970s. They have never “recovered” to this day. I say “recovered” because as many average people now conclude, this is the system — not some kind of bug in it. That’s fifty years of stagnation — longer than the Soviet Union’s. It stagnated for about thirty years — and bang, collapsed. America’s stagnated almost twice as long as the Soviet Union by now.
What happened around that precise date in history, 1971? After all, there must be some explanation for America’s sudden and calamitous stagnation. Before that, remember, it was the most prosperous society in the world, famed for a suburban dream of better living through technology, two cars in the driveway beside all those perfectly manicured lawns. So…what happened? Go ahead and take a guess. Three guesses.
The answer is so obvious that we should all know it — and yet it’s not a part of the standard story of American economics and politics, the one we learn in high school, college, and so on, at all. Again, that’s because America’s thinking class doesn’t seem intelligent enough to make the most glaringly obvious link in the world. What happened around 1971 was the end of segregation.
How did that cause the world’s then-richest economy to stagnate? Well, think about what it tells us. America finally freed — to some extent — a class of people who had been hated subhumans to that point. And, bang — at that precise instant, the economy went south. That tells us that without an underclass to exploit, the economy went into free-fall. A free-fall from which it never really recovered.
Think of how slavery made America rich. Black people picked the cotton and tilled the fields of the agricultural South and West. They weren’t paid a penny, usually — they were busy being maimed and hunted. The economic surplus from all that was invested, nose held in patrician hand, by the North — which put it to work in “stock markets.” Those stock markets ended up investing in some wondrous things, true, like light bulbs and radio and so forth. But the origin of all this wealth was tainted by abuse and exploitation. Without an underclass to exploit — to work mercilessly, to drive to death — to generate all this wealth in the first place, the engine of this whole economy would probably stop. At least that’s what logic suggested.
And that is exactly what happened. Either it’s one of history’s biggest coincidences that the American economy stopped offering gains to the average person around 1971 — the exact date segregation ended, and there was no hated underclass to exploit — or it’s one of history’s most obvious relationships. You can choose to ignore it, like American pundits, I guess — your decision.
Me? I have to believe what the facts say.
And they say this. When Black people were finally made less of a hated underclass — at least one the economy couldn’t exploit so easily — what happened? It began to exploit everyone. The white middle class, the white working class, and so on, too. How was the profitability of this economy to be maintained, now that Black people were equals — at least in theory? There was only one answer left: now white people had to be exploited, too, just as Blacks had been. It was either that — or profits would fall. And so incomes began to stagnate even for whites.
Why does that matter? What does economics explain? To people who study social collapse, like me — everything. When an economy begins to stagnate, think of it as cracks appearing in a pane of glass. They tend to spread — and you usually have to forge a new window. What does economic stagnation do to societies, cultures, people, government? Let me continue my story.
America’s whites responded furiously to the end of segregation. In the “Reagan Revolution,” which offered them barely coded dog-whistles for their old racist attitudes. Instead of segregation, America now had “personal responsibility” and “freedom of choice,” which meant, in practice, that the white Reaganite could say: “I won’t pay for those dirty peoples’ healthcare, education, retirement, transport, childcare! Why, they’re barely even human!!” Or at least believe it, and vote for it, without saying it.
Now, think for a moment about what a colossal mistake this was. Not just morally, obviously — but socially. The white voter’s income was stagnating at this point. They were beginning not to have enough money to live lives of ease and comfort like their parents had. And yet they voted against their very own healthcare, retirement, education, childcare, and so on — in order to try and desperately preserve their position of supremacy in a newly liberated society. Do you see the mistake?
By the late 1990s, the mistake that white voters had made was starting to become clear. Costs were beginning to skyrocket, by astonishing amounts. For the very things that they had chosen to deny everyone, including themselves, just so that the minorities they still hated wouldn’t have them. Americans of all kinds were beginning to face staggering rises in the costs of education, healthcare, finance, transport, retirement, even food and medicine. When I say staggering, I mean staggering — over the years, these costs rose by thousands of percent, like in no other society in the world.
Hence, by the 2000s, the situation was so dire, the world was alarmed — and baffled. Did Americans really pay as much as a house for healthcare if they got ill? As much as a house again for educating a child? But how, a bewildered world wanted to know, do you even do that?
The answer was something that had become endemic, by now, in America. Debt. The only way that Americans could keep with thousand percent rises in the prices of the basics was to go into debt. How did you pay off a medical bill of, say $50,000? A tuition bill of $100,000? You borrowed. Eye-watering amounts, that simply didn’t exist in the world. Things like “medical debt” and “student debt” and so on became normal in America — and the rest of the world could scarcely figure out what they were.
That mean that even the ones who had expected lives of easy comfort and security — the white middle class — weren’t getting them. Instead, they were facing downward mobility, as a class, as a social group. Everyone in America was becoming one gigantic underclass. If you think I exaggerate, consider the following statistics. 80% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. 75% struggle to pay basic bills. 70% have difficulty raising $1000 for an emergency. And the average American dies in $62,000 of debt.
Now, all this rang serious, serious alarm bells for folks like me. Those of us who study economies — and aren’t just American economists obsessed over meaningless equations, but ones with actual experience of how economics works through history — for us? There was almost no alarm bell louder than a society falling into mass debt, because it couldn’t afford to pay the bills anymore.
Because it meant the structure of society was about to break.
And by 2010 or so, that happened. America’s middle class finally became a minority, for the first time in history.
That should never happen. In a modern society, we should see something like a bell curve — a broad middle class, with a small number of poor, and an even smaller number of rich. But America’s social structure was being ripped apart — a weird, ominous U-shape was emerging: a hole where the middle class should have been, who, being downwardly mobile, were becoming the new poor, and a tiny number of super rich whom they were indebted to.
Ding-ding. That was the final alarm. Do you know what happens when a society’s social structure breaks? All hell breaks loose, too.
Why? Think of what happens in such a society. Feelings of despair and hopelessness rise — while happiness falls. Life becomes a bitter, bruising battle for self-preservation — in the face of seemingly impossible odds. But because you can barely take care of yourself, how can you take care of anyone else? So social bonds begin to fray. People begin to regard each other as adversaries in an endless contest for limited, meagre resources. An atmosphere of distrust and hostility emerges. Aggression and cruelty become social norms. At the same time, trust is lost in institutions, too — everyone know the system is failing, but nobody knows what to do about it, because elites are busy pretending, in their little bubbles, that nothing much is happening.
So far, so Rome.
What usually happens at this juncture in modern history is that a demagogue emerges. Who scapegoats minorities — the ones already at the bottom of the social heap, already barely considered people — for the downward mobility of the majority. “They’re the cause of your problems,” he screams, “those dirty, filthy subhumans! Get rid of them, and we will Be Great Again!!”
Sound familiar? That’s exactly what happened in America. All of it. From despair and suicide skyrocketing to trust imploding to norms of cruelty and hostility emerging — to the demagogue who rose to take advantage of it all, by scapegoating minorities for the woes of the majority.
The textbook sequence — to those of us who study how societies collapse, anyways — emerged in America. Economic collapse led to social collapse led to cultural collapse led, finally, to political collapse. Fifty years and counting of stagnation, fuelled by white America’s lingering hatred of minorities, which caused them to vote against their own public goods, like healthcare and retirement and education, made the middle class upwards mobility and optimism and trust in the system and belief in society implode — which led to a demagogue blaming minorities for that implosion.
Trumpism, in other words, was the culmination of a thing, not just a thing in itself: the culmination of all the long-term trends of American decline. Of economic stagnation, of a social structure breaking down, of the loss of trust, of the lack of upwards mobility, of a culture that still tolerated and thrived on abusiveness and violence and hate. These trends have lasted fifty years at this point.
Now you see what I mean by the question: is this America’s rock bottom?
The truth — and nobody wants to hear the truth — is this. It doesn’t have to be. It can easily not be. All that has to happen is this.
America’s problems. You know the ones I’m talking about. Nobody can get decent healthcare. People have to beg strangers online for money to pay for insulin. Kids crowdfund “lunch debt.” Everybody’s in mass debt — the average American dies in it. A majority of young people can’t afford to move out of their parents’ homes. There are few decent jobs left, and half of Americans now work “low-wage service jobs.” The super rich are too rich, and use their money to shred society. Nobody much seems to care about anyone else, at least enough — because, well, life is a daily struggle just for self-preservation.
All those problems just go on.
Those “problems” are examples of the long-run trends above. It’s better to see the trends than the examples, though the trends are abstract, and the examples concrete. The implosion of the middle class. The catastrophic loss of trust in each other, in institutions, in society. The breakdown of social bonds, and the inability to forge new ones, which means people rely on things like Facebook for (mis)information. The pervasive downward mobility. The despair and hopelessness — which are real, which have caused suicide and depression to skyrocket.
All of that is a product of a social contract which is still broken. It was broken in 1971, and it’s broken today. In 1971, the idea was that America could desegregate Black people — and everything would be fine. But doing just that, without really thinking about it meant to be a society of true equals, set in motion the chain reaction that sparked American decline and collapse, and culminated in Trumpism. Whites reacted violently, with a backlash that never ended. They reacted so badly that they chose not to invest in anyone at all, including themselves — and so everyone’s living standards cratered, which sparked the vicious cycle of social collapse. They decided it’d be better to still be supreme atop a ruined society, than equals in a prosperous one.
It was in 1971 that America should have pre-empted all those decades of decline and collapse to come — the ones we’ve lived through — by writing a truly modern social contract. Giving everyone things like healthcare, education, finance, retirement, childcare, all the basics of a decent life. Because in truth, being a society of equals meant much more than just formal desegregation. It meant the majority consenting to the idea that everyone should basic levels of dignity, equality, worth — in hard, concrete terms.
Just desegregating alone meant the white majority was free to obey the letter of the law — and then rip up the social contract by denying everyone else all that they could, even if it meant not having better lives themselves, because at least that way their supremacy was preserved.
Do you see the point I’m trying to make? It’s a complex one, a nuanced one, one that’s totally unfamiliar in American discourse, really. So let me say it again. 1971 was the date that America should have written a truly modern social contract, guaranteeing the basics of life in a functioning society as rights for all.
That is what the spirit of freedom in the modern sense, what equality, what trying to really make a fairer and more decent nation all really mean. It prevents just the kind of backlash America’s been suffering now for decades.
In my estimation, America has four years now to at least begin righting that wrong. Is Joe Biden up to that task? I don’t know. I don’t think so. You tell me. What I do know is this. If at least the beginnings of a truly modern social contract aren’t written, if that spirit isn’t there — then American collapse will not end here. The cycle of Trumpism will just repeat itself, probably worse, next time. The white majority will look to a demagogue, all over again, to scapegoat minorities for their woes.
And if you’ve understood the deep, deep truth I’ve been trying to tell you, probably a little too hard, then you should know this. The reason that American collapse was sparked in the first place was that America never truly became a society ready to accept equality, freedom, fairness, justice, in the modern sense. The white majority wanted minorities to be subjugated, and were willing to burn their own lives down to do it. They were very, very successful at that — burning their own lives down, to the point that America now resembles a third-world country.
But that’s what a social collapse is.
So let me ask you again. Was the Trump era America’s rock bottom — and is it uphill from here — or is it just the start of a vicious cycle, like in Rome, bad emperor followed by less bad one followed by worse one, and so on, right down to the bitter, slow, painful end?
The last few years have been bruising, like an emotional wrecking ball, for sane people at least, that is.
(Umair Haque writes for E&CO. Posted by medium.com)