by Umair Haque
April 15, 2018

from Eudaimonia Website

Spanish version


How to Topple

the House of Prosperity

There's a question that's been on my mind  -  and maybe on yours.

Why did (North) America make it so easy for itself to collapse?

Let me explain what I mean.

(North) American collapse has many causes. One cause is that it (North) America grew socially destabilized, ruptured, fractured. It was undone. Through, most recently, social-scale propaganda, disinformation, organized campaigns to brainwash the average person into believing up is down.


That's just one cause, though. Somehow, (North) America made it easy for itself to topple into authoritarian implosion, economic ruin, and social upheaval.

Why? Why was (North) America so vulnerable to destabilization and collapse in the first place?


So much so that within a decade, it went from a reasonable place, to what seems to have become a society stunningly dysfunctional at the most basic levels of self-governance, self-direction, norms, values, goals, aspirations, rules.


Other societies haven't collapsed so badly, after all  -  and perhaps they can learn from (North) America's mistakes.

There are three interrelated factors, to my mind.


  • The first is what you might call a deep-seated atmosphere of hostility  -  negative-sum thinking. Decades of extreme capitalism have left people with only one way to see others:

as opponents, adversaries, enemies. Not as peers, colleagues, fellow citizens.

You probably think I'm overstating it.


How else do we explain (North) American cruelty, in all its strange and gruesome guises  -  whether regular school shootings, crushing overwork for little pay, the young and old never retiring, no margin of error, sanity, or safety, lives lived at the razor's edge of survival?


The average person has just a thousand dollars in savings, falling life expectancy, and no faith in the future.


How did he get there?


Predatory capitalism, the variant that evolved in (North) America, and is being exported globally, is premised on ruthless negative-sum competition for the average person:

the rich get ultra richer, but the middle class person forever lives at the edge of a life imploding into poverty.

He is pitted against his neighbor in a desperate struggle for the basics of existence:

healthcare, education, finance, housing.

If he wishes to have these things, extreme capitalism tells him, he can only gain them by taking them away from someone else.


Hence, norms and economics are linked  -  people hate one another because they are constantly competing with everyone else for a slightly less bad, but always declining, life. It would drive anyone mad.

Think of it as a massive, social-scale Prisoners' Dilemma:

the costs of cooperation (towards say building a functioning healthcare system) have been raised so high (by lobbying, gerrymandering, disinformation, and so on) that the least costly option is to renege on the social contract itself.

All that a person who's life is collapsing, to whom everyone is already an opponent, enemy, needs is a tiny nudge  -  to take his bitter anger towards his neighbor, peer, society itself, and turn it into outright spite and hate, pointing the finger at a convenient scapegoat.

  • Isn't that the case in (North) America today?

  • Don't (North) Americans more or less despise one another?

Perhaps you think I overstate it, but how else are we to make sense of a nation where people are always denying each other the basics of a good life  -  instead of endowing each other with them?


  • The second is an attitude of scorn and contempt for institutions, the rule of law, and government.


    I've lived all over the world  -  in war-torn nations, failing states, and rich ones, too.


    But nowhere have I seen a nation that despises and loathes government as much as, as hard, as often, as viciously, as (North) America.


    It's the result of decades of, to put it simply, brainwashing, by extremist fringes on both left and right  -  which infected the center soon enough, too. And now (North) Americans have been taught to hate  -  genuinely really feel a sense of bitter scorn at  -  their government, to the point that many of them vehemently believe they'd be better off without it.


    Hence, (North) Americans don't invest in governance much  -  about half as much as rich nations  -  and most of that investment is subsidies to well-lobbied industries.

    But without investment in governance, what happens?


    Society goes something like Mad Max, only in yoga pants instead of leather  -  the result is that the strong trample the weak, mercilessly, systematically, with a laugh and a sneer, as institutions and the rule of law are decimated.


    And that too is the case in (North) America today  -  the rule of law is an institution that is easily flaunted, by shunting money offshore, by exploiting loopholes, by changing the law itself, and so on.


    It's easy to destabilize a nation that has been taught to fiercely hate its own institutions  -  because it's been primed to collapse, the foundations of prosperity rotted from the inside already.


  • My third factor is social distance, which results in mistrust.


    A society, if it is to stay one, must hang together:

cohere, connect, be capable of seeing itself as a group of people.

But (North) Americans don't really see themselves that way anymore.


They put their tribal affiliations first, before their sense of (North) Americanness.


How did that happen? Well, social distance grew and grew, as a result of inequality. As inequality skyrocketed, (North) Americans stopped having things in common.


Today, the rich, imploded middle, and poor share almost nothing:

 they don't attend the same schools, take the same trains, wait in the same lines, travel from the same airports, or even drive on the same roads.

When social distance grows to such a degree, a society stops being capable of collective action.


There is the sense that all of them  -  all those other groups, the rich, the landed, the poor, whomever  -  are out to get you.


And in a sense it's true:

when social distance increases too much, society's incentives go out of whack.

Better for the ultra rich to become kings after a certain point  -  there is too much to lose. Better for the imploded middle to stamp down the poor if the ultra rich are untouchable.


These are optimal decisions from the groups' viewpoint  -  but they are deeply destructive to a society.

Just like my first two factors, negative-sum competition and contempt for governance, social distance made (North) America easy to hack as a society.


Groups were ready to turn on one another viciously  -  they'd already begun to do so, after all. That is what the anti-politics of the 1990s and 2010s, where no one was able to agree on a working social contract, really meant.


The wood had gone bad  -  all that someone had to do was to come along and pull the last few planks of trust, decency, and comity out from the foundation of the house of prosperity.

So here we are.


What can we learn...?


There is a place which societies should never go to. They must never take dignity, stability, opportunity, meaning, connection, and optimism away from people  -  as (North) America's leaders foolishly did.


It's true to say those things matter in themselves  -  but even if you don't believe that, because you are a die-hard individualist, rationalist, materialist, there is still a reason for you to value human beings and their possibility - is insurance for the future.


Take too much of people's lives away, and a whole society becomes easy to hack.


By removing people's dignity, you are also corroding the foundation of the house of prosperity  -  making it easier and easier for them to turn on each other, themselves, and society itself.

All that an adversary has to do is come along and give it a little push.


Such a house is ready to fall...