If what we’re seeing around us right now—especially here in the United States—isn’t a collapse, then what is? To be perfectly honest, 2020 is turning out to be far worse than I ever imagined things would get in my lifetime. There once was a time when you actually had to try and convince people that a collapse was coming. Now all you have to do is gesture broadly.
It’s true that predictions of a dearth of fossil fuels grinding industrial civilization to a sudden halt and plunging us all into a pre-industrial “world made by hand” didn’t pan out, and isn’t likely to. Instead, a global pandemic has been the catalyst that exposed the cracks in American society that have long been papered over. It’s like when a bridge whose maintenance has been deferred for decades finally gives way when that overloaded semi truck drives over it one morning. That semi truck is called Covid-19.
There is a difference between collapse and catastrophe, with collapse being a long, slow process unfolding over long periods of time, and a catastrophe being a sudden, unexpected event that sends shockwaves through the system. The effect of those shockwaves, of course, is determined by how resilient and durable the underlying system is. In America, I’d say that the system is long past it’s sell-by date.
The laundry list should be familiar by now to everyone who’s been paying attention: French Revolution levels of inequality; shrinking life expectancies; deaths of despair; epidemic obesity and other chronic health conditions; food deserts; automobile dependency; suburban sprawl; rising levels of depression and anxiety; drug abuse; bankrupt municipalities; crumbling infrastructure; deferred maintenance; fragile supply chains; corporate consolidation; business monopolies; stock bubbles; de-unionization; an insular, out-of-touch political class; political corruption; legalized bribery disguised as political donations; voter suppression; boarded up main streets; shuttered factories; empty storefronts; ghost malls; privatization; unaffordable higher education costs; college debt; expensive child care; failing urban schools; education quality based on ZIP code; skyrocketing housing and health care costs; financialization and asset stripping; outsourcing and automation; people lacking health insurance; hospitals closing in rural areas; underfunded pensions; unsustainable private debt levels; worker disengagement; a bloated and overextended military; endless unwinnable foreign wars; veteran suicides; police brutality; street gangs; homelessness; tent cities on the streets; gun violence; school shootings; people living in their cars; hurricanes, floods and wildfires; mass incarceration; a generation of stagnant working-class wages—the list is so long and extensive that a list of functioning institutions in the United States would be shorter and easier to compile at this point.
This week, just a few miles to the south of where I write these words, an entire downtown has been engulfed in violence and rioting, with buildings burned down and stores looted. Mass protests over the summary execution of a black man by police officers brought out armed militias and vigilantes—many from neighboring states—who openly coordinated their activities with the police.
Reactionary political forces are currently circling the wagons to defend a 17-year- old rifle-toting Trump supporter who came in from out of state and is accused of shooting three people, killing two of them. “If the police can’t protect us from violence, then anything goes,” is their assertion, one embraced by increasing numbers of fearful citizens. At the same time, right-wing paramilitaries clash with protesters in the streets of Portland every night like something directly out of Weimar Germany [Note: since I wrote this, one person has been killed during a pro-Trump rally in Portland. Trump himself will be in Kenosha this upcoming Tuesday].
It’s clear from events over the past few months that there has already been significant radicalization of large segments the American population outside of urban areas, the full extent of which has been ignored by the media and politicians, and that this radicalization has penetrated not only the formal branches of the military, but also the internal police forces which are increasingly resembling an occupying army. There are also an increasing number of right-wing militias and paramilitary groups, many of them hotbeds of extremist sentiment and white supremacist ideology. Both they and their ideological opponents see no peaceful means of resolving their differences, and can only recommend their online followers to stockpile ever-larger caches of guns and ammunition in a literal arms race. After each new event, gun store sales break new records. Just this morning I read the following comment from a user on the financial blog Naked Capitalism:
Long time lurker but feel compelled to comment as things are so bad.
America is so screwed. I have been following [Naked Capitalism] since the Great Recession. The trend is ever downward. When people start talking about the need for a new sixties-style protest movement I have to laugh. How deluded. The police are handing out bottled water to armed right-wing vigilantes and militias. Almost functional fascism. To watch the world hyper-power disintegrating in real time is staggering. Wake up, people. Help is NOT coming. Look back on this day in a month, a year, a decade. Guaranteed it will get worse.
People are getting so crazy. Even regular commentators on this site are saying crazy stuff like “kill them all”, referring to Antifa and BLM. WTF!?
Good luck and take care everyone.
I ask you, how can anyone not see this as a collapse? How can any country function under these conditions?
Okay, you might say, but there have been riots in America before, from Watts to Rodney King. It’s just part of the background noise of American life, you could say. But did these riots unfold alongside the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression, and the greatest single-quarter drop in GDP ever recorded? No they did not.
America’s response to the global Coronavirus pandemic has caused the rest of the world to stare agape in horror as if watching a slow-motion car-crash. Not only was the response of the so-called “leader of the free world” to Covid-19 not among the world’s most competent, it has been the absolute worst among developed nations, put to shame by countries with a fraction of its GDP. Meanwhile, the world has been treated to the spectacle of Americans angrily marching in the streets and flying into outrage over the simple requirement of wearing a mask, along with a president who denied and then downplayed the very existence of the virus, later promoting untested and unproven cures from behind the podium. Unlike the rest of the world, the virus became a political hot potato in the United States.
The United States was unable to effectively contain the virus, or implement adequate testing and tracking protocols due to four decades of defunding the state in favor of tax cuts for the wealthy and private businesses. Even the slightest directives to help contain the virus were considered an affront to “freedom.” Many countries ran circles around the United States’ pandemic response, including America’s past enemies like Germany and Vietnam, both densely-populated nations of roughly 83 and 96 million people, respectively. Another commenter to Naked Capitalism wrote concerning the U.S.’s Covid-19 response:
The huge problem facing both the UK and US I think is that they’ve floated for decades on the benefits of having excellent administrative structures, while allowing these structures to decay and rot. When you look at how, say, late 19th Century cities solved the problems of disease through massive water and waste investments, or waged total war when needed, or built huge highway systems over a matter of a few years, and then compare it to the chaos of today – as you say, it can only make you weep. Fixing it would take a massive effort, and to be honest, I don’t see anyone willing to take on that task.
Despite the greatest economic cataclysm of the post-Depression era, America’s politicians went on summer holiday and forestalled any efforts to help individual American workers and small businesses, even while doling out trillions of dollars to well-connected large corporations and the investor class. At the same time, an extra six hundred extra dollars a month was deemed far too generous to the unemployed, encouraging laziness and sloth. As a NYMag headline put it, “GOP Hopes to Revive Economy by Making Life Harder for Unemployed.” One prominent Texas Republican even insisted that the economy must reopen immediately because “there were more important things than living,” and that he was more than willing to sacrifice his life for the cause.
America’s outrageously expensive colleges and universities remain shuttered after an abortive attempt at reopening, teetering on the edge of financial ruin, just like its similarly extravagantly wasteful for-profit private healthcare system, which leaves millions without coverage even in the midst of a pandemic. One million new unemployment claims were filed just last week, and an eviction crisis is looming on the horizon, with politicians sitting on their hands afraid to “spend too much.” When asked about the revenue shortfalls of cities and states due to the pandemic, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, callously suggested that they simply declare bankruptcy. Even Marie Antoinette at least offered cake.
Also as I write this, an area larger than some small European countries is burning in California. The fires are raging out of control because the prison labor that is normally used to fight the fires is too sick with Covid-19. Ponder that for a minute. Simultaneously, on the other end of the country, Hurricane Laura is slamming into Louisiana, unleashing devastation across the region. Before it was downgraded to a tropical storm, the Gulf of Mexico was anticipated to get slammed with two simultaneous hurricanes back-to-back, something that has literally never happened before. As one meteorologist remarked, “In modern meteorological history … there’s never been anything like this before where you could have possibly two hurricanes hitting within miles of each other over a 48 hour period.”
Okay, but we’ve had natural disasters before, right? Sure, but it’s abundantly clear that they’re coming faster and harder than ever now, exactly in line with the most dire predictions of anthropogenic climate change—a problem that, let’s face it, we are not going to deal with in any significant way. That ship has sailed. The worst-case scenarios of climate change are going to happen at this point. Anyone who doesn’t believe that is living in a fantasy world, in my opinion.
Then we have what has been described as a small business “apocalypse” going on right now across the country. Amazon is finally close to accomplishing its long-term goal of consolidating all online commerce under its umbrella, with only a few other behemoths providing any sort of token competition. The consolidation of all commercial activity in the hands of just a few giant global conglomerates—a trend long noted by observers—has for the most part been accomplished thanks to Covid-19. Inequality is now surpassing Gilded-age levels. I just heard that protesters are constructing a guillotine outside of one of Jeff Bezos’s many mansions. America’s billionaires saw their fortunes soar by $434 billion during the pandemic. As Mark Blyth likes to remark, “The Hamptons are not a defensible position.” No wonder they’re so afraid of protesters.
How can one look around and not see that the country is falling apart in front of our very eyes?
And then there’s Trump. It’s difficult to discuss the administration objectively due to the extreme polarization of American society (itself a cause and symptom of collapse), but I think it’s fair to say that the political norms that have kept America relatively stable throughout all of the above challenges are being dismantled by the day. Rather than calling for unity, the current President deliberately stokes fear and division and fans the flames of extremism in a cynical attempt to retain power. When has a sitting president taken every opportunity to openly cast doubt on the validity of an upcoming presidential election? When has a sitting president contemplated suspending the election outright, even as his cronies dismantle the United States Postal Service—an institution that has literally existed since the Republic was founded? At this point, no one thinks the transfer of power will go smoothly—the only question is how bad it will get.
Think about that: the world’s oldest democracy can’t even hold functional elections for political office anymore. And that’s before we get to the many, many blatant examples of voter disenfranchisement. For example, this spring I myself was unable to vote because the polling stations in my city went from 180 to just four overnight, and attempts to delay the election were deliberately thwarted by the state Republican party using the court system-the same court system they are now using to overturn mask requirements. Thanks to gerrymandering, the Republican Party has an ironclad grip on power in my state, and are using it to strip authority from the recently elected Democratic governor, all of it with the tacit approval of much of the electorate. As Nathan Robinson noted in the Guardian, “A failed state is one that can no longer claim legitimacy or perform a government’s core function of protecting the people’s basic security. Lately, the Wisconsin supreme court seems to be doing its level best to make its state qualify for “failed” status. Multiple decisions have both undermined the government’s legitimacy and endangered the people.”
Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the Trump phenomenon is the extent to which his cult-like followers appear to be living in a totally alternative reality, curated by algorithm—one in which the U.S. response to Covid is the best in the world (or else Covid is no big deal), the economy is booming, the police are never wrong, the news is fake, voting fraud is endemic, climate change is a Chinese hoax, homicidal black hordes are pouring out of inner cities, Democratic-run cities and states are all economic basket cases, the U.S healthcare system is the best in the world, Democrats want to confiscate all the firearms in the country, and the biggest threats to Americans are socialism and cancel culture. And these opinions are as impervious to facts as Captain America’s shield is to bullets. How can representative democracy function when there’s no longer even a shared common basis in reality?
Then we have the QAnon supporters, a bizarre and growing conspiracy movement that is truly living in a separate reality—one where only Trump can save us from the Satan-worshiping pedophiles of the esoteric “Deep State.” Energy shortages aside, James Howard Kunstler hit the nail on the head when he noted that “sometimes countries just go crazy.” It seems like an apt description of what’s going on right now. To steal yet another phrase from Kunstler, even if Biden wins the election and by some miracle there is a peaceful transfer of power, the “Yeast People” will still be there and will inevitably rise again.
So, to recap, we are unable to hold free and fair elections and heavily-armed right-wing paramilitaries openly patrol the streets of American cities and occupy statehouses with tacit approval from the authorities. Large parts of the country are under de-facto one-party rule. The police shoot people with impunity. Cities and states across the country are on the verge of bankruptcy, with the Federal government held hostage by a radical conservative movement. Millions are unemployed. This is already below failed-state status. Why aren’t more people pointing this out? Why aren’t people shouting it from the rooftops? The first post I wrote that went viral way back in 2012 was called What If a Collapse Happened and Nobody Noticed?, referring mainly to austerity measures in Europe at the time. Now, here in 2020, I can’t help but ask that exact same question again with even more urgency (hence, I reused the exact same title). How are you people not seeing this? How is any of this this okay? Am I taking crazy pills, or what?
It’s as if the 1918 flu pandemic, the Red Scare, the Great Depression, the Long Hot Summer of 1967, Kent State, the Ludlow massacre, the disputed 2000 election, and Hurricane Katrina all took place within the same twelve month period. At least the massive clouds of locusts are still confined to Africa (for now!).
Had I described all this years ago, you might think that we would all be living in something out of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” And yet it all seems so normal! As I noted, a city a mere 25 miles from where I live was engulfed in riots, yet I only found out about it by going onto the BBC News Website. I still go to work. I still walk to the store for some wine (albeit while wearing a mask). I still buy tacos from taco trucks. It is a beautiful, warm, sunny day today with perfect weather. I still have electricity, running water and internet service in my house. Yet just a short stroll from where I live there is a walking path along a river where a large number of homeless people have set up camp, and every off-ramp now features someone holding up a cardboard sign asking for spare change. Oh, did I forget to mention the coin shortage?
This is what collapse really looks like!
By just about any metric aside from maybe screen size and processor speed, the world since 2008 has gotten progressively worse for the average person all over the world. Even the vaunted Internet—the subject of so many utopian visions from the late 1990’s—has been transformed into either a vehicle for mass surveillance, a vector for the propagation of disinformation and agitprop by hostile state actors, or an echo-chamber contributing to the radicalization of malcontents and a way for them to coordinate their activities. And the march of illiberal nationalist authoritarian governments is not confined to the United States—it’s a worldwide phenomenon including places like Brazil, Turkey, Hungary, Poland, the Philippines, Belarus (especially relevant right now) and arguably India, China and Russia. And that’s on top of countries that were never viable democracies in the first place, or are in outright meltdown like Syria and Iraq.
So when I still hear people asking “when will the collapse occur?” I can’t help but wonder what reality they are living in, or what the heck they are expecting. It’s like someone asking “when will the ball game start?” during the sixth inning.
I think it comes from an eschatological background inherited from Christianity, where we are patiently waiting for a single defining “event” which will be some sort of turning point. There has always been a quasi-religious aspect of the collapse and survivalist mentalities which has obscured an accurate appraisal of our situation.
As an aside—in my opinion the notion that I will be okay by disengaging completely from the wider society and somehow living “off the grid” in a country of 328 million people is a dangerous fantasy and yet another manifestation of the toxic American concept of “rugged individualism” which has gotten us to this point in the first place. It won’t work. Any society, no matter how large or small, is an ongoing collective enterprise. We are not Robinson Crusoes all living on our own private island, no matter how many MRE’s and cases of bottled water we stock up on. The very notion is proof positive that people have pretty much abandoned even trying to constructively reform the system at this point. It’s on auto-pilot. We are powerless and we know it. It’s easier just to give up and withdraw. Defeat is better than disappointment. Even the Silicon Valley tech oligarchs are buying doomsteads in New Zealand because, as Slavoj Žižek quipped, “it’s easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.”
Collapse is here, and it’s happening right now. I don’ t think that’s disputable at this point. We’re in for a long, long period of chaos and decline that will probably last the rest of our lives. After that, it’s impossible to tell what will happen. Perhaps the title of one of Buckminster Fuller’s books sums it up: Utopia or Oblivion.
Switching gears to your conversation with First about gender relations.
One topic that didn’t come up was the radicalization of many of these disaffected young men to extreme right-wing politics. One would think that if any demographic group would benefit from reforming the current pseudo-meritocratic “winner take all” economic order, it would be them. One the face of it, these young men should be a natural constituency for ideas like reducing extreme income inequality, taxing away enormous multi-generational fortunes, labor unionization, requiring employers to provide decent wages and benefits, subsidized higher education and training for everyone, and establishing things like MMT’s Jobs Guarantee.
But they’re not doing that. Instead, this demographic appears to be lurching more and more to the extreme Right. They are channeling their lack of advancement into intense hatred for “feminists” and “political correctness,” rather than looking at the underlying economic conditions that are affecting their lives. Indeed, when one thinks of a stereotypical “incel” or NEET one thinks not of the mythical “Bernie Bro”, but rather a troll on 4Chan shitposting memes in order to “own the libs”, or “trigger the snowflakes.” What’s going on here?
It seems that most socially awkward young men—the white ones at least—have been gaslit into supporting a philosophy that is expressly designed to concentrate wealth ever more at the top and leave them with even fewer opportunities and a bleaker future than what they have now. They seem driven by some inexorable force to support the economic libertarianism that has destroyed their future. Why is this? Why are they fighting so virulently to defend an economic system that has basically destroyed their lives? Why are they fighting against higher taxes on the wealthy and for stripping away the moribund remains of the welfare state? It’s just so bizarre. It’s as if the Jews were the Nazis’ most fervent supporters.
To give a partial answer to my own question, I think one reason is simply that, unlike the Left, the Right has actively courted this demographic. There is a quote by Steve Bannon to the effect that gamers were his ideal candidates for radicalization. It does appear that there is an active online recruitment effort targeted to computer gamers, many of whom are the young men who have difficulty finding girlfriends or establishing careers. As Vox put it in a 2019 article, “A rot has quietly spread among video gamers — a reactionary political culture from which outright white supremacist groups have begun recruiting America’s men and boys.” This, of course, does not mean that anyone who enjoys computer games is a budding fascist, if that needs to be said.
The popularity of Jordan Peterson provides another example. It’s obvious that Jordan Peterson’s message is deliberately tailored primarily to struggling young men and boys (although admittedly is not confined to this demographic). Peterson’s philosophy centers on reclaiming “traditional masculine values” and peddles an idiosyncratic metaphysics as the antidote to the “chaos” unleashed by a creeping “Cultural Marxism” emanating mainly from college campuses where gays, transsexuals, feminists and other assorted “radical leftists” reign supreme. Economically, Peterson promotes a form of libertarianism to his fans (or “Classical English Liberalism” as it has been rebranded) while defending the status quo and deliberately conflating social democratic movements and Soviet-style Communism.
At the same time, hysterical attempts to depict Peterson as a misogynist, or even a fascist, reflect a deep hostility among some of the more extreme parts of the Left to even speaking to this demographic. There is small, but vocal part of the Left today which depicts anything remotely related to white males as evil and depicts them as the fountainhead of everything that is wrong with society. This is obviously counterproductive. It’s clear that such rhetoric is driving many men into the willing arms of the reactionary Right, but some parts of the Left don’t seem to care—in fact they even seem to welcome it! Now, I think the number of Leftists who think this way is very small and has been deliberately exaggerated as a rhetorical weapon. But it surely does exist.
Another reason might be that these young men have been conditioned to see the welfare state as the root cause of their lack of success with the opposite sex. One frequently hears grumbling from certain quarters online about how women can supposedly have as many children as they want without men because “the state is their daddy.” This assumes that stripping back the current social democratic welfare state (such as it still exists) will somehow rewind the clock back to a patriarchal system where women are once again dependent upon males for economic survival. Yet the majority of college graduates are now women, and they are seen as more desirable employees by today’s corporate culture, for better or worse. These reactionaries are cutting off their nose to spite their face. Women aren’t going to go back to being economically subservient without some sort of repressive government straight out of The Handmaid’s Tale, which I certainly don’t want. Blessed be the fruit…
Another factor is that the mainstream Left in America is increasingly pitching itself to the “winners” of this system—the so-called Professional Managerial Class. As Hilary Clinton mused, she won among the “economically dynamic” regions of the county—the places that were, in her words, “optimistic, diverse, dynamic and moving forward.” Thomas Piketty calls this the “Brahmin Left,” an apt description. If you don’t happen to live in one of those “optimistic, diverse and dynamic” areas–and have no chance of ever living in them due to unaffordable housing and education costs which have effectively constructed an invisible moat around them–why, then, would you feel any sort of affinity for the Left’s current platform and policy goals? You may not get a raise, but at least you’re not walking on eggshells when you tell a coarse joke among your Right-wing buddies.
The vision of uniting the working classes of all demographics and geographic locations into a coherent pro-worker movement that affects real change is forever sabotaged by this cultural condescension. It’s frustrating to those of us who want this vision to succeed. It’s the vision that was promoted by Bernie Sanders, and articulated by shows like Rising. There is no one who is even attempting to speak to the life experiences of those whom Chris Arnade poignantly referred to as “the people in the back row,” also known as the Unnecessariat. And so, without even the hope of a better future, increasing radicalization is unfortunately the probable trajectory for such people. We see it happening already. It shouldn’t have to be this way, but that’s the way it is. Hillary Clinton may not have called all Trump supporters “deplorables” but the enthusiasm with which they embraced that label to refer to themselves is one of the most telling things from that election, I think.
It’s disheartening to see so many young men embrace the toxic politics of the extreme reactionary Right who see those of us fighting for better economic conditions for all of us as their mortal enemies—in some cases, enemies to be slaughtered. And, indeed, many factions of the Left seem to relish seeing them as enemies as well, when they should be natural allies. The Rights tends to seek out allies while the Left looks for heretics. I don’t, of course, but I don’t know how we stop this. I guess discussions like this are a start.
What brought this vividly to mind is the case of Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year old vigilante who shot and killed several people during the riots in Kenosha this past week. From the reports, he seems to have been obsessed with guns, police, the “Blue Lives Matter” movement, and was an enthusiastic Trump supporter, even attending his rallies. He seems typical of a lot of these young men. He lived in one of the anonymous down-at-heel areas of the northern Illinois flatland, and was raised by a single mother who appears to have given him the gun and driven him to the protests (!!) So, a lack of a father figure, and yes, he probably didn’t have a girlfriend, either.
From my observations, it seems like some form of guard labor is the only option for downwardly mobile whites looking for a decent life nowadays. What does that say about our current economic conditions? It’s especially popular among rural whites who tend to be rabid gun enthusiasts. This isn’t given enough attention. I work with a number of non-college educated blue collar folks, and all of their male sons are in the military, while all of their wives and daughters are nurses, or work somewhere in the healthcare industry. They are mostly Trump supporters, although not enthusiastically. When I was young, you might see a security guard only at a bank, if there. Now they are everywhere. Obviously, the more unequal a society is, the more guard labor you need to protect the property of the winners from the burgeoning mass of losers. In this scenario, being a cop means you’re not a loser.
I wonder if this Tweet contains a hint of truth:
These ideas [Fascism, authoritarianism] are also aligned with some aspects of the psychology of power, and how people react when they perceive themselves to lack power–people often compensate by latching to ideologies which help them retain a sense of power or explain their feelings of lost power/control.
I’m going go ahead and guess that having the power trip of a gun and a badge beats wearing an orange smock and cleaning up aisle seven, which is probably the only other option for a boy like Kyle, just like it’s more exciting and lucrative to inner-city black youth to sell drugs than flipping burgers and manning the deep fryer. But what does it say that these are the best options on the table for so many young men in our country today? What it says to me is that much of America is quietly becoming an open air prison with two classes of people–guards and laborers. That’s a damning indictment of America under late stage capitalism, of course, but it won’t show up in the traditional economic metrics. After all, Dachau had zero percent unemployment and reasonably high productivity. Work makes us free…
The profiles of his victims are interesting as well. Their profiles are a bit different: they’re a tad older—in their 20’s and 30’s, but still quite young—and both of them apparently did have girlfriends. One had a daughter, and another a stepdaughter, but interestingly neither appears to have been married. However, none of the reports I’ve read about them so far mentioned them in connection with any sort of job or profession—the only “career” mentioned for either one of them was “skateboarder.” Also troubling, but in a different way. So radicalization might be caused by the same underlying economic conditions, but manifesting itself in profoundly different ways.
So that’s the reality in America today for young men. The skateboarding enthusiast becomes a Black Lives Matter protester, while the gun enthusiast becomes a cop firing tear gas at the Black Lives Matter protester, all while the billionaires grow richer by the day. In the past, small-town guys like Anthony and Kyle might have worked alongside one another for the same company, sent their kids to the same middle school, attended the same church and played on the same softball team. Now, instead, they’re rootless and confused young men sitting on opposite sides of America’s increasingly divided society, tragic victims of a country increasingly unraveling at the seams and inevitably spiraling towards civil war. How do we stop this? I wish I knew the answer.
P.S., I notice that another former “doomer” has acknowledged this as well. Ran Prier writes: “…I expect the collapse, which is now fully underway, to be highly local: how bad it is, or how good it is, depends on what city or town you’re living in, and how mentally healthy the people are there. The worst places will be ruled by violent warlords, and the best places will be the seeds for a better future.”