How Our Societies Collapsed
What Happens When the Most Violent Are Set Upon the Most Vulnerable?
When they write the history of how our societies failed, I think they will tell a story of how we chose to pit the violent against the vulnerable — even those of us who imagined proudly that we were doing something better. I think that tale will go like this — a sequence of ruin, three different social groups, three tribes, each of whom failed just as catastrophically, one after the other. First, elites failed. Then, the people themselves failed. Then the opposition failed. Who was left, in the end?
Now, by “our societies”, I mean Anglo societies, the US and UK. But that pattern — and it’s a precise and historic pattern of social collapse both — is spreading around the world. You can judge for yourself if it applies to your society, and whether my observations carry any weight.
When I examine my own feelings these days, I notice something that makes me uncomfortable. I have a harder and harder time sympathizing with us. “Us”, meaning Anglo societies. As hard as I try, I can barely muster any sympathy for us anymore — any genuine feeling that we deserve better, that we are capable of more, that we have been done some kind of injustice. Empathy — sure. But sympathy? We chose a path where the most violent are set upon the most vulnerable. Chose it. Should anyone sympathize with that?
So perhaps this moment in history leaves you — like it leaves me —feeling profoundly, deeply alienated. Lonely. Aching with distance. If not cynical, then at least shaking your head in a kind of horror, watching your neighbors laugh in dimwitted glee, and burn the whole neighborhood down. Because if you’re not an elitist, and you’re not a populist, and you can’t subscribe to the appeasement that passes for “opposition” in our societies…then what are you? Then, my friends, perhaps, like me, you are just alone. Just by yourself. Not part of a tribe or group or anything at all. You are just you, standing on the shore of a lonely beach, watching things fall apart. But I’ll come to all that.
When I look at us, I see a long, incredible, surreal series of self-inflicted disasters, that are eerily similar.
First, there was a polity that was captured by a fairy-tale, utopian ideology, hook, line, and sinker — weirdly, just like the Soviet Union. It was spread by a bizarre combination of thinktanks, fake and real, crackpot economists, again fake and real, and pundits who were all too happy to have a magic bullet. A bullet for what? Well, to us — to us Anglos — life was a gun, and the world was a target. Neoliberalism declared, among other things, completely unironically, “the end of history”, the idea that capitalism was democracy’s natural handmaiden (not its adversary), and the notion that the sole purpose of human existence — all life on the planet, in fact — was a brutal contest for domination, acquisition, status, and control. Life was just a predatory game to be won with greed and cruelty and selfishness. Wait, what? Who would there be left by the end of this stupid game? What point was there? But nobody asked uncomfortable questions — because myths of perfection are as seductive as any great religion.
Hence, our elites were captivated by neoliberalism’s fairy tales, like little children rapt before a pied piper. Now, the role of an elite is, at least in some way, to protect and shield and defend its society, if not to nurture and nourish it — at least one worth having in a modern democracy. But our elites soon turned predatory. They began to justify everything from hedge funds “raiding” pensions, to “zero hours” contracts aka jobs without benefits, to people being managed by algorithms that worked them much like the meatpackers in Upton Sinclair’s jungle. They happily raked in small fortunes for writing books and making TV appearances and winning minor officialdoms promoting and expounding and enacting all this.
Why did our elites believe neoliberalism’s fairy tales? Well, it was the end of history, remember. There was…nothing else…left to do. Everyone just had to work a little harder…at the crap, pointless, exploitative jobs capitalism gave them…and one day they’d be rich. They had to be! And if they weren’t, well, it must have been their fault. It couldn’t have been the idea’s, the system’s, the ideology’s. That was perfect, infallible, and pure. After all, the elites were getting rich, weren’t they? So the system, the idea — that had to be true.
Now, if you believe in a system that deeply…because it’s benefiting you…then what do you when it isn’t working for everyone else? You tend to declare reality off-limits, and double down on the myth. And that’s exactly what happened next. Our elites were so mesmerized that they failed to notice what was going on before its eyes. What was going on was that living standards were beginning to crater for the average person. The middle class was becoming a minority. Entire towns, cities, and regions were dying. Life expectancy, income, and savings were all plummeting in tandem.
Astonishingly, history will surely say — nobody much noticed. Literally not a single economic paper was written on these topics until the late 2010s. Not one. Nobody in the establishment cared — nobody. We lived through one of modern history’s greatest failures: of a set of elites to even notice a society beginning to crumble before their eyes. Hence, unlike Rome — they didn’t even offer the people bread and circuses. Why bother? Everything was fine! Elites began saying bizarre, absurd things like “the economy’s booming”…when the average American was dying in debt, (and the average Brit was on the way joining him.) What the? But that is how deep the vein of denial ran among our elites.
Now, at this point — maybe a decade or so ago — I felt contempt, if I’m honest, for those elites. If you saw me on CNN and whatnot, maybe that contempt was palpable. And I felt something like sympathy for the people they’d failed — all those average, hard-working middle class people (you can substitute “working class” if you’re British), who, by no real fault of their own, had found their lives imploding into penury, powerlessness, and hoplessness. Everything was not fine. Among the people, a sense of frustration, fury, and rage was rising. And in me, too. I felt a kind of anger as I watched this great and historic failure of elites. It reminded me of many of history’s equally great failures. From the Weimar Republic to Rome.
What happened next? That brings me to my next failure — the precise opposite one. Next, it wasn’t elites that failed — but the people, themselves. Now, a sane and thoughtful populace would have deposed these failed elites, looked hard at the world, trying to learn the lessons of its most successful societies, seen Europe and Canada…and then installed social democrats to fundamentally reshape government, business, social contract, politics. One of the dirty secrets of now is that we have the formula for human prosperity — it’s called a Western European social contract — but we just don’t apply globally. Why not?
To have expected people to have simply deposed failed elites…and installed better ones…is also to fail to remember history. The Weimar Republic didn’t turn into modern day Germany until the Nazis exploded. Rome, of course, didn’t ever recover…it just fell from disgrace into decadence. And with both these things, the people — the sainted, much vaunted people — were very much not just alright, but enthusiastic. And so I had a hunch that even the people, the sainted people, whom I felt this sympathy for… were about to disappoint me. But not me, really. History. Futurity. Themselves. Their kids. The planet. Because the pattern of history is this. After elites fail, “the people” don’t magically ride to the rescue. Instead, they fail, too. How?
Would “the people” be as foolish as Romans and Weimar Germans were? Or Soviets or any number of countless societies? That, my friends, is exactly what happened. Americans chose Trump. Britain astounded the world by choosing to leave the EU. I think it’s crucial to discuss this point, because we don’t really understand it in the proper context yet.
We hold up “the people” as some kind of shining ideal to aspire to. “The will of the people” is sacrosanct! “We the people” are the be all and end all of democracy. Ah, but what happens when “the people” fail — as they have so often throughout history? What happens when “the people” choose violence, stupidity, folly, rage, fear, and self-destruction?
You see, we are of the opinion that “the people” are the ultimate and last resort in modern democracy — because they are infallible, as a mass, in a social body. We have sanctified and ennobled “the people” as the wise and courageous, if there are just enough of them. But that too is a fallacy. “The people” fail just as hard, often, and badly as elites do. Haven’t the last few years been proof enough of that?
Now, at this point, I was conflicted. I felt a mix of emotions. Scorn and disgust at the arrogance and folly of elites. But also a kind of horror and disgust with “the people”, too. Here is what I saw when I watched all this.
The failure of “the people”, the sainted people, wasn’t just about the bad ones. Not so much at all. There are bad people in every society. The failure of “the people” was as much — or more — about the good ones.
You see, Americans went on claiming that they hadn’t really “voted for” Trump. They proclaimed outrage at all the terrible things he did. But that sentiment lasted a day or two, every time. In the end, nobody much really took a stand against…concentration camps, cages, kids in them, “family separations”, ethnic bans, raids, nascent Gestapos, two-tier citizenship. Nobody much really: there weren’t exactly daily mass protests about these things. But “these things” are the textbook elements of fascism. Shouldn’t there have been? Shouldn’t there have at least been some kind of vehement mass rejection of them? Not just sputtering — and then fizzling — outrage?
Then there was Britain. The good people of economically depressed places, hit hardest by decades of austerity…astonishingly believed the foolish lie that the EU was to blame for all their problems. That was while the EU was investing more and more in their towns — but their own government less and less. What the? How was I supposed to believe in “the people”…when “the people”…couldn’t even see what was going on right in front of their own sainted faces?
(Do you see how head-spinningly bizarre that is? How could the EU be to blame for a broken healthcare system, a malfunctioning social contract, a lack of support for people…in the UK? Has the European Parliament dissolved Britain’s? Of course not.)
So why did the good people become the weak link? Well, I think the answer is something like. The bad people were always bad. But the good people, by this point, having suffered so terribly…their minds were just broken. They were ready to believe in the scariest monster that the loudest and dumbest demagogue shouted the most angrily at. That, in the UK, was always going to be Europe. And in America, of course, it was Mexicans, Muslims, the suspicious and swarthy “foreigner”. Both places found themselves ripped apart by ancient tribalisms, then. The true people needed to be on top again — above the subhumans. They needed someone to dominate, someone to subjugate. For a feeling of strength, power, safety.
Now, at this stage — when Brexit exploded, and Trump was crowned — my mix of emotions deepened. I felt contempt for elites. But my sympathy for “the people” was curdling, cracking into a kind of scorn, too, if I’m honest. And a great truth came home to me. One that I’d understood, I think, in the abstract, but not so often in a concrete way.
It’s the silence and the timidity of the good people that disappoints history more than the monstrosity of the bad ones. I expected fascism to rise, remember — that’s what happens after great financial crises. But I don’t think I expected “us” — in the expansive sense — to be so meek and timid. But I should have. Because that is precisely what all the minds that I thought and still think are great minds warned of, from Camus to Orwell to Arednt to Solzhenitsyn. They always told me: fear the good people more than the bad ones. It’s the weakness of the good people which all of history’s bitterest tears are really made of. It’s the moral cowardice and the complicity of the good people that all of time’s great tragedies are made from. They always, always tried to remind me of that — and you, too.
They were right. Because tragedy is what came next, of course. Not just in the form of camps, cages, Gestapos, raids, and so on…that is atrocity, not tragedy…but in the form of the good person shrugging after sending a tweet and going back to Facebook, Netflix, and Amazon.
Where does it come from, the moral weakness of the good people? I don’t think that we have asked this question enough. And yet, my friends, we live in a time where the good people have not been good enough. To resist the camps, to stay the fascists, to prevent the thugs and fools from seizing power — and abusing it. The good people, it turns out, were the weakest link of all, just as all of history’s great minds tried to teach you and me. Why? How?
(Well, one answer lies in the question itself. The good people think they are good, therefore, they don’t lift enough of a finger to stop what is bad. That was Arendt’s answer, and Camus’s, too, to oversimplify. Orwell’s was that the good people are brainwashed and controlled into believing they are the good ones in the first place. A Fanon would go further and say that in our societies, poisoned by centuries of slavery and violence, good has come to mean bad, cruelty, rage, ruthlessness, selfishness, greed, and bad has come to mean good, compassion, gentleness, forgiveness, selflessness, wisdom. Everything is upside down. Maybe the good people are just bad people who don’t know they’re bad people. Which makes them bad and ignorant and self-deceitful people both. But I digress.)
There is another answer, too, though, as to why the good people were so weak, so timid, so meek. And it brings me to my third failure: the failure of the opposition. Nobody in the US really opposed Trump. And nobody in the UK really opposed Brexit.
Perhaps you think that’s an overstatement. Let’s think about it. I don’t mean “nobody” in the sense of a college leftist, an absolute sense — I mean it in the sense of a true political or intellectual or social opposition.
In the US, the Democrats actually funded the camps. They resisted…not the fascists..but calls to impeach the fascists, to really fight back, to flex their political muscle. Three years went by. The fascists built all the institutions of a genuinely repressive society, from stripping citizenship to caged kids. Meanwhile, for three long years, the Democrats had the power to at least try to restrain them…and did precisely, exactly…nothing.
In the UK, the situation was even worse. The Labour Party didn’t oppose Brexit. It endorsed it! What the? This was so bizarre that I still reel. Consider it: the Labour Party was now run by 1970s style college communists, effectively — who thought that the road to the global socialist revolution was through…isolationism. What the?
And yet, instead of persuading Labourt’s leadership how unbelievably foolish this line of not-quite-thinking was…the UK’s center-left establishment…all wanted Brexit, too. From the Guardian, whose columnists cheered it on, to the BBC, which quickly promoted all kinds of crackpots and lunatics as “experts” on trade and finance and economics. Still, I think I’ve never seen anything quite as bizarre as this: leftist columnists proudly touting the virtues of isolationism. They had become pawns and dummies of the fascists…without even realizing that much.
The opposition failed, in other words, in our societies, and it failed badly. You can dispute me — but facts are facts. What should have been true oppositions instead appeased, and that is how the fascists, in just three years, took America to being a nation reviled and laughed at and mocked all over the world, the kind of weak society that puts little kids in cages, because it’s afraid of them.
But the world wasn’t just laughing at America and Britain in some abstract sense. It was laughing at the American and British people. Remember them — the much vaunted “the people”? The world found them hilarious, abhorrent, idiotic lunatics — the kind of breathtaking dummies who were happy to join hands in a murder-suicide pact to throw a tantrum because they weren’t getting enough toys. The world was aghast, on one level — but also found all this quite delicious on another, because, well, we have always treated the world like dirt. Hence, the EU negotiators smile wickedly, and to say you’re an American if you travel these days is to be openly mocked with one word, “Trump! LOL!”
Where did all that leave me? Like I said in the beginning — alone. I am not a part of any of these tribes. The elites, the people, or the opposition. I refuse to be. They have all failed. Not just in the way that you or I could bravely ride to their rescue. But in genuine ways, catastrophic and massive ones. Morally. Intellectually. Socially. I can’t save them from themselves, and neither can you, and neither of us should want to — that’s far too simplistic a thought. They must either take responsibility, and learn to help themselves — or go right on failing.
So here I am, alone. I feel, some days, like I’m standing on the shore of a vast, empty beach. I stood here once, when the waters receded, and said — “there’s a tsunami coming!” The kings and viziers laughed. The waves wrecked the empire. The people, desperate and furious, built something even more brutal than a kingdom in its place. They began to fight each other, and cheer on the most violent among them turning on the most vulnerable. Those who imagined that they opposed all this didn’t call for anything better — they just said to the violent, here, have these victims instead. If we offer you these — will you destroy less of us?
What happens when a society chooses the path of the most violent preying on the most vulnerable, over and over again, in a long series of failures, first by elites, then by the people themselves, and then by the opposition? Who is left in the end? What becomes of such a society, except a kind of implosive self-destruction?
Nobody is left here with me. The waves lap against the sand. The sun sets. I feel the water at my feet. And I think of the last day of summer.