I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. We give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the biggest issues—the ones that matter most.
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Today's Read: 16 Minutes.
Quick Links & Fresh Thinking
1. Nine out of 10 seven to 21-year-olds are worried or anxious. (Guardian)
2. Elon Musk is a threat to democracy. (Nation)
3. The great crack-up. (New Statesman)
4. The con that's wrecking the housing market. (TNR)
5. Climate breakdown has begun. (AlJ)
Today's Issue. How Societies Self-Destruct in the 21st Century.
Let me tell you about beleaguered, post-Brexit Britain's latest scandal. It's...crumbling. Perhaps you think I exaggerate, chuckling to yourself. But I'm not speaking metaphorically. Literally.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak faced a mounting crisis over Britain’s crumbling schools after a former government official said on Monday that Mr. Sunak had refused to rebuild more schools while he was head of the Treasury, despite warnings that lightweight concrete used in hundreds of buildings was a risk to life.
The scandal's not just about schools—hospitals are also on the list. So's housing. All made from this cheap, lighweight concrete—but more than that, crumbling from underinvestment, negligence, and indifference. The problem's only just beginning to unfold—and yet apparently, it's been flagged for years, but less than nothing was done about it: investment was slashed. And so now the problem of a literally crumbling country has reached almost absurd proportions—I heard the story below from a friend, and I didn't believe it, so I looked it up, and lo and behold...
A National Audit Office (NAO) report published in July said the survey found 41 buildings at 23 trusts contained the material, including seven hospitals with Raac present throughout. Meg Hillier, chair of the public accounts committee, said heavy patients were treated on the ground floor of one hospital because it was considered unsafe to have them on higher floors.
They can't treat heavier patients except on the ground floor because some hospitals are at that serious a risk of crumbling. Meanwhile, there's no real finality yet on how many schools will have to eventually close. The scandal's already boomeranged across a bewildered, startled world.
More than 150 schools across the United Kingdom must close their buildings because are at risk of collapsing.
"This situation is nothing short of a scandal," said Mike Short, head of education at trade union UNISON.
"The Department of Education and government have squandered valuable months hiding this crisis when they should have been fixing dangerous school buildings."
The Association of School and College Leaders noted education authorities had been aware of the dangers of RAAC-related structural failures since at least 2018.
Consider what's really happening here for a moment, because when you do, it's nothing short of jaw-dropping. The most most basic systems and institutions a society can have are literally crumbling. We're going to discuss why, in just a moment, how all this came to be—but first, let's keep going, because this is just the tip of a very big iceberg.
What else is collapsing in Britain? The social contract itself. That's not my opinion, it's the conclusion of an independent, cross-party body.
The collapse of the UK’s social contract is leaving millions of low-income families 'surviving not living' and forced to endure unacceptable levels of poverty."
The respondent added: “She has no friends in school and no outside interests. She spends her time in a cold, dark house. When I read this back it sounds like a story from the 1800s. It’s unbelievable that in the UK, in 2023, there are children living like this.
The collapse of the UK's social contract. Think about that, too for a second. A society's most basic institutions and systems are literally crumbling. Meanwhile, it's social contract is collapsing. How did Britain get here? First, one more example to drive home just how bad the situation really is.
Meanwhile, while all that's happening...Britain's also...running out of water.
How...bizarre is all this? Not so long ago—a decade, two, an historical eyeblink—Britain used to be the envy of the world. It had the world's finest healthcare system, the NHS, it's most renowned broadcaster, the BBC, one of it's pre-eminent social contracts—and geopolitically, it was the gateway to Europe, and a special friend and partern to America. And now...all that's gone. What's left? A nation that's literally crumbling and collapsing.
What we have before us is a very real, vivid, startling portrait of social collapse. And that's why we made this today's Issue. Because of course as we head into an uncertain future, of climate change, extinction, extremism, stagnation—the risks of social collapse are accelerating. Dickensian poverty, crumbling schools and hospitals, water running dry—what Britain is today is a startling portrait, a searing lesson in social collapse. It teaches us just how incredibly swiftly even a powerful, wealthy society can literally collapse and crumble—and it illustrates in towering, ominous calligraphy, too, exactly how societies end up imploding. That lesson's going to matter intensely, for those paying attention.
Let's rewind, to understand just what happened to Britain. Not so long ago, Brexit did. And it changed everything—in ways, as I'll explain, cut even deeper than Brits yet fully grasp. As soon as Boris Johnson's new "deal" with the EU went into effect, the British economy cratered. That's because it wasn't much of one: it basically made no provision for anything serious. Britain's a net importer of everything it needs to survive, and the EU its biggest trading partner—and yet the "deal" made no plan, had no agenda, offered nothing, for just how this was to happen.
And yet almost nobody in Britain still speaks about this. The utter, spectacular, historic, self-inflicted disaster Brexit wrought. Because it's not even discussed in simple economic terms, the deeper effects can't be mentioned—and thus understood, taught, reflected on, either. What do I mean by that? And why does it matter? As I'm going to explain, Britain's been normatively reshaped, in profoundly damaging ways. It's...soul...has been ripped out, if you like. It's been made to have the equivalent of a Grand Cultural Revolution, led by fanatics, burning with the zeal of crackpot, absolutist ideological fantasies—and now, it's gone willfully blind, while its house roars, crackles, and becomes an inferno. Close your eyes. Nothing to see here. That's not the house burning down. Nope, we didn't set fire to it. I'll come to that.
What's remarkable about Britain today isn't just the number of crises it faces. It's that its leaders won't admit or acknowledge them, in a way that can only be described as fanatical: absolute, unrelenting, verging on totalitarian. Not one inch of one problem can be conceded to exist as factual. Nothing appears capable of moving them to truck with reality. Questioned, an astonishing spectacle begins to play out, one more befitting a banana republic than a wealthy modern democracy: they duck and dive, evade, run for cover, in startling, absurd ways. Nobody in political life, and almost nobody in public life, will admit just what shocking, surreally terrible shape the nation's in: literally crumbling and collapsing, careening downwards at jet speed.
Imagine AI created actors, who only had one line, in a play it wrote, about a country in crisis. Britain has no leadership in any real sense: it has people who wear suits and have titles like Minister, but they don't appear to actually exist except as these wierd simulacra. They say nothing, they appear almost never, and then they swiftly disappear again, back into some numinous ether. "No surrender" to reality appears to be the only line in the the baffling play they're performing. They seem to materialize, as two-dimensional beings, when scandal breaks, recite the line, and then vanish, in some weird, baffling, two-dimensional, algorithmically written play-act of what leading a country is.
So of course it's problems just go on prolferating and multiplying. Instead of admitting how serious and grave the situation is—cratered economy, collapsed social contract, crumbling system—Britain's leaders, from public to political life, will deflect, deny, and simply grin and pretend nothing's wrong, over and over again, like robots, chatbots, automatons, clockwork figurines, no matter what level of calamity's presented to them.
Now, you might say: "that's what politicians do!" But you're wrong. You see, this, what's unfolding in Britain right now, is unique. Britain's often compared to America, but in this respect, the two countries are poles apart. Britain, of course, is run right now by its equivalent of Trumpists—a line of conservatives who've grown more fanatical over the years, to the point of absurdity. But there's a big difference between them and Trump. Can you see it already?
The core of Trump's appeal is that he acknowledges what parlous shape America's in. He blares it, in his bark of a voice. He shouts it and snarls over it. America's a disaster! America's in ruins! Make America Great Again! Of course, then he pulls the demagogue's sleight-of-hand: he turns around and blames it all on scapegoats. Immigrants, minorities, women who don't know their place, the LGBTQ, liberals, journalists, and so forth—it's a long list.
This is the essence of demagoguery. Troubles arise in a nation. Life becomes grim and difficult for the many, while the undeserving, indifferent few soar into gilded levels of wealth. A demagogue comes along, blames it all on already largely powerless scapegoats, and claims: "I alone can fix it! Hate these inferiors, these Enemies of the People!" But see the premise demagoguery rests on: it must begin by acknowledging what terrible shape a country's in. Hence, Make America Great...Again. The pitch doesn't work any other way. And in that way, demagoguery, too, contains a seed of truth, like all powerful lies do.
Britain's different now. It's gone beyond even this stage of social collapse. What's this next stage it's at? Think of how it became forbidden to discuss or even mention Brexit. That's not metaphorical—that's literal, too, like Britain's crumbling. It's an open secret that you can't even say the word "Brexit" on the BBC. The BBC's own former superstar presenters quit, because they couldn't talk about it, and now call it a "conspiracy against the British people."
In one striking passage that won praise on social media, Maitlis said: “It might take our producers five minutes to find 60 economists who feared Brexit and five hours to find a sole voice who espoused it.
“But by the time we went on air we simply had one of each; we presented this unequal effort to our audience as balance. It wasn’t.”
She added: “I’d later learn that the ungainly name for this myopic style of journalism: ‘both-sideism’, which talks to the way it reaches a superficial balance while obscuring a deeper truth.”
Britain's fanatics succeeded in making even saying the word "Brexit" a taboo. That's one step beyond Trumpism. It's not just things-are-broken-let's-blame-the-scapegoats level demagoguery, it's the next level: we fixed them! Even though in actuality, they're worse than ever. But now you can't talk about it, reality, facts, truth, evidence—at risk of losing your job, reputation, name, being hectored and harassed by lunatics and extremists forever. Only lockstep with the party line is permitted. And the party line is: everything's fine! Scandal? What scandal? Problems? Where?
To this day, there's no real discussion of Brexit in Britain—not even much in the Guardian, it's left-wing newspaper. That's not because people are "tired of it," as the feeble line trotted out its media goes: it's because you risk everything as a public figure should you dare to mention the word, from your livelihood on down. The social construction of the Brexit taboo was real—it's not some kind of fiction, it's a new social structure, a new norm in society. And now that norm, like all norms do, when they're buttressed by power, leadership, and resources, do—is growing.
Brexit's taboo. But what does that larger norm really say? We don't talk about our real problems. They don't exist. Mention them, and you're to be attacked, as a fearmonger, or worse, an enemy of the people, more or less. We will ruin you. Real problems don't exist in our society. It's taboo to say so.
What Britain's leaders learned from making Brexit a taboo is that...it worked. You can alter a society normatively this way. If you can establish the norm, the social convention or standard, that nobody should mention or reflect on or think seriously about or care about...a society's real problems....then those problems needn't exist, politically.
This is why we see this striking difference between America and Britain right now, even in terms of the hard right: America's hard right's entire politics is based on the premise that the country's in ruins, in bad shape, and Bidenomics isn't working as a rosy, sunny, pitch because most Americans feel that things are in bad shape, and hence, Trumpism refuses to die. But Britain's hard right does the diametrical opposite: it refuses to even acknowledge some of the most serious problems a society can have, like crumbling systems and collapsing social contracts, existaat all.
This is why Britain's leaders act in the bizarre, surreal way they do. You see, give an American Republican an interview, and he won't stop talking about how bad things are—because of course, he wants to blame it all on scapegoats. They'll rant for hours, if you let them, about everything from the economy to education. But Britain's leaders will give the interviewer a blank stare, simply refuse to admit there is a problem, grin, and when the interviewer asks again, repeat their evasion or maybe add a little boilerplate to it...and this insane, maddening spectacle repeats itself...over and over again...to the point that it's become what happens after a norm hardens: a ritual.
By now, everyone in Britain—everyone sane left, anyways—knows that if a politician appears in an interview, they won't actually say anything what dire shape the country's in. Anything. They could be asked a hundred times, and they'll simple flat-out refuse to admit it. You could sit on their chest, and they'd still deny it. You get the sense that you could waterboard them, and you still wouldn't be able to get them to confess...to the merest shred, particle, iota of reality. This—the complete lack of acceptance of a destroyed society by power and politicians—has become a ritual.
But rituals have a purpose. They exist to establish, bake in, and set norms. The norm this ritual establishes—The British Politicians Grinning While the Country Crumbles, like we're the Twilight Zone—is to produce taboo. To broadcast loud and clear: we don't talk about our serious, growing, calamity-level problems. They don't exist at all. To even say they exist is something dangerous, controversial, something we don't allow. And we're in power around here. So who are you to challenge us? We make the rules, and the rule we're making right now? Don't say things are going badly, wrong, off the rails, that our society's screeching downwards with a sonic boom. Don't talk about it, don't mention it, don't even think it. That's taboo.
This norm of taboo when it comes to Big Problems that's been created in Britain, by not talking about Brexit—and that's now spreading, letting social collapse accelerate unchecked, the spectre of ruin laughing, to the point that schools and hospitals are crumbling, while the country's running out of water, and the economy craters? What does it really say? It whispers, hypnotically, repeating over and over again: close your eyes. There, there. Everything will be better this way. You don't really want to know, do you? There's nothing to see here. Nothing, nothing, nothing. Just close your eyes, and it will all better. Close your eyes, close your eyes, close your eyes.
This is how rituals come to control a society: in a kind of hypnotic way. Repeat them enough? Quietly, they undermine any real resistance. When they come from a place of power, especially. They can make a society becomes something more like a cult, and that's what Britain's starting to feel like now. A cult where talking about anything but grandiose fantasies of power and salvation, set against persecution complexes by the evil wrongdoers, is taboo.
Leaders in societies have power. And one of the forms of power they have is normative power. They set norms through rituals like this, which shape the destinies of nations. They model behaviour for entire societies, and whether or not societies even want to imitate that behaviour, they end up absorbing it anyways, because that's what power is. This is the social process of "mimesis"—behaviour modelled from the top, that trickles through social hierarchies. So Britain's leaders say: it's taboo to say we have serious problems, here, we'll model for it you, by refusing to even admit a single one exists, no matter how hard or often you ask us. Britain's next level down in the social hierarchy—it's pundits and intellectuals and superstar journalists—for the most part play along.
Who wants to rock the boat? Who wants to be kicked out of the club? The norm gets established this way, and trickles all the way down to the poor nobody in the pub, staring ruefully into their ten dollar pint of beer, wondering what wrong with their lives. Power isn't just formal—it's informal too, the ability to shape a society normatively and ritualistically like this. Right down to giving a society a weird, disturbing cult-like feel, which is where Britain is now.
So why are Britain's leaders establishing the norm of taboo, and baking it ritualistically? For a very simple reason. They created the problems. The problems that are laying waste to the country and its future. So of course having created those very problems—reality itself must be swept under the rug, and then kept there, by creating the norm that nobody had better look down.
You don't have to think too hard about that last part. Britain's line of increasingly fanatical conservatives will have been in power for fifteen years by the next election, in a few months time. That's the equivalent of four American Presidential terms. Imagine what'd happen if Trump were President for four terms in America. By then, we'd probably see...
Exactly the same pattern. America would've been "Made Great Again." In reality, it'd be falling apart, crumbling, collapsing, even more so than it is now. Authoritarianism would have replaced democracy, and fascism would have killed off any semblance of modernity. But of course by a fourth term, mentioning any of that would be taboo. In even harder terms than it is in Britain right now: the Trumpists would be watching and listening to everything you say, looking at your every interaction, and they'd have guns and badges. A Soviet fate would await. Britain's not at that point, of course—but the dynamics of social collapse remain the same. By a fourth Trump term, taboo would be the prevailing social norm—we don't talk about abuses of power, crumbling institutions, broken systems—because all we can say is: Trump Made America Great Again!
Britain's in that sort place. After the equivalent of four American Presidential terms of increasingly extreme, fanatical ideology-masquerading-as-modern-politics, it isn't just wrecked as an economy, it isn't even just that its social contract is torn apart. It's not just that it's institutions and systems are literally crumbling before a baffled world's eyes. It's destroyed, in an even deeper way, perhaps the deepest way of all. As a society, in the truest sense. Power models self-destructive, disempowering norms like taboo for an already demoralized, dispirited people—to obey, ritualistically, with the subtext of a warning: don't speak up, don't speak out, or else. That's not allowed anymore. In our society? We keep our heads down, do as we're told, and nobody looks where they're not supposed to look. Problems don't exist. Everything is fine. We Are Great Again.
Taboo is an authoritarian norm. It's not just any kind of norm. Of course, every society has its taboos, and taboo exists in a healthy sense, too. There are plenty of things we don't mention in polite company. But when taboo becomes a norm—as in, people don't talk about reality anymore, because power models rituals that say they'd better not, or else they could be shamed, disgraced, ruined—a society's in a dark and dire place. The essence of modernity and democracy both are openness, of course: we are free to express ourselves, speak our minds, give voice to our burning issues, associate with whom we like. Taboo as a norm stands in stark, menacing opposition to all this, and in that way, it's a sign that a nation's failing, profoundly, at being a modern society, and a democracy.
And that's where Britain really is now. This is what Brexit really did. Yes, Britain's fanatical conservatives began to underinvest in its systems and institutions before Brexit. But Brexit changed Britian in deeper ways than anyone in it really understands yet: it altered Britain socioculturally. Now, those very problems aren't to be talked about, because of course, if you can't say the word Brexit, then what can you say, when it comes to social issues, economic challenges, failures, missteps, self-inflicted mistakes? Brexit established the norm that nobody in Britain, especially in power, but also those. who backed it, has to take responsibility for their mistakes.
Own up to them. Admit them, and by admitting them, change. Choose differently. Instead, the norm now is...it's not even denial, but what's beyond that. Britain's leaders don't even deny the multitude of jaw-dropping crises it faces. Asked, they won't say something like, "No, I deny the schools are crumbling, the economy's cratering!" They'll just pretend it doesn't matter. Grin and shrug. Eagerly, passionately, start talking about something...completely unrelated. Look at this Global Trade Deal we just signed with four kids selling lemonade in Alabama! Interviewers, baffled, will try to ask again. And again, they won't even deny it. They'll just...tell everyone...there's nothing to see here, nothing to see here, nothing to see here, nothing, nothing, nothing. This is what lies at the end of the road of all the ruin in a nation: nihilism.
Nothing, zero, the void, pure, maddening emptiness, spinning in on itself in great serpentine coils of...nothing. And when that's the place a society's finally in, it's especially dangerous, because, after all: where do you go? Where can you go? How do you drag yourself out of this weird abyss of nothingness? History tells us: it takes generations to rebuild from this trap. But what Britain tells us is how easy it is for a society to utterly destroy itself. How fast it can happen. How rapid the acceleration is, ruin giving itself momentum. And how, too, while the car's hitting the brick wall, in slow-motion, even then, you can't say: "Jesus, take your foot off the gas, you maniac! Stop, hit reverse! Turn! Don't you see the—" Because all you're allowed to say is: "there's nothing to see here," while you close your eyes, sit back, and wait for gravity to fling you into oblivion.
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