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The Roads to Collapse, How Britain Destroyed Itself, France’s Mess, and America’s Future

The Roads to Collapse, How Britain Destroyed Itself, France’s Mess, and America’s Future

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the issues that matter most.

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Hi! How’s everyone? I hope you’re all doing scintillatingly well…or at least just pretty OK. A Big Thanks to all who’ve joined this little voyage so far, welcome new readers, introduce yourselves in the comments if you so feel, and thanks again old friends.

Today we’re going to discuss…a lot of things, and connect more than a few dots, using three big examples, France’s mess, Brexit Britain’s, and America’s future, to illuminate our world’s challenges. Whew. No biggie, then. Bear with me, because I’ll be exhausted by the end of this, and you will too.

We’re going to begin with the Big Picture.

The Roads to Collapse

Those of who are thinking people know that the project of civilization’s in a great deal of trouble these days. Scholars call it an age of “polycrisis,” as we’ve discussed often. I won’t go over that concept again, but let’s think about, for a moment, just how many pathways there are to civilizational breakdown, and that doesn’t mean, again Mad Max, but more like what we already see spreading around the globe, political, social, economic breakdown, rupture, and fragmentation.

One pathway, perhaps the most popular one in the current social imagination, is sort of climate catastrophe, and it’s consequences, which will yield slow and then accelerating economic ruin, by way of crop failures, droughts, mega fires, and much, much more. Vivid stuff, and it capture the imagination. Compound all that with democratic decline, and you’ve got a recipe for historic fireworks.

But there’s another, equally sinister pathway, only less sort of startlingly vivid. I call that one something like: “the breakdown of civilizational learning.” What do I mean by that? I mean that unable to learn from each other’s mistakes, and history’s, we just keep on repeating them, compounding them, exponentiating them, until, at last…that’s all that’s left. And to me, it seems, that’s sort of the path we’re on. We discussed not so long ago how like the 1930s this decade feels—but let me try to connect the dots, and draw home the point about a “breakdown in civilizational learning.”

How Britain Destroyed Itself

Before us, we have an incredible, shocking, startling example of something we should all be learning from. That’s Brexit, and how it destroyed Britain.

If you need an example, not so long ago, in the famous Oxford/Cambridge boat race, rowers fell violently ill, because the rivers are now…full of…raw shit. That’s just one example of breakdown. Britain’s now a nation where nothing works, mass poverty is the norm, and there’s little hope for the future, and all that has everything to do with Brexit. You can skip this part if you’ve heard it before, but if you haven’t, let me quickly explain the point.

Brexit destroyed Britain, economically, culturally, and socially. It made it a much, much poorer country, and one irrevocably poorer, because of course, now stuff that was easily traded comes with reams of red tape, there’s far less mobility for labour, and on and on. But a poorer country can’t afford Britain’s once-vaunted public goods, and so the NHS, BBC and all its true crown jewels are in tatters. They will never, ever function the way they once did again. 

Meanwhile, culturally, Britain has been reduced to pariah and has-been. It’s now a deeply xenophobic place, which is sort of ignored by the rest of the world, politely, like a drunk uncle. Once, it was a creative powerhouse, but of course, today, all that’s been destroyed, too, because a nation that spits on the world can hardly create much, either. Demagogues stride across it like zombie colossuses, bewitching the masses with the same old Big Lies, like those dirty others are the real cause of your problems, or, who needs an NHS anyways, and so on and so forth.

Brits regret Brexit now. And yet they still underestimate the depth of the problem. Brexit destroyed Britain. As in, the effects are permanent. Today, Britain’s the 6th richest country in the world, but thanks to Brexit, it’s economy will keep shrinking for another decade at least, probably two, until it’s far, far down the league tables. Already, it resembles a post-Soviet satellite state, and that’s being generous, because plenty of those have working healthcare and transport and retirement systems. Britain is going to pay a permanent price, and yet the shadow still lingers in the British mind that all these poisonous effects might somehow be “reversible.” They’re not.

(No, it can’t just “rejoin the EU.” Not only is the EU likely to be skeptical, and drive a hard bargain, it’ll probably ask it to join the euro, which is impossible, given the global economy, and there are plenty of reasons beyond that. This breakup was for good.)

Now. Why do I go over all that again? Because here we have a Grand Lesson of History before us. What happens when a nation goes this far right? Good things? Wonderful things? Brexiters promised all those, from having more money for the NHS, to a sort of return to a placid nostalgia of village life, to economic stability, and much more. Not a single one happened. In fact, as anyone remotely intelligent warned, all the opposite was to happen, and by now, has, startlingly fast.

A Grand Lesson of History. Brits put the fanatical far right in power for a decade and a half. Longer than anyone in recent history, at least in the rich world. To put in perspective, Trump was in power for just four years. Brits kept on doubling down on their frenzy of spite for four times that long. 

That’s a Grand Social Experiment if ever there was one. And we should all be intelligent to see the results, which are plain to see before our eyes, and learn the lesson. Going that far right is utterly catastrophic, completely and irrevocably ruinous. Britain will never enjoy the same wealth, power, or relationships again.

Let me emphasize that. What’s the lesson here? Britain will never be a functioning  modern society again. That’s the price you pay when you put the crackpot level of the far right in power.

The Mess in France

Now let’s come to the mess in France. You’ve heard about it. So what’s it all about? This is France’s Brexit moment, more or less. Not in the way that the far right wants explicitly to leave the EU—but in the way that the effects will be more or less the same.

How is it that in super-left-wing France, the far right is poised to seize power? For a simple enough reason. It promises dramatically lower taxes. While we’re a world still wracked by a “cost-of-living crisis.” All that comes with a generous helping of nativism and scapegoating, which I’ll come back to, but first, some simple economics.

So much so that it wants to slash VAT from 20% to just 5%, which sounds great on paper. The only problem is that’s economically absurd. It’ll cost France…it’s vaunted and mighty systems of public goods, from retirement to healthcare to transport and beyond. That’s why the markets are already heading towards a financial crisis in and for France, because of course, if that happens, mass unemployment will ensue, and the economy will go south in a big way—it’ll shrink permanently

All of which is exactly what happened to Britain.

France isn’t learning the lesson. Though Macron has tried to warn, it’s now too little too late. Macron played a series of foolish political games—he raised the retirement age, long before he had to, and then he called a snap election, which is a tremendously dangerous thing to do when people are governed by feelings, not rationality, and social manias are spreading. Perhaps he’ll win his gamble, and he’ll staunch the far right—but it’s more likely that he’ll lose dramatically, and then…?

Then France’s Fifth Republic is, for all intents and purposes, over. It might take another decade or so for it to really come undone formally, and you don’t have to worry about what that means, the point is just that it took a similar timeframe for the utter horrors Brexit wreaked to really become apparent to credulous Brits. 

And that’s a catastrophic thing. It’s an historic thing. Are we now witnessing the beginning of the end of France’s Fifth Republic? That’s the kind of question that French pundits will no doubt be incensed by, but of course, take a look at Britain today, which will never be a functioning modern society again, and it’s the obvious question to ask. 

So how did all this happen? Part of the answer I’ve told you—a seduction game, low, low taxes, without any understanding of the dire effects on the social contract. Another one, though, is just…sort of…marketing. The far right in France has perfected its game—it’s “leader” is a 28-year old with the face of a cherub. What a good boy. Couldn’t possibly be anything wrong. And yet what can a 28-year old understand, really, about governing one of the world’s most sophisticated societies—or any society, really? That’s not a get, it’s just a fact of life. At 28, most of us barely know how to adult in any vaguely mature way. And yet this combination has proved irresistible in the age of TikTok driven politics.

It’s worked so well, in fact, that even France isn’t getting the message and learning the lesson of its neighbor, Britain. And is about to repeat the biggest mistake that beleaguered, broken nation made in modern history.

See what I mean about a breakdown in civilizational learning now?

America’s Future—and America’s Past

All of that brings us to America. There, too, you can see the breakdown of the learning process. In many, many ways, in fact, not just one. Let’s count a few.

  • There’s “Trumpnesia,” in which people seem to have forgotten the abuses of power and instability of the first Trump years, in a kind of weird way, as if they’ve been hypnotized.
  • There’s the inability to learn from Britain’s formative mistake, which was to keep on putting lunatics and crackpots in charge, further and further to the outer fringes of the maniac right.
  • There’s the sort of obvious parallels with Rome and Weimar Germany, none of which seem to have any effect on the average American whatsoever.

In America, the process of civilizational learning’s breakdown is acute, in other words. It doesn’t appear to be learning from modern history, ancient history, or even it’s own recent history, anymore.

And we sort of dance and tiptoe around that issue. We call it many things, none of which sort of really drive home the depth and importance of the point. “Polarization,” or “low information voting,” or just railing at the sort of way you can’t teach Trumpists anything with facts, or the way the media covers it all like sports, not reality, as if it were all just a game, replete with scandal and showmanship.

The real point, though, is much bigger. The breakdown of civilizational learning.

In the examples above, we have many, many explanations as to why, and you know them by now—we all do. Young people get their information and news from—LOL—TikTok. Good luck having a democracy that way. The average person is desperate, bewildered, and terrified, as life just falls apart by the year. The economy never delivers. Nobody trusts liberalism anymore, to deliver anything more than yawning inequality, smiling indifference, and a shrugging but-what-can-you-do-about-it. 

How Civilizations End Up…Here

And yet the point remains: we should be learning. A civilization is nothing at all if. If it stops learning. Because then all it can do…is…repeat mistakes. Deep history’s mistakes. Modernity’s mistakes. Societies, their own mistakes. A fatal dance of folly ensues, a grim fandango, if you like. Everything spins in circles, while a civilization plunges backwards, because nobody is left, in the end, to even lead the way out of this mess. All this is what Yeats once called, memorably, the widening gyre.

We’re in it. And so far? We’re falling deeper and deeper. To get out, we need to begin understanding how dramatic and devastating this problem really is, of the breakdown of ciivlizaitonal learning. Only then can we begin to solve it. And that doesn’t really mean small things, which count, of course, like fighting disinformation—I just mean larger ones. Real paradigm shifts.

What is liberalism going to be? What is an economy in the 21st century—just this mess, which drives people straight into the arms of crackpots, who destroy democracy and civilization? What is democracy, in an age of planetary breakdown? What’s a constitution fit for this century, wracked by crisis? What is “growth,” if we all know that today’s is mostly BS? Hard questions. True paradigm shifts.

We need to contend with these Big Issues. They’re the true challenges of our time. So far, we’re not up to the mark, and by that, I mean we in the sense of those of us on the side of democracy. I hold my hands up time and again for being difficult, truculent, a loner, hard to understand, difficult to grapple with. But our establishments, too, like we just discussed? They need us, their visionaries, challengers, dreamers, revolutionaries, and they must embrace us now, and we must begin to let them, too.

Because the alternative for all of us? It’s the world we’re in now, which is heading into a new inferno, at the speed of folly, stamping its foot down on history’s accelerator.

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