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 biggest issues—the ones that matter most. If you like what you read, please consider sharing the Issue on your Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.
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Today's Read: 12 Minutes.
Quick Links & Fresh Thinking
1. Climate-linked ills threaten humanity. (WaPo)
2. ‘America does not deserve me.’ Why Black people are leaving the US. (LAT)
3. New UN report warns about tipping points with irreversible impacts on people and planet (UN)
4. Maine mass shooting disinfo floods social media (Wired)
5. Election denier, climate skeptic, anti-abortion: 7 beliefs of new US House Speaker Mike Johnson. (Guardian)
Today's Issue. The Devastating Reality of American Collapse.
I went to the park this morning with Snowy, my little funny dog. And there, my European friends told me about it, aghast. I hadn’t read the headlines yet. A massacre in Maine. A lunatic with an “assault rifle.” Double digits dead. Towns under lockdown. Horrific tragedy.
Why, they asked me, does this keep happening?
Then they asked me about the new Speaker of the House. A die hard Trumpist. The MAGA comments section come to life. Against everything from women’s rights to LGBTQ rights. For a nationwide ban on abortion. A climate change “skeptic,” which in this day and age, a sudden hurricane just levelling Acapulco, surreal. A fanatic of the highest order, a crackpot amongst lunatics. The architect of a strategy to overturn the election, aka, a coup attempt. Finally chosen after week upon week of chaos within his own party.
My European friends look at me, baffled, whenever they bring up the subject of America. “Why does all this…why does it keep happening?” They don’t just mean one thing. They mean all of it. The shootings. The violence. The despair—which we’re about to come to. Politics, mired in chaos, when it’s not riven by coup attempts.
I look at them, smiling sadly, and try to explain. This is what a collapsing society is. I’m one of a handful of people who warned of it, but the point isn’t about me. This is what a collapsing society...is. Welcome to the devastating reality of American collapse.
You see, my European friends understand America as a surreal, profoundly cautionary tale. In America, perhaps, there’s too much of an equivalence. “But Europe has an extreme right, too! And it’s growing in power!” That’s true, undoubtedly. But America’s in a very, very different position. America's ultra right wing is firmly in power —whereas European social democracies are still just that. For a die-hard MAGA Trumpist, one who attempted to overthrow the election, no less, to become Speaker of the House is to wield immense power, and it tells us that, in very real terms, America’s not maturing and developing in any remotely healthy way. America isn’t Europe. America’s America. So what happens to a country that can’t develop and mature?
There are already rumblings that the gunman in Maine was both mentally ill and a die-hard conservative. It’s too soon to draw conclusions, certainly, and perhaps even to speculate. Was this massacre politically motivated? Delusions...fuelled by paranoia, bile, and hatred? It can’t be denied that America’s come to have a growing problem of just such a kind. And that’s hardly a surprise. When we study how societies collapse, a key concept we use, built to explain genocide, that everyone should know is called the Pyramid of Hate.
The Pyramid shows biased behaviors, growing in complexity from the bottom to the top. Although the behaviors at each level negatively impact individuals and groups, as one moves up the pyramid, the behaviors have more life-threatening consequences. Like a pyramid, the upper levels are supported by the lower levels. If people or institutions treat behaviors on the lower levels as being acceptable or“normal,” it results in the behaviors at the next level becoming more accepted.
See how that works? Not in the abstract, but in America, today, right now. It’s hardly a surprise, and it’s definitely not a coincidence, that politicians on one side have grown fanatical and extreme, and I mean that technically and formally, not casually. They call for violence, they try to “overturn” elections…they don’t think large portions of society, entire social groups, should have basic rights. They don’t think people should exist. The LGBTQ are to disappear. Women are only to be in a pre-modern way, not to enjoy modern, full, senses of agency, social, political, moral, from bodily autonomy right down to association and movement.
And when politicians of an entire side make it their only agenda, their central concern, their sole focus…that all these people shouldn’t exist…even if they couch it in barely-veiled code, the wink-wink nudge-nudge is still crystal clear. To the foot soldiers of the fanatical movement, who take it upon themselves to finish the job. Hence, the Pyramid of Hate. It’s not an abstraction. We’ve seen it come to life in many, many places, and it’s lurching alive like a zombie the size of Goya’s Colossus in America today, too.
That’s how you get a massacre and a fanatical Speaker on the same day. Like I said, we can’t say the causality is direct, in some kind of scientific way, yet, but the atmosphere the GOP’s created in America? It’s fervid with hate, pulsing with rage, throbbing with the need for vengeance over imaginary harms. What does that mean, though? What's it an indicator of?
How do you know a society’s collapsing? How did I know America would?
Before a society collapses, The Biggest Indicator That It Will is straightforward. The middle class begins to implode, and the working class descends even further. Mobility ceases. A shared sense of prosperity crumbles. Life becomes embittered, hostile, angry, cruel. Because now life is. When it’s hard to just pay the bills and put bread on the table, those zero-sum economics yield zero-sum attitudes: you have to lose for me to win. For me just to break even. Ten of you have to lose.
Lose what? It begins with status. I’m more powerful than you. You don’t deserve those resources, roles, titles, I do. It continues through you…lose your…rights. Your freedoms. Then you lose the Mother Right. You shouldn’t exist. You dirty people. You corrupt our kids, steal our wives, poison our blood, and occupy our land. You are the infection amongst the pure and true. It ends with you lose your life.
That’s the trajectory of collapse. Can you see it in America yet? I asked that in a deliberately foolish way. Don’t tell me you can’t see it in America yet. The loss of life, though, isn’t just something suffered at the point of a gun. It happens in ways subtler, but over the long run, no less lethal. The loss of what we social scientist types call “life years,” if you like. American longevity is plunging downwards—Americans living half a decade less than many Europeans. But even this, the loss of “life years,” can be subtler than that still.
Do you know who Danny Blanchflower is? He’s one of the world’s finest economists. And he’s recently discovered something bone-chilling. Happiness, across a lifetime, used to be U shaped. We’re happier when we’re young, we struggle with happiness during middle age, and then seem to return again to it as we age. There are many reasons for that pattern, which appears to be universal. But in America today? It’s breaking.
Let me let him explain, by way of a recent interview.
Barron’s: It is fairly widely acknowledged that the mental health of young Americans has deteriorated. What is significant about your newest research in this area?
Danny Blanchflower: I have written a lot about despair, distress, and well-being. My work has showed that happiness trends are basically hump-shaped over a lifetime. Distress or despair peaks in midlife. Young people are happy, middle-aged people are less happy, and then older people recover [happiness] in retirement. But what has happened, suddenly, is that the well-being of the young has collapsed, while other generations are the same.
On an individual level, this is bad. People with these levels of despair died at a much higher rate in the past 20 years from drug overdoses, drinking problems, or suicide.
Also, it is hard to think that high levels of distress won’t have serious effects on young people’s ability to transition into the labor market. Some famous research done by David Ellwood [a labor economist] found that long spells of unemployment when you’re young generate permanent scars, not temporary blemishes.
Trends like this lower the economic potential of a country, as well. The U.S. has seen a big decline in labor-force participation [since the 2008-09 financial crisis]. Who are the people who withdraw from the labor force? In many cases, people with mental-health issues.
Mental distress also lowers economic potential by lowering the lifetime incomes of the people affected, and presumably their spending ability, which lowers the productive potential of the economy. This is a big deal—a really big deal.
Apologies for the long quote. But this is, like Danny says, a Really Big Deal. Danny, being a great mind, and a subtle thinker, lays out the implications for the economy, and for society. But I want you to see this on a different level, too. The loss of…human and social possibility itself.
Before a society collapses, the Biggest Indicator It Will is that it slides into a kind of long-run economic malaise. That was America, before. But as a society collapses? The Biggest Indicators It's Collapsing aren’t (even) just economic ones, anymore—they’re precisely, eerily, exactly the ones we’ve been discussing above. The Pyramid of Hate comes alive. Demagogues arise, pointing fingers at innocent scapegoats, screaming: they shouldn’t exist! Lunatics take the matter of finishing the job into their own hands. And as young people see violence, chaos, and ruin exploding around them? They crash and burn into despair.
That is all exactly what’s happening in America today.
What does it feel like to be young in America today? That’s not a rhetorical question, I’m going to give you the answer. Danny’s groundbreaking research provides one crucial element of it: widespread despair, which goes onto have long run impacts, that we social scientists call “scarring,” whether economic, social, or psychological. But another element of it comes from another recent finding, which is so…disturbing…that we’re going to discuss it by itself in days to come: about half of young people in America feel “persistently hopeless.”
So. The feeling of a collapsing society. Despair. Profound distress. Hopelessness. Those aren’t "just feelings,” in the sense that American thinking often tries to dismiss and trivialize them as, with its overweening demands for “resilience” and “grit” and other modern forms of the old myths of rugged self-reliance. When a society feels such intense negative sentiments at a systemic, widespread, social scale, that’s a chief indicator that it’s collapsing.
Just think about it. In any vague semblance of a healthy society—even one undergoing temporary struggles or hiccups or strains, which are all perfectly normal—we should never, ever expect to see the kinds of findings that are beginning to emerge in America. Danny’s remarkable finding that the universal U-shape of happiness itself is beginning to warp and deform, as young people sink into despair. That half of young people hold out no hope for the future, because of course…
When a day can turn into “people were massacred by a lunatic carrying a machine gun, sorry, I mean ‘assault rifle’, and meanwhile, oh, hey, look, one of the most senior politicians in the nation doesn’t think most of us should have democracy, rights, freedoms, a planet, or a future,”…when a day…just a normal, autumn day…can turn into that level of horrific dystopia…wouldn’t you also despair?
Our kids are currently doing a great job of pretending. They’re masking their everyday feelings from us, and maybe even from themselves, whether it’s by burying themselves in virtuality, or pretending that they’re still even vaguely interested in the rat race of consumption, status, power, and money. But their feelings, which we are now beginning to understand beyond a shadow of a doubt, tell us, just as strongly, that something is going badly wrong. As badly wrong as it can in a society. When young people are this endemically, profoundly distressed, how much stronger could the message be? Would it take a mass cult like suicide to make us see how much trouble they’re in? How much trouble we’re in.
How do societies collapse? Just the way America is. Has. You see, way back when, as figures like me warned of what was to come—this was before Trumpism—from demagoguery to hate to political destabilization to rising fanaticism to the breakdown of modernity and democracy themselves…we were dismissed. And today? Here America is, having not heeded any of those warnings. And yet here the warnings still are, of the next phase of collapse.
Phase one. The warnings are ignored. Phase two. Collapse happens, slowly, then all at once, to the disbelief, especially of power centers and power figures. Those were the Trump years, culminating, of course, in Jan 6th. Phase three, though, is where the real fireworks happen. Implosion. Sometimes, by way of paralysis, sometimes, by way of deliberate self-destruction, and sometimes, by way of sheer blind rage and fury.
At each phase, the warnings continue. But in subtler forms, perhaps. In Phase One, you had Brainiacs Like Me, wearing my Bona Fide World’s Top 50 Thinkers Hat, shouting voicelessly into the bizarre neon jungle known as American media, publishing, cable news, etcetera. But in Phase Two, the signs lie beneath the polite surface of everyday life which we’re to pretend is going normally. They’re things like hate spreading, even as its normalized, and metastasizing into violence. Or things like entire social groups worried for their existence. Or huge social groups, like young people, falling into terminal states of despair, as in, literal hopelessness.
Those warning signs are even more profound and urgent than those in the first phase. Because now, of course, they’re saying that collapse is here. They’re not warnings saying don’t pour gasoline all over the drapes, they’re warning that the house is on fire. Different forms of warning, in other words—back then, we warned about collapse to come, today, hate, violence, distress, despair, hopelessness warn of collapse, happening, ripping like a shockwave across society.
What happens if these warnings, too, are ignored? Ignoring the warnings of Phase One is how societies end up at Phase Two. That’s where America is now. Ignoring the warnings of Phase Two is how societies end up at Phase Three. Implosion. Is that where America’s heading? And what does it mean?
Imagine what happens if the crackpot who’s now Speaker of the House uses his power…during…the next election. It’s hard to say what could happen, because his powers are so broad, and leave that much room to be abused. Not certifying the votes? Refusing to call Congress to session? Throwing out results? Doesn’t matter, really, in that narrow procedural sense—now the possibility of Yet Another Coup rises dramatically. Bang. Implosion. Phase Three.
See how close it is? Columnists and intellectuals today, thankfully, are beginning to finally grasp this, no longer making it Their One Job to…abuse and mock those of us who warned all this was going to happen. They’ll even say things like “democracy’s on the brink.” Closer. Progress, I guess, here’s a pat on the back, guys. But times like these, moments like this in the life of societies? They demand truer truths still. Sure, democracy’s on the brink. But the reason is that America is collapsing. And there’s not remotely enough understanding of that, even still, today. Mostly, the norm is to pretend that everything’s OK—which is why they keep saying it, hey, look, the economy’s booming, why, look over here, AI’s a new dawn, hey, wow, what’s that over there, we invested in some green stuff. Good, wonderful, excellent. America’s still collapsing.
Americans are practical people. They want “solutions,” “answers,” in other words, to do something about it all. But this central point needs something deeper than that. It needs to be seen. Seen in the profound distress of all those young people who are in despair. In widespread hopelessness. In the hate and violence and brutality which are now everyday parts of American life, my European friends reeling at its cruelty.
This is, as Danny says, A Really Big Deal. It’s not (even) just about democracy on the brink, or the GOP having lost their marbles at last. This is what a collapsing society is. First of all, this needs to be seen. Understood. Really grasped. Acknowledged. And then we can have the next set of conversations. Well, what can be done about it? Are there levers and chisels which can put this broken thing back together? How have societies which are collapsing managed to pull themselves back from the brink before? Are there many?
Do you see how different this way of thinking about the problem is? It’s hard, I grant you. Much, much harder than the way even the good side in American politics and leadership wants people to think about it. But that approach—hope for the best, and buckle up—isn’t really working, is it? Here’s America, still collapsing, more and more so by the say. The very first problem collapsing societies have is seeing it's really happening.
Let me leave you with Danny’s poignant and wise words, by way of a chilling comparison.
There are ways to pull a society back from the edge, even to arrest its free-fall. But to get to them, a society has to be galvanized. Precisely by the knowledge that it's happening. This is social collapse. It's real, it's now, it's here. Then and only then can there really be the sense of shared urgency that such a moment demands, people pulling together, and lifting up, collectively, strongly, reunited by a renewed sense of purpose. To reclaim the future from lunatics and crackpots of the fanatical kind. Danny’s analogy speaks about great ruptures of history. America must begin to understand its convulsions like that. So far, its understanding of where it really is insufficient. And that’s why all this is the devastating reality of American collapse.
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