The Essence of Prosperity and Decline
We’ll come to an answer shortly. First, let’s set the bar. What does it mean for a nation to collapse? A cursory glance at history reveals three truths.
First, societies collapse “from” something “to” something. Collapse doesn’t just mean “anarchy”. It means, for example, that societies collapse from democracies to tyrannies. From prosperous economies to stagnant ones. From vibrant public spheres rich with art and science to closed and dull and dead ones, rigid with ideology and unreality. Collapse is a process of going from function through dysfunction to malfunction.
Second, collapse doesn’t mean that a society falls overnight, goes from a shining city on a hill today to Mad Max tomorrow. Rather, it means that a society degenerates slowly, as vicious feedback cycles begin to bite. The bigger the nation, the longer the fall. It took ancient Rome centuries to collapse, and it is taking modern day Turkey, Russia, and Venezuela decades. So collapse is gradual, not sudden.
And collapse is also multidimensional. A society can break in many ways, and when it is evidently breaking in most of those ways, then we can reasonably say: it’s collapsing.
Now that we have a tiny mental framework, let’s answer the question: is America (really) collapsing?
I think that we can say American is collapsing in four very real ways: going from something to something else. I’ll italicize these so they’re crystal clear.
Political collapse. America is visibly collapsing from a democracy to an autocracy, just like Rome. Again, before you cry hyperbole, let’s examine a glaring fact. 70% of American support public goods: public healthcare, higher education, transport. And yet, both parties fail to represent what a supermajority of what people want. That is a visible and telling example of political collapse. The American polity no longer represents the preferences of people. Who does it represent? It used to represent powerful lobbies. And now increasingly it represents hostile foreign states. So America is quite clearly visibly politically collapsing.
Social collapse. What does it mean for a nation to collapse socially? The most basic element of a society is trust. Social cohesion if you like. The point isn’t that trust “makes” a society…anything. Productive, efficient, and so on. Simply that to be a society, there must be the bonds of trust. That is what the definition of society is, at its most minimal. But trust has undergone a stunning collapse in America. Every kind of trust. There is trust in institutions. There is trust between people. There is “social capital”, or the quality of relationships. All of them have collapsed over the last few decades. Plummeting levels of trust are reflected in daily life: mass shootings, skyrocketing incarceration rates, soft segregation, legitimized hate, and so on. So in this way, we can visibly say that America is collapsing as a society — going from being rich in trust to being impoverished of it.
Economic collapse. We don’t need to say too much about this dimension of collapse. I’ve written hundreds of articles about it. The facts are very clear. The American economy began stagnating almost precisely when segregation ended — which implies that it was never built on a social contract able to provide genuine prosperity in the first place. Now incomes have been stagnant for nearly half a century. Yet the costs of living have risen dramatically. College didn’t cost hundreds of thousands in the 1970s. So in the simplest economic way, too, we can say that America is collapsing: going from prosperity to stagnation.
These three dimensions bring us to my fourth, which is by far and away the most important.
Eudaimonic collapse. You can simply think of this as personal collapse, if you like. It just means that people’s quality of life collapses. What’s the most basic indicator of quality of life? It’s life itself, no? But life expectancy is falling in America now — unprecedented in the history of rich nations. On nearly every other indicator of quality of life, too, American life is getting meaner, nastier, harder. Here’s just a smattering. Maternal mortality is rising, leisure time has fallen, there is little social mobility, 20% of Americans are barely functionally literate, the average person experiences profound and constant and severe, insecurity and instability, and there is an epidemic of opioid abuse as people try to self medicate the despair of it all away. America is going from a eudaimonic society, one with a rising quality of life, to one where it is falling.
Eudaimonic collapse, of course, is reflected in the fact that most Americans think their kids will have worse lives — and there is nothing that they can about it.
They are right, and also wrong.
Collapse is a poor metaphor in one sense. When we say a thing is collapsing, we also think that it is unstoppable. Like a star collapsing into a black hole or a snowpacked mountain collapsing into an avalanche.
But that is not the case with societies. Societies are human creations. And while collapse can’t always be prevented, it can always be mitigated, shrunk, and resolved.
But to do so means to think clearly and analytically about collapse. Whether it is really happening, along what dimensions, and to what degree. In America’s case, now that we have seen it is indeed collapsing politically, socially, economically, an agenda can be made to reverse precisely those three kinds of collapse.
The question, as always, is whether we see it, and then live it.