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Underestimating American Collapse

Something we refuse to see leaves us vulnerable to something we do not understand

A reader sends in this short, provocative essay by Umair Haque, who believes we are underestimating the sickness infecting American life. Excerpts:

When we take a hard look at US collapse, we see a number of social pathologies on the rise. Not just any kind. Not even troubling, worrying, and dangerous ones. But strange and bizarre ones. Unique ones. Singular and gruesomely weird ones I’ve never really seen before, and outside of a dystopia written by Dickens and Orwell, nor have you, and neither has history. They suggest that whatever “numbers” we use to represent decline — shrinking real incomes, inequality, and so on —we are in fact grossly underestimating what pundits call the “human toll”, but which sensible human beings like you and I should simply think of as the overwhelming despair, rage, and anxiety of living in a collapsing society.

Let me give you just five examples of what I’ll call the social pathologies of collapse — strange, weird, and gruesome new diseases, not just ones we don’t usually see in healthy societies, but ones that we have never really seen before in any modern society.

America has had 11 school shootings in the last 23 days. That’s one every other day, more or less. That statistic is alarming enough — but it is just a number. Perspective asks us for comparison. So let me put that another way. America has had 11 school shootings in the last 23 days, which is more than anywhere else in the world, even Afghanistan or Iraq. In fact, the phenomenon of regular school shootings appears to be a unique feature of American collapse — it just doesn’t happen in any other country — and that is what I mean by “social pathologies of collapse”: a new, bizarre, terrible disease striking society.

Why are American kids killing each other? Why doesn’t their society care enough to intervene? Well, probably because those kids have given up on life — and their elders have given up on them. Or maybe you’re right — and it’s not that simple. Still, what do the kids who aren’t killing each other do? Well, a lot of them are busy killing themselves.

He then talks about the opioid epidemic, and how in many parts of the Third World — the so-called shithole countries, note well — you can buy opioids over the counter, but people don’t abuse them. Why not? Haque writes:

So the “opioid epidemic” — mass self-medication with the hardest of hard drugs — is again a social pathology of collapse: unique to American life. It is not quite captured in the numbers, but only through comparison — and when we see it in global perspective, we get a sense of just how singularly troubled American life really is.

He talks about the loss of family and community, and other things. And then:

American collapse is a catastrophe of human possibility without modern parallel . And because the mess that America has made of itself, then, is so especially unique, so singular, so perversely special — the treatment will have to be novel, too. The uniqueness of these social pathologies tell us that American collapse is not like a reversion to any mean, or the downswing of a trend. It is something outside the norm. Something beyond the data. Past the statistics. It is like the meteor that hit the dinosaurs: an outlier beyond outliers, an event at the extreme of the extremes. That is why our narratives, frames, and theories cannot really capture it — much less explain it. We need a whole new language — and a new way of seeing — to even begin to make sense of it.

Read the whole thing. 

The first thing that came to my mind was my telling my wife the other night about the school shooting in Kentucky, and her saying that it’s incredible that we’ve gotten to the point where this is just ordinary news now.

The second thing that came to mind after reading Haque’s essay was this:

It shows that when a number of Hawaiians knew that they weren’t going to die in a nuclear explosion, they rushed to the Internet to watch pornography to calm themselves. They didn’t go find a wife, a partner, a friend. They went to their computer and, alone, watched strangers screwing.

We are a sick, sick society. Yes, you can point out the fact that we are less violent than we were in the past, and that we are less racist, and that we have made progress on this or that front. And you will be correct.

But there is something deeply wrong with us. Something that is hard to pin down, but that more and more people sense is real. In an earlier essay, Haque writes about the epidemic of loneliness. Excerpt below; emphases are Haque’s:

I read a fascinating and urgent recent piece of research: loneliness is rising dramatically among young people. It mirrors a greater trend: social bonds are breaking down systematically, globally, and significantly. Trust in institutions is collapsing. Trust between people is falling. Loneliness is rising. Suicide rates in the most forgotten places are spiking. This is a kind of invisible, fiery, self-made catastrophe of human possibility —as though a meteor of despair has struck the planet — so much so that I will wager that you do not see it as anything resembling one.

Why? Because if social bonds are broken, then democracies, economies, and societies are more likely to become authoritarian, tribal, feudal places. The world plunges headlong into tribalism, division, hate, spite, anger, rage, and fear — for the only projects that a society which doesn’t trust itself can engage in, ultimately, are segregation, servitude, and building a caste system. How then can such societies, one in which people enjoy few bonds, do not trust each other, hope to solve its real problems — whether climate change, inequality, stagnation, or declining democracy?


In other words, loneliness will drive people — especially young people — into the arms of the fringe right, the fascists, the authoritarians. They will seek safety in the arms of strongmen and father figures. And thus a society teetering on the edge of authoritarianism may find itself, sooner than it knows, a place of tyranny. Thus, loneliness both reflects and exacerbates our plight: a world balanced on the razor’s edge of democracy and breakdown. The more loneliness there is in a society, the harder it will be for it to stay a democracy, a peaceful place, or a prosperous place.

Are you surprised that Yascha Mounk of Harvard and Roberto Stefan Foa have recently found that support for democracy among young people around the West has fallen off a cliff? Look:

Something very big is happening. I think about how Patrick Deneen’s new book Why Liberalism Failed and my book The Benedict Option  attract the same kind of reviews from a surprising number of places: panicked responses from people who are so unnerved by the things we point out that they resort to wildly distorting, even lying, about our books to keep the chaos they portend at bay. They really do believe, these critics, that everything is basically fine, and that if we just tweak this or that thing, all will be well again.

Interestingly, neither Patrick nor I have a clear, comprehensive solution. We only offer diagnoses and partial solutions, because, I think, it is not at all clear what the logical successor to liberalism is. (Nor, from my point of view, which is cultural and religion, is it easy to see what form of Christianity will survive this decline and fall.)

Why Liberalism Failed and The Benedict Option are canaries in the coal mine. You don’t have to agree with us entirely, but if you can’t see that the ground is shifting under our feet, you’re not paying attention. The first line of Jordan Peterson’s first book, Maps Of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, reads:

Something we cannot see protects us from something we do not understand.

I offer this corollary: Something we refuse to see leaves us vulnerable to something we do not understand.