Here is one man's dystopian view.

1 view
Skip to first unread message

James Warren

unread,
Dec 2, 2021, 10:58:03 AM12/2/21
to
Why Didn’t America Become Part of the Modern World?

The Great Lesson of the 20th Century — and How America Never Learned
It

umair haque


When I say “the modern world,” what do you think of? Probably a great
city somewhere, with broad avenues, spacious parks, art and culture,
old museums, people buzzing about, public transport thrumming.
Now think of America. People die for a lack of insulin. Young people
who can’t afford to start families of their own. The average person
living perched right at the edge of ruin, one missed paycheck, one
illness, one emergency away from disaster. An endless and gruesome
list of stuff that puts the dark ages to shame.

Here’s what I think. American never joined the modern world. It’s
the modern world’s first failed state. It became something like a
weird, bizarre dystopia, replete with falling life expectancy,
hand-to-mouth
living, relentless and legendary cruelty, instead of a truly modern
society instead. But why?

The creation of “modernity,” as intellectuals sometimes call it, was
one of history’s greatest accomplishments. But what does it mean to
be “modern”? I don’t think that we need grand abstruse theories to
really get it. I think it hinges on one simple, crucial, and deceptively
beautiful insight.

Poverty unleashes animal spirits in human beings which lead to ruin,
catastrophe, and war. That’s the essence of modernity — I’ll come
to precisely how this great insight changed the world. First, I want
you to understand how we learned it.

You might think — “well, that’s simple! Duh!” Ah, but the truth is
it’s anything but. For millennia, human beings didn’t understand that,
did they? So the world was run by a long succession of feudal and
tribal systems. Poverty was enforced, created, and managed. Some people
were peasants and serfs. Others still were slaves. And atop them sat
a tiny number of nobles, or owners, or kings. What was the result
of this model of social order?

It was endless war. Societies had to compete for land, for “resources,”
which mostly meant new slaves and peasants. But why? Because the vast
majority of people, being poor, couldn’t create much. They couldn’t,
for example, build great hospitals, discover antiobiotics, and then
pioneer healthcare systems. They were just peasants. And when the
peasants grew angry, the nobles had two choices. Revolution — or war.
And usually, war was easier than fighting off a revolution. So: centuries
of endless, bitter war. While the world went precisely nowhere, in
terms of how well people lived, until the industrial revolution.

After World War II, human beings learned a great lesson. Germany,
driven to poverty by war reparations, had turned to fascism. Finally,
a set of great minds made the link. Poverty. Ruin. Extremism.
Fundamentalism.
Fascism. Authoritarianism. War. All the gravest ills we know of, all
the diseases of the body politic, are caused by poverty, which is
the deprivation of possibility. And they understood, too, that poverty
isn’t just financial — but it can also be a deprivation, for example,
of social bonds, of opportunities, of meaning, of status, of purpose.
There are many kinds of poverty, and money is one.

(So these great minds set about rebuilding a world — yes, a whole
world — which would be free of poverty. The explicit goal was to end
war forever. Utopian? Sure. We’ve forgotten that today — they don’t
teach it to us. Have you ever wondered why? It’s because today’s wise
men are cynics. But I digress. A world without poverty, and thus a
world without war. Were they successful? The world has in fact made
long strides to eliminating extreme poverty. And that’s a result of
the institutions these great minds created. The World Bank. The UN.
And so on. A limited, but meaningful success. The point of these
institutions
was to invest in poor countries — and break the vicious cycle of violence
which had come to rule the world.)

Europe took a special lead, though. After the war — quickly — it redesigned
its societies to be places of equality, opportunity, and fairness.
It understood that poverty had caused its ruin, opening the Pandora’s
box of extremism, racism, hate, fascism. And so it quickly gave all
its people — at least richer European countries — exactly all those
things you thought of when I asked you “what do you think of when
you think of a modern place?” Public healthcare, transport, media,
finance, housing, safety nets, and so on. The time, money, and freedom
to live with dignity.

As a simple example, Britain’s NHS was the world’s first public healthcare
system — created in 1948. Europe was trying to create a place where
everyone had the bare minimum of a decent life — so war would never
again recur. This was the birth of a truly modern society. It was
a European creation — though in a way, I suppose, America lent military
might. But the ideas, the will, the innovations — all these were European.
What was happening in America at the same time? It was still a segregated
country. Europeans were building great public institutions — NHSes
and BBCs and pensions systems, for everyone. America was building
drinking fountains for “colored people.” How could it build a modern
society?

So while the world was becoming modern, eliminating inequality, poverty,
injustice — America wasn’t. It was stuck in the past — and that is
where it remains. Segregation might be gone — but America never really
became a modern society in the way that we discussed earlier. And
in fact, America is more segregated now than it was a generation ago.
It’s more like a failed modern state, a state that failed at being
modern. It started late, and even then, took too few strides, too
hesitantly — and is now collapsing before it reached the goal. Are
these things linked, somehow?

Now you know what modernity is. It’s the idea that poverty causes
ruin, and so the primary job of a modern society is to eliminate poverty,
of all kinds, to give people decent lives at a bare minimum — and
a social contract which does all that. Hence, Europe became a place
rich in public goods, like healthcare, media, finance, transport,
safety nets, etcetera, things which all people enjoy, which secure
the basics of a good life — all the very same things you intuitively
think of when you think of a “modern society” — but America didn’t.
But the question we still haven’t answered is why. Why did America
never join the modern world? The answer goes something like this.
Americans never learned the greatest lesson history taught. That poverty
causes ruin.

You see, in America, poverty was seen — and still is — as a kind of
just dessert. A form of deserved punishment, for being lazy, for being
foolish, for being slow. For being, above all, weak — because only
the strong should survive.

So Americans devised a very different kind of society. It didn’t have
a social contract — a set of public institutions which manage public
goods for people, healthcare and transport and finance and childcare
and so on — because its thinkers supposed it didn’t need one. It only
had markets. If markets rewarded the rich — while crushing the middle
class and poor — so much the better. Markets were the truest judges
of the worth of a person. And if a market thought a person was “worth”
a billion dollars, and another one nothing, that was because the first
person must be a billion times better a person than the second.

So in America, poverty wasn’t seen as a social bad or ill — it was
seen as a necessary way to discipline, punish, and control those with
a lack of virtue, a deficit of strength, to, by hitting them with
its stick, to inculcate the virtues of hard work, temperance,
industriousness,
and above all, self-reliance. The problem, of course, was that the
great lesson of history was that none of this was true — poverty didn’t
lead to virtue. It only led to ruin.

So what was the inevitable result of a nation which didn’t learn history’s
greatest lesson, which though poverty was good for people? Unsurprisingly,
it was….poverty. The old kind: 40 million Americans live in poverty,
while 50 million Mexicans do. Surprised? And a new kind, too. The
middle class imploded, and Americans began living lives perched right
at the edge of destruction. Less than $500 in emergency savings, having
to choose between healthcare and food, a life without retirement,
stability, security, or safety of any kind. America never joined the
modern world in understanding that poverty leads societies to ruin
— and so it quickly became the rich world’s first poor country.

What happened next? Well, exactly what history suggested would. That
imploding middle class, living lives of immense precarity, sought
safety in the arms of religion, superstition, and myths, at first.
And then in the arms of extremism. And finally, in the arms of true
fascism, in the form of a right wing political party that celebrates
violence, intimidation, and authoritarianism. It was exactly what
happened in the 1930s — and it still is.

So. What has anyone learned? Funnily, sadly, as far as I can see,
not much. America never joined the modern world — that is why its
people live such uniquely wretched lives, paying thousands for ambulance
rides, which even people in Lahore or Lagos don’t. But the consequences
weren’t just poverty. They were what poverty produces — nationalism,
authoritarianism, fascism, social collapse and implosion, as people,
enraged, lost trust in society to be able to protect and shelter them.

But no one has learned that lesson. Not America’s intellectuals, certainly.
Not its politicians, leaders, thinkers. Not its people, either,
unfortunately.
So here America is. Modernity’s first failed state. The rich nation
which never cared to join the modern world, too busy believing that
poverty would lead to virtue, not ruin. Now life is a perpetual, crushing,
bruising battle, in which the stakes are life or death — and so people
take out their bitter despair and rage by scapegoating minorities,
glorifying violence, sending death threats to teachers. History is
teaching us the same lesson, all over again. Americans might not even
learn it the second time around. But the world, laughing in horror,
in astonishment, in bewilderment, should.

Umair

November 2021


HRM Resident

unread,
Dec 2, 2021, 11:48:17 AM12/2/21
to
A well written and thought provoking article.

--
HRM Resident
Reply all
Reply to author
Forward
0 new messages