Right about now, you’re probably one of millions watching a depressingly familiar spectacle play out. America is a badly broken country with an abysmal quality of life wracked by everything from extremism to fascism to despair. Its once-famous middle class is now an impoverished underclass, reacting to its powerlessness with resentment, rage, and fanaticism. States like Texas have placed bounties on the heads of women for simply existing as women, and men carry machine guns to Starbucks.
Let’s put the matter bluntly. Right about now, America is a failed state.
Hence, the depressingly familiar spectacle I mentioned.
The democrats have a brief window of power in which to stop America from sliding into further fascist collapse. But they’re stuck. They can’t seem to pass the very bill a failed state needs to begin repairing itself. There’s Joe Biden, in the middle of two internal warring factions. On one side are the “progressives,” who want slightly higher spending, and on the other are “moderates,” who appear to want as little spending as possible. As if that weren’t enough of a mess, Americans can barely understand how to make sense of this well, because nobody ever teaches them how to think about what it means to be a functioning society.
So, what is a functioning society?
The textbook examples, at least in today’s world, are places like Europe and Canada. They are incredibly powerful testaments to the sucess of a particular form of political economy which should be considered of nothing short of an historic miracle. That form of political economy is called social democracy, and in this little essay, I’m going to try to explain to you what made it so special that by now Europeans and Canadians live not just the world’s best lives — that’s in objective terms, from health to wealth to trust to happiness — but also history’s best lives. And if you’re American, this is something that you need to understand.
Let me put it this way. Liberalism and conservatism won’t get to social democracy, but America’s — and the world’s — choice is social democracy or collapse.
Sounds absurdly, almost childishly tautological, doesn’t it? And yet one of the most fundamental myths that many of us believe is that “progress” comes from pitting “liberalism” against “conservatism,” over and over again, forever, like beating a head against two brick walls. Somehow, these two poles, in opposition, we’re told, lead societies forwards — only no one really examines how, or why, or even if. We just believe it. But is it really true?
What’s going wrong with the world is in a way very simple to understand. Huge surpluses have piled up at the top of the global economy.
So vast that there is nothing left to do with them except pile them up offshore, hide them like buried treasure. These fortunes have been earned, mostly, by doing nothing of benefit to societies, people, and the planet whatseover — merely exploiting all three ruinously. Without a way for those surpluses piled up at the top to find themselves back in the hands of the average person, discontent, rage, and fury will continue to grow, as people lose hope, faith, and belief in their systems, societies, and futures. Those sentiments and passions will fold back upon themselves, becoming extremism, fanaticism, fascism. That way lies a new dark age.
All this is precisely what happened in the 1930s — the only thing that has really changed is that nations aren’t indebted to each other, so much as average people are indebted to a class of hidden, shadowy ultra-rich, who have come to own the critical systems and structures in entire economies.That imbalance produces just the same social tensions, though, as during the 1930s — fury, panic, a sense that people are just barely hanging on, redirected at the easiest targets, the powerless, who are then scapegoated, hunted, and demonized.
Hence, the world needs more social democracy, and it needs it now.
Societies like America that don’t have it, which have never had it, need to develop it in spades. Societies like Europe that do have it need badly to strengthen and recommit to it, maybe even to rediscover its values and principles, which is what I’d say the Gilets Jaunes protests are really about.
Now. The question is this. If the world needs more social democracy, then can liberalism and conservatism get it there?
It’s pretty easy to answer this question, and I’d bet you already know the answer, even if part of you fights against knowing it, so let’s think about it anyways.
Which country never joined the global movement towards social democracy, that roared across rich countries after the last world war? America, of course. America’s politics, uniquely, remained stuck, split, in a weird, binary way, between “liberals” and “conservatives” — mostly because America was clinging on to old notions of supremacy, still institutionalized in segregation, which ruled out any kind of social democracy absolutely.
So what did decades of binary liberalism versus conservatism accomplish for America? Did the dialectic lead to progress? Not at all. It led to stagnation. The answer to what did liberalism and conservatism achieve for America is: precisely nothing. Less than nothing, in fact, one could argue.
This is the point at which Americans will cry, “there goes Umair! Being hyperbolic again!!” Ah, but am I? What does the evidence say? The average American’s life isn’t more prosperous today than yesterday — it’s less so. Life expectancy is falling. His income is less than his grandparents’. She’s broke, though she works longer hours, at a less stable job. Suicides are soaring — more and more are giving up on life. Who could blame them? Americans face bizarre, weird, and gruesome problems, like their kids being shot at school, and having to beg strangers for money for healthcare online. They spend sleepless nights wondering how they ended up impoverished, despite playing by the rules — maybe not quite understanding that the rules were designed to exploit them.
The empirical reality of American living standards is this: they haven’t risen during our adult lifetimes. They’ve imploded, to the point that Americans live lives of indignity, shame, fear, and rage. That’s vivid evidence that liberalism versus conservatism accomplished precisely nothing for Americans. (Nothing positive, that is. They accomplished plenty of wasteful, stupid things. Fake wars. Tax cuts for the rich. Weird “market-based” healthcare systems that worked for no one. Bailing out banks. And so forth. They accomplished a lot — for capitalists. By siphoning off everyone else’s money, power, and possibility.)
Why didn’t liberalism and conservatism lead to progress? Well, because in America, they converged to two flavours of largely the same thing — “neoliberalism” and “neoconservatism.” Neoconservatism was a little more trigger happy, always ready to start a war, and neoliberalism was a little more utopian, but their foundational precepts didn’t end up being very different. Wealth would trickle down. Trade should be free, but movement shouldn’t. A person’s worth was how much money they made. And, most crucially of all, given these first three — society must never, ever invest in itself.
Hence, this fatal convergence of “neos”, of liberalism and conservatism to the same lowest-common-denominator, produced modern American dystopia: a rich society of impoverished people, a powerful one of powerless people, a generally decent one somehow ruled by bigots, fools, and ignoramuses. It’s a place in which people are quite literally left to fend for themselves, as best they can, with zero support, investment, care, or consideration. In fact, Americans are taught from the day they are born that caring for their neighbours, society, planet, or even themselves, is something to be scorned: a moralweakness, a social shame, a cultural crime, and an intellectual mistake.
Yet despite all tha t, many — maybe most — Americans are emerging social democrats.
They might not know it — but when 70% of them want public healthcare and debt-free education and safety nets and so forth, that is precisely what they are. They don’t know it, at least many of them, because American pundits and intellectuals act like it’s still 1962, and act as if social democracy never happened, still pitting “socialism” against “capitalism” in a Cold War that no one really won — unless the wrecked state of America today means “winning” to you. So Americans are emerging social democrats despite the tremendous stigma, misinformation, and baffling stupidity that’s become commonplace in America’s public sphere — which is a good thing.
The problem is that while many Americans are emerging social democrats, nobody, really, represents them.
The GOP obviously doesn’t — it represents corrupt elites and the poor deluded fool who thinks he wants to rewind to 1862, more or less. But neither do the Democrats. They are still focused on the same old half-baked, ill-thought-out “compromises” of neoliberalism. We have to “compromise” with “moderates,” who are holding our futures ransom. For Democrats, markets still trump public goods, social investment, and national institutions, every single time.
But that is precisely why liberalism and conservatism can’t get you to social democracy. Neither one has any interest whatsoever in rewriting a social contract that isn’t severely compromised. Both quite happily put profit before people, capital over society, money over meaning, accumulation before justice, speculation before investment, concentration before distribution, and the same old hierarchies above genuine equality. But what we’ve seen in America is the ruinous consequences of these beliefs — they are mistakes, which lead nowhere but downwards and backwards. Yet how can two ideologies which believe in all the same mistakes at root make any progress?
Let me put that more bluntly. Liberalism can free you — and conservatism can protect you — if you’re a rich white dude, sure. But what if you’re a poor white dude — or an even poorer brown woman?
What good are “self-reliance” and “personal responsibility” to you? What if you’re a family who’s a member of the people formerly known as the middle class — does being able to buy little a Johnny a cheap Chinese-made toy, aka “free trade,” make you any better off when you can’t give him decent healthcare or an education?
If you’re any of these people — which is to say, 90% of society, at this point — then you need investment in you, by everyone else, and everyone else needs just the same thing. You need healthcare, education, retirement, a decent job, savings, a sense that your life matters, that you belong, and so forth — but you can never have any of those unless everyone agrees to provide them to everyone else. The other 10% — the capitalists, the dynasties, predators, and so forth — aren’t ever going to give them to you, except at the cost of everything you will ever make, money, time, ideas, imagination, life savings. That is precisely the trap the average American is in today — why he is broke, going nowhere, stuck, and losing hope.
Do you see my point? The fundamental beliefs of liberalism and conservatism, their mistaken and impoverished priorities and notions, mostly boil down to the same thing, in slightly different ways.
Only the strong should survive, eliminate the weak — everyone will be better off! Exploitation will lead to prosperity for all! (Hence, time and again, soon enough degenerate into outright violence.) If one person in a society has lots of money — then we can call the whole thing a success!!
LOL. These are not just strange and foolish beliefs, my friends — they are also obviously false ones. Nobody much was made better off by enacting them. America is vivid proof of the failure of both liberalism and conservatism, and the unworkable compromises they forge. Both are now badly obsolete — maybe they worked in feudal, agrarian, or industrial societies, to better the relative lot of some, at the price of others, through things like slavery, segregation, and today’s predatory capitalism, but that work having been done, they will not work any longer in this century.
At this point, a better, fairer, wiser social contract is precisely what the world needs, or else. Or else what? Or else climate meltdown, inequality, extremism, fascism, and various flavors of collapse and implosion do.
The result of relying on liberalism and conservatism as the sole engines of forward motion that progress in America is stuck, stalled, that America is in stalemate. But stalemate means collapse, because societies need ongoing tending and cultivation, just like a garden. Yet maybe no further progress is possible at all, without a genuinely social democratic movement.
The lesson is very simple. Liberalism versus conservatism ends in collapse, via stalemate, not progress. It’s one of the most fundamental myths that we believe, perhaps, is that progress is only ever the result of these ideologies “compromising” or “battling” or “debating.”
But it’s not true. Liberalism and conversatism do indeed compromise — in fatally impoverished ways.
By making it impossible for people to make shared investments, for societies to measure anything other than money, by assigning life, work, being, no inherent worth, purpose, or meaning, they reduce and abstract away what matters, and privilege and protect exploitation — of people, of democracy, of nature, of the future, of life — and in that way, settlements between them are compromised things to begin with. You can see exactly this happening with the “infrastructure bill” that’s becoming anything but — watered down, reduced to a gesture, in the name of “compromise.”
The greatest discovery of the 20th century was social democracy. Prosperity with a minimum of exploitation, of violence, of domination.
All those things are human moments, chances, possibilities, that can be put to better, wiser, truer use. It is just that simple. That insight, that breakthrough, is what made decades of peace, progress, and stability possible, and led to the highest living standards in human history. Yet its equally great lesson, which we are still struggling to learn, wasn’t that the future is made by pitting liberalism against conservatism. It was that the future is made by transcending both, and building societies that can invest in themselves, in order to overcome and undo the old ways of violence, dominance, and control, with true freedom, equality, and worth.