Reposted from Medium
A friend said on Twitter, last night, “I understand Umair’s points about America. But I don’t get why Europe isn’t being stricken by American collapse, too.”
You might think, reading recent essays, that I suppose Europe (Canada, Asia, whomever) is immune from what America’s going through. I’m sorry if I’ve given you that impression. No one is immune. Not at all. I’ve long said that fascism would be the defining event of our adult lifetimes — globally. And, of course, we already see it rising in Europe. So the grim reality is something more like this. American collapse might well be coming to a country near you — no matter how sophisticated, gentle, or wise it is.
But I want you to really understand why, I don’t want to mince words — so I’m going to start at the beginning.
Let’s think about America, and the lesson it teaches us, for a moment. America was, if we’re honest, an apartheid state until 1971. Now, that means, quite obviously, that while European countries were building great public goods — healthcare, education, pensions, safety nets, etcetera, which began in the 1920s in some places, in the 1950s, in others — America couldn’t. Because these goods are for all, or for none. Therefore, the price of being an apartheid state is also a failure to develop great systems of public goods, which are the key, really, to enduring prosperity — much more so than “innovation” and “growth” (can you eat an iPhone? Can Facebook treat your cancer?)
The gift of genuine equality, in other words, is that people can invest in one another — instead of exploit one another. That is the great lesson of the 20th century — and sadly, it is still unlearned. Only Europe really understands it — and even then, too little, too infrequently.
America is the first to fall to fascism because America only ever had a scant few decades to apply the 20th century’s great lesson — only true equality makes modernity possible. It had maybe just thirty short years of even trying to be something resembling a genuinely modern, civilized society. Which means, economically, people investing their surpluses in each other, by way of public goods, which they can only ever do if they are truly equal. Civilization was only even within the realm of possibility in America from 1980 or thereabouts to 2010 — unlike in Europe. This is America’s great curse, which Americans still don’t understand.
What happened around 2010? Austerity began. What few public goods America had began to be cut. And as they began to be cut, banks were bailed out en masse. The result is that a new kind of poverty exploded in America — precarity. People began to live right at the edge of survival, every day, until, today, nearly everyone — 80% of people — live hand to mouth. That’s how many did in Victorian England, too. America’s regressed centuries in just a decade, in other words.
Why was America so vulnerable to fascism? Because thirty years is not very long, is it? Americans grew poor, suddenly, because they had never really been rich. They had just thirty years to try to accumulate savings, incomes, assets — but that was not long enough, especially in a society without working public goods, where you’re paying through the nose for healthcare, to really build much at all. And so the middle class imploded easily, suddenly, catastrophically.
What do imploding middle classes do? They turn to fascists. Who blame their woes on scapegoats, turning grief into grievance. Fascists promise the downwardly mobile that they will be “great” again — that they’ll rise culturally, triumph socially, be symbolically reborn, and economically renewed. It’s a powerful appeal, to people who, suddenly, are shocked, that they are falling out of what appeared to be a clear blue sky. Who will save them? Who’ll rescue them? To understand fascism, Yyu have to understand that the minds of a large part of this stratum of society simply stop working. Those minds brim over with grievances, hated, imagined enemies, who are persecuting them, victimizing them, who are hunting them into nonexistence, who they need to destroy first, exterminate — not anything resembling coherent thoughts, logical reason, or moral sanity.
Let me connect all those dots, because they’re subtle ones. 1971 — the end of segregation. 2010 — the beginning of austerity. In between: just thirty years of being a modern, prosperous society. That didn’t give people enough time to save, invest, accumulate enough to protect themselves from sudden poverty. The middle class imploded, as the banks were bailed out, and the economy went into reverse. The downwardly mobile, shattered, turned to a fascist for salvation. Do you see how this all fits together?
Now let’s come to Europe. What has Europe had that America hasn’t? It’s had a much longer period of being a modern, civilized set of societies. There, great public goods — healthcare, education, retirement, and so forth — were built throughout the 20th century. So Europeans have had somewhere between 70–100 years of being modern, where Americans barely had thirty.
What’s more, Europe was successful at becoming modern. It really built great public goods — where America never did, partially because it never had enough time. Those public goods have made Europeans more secure. They have higher incomes, higher home ownership, more savings, and so on. The lesson again: true equality, real prosperity.
Now. All these things give Europe a safety net from fascism. But they don’t protect it absolutely, or protect it forever.
The problem is that incomes are stagnant worldwide now — even in Europe. That’s why even there, we see fascism rising, in, say Italy, Greece, even Sweden.
Americans had no safety net from fascism whatsoever. Thirty years of modernity, with barely any public goods built — and then a crash. Bang! The average person fell into 21st century poverty by 2010. The howl of fascism arose just five years or so later.
Europeans have a stronger safety net. Seventy years of modernity, robust public goods. Higher savings, incomes, more ownership. But the crash is hitting them, too. The average person there, too, will fall into 21st century poverty, if trends go on unaltered — because it’s becoming difficult, there, too, to make ends meet, thanks to austerity, neoliberalism, monopoly, and so on. Bang! They’re turning to fascism, too, in just the same ways as America. Depressed Easy Germany. Industrial Sweden. Depressed Greece. The broken American Rust Belt. Do you see the link?
Now. The question is this. How long will Europe’s safety net last? How much protection do Europeans really have? Think of fascism as something like a shark, or a dragon, eating away at that net. It won’t last forever.
My estimate has long been that Europeans have about five years of protection, compared to America. Now, that’s just an estimate — the same way a doctor might tell you how long you have to live if you have cancer. So it’s subjective — still, very few people predicted fascism in America, and I was one. So. Five years — but not from now, from the beginning of American fascism, which was two years ago.
That is why we’re already seeing European fascism rise so strongly and viciously. The safety net that Europe has from fascism is being chewed through. Stagnation is eating away even at European safety and security. Middle classes are, in places, becoming downwardly mobile — or are least aspirations are turning into dashed hopes.
The one great advantage that Europe has over America, though, is that — to be blunt — it doesn’t take pride in ignorance. So Europeans should understand all this, once it’s explained to them — unlike Americans, who, no matter how many times anyone tries, don’t listen, won’t listen, can’t hear it, can’t understand.
Europe isn’t as foolish as America because it’s been through this before. The question, therefore, is this. Can Europe raise its levels of investment in itself? Can it invest in the right and wise and decent things? Can it invest, just as it has for the last seventy years, but better, in even stronger, more robust, broader, deeper public goods? Which give people enough of a sense of true safety and security — economic, which becomes social, psychological, cultural — that they don’t have to turn to fascists, to assuage fears which have become paranoid, delusional, overblown grievances — so large and menacing, imagined to be so dangerous, they become great psychological persecution complexes, which leave people unable to think or reason at all, only able to hate and destroy, like they have in America, that land of folly, greed, and ignorance?
If it can’t, the future is very simple. American collapse is coming soon to a country near you.