How the Anglo World Lost Its Way (While the World Didn’t)

Two decades or so, ago economists bemoaned Sub Saharan Africa. The world was making great strides against poverty, illness, autocracy. But no matter how much money or advice poured in, it seemed only to go backwards.

Today, in a stunning, ironic twist of history, that dubious honor belongs to the English speaking world. It’s the one region of the globe going backwards today. Furiously and swiftly.

We don’t need to debate that it is. It’s a fact. In the US, life expectancy, income, savings, and nearly every deeper indicator of a good life — from trust to mobility — is either flat or plummeting. In the UK, incomes are flat, and a similar collapse is almost certain to unfold there, as the NHS, BBC, and other public goods suffer underfunding. Australia’s doing slightly better, but even there, the tensions are visible.

(Skip this paragraph if you don’t like econ. If you do…all this is unfolding while interest rates are zero. Translation: there’s so much money floating around at the top of the economy there’s literally nowhere left to invest it. That’s what zero rates mean: money has nowhere left to go in the private sector. Thus, it should be invested in people, healthcare, education, and so on — but it isn’t. And so the result is regression: the anglo world is going swiftly, furiously backwards.)

Now let’s put that in global perspective. Two decades ago, Rwanda suffered a terrible genocide. It was a society that had imploded — and so it became the world’s synonym for a failed state. And yet. Today, Rwanda — even Rwanda — has built a public healthcare system. That has dramatically improved quality of life. So have Thailand, Singapore, and Argentina. Public healthcare is just one kind of progress, and amid falling poverty, rising life expectancy, and so on, the world is still making progress — despite growing inequality and stagnation.

So the question — and to me it is one of the biggest questions in the world today — is this. Why did the Anglo world replace Sub Saharan Africa as the one region of the world going backwards?

Let me ask the question differently. What makes the Anglo world different from, for example, the EU? Its politics differ tremendously. The EU is marked by a diversity of political perspectives and parties. From Green to Liberal to Social Democratic. All these vie for power, and ultimately end up negotiating with one another for it. But in the Anglo world, over the last few decades, politics has boiled down to a choice between neoliberalism and neoconservatism. Here is the thing. There is no real difference between them.

Both neoliberalism and neoconservatism do not believe in public goods — healthcare, education, transport, and so on. They do not believe in social safety nets, in social equity. They both believe in a Niezschean view of human potential: that the ubermen deserve the spoils, all of the them, and the undermen deserve to suffer, because they are weak, and therefore a liability upon the body social. Thus, they both believe that markets should replace the government in totality. In that respect, they are both totalitarian ideologies.

(The one place where they differ is foreign policy. Neocons want occupation and “liberation”, and neolibs want hedge funds and privatization. But the result for the average person is not so different: stunted human potential.)

Both neoliberalism and neoconservatism are totalitarian ideologies of market fundamentalism. They offered people a radically different social contract than anywhere else in the world. Not just the rich world. The whole world. That social contract said: every good in society will be financialized, privates-sectored, optimized for profit. Every single one — from healthcare to education to transport.

Now, the problem to thinking people is obvious. The point of an economy isn’t profit. It’s human potential. To optimize a social contract for profit isn’t just extremism — it is folly. A life or a society or a city is not a company. A company can make profits and call itself succesful. But a city or a country or a town or a family cannot. Its “success” rests on bringing forth people’s potential in concrete ways: to let them live long, happy, creative, prosperous, sane lives, full of relationships, accomplishments, dreams, little mercies, great passions.

Remember Rwanda? Even Rwanda doesn’t offer such an extremist social contract. Remember the EU, with it’s rainbow of politics, it’s spectrum of political parties? It never made the same mistake. It didn’t succumb to extremism, absolutism, totalism. It understands still the value of true pluralism, of diversity of thought, of careful negotiation and moderation and compromise.

And therein lies the lesson.

The Anglo world appears to the rest of the world crazy today. Utterly bonkers. It’s become a laughingstock, mocked daily by global media, leaders, people. And the reason is simple. It is a victim of extremism. While it tells itself it fights extremism, the truth is that it is now just as extremist — entire social contracts in the service of profit, not human potential — which suffocate all human possibility. That is very same totalism that it tried to force upon the world, ironically enough. Yet even Rwanda was smart enough not to buy what the Anglo world was selling. The only real buyer left for the neoliberalism and neoconservatism — which are both the very same totalism — the Anglo world is selling is the Anglo world itself.

Every totalism is a kind of fatalism. When I say, “this is the one true way everything must happen”, what I am really saying is “I do not believe in freedom, possibility, imagination, anything greater than myself”. That is fatalism: the belief that there is an inescapable endpoint to things. Whether it is death or salvation. There are no inescapable endpoints to human lives or human societies. There is only the human heart, struggling to be free, fighting to be loved.

June 2017