The Last Five Years of the United States of America

The Final Failure

I was recently watching the BBC’s magisterial Civilisation, a documentary series from the 60s about the rise and fall of the West. And in it, Lord Clark, the great art historian, says something interesting, and I think genuinely true: Rome ultimately fell because it was “exhausted”, he remarks, gently but firmly. What did he mean?

Every day, I read the headlines, the tweets, the op-eds, the essays, from left and right. And one thing strikes me. They say the same thing, more or less, Trump bad, outrage shock horror. Sure. So what? As I’ve said in recent essays, the US is the world’s first rich failed state, whose long-run failures (inequality, stagnation, racism, a lack of public goods as a result) predate Trump by decades.

America is a society that has long been at war with the idea of being one. Trumpism is just the effect — not the cause. It just means the war is on the verge of being won.

And yet. Even at this critical juncture, what I don’t read, hear, see — ever — is a vision, plan, positive agenda, a new New Deal, a Marshall Plan, etc. It’s all about Trump, all the time, on every channel, in every tweet. But I mean this in a distinct way. Even any discussion of the idea of a positive agenda is out of bounds. No body politic or social — no institution, intellectual, party, network, league, thinktank, university, publication — appears interested in the slightest in such an agenda in any way whatsoever. And that lack of a positive agenda reveals that no one must have the incentive, reason, purpose, desire, need to have one.

That stunning lack of demand for a positive agenda at precisely the time in its history that it is needed most says something profound about a nation’s destiny. It is the final kind of institutional failure there can be in a society, isn’t it? What else can we call such a society but exhausted?

Exhausted: a society has reached the limits of its founding ideas. For Rome, those ideas were conquest and order. After a time, the costs exceeded the benefits. For the USA, that idea is “freedom” — but in that curiously American way — freedom at the price of liberation, emancipation, humanity, dignity, equality: war against being a society itself. The price of that kind of freedom is too high now. It has produced a nation at endless war, with no healthcare, savings, no good media, falling incomes and life expectancies, with the lowest quality of life but highest inequality in modern history. Just like the villages of poor strangers it endlessly bombs — and in exactly the same way that no one can even say why anymore — America’s war against being a society has destroyed its own hope in the future.

And yet now that war is finally on the cusp of being won. But something greater has been lost. These are the last years. The last five years, I’d guess, of the USA.

No. I don’t mean that in a Mad Max kind of way. Why would I need to? America already resembles Mad Max: mass killings are a regular if not daily event, the highways are lined with billboards for an epidemic of despair, the average person’s living a short, nasty, brutish life, full of fear, anger, rage. Safety, opportunity, security — these don’t really exist outside isolated enclaves. Happiness, peace, kindness — do those really exist at all in America today, in a genuine sense? So all that’s really missing from America being Mad Max is the leather chaps and the melodrama. Nor do I mean “the last five years” in the naive sense of civil war and fracture. Sure, those are possibilities — maybe inevitabilities now. But my guess is that they’ll take a little longer.

I mean that these are the last five years in a simple, pragmatic sense. The last five years in which the USA is considered by its peers — and many its own intelligent citizens — to be a member of the global community of civilized nations. Within five years, like Russia or Turkey, my bet is that it will be persona non grata, quarantined, firewalled, treated with suspicion, distrust, contempt.

What will the last five years of the USA look like from inside? Ugly, to say the least. Increasing breakdowns of the rule of law. More inequality. Faster falling life expectancy. The militarization of daily life. Media trying here and there to resist, but what can a profit-driven media really “resist”? More debt. An already shrinking middle class shrinking faster. Two lost generations turning into three. And so on. Every negative trend will accelerate, basically.

There’s a tiny chance, of course, that all this can turn around. Vision. Mission. Agenda. Plan. And yet that one is missing at this very moment tells us perhaps the truest social truth of all. Clark was wiser perhaps than even he knew. “Exhausted”. How can a single word sum up so much? And yet it does. In the end, a failing society that no body politic or social has the incentive, reason, desire, need, to renew, transform, heal? It is one that has crossed the Styx into the underworld beyond just being broken. It is exhausted. And as Orpheus learned, even through our grief, the time comes when we must let the dead go.

July 2017