The Road to Ruin
There are Five Steps in the Decline and Fall of Nations. How Many Have We Taken?
There are five steps in the fall of humble nations and mighty empires alike. Five steps from decline to ruin, from twilight to midnight. How many have we taken? How many will we take?
The great question now, in an age of rage, extremism surging like a tsunami across a drowning globe, isn’t the retrospective one scholars and leaders are asking: how did we get here? It’s the prospective one: what happens next? There’s been endless discussion of the causes of extremism’s rise globally. Let’s talk for a moment about the effects instead.
Tomorrow, it’s not longer failed leaders who hold power—an enraged citizenry, shaking with betrayal, seeking vengeance, has snatched the reins of power. And handed them to the inheritors and descendants of failed leaders: demagogues. What is such a world — one run by demagogues, propelled by rage, fuelled by broken dreams — likely to look like…and what is the destination it naturally seeks?
In this short essay, I’ll outline and explain the five historic steps along the road to ruin. These five steps are archetypal to the decline and fall of nations, even mighty empires. They are a road that exists in history, which beckons to every nation in decline. As for all journeys, once a journey is begun along that road, momentum and gravity make it ever more difficult to stop, reverse course, find one’s way out. I’ll use the example of what’s likely to happen if Trump’s elected to illustrate the road to ruin.
While I do, keep in the back of your mind this principle:
The fundamental task of a leader in an era of decline is stopping, preventing, or reversing a society’s senseless, helpless advance along the road to ruin.
Let us begin.
Step one: demagogues turn stagnation turn into depression. The average Trump voters are the losers of meta-modernity. They’re the ones who’ve lost the most from globalization, financialization, and technology. Their incomes have been stuck for decades, their net worths have evaporated, their middle class careers have turned into working class subsistence McJobs. This issues, being the losers of meta-modernity is at the heart of their rage. In short: the economic pie is shrinking. The rich are getting mega-richer. But in real terms, everyone else is treading water, or like the losers of meta-modernity, getting poorer.
That explains Trump’s rise. The losers of meta-modernity are voting for Trump en masse because he (and he alone) acknowledges, recognizes that the pie is shrinking — and promises to stop it.
Here’s the dirty secret. He won’t — and can’t. Trump’s economic policies aren’t going to fix the economy. Sorry, it’s magical thinking. Let me explain.
Building a wall and restricting foreign workers isn’t going to boost wages: its not just unlikely, its impossible. Immigrants boost growth — they don’t hurt it. Nor is slapping duties on goods from China a fix. Do you think that’s going to help Americans? Think again. When your average formerly middle class family goes to Walmart for their weekly shop…and the very same stuff is thirty percent more expensive, what’s going to happen? They have even less disposable income. They have even less to invest or save. That in turn shrinks demand even further. Businesses shrink, jobs aren’t created, economic activity slows down more. And so the economy grows even more stagnant.
And, before you ask, no: in such a stagnant economy, no one’s going to suddenly build new factories to replace imports that are now more expensive. Why not? For the simple reason that now there’s even less demand in the economy than there was before. You’d be foolish to hire people in an economy where people don’t spend in the first place.
See the point? The pie isn’t going to grow. That means: stagnation will turn into depression. Demagogues don’t know how to grow pies — because they blame the wrong causes and people for shrinking the pie, they can hardly grow it. The wage stagnation Trumpists have suffered, though real, is the product of a broken social contract — not China, Mexicans, or Muslims. There are three (and only three) ways to reverse it: basic income, helicopter money, or government stimulus. Needless to say, Trump doesn’t support any of those. Nor would any demagogue.
What happens then?
Step two: harm to the most vulnerable. Economic history tells us unequivocally: depressions don’t end well. They produce a profound and systemic reordering of society. But in a particularly poisonous, corrupting, and barbaric way. The most vulnerable are harmed first, most, and worst.
What does that mean? Not just protests and rallies. But institutionalized abuse — which I will explain and detail next. First, let us ask: why the most vulnerable? Because they are who is usually scapegoated for the prosperity that the middle and the poor alike used to enjoy — but now feel cheated of. In Germany’s depression, it was Jews that were expropriated and then exterminated, in the fluctuating agrarian depressions of the South, it was African-Americans who were systematically lynched, and so on.
I won’t go into who the most vulnerable are today — you’re welcome to debate it, though I think the answers are self-evident. Rather, it’s the principle that matters.
Think about it: the most vulnerable are at the bottom of the social order. The costs of taking their slices of pie away are the smallest. They’re the easiest to threaten, punish, dispossess.
Exploitation from the bottom up means everything from witch hunts to McCarthyism to segregation to reeducation to internment camps. It means profound changes to the structure of society — in which one or more vulnerable groups are systematically first excluded, then expropriated, then eliminated, and so on up the ladder of social order. Excluded: prevented, implicitly or explicitly, from holding jobs, titles, positions, rank, power. Expropriated: dispossessed of their homes, savings, assets. Eliminated: society is cleansed of them, or they are enslaved.
How does this process really work? What does it mean to “take slices of the pie away from the vulnerable?”
Step three: unpersoning. The economic pie — what we might call the social or national product — is still shrinking. How can we divide it? There are only two choices.
We must either give everyone a smaller slice — or reduce the number of people who get slices in the first place. Which do we choose? Inevitably, societies choose the second option, because the first is not politically palatable to majorities. That is why:
The fundamental mechanism of demagoguery is unpersoning.
Entire groups — usually ethnic and racial groups — begin to be unpersoned: legally, socially, and culturally diminished to non, anti, sub human. They are stripped of rights. They no longer have the power to utilize public institutions. They are not protected under the rule of law — but institutionally exploited by it. But that is just the beginning. They are denuded of dignity: the power to exist. They are demonized by the media. They are scapegoated by the public. They come to be seen by society at large as subhuman — and then the law is often used to formalize their lesser humanity.
Here, something historically remarkable has happened. People have not just lost rights — the law now is used to wrong them. The unpersoned hold anti-rights: it is legally permissible, perhaps mandatory, to use, abuse, and harm them. That is the story of both the American South and of Nazi Germany. One ended in extermination, the other in emancipation, to be sure — but the legal basis in both was to strip people of their personhood.
Unpersoning, in fact, is already beginning today, as stagnation takes hold. Stripping people of citizenship is already being formalized in Canada, Australia, the UK, and Europe. But note: when government can deprive people of citizenship, there is no foundation for democracy, consent, the rule of law. For the state can simply take away what all those are based upon. If citizenship is not the primary inalienable right, that upon which all the others, from speech to association, rest, then constitutional democracy cannot be said to exist in any meaningful sense. To make it clear, if it’s possible to have your citizenship stripped for associating with an unperson, can you really be said to be living in a democracy?
I believe the principle of unpersoning is so vitally important that I will reiterate it. The economic pie is shrinking — and it must either be parceled out it smaller slices, or to fewer people. The first is politically unpalatable to majorities — and so the second is what societies choose. And that means unpersoning: taking away people’s humanity, so they do not hold rights, privileges, or reasons to share the fruits of the social product. But, as I will discuss shortly, taking away people’s humanity on one side also means taking people’s morality on the other.
And still the downwards spiral does not end there. For the pie is still shrinking. And now society has excluded as many as it can from its consuming its slices. But still the people are restless. And soon a threshold is reached where the pie is just too small: the slices cannot be shrunk, nor can the number of people to whom it’s doled out be reduced.
There is only one answer left. Do you know what it is already?
War. That is where vicious cycles of demagoguery end. Germany’s depression caused a World War that killed millions, ravaged continents, and destroyed a generation. Why did this war break out? Underneath the superficial answers of nationalism lies the truer answer: faced with a historic depression, having unpersoned millions, finding that still wasn’t enough to grow the pie, Germany determined to achieve growth through conquest.
So here is my fourth principle — I will state this one positively, so you know what it truly means.
Prosperity, without war, by peaceful means, is one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments. It took civilization five millennia to achieve growth through creativity, innovation, freedom – not violence. Peaceful prosperity is one of humanity’s most recent accomplishments: only in the last century have we truly understood it, nurtured it, protected it, and built a global political order for it.
We must never forget it.
And yet. That is precisely what demagogues, with their siren song, seduce us into doing. They swindle us into believing that there are easier paths to plenitude. They cheat us into believing that we may plunder our way to it. Therefore.
Step four: demagogues upend the foundational civilizational principle of prosperity through peace with plunder through war.
What are we truly doing when we go from growth through peace to growth through war? We are no longer creators, dreamers, rebels, builders, defiant authors of our own destinies. We are merely thieves in the night, destroyers, takers of the hard-won harvests of others, petty criminals, extortionists, pickpockets.
Let us pause for a second and examine what has really happened. We deserve no pity at this point, but only scorn. For now we are the lowest of the low. We have gone from being proud, to confused, to desperate, to being what we feared most in the first place: predators, beasts of prey. We have become exactly what in the beginning we, in the arms of the demagogue, decried and condemned in the first place.
Step five: we become the predators we once detested. We have come full circle at last. In unpersoning others, we lost our own humanity. In thieving from others, we also stole something greater from one another: our better selves, our greater values, our nobler aspirations. In harming others, we have killed one another: we do not any more believe in the idea of peace, prosperity, and possibility anymore — so why should anyone stand up for ours? We have become the enemy, the adversary, the antagonist. Not the liberator — but the very kind of oppressor that so harmed us in the first place.
That is the true cruelty of the demagogue. He does not bring us closer to who we may become, at our best and truest and noblest. He does not liberate our human potential.
The demagogue’s price is this. He turns us into exactly what we once so raged at, objected to, rebelled against: thieves and predators of human possibility. We have not fallen into the abyss. We have become the abyss.
I am tired now. And so are you. I have written too much, and for too little a reason. Let me offer a final reflection on the theory above.
Perhaps the demagogue’s price — that we become the very thing we hate — should not surprise us. It begins with little violences. Bullying, taunting, mockery. It escalates into spite. Threats, abuse, slurs. And it ends with great violences. Atrocity. War, extermination, genocide.
We? We are either blind or foolish if we cannot see how one leads naturally to the next. The order of this sequence is not random, nor is it senseless. It makes eminent, perfect, ruthless sense.
So let me leave you with a final note of caution. Once this sequence is started, it grows more difficult to stop with each step. Each step taken is a step further into the darkness. It is a downward spiral, a vicious circle — a self-reinforcing bad equilibrium. The pie shrinks; one kind of violence is seen as the answer, at first small; but the pie shrinks more, and now, this time, the violence must be greater; and so on.
And before we are aware of it, fully able to mitigate it, the tipping point has been reached. The prey is becoming the predator — but he is also forgoing the possibility of becoming anything greater than a beast, tooth and claws, a monster. The predator may greedily, fearfully fill his belly with blood — but the price is he cannot find dignity, peace, purpose, happiness, creativity, truth, love. Those too, are a self-reinforcing spiral — but of the opposite kind. One which takes not merely demagoguery, but leadership, but merely violence, but benevolence, not merely rage, scorn, and outrage, but mercy, wisdom, faith, and courage.
So the Demagogue’s Price, ultimately, is this. The truest, greatest, and noblest thing in all creation. Let us, instead of paying it, resolve that it is too high. For there is something more priceless still. Each and every one of us.