I worry about America. When I was young, despite all its problems, America was greater than life, always beaming with optimism with a vision of a better future always ahead. Now that I’m getting older I’m very much unsure. Maybe I now know so much more than when I was younger, that is highly likely, but I’m not blind to seeing the changes over the past few decades.
When does a civilization recognize that it is in decline? When does it realize that its best days are behind it? It’s probably a much easier question to answer for historians with the benefit of a historical record and viewed through the lens of time, but much harder, if not impossible, for witnesses in the midst of history unfolding.
I ask these questions because it is hard not to worry about the state of the US or Western democracies in general these days. From my perch we are witnessing the end of trust, trust in government, trust in fairness, trust in each other. It’s not something that’s suddenly evolved, it’s been coming for a long time, but perhaps we’re just approaching peak realization. 50% of eligible voters already don’t vote in US presidential elections, they have no sense of stake or trust in the outcome. Nepotism and corruption appear rife in aspects of government and general success in life. I could list a myriad of examples, you can as well. The recent corruption scandal in college admissions being the latest example of many confirming an already prevailing sense that the world is rigged. Politics are getting ever more polarized and a common reality seems increasingly out of reach. Decades of expanding wealth inequality have left people behind, frustrated and angry and many they are lashing out, seeking to blame others for both real, imagined and often times manufactured problems. The politics of misinformation and propaganda are not new, but they are increasingly getting intense, bold and vicious.
Governments are as hopelessly divided as their peoples, incapable of reaching consensus on complex issues. In the meantime ever more debt is required to keep the system afloat.
Hence I have to ask: Have we reached peak civilization? Are we witnessing a civilization in decline? What are the consequences if true?
It’s perhaps easy to dismiss such questions in light of the vast technological advances our societies continue to see at the present time.
But the term civilization is subject to a much broader definition:
Civilization: An advanced state of human society, in which a high level of culture, science, industry, and government has been reached.
For the purposes of this article I want to hone in on culture and government for I can’t help but find historic parallels in the eventual fall of the Roman Empire. The timescales and context were different, but the parallels to what we are witnessing now may be more than coincidental, they may be prescient.
Rome was perhaps the first great civilization that could be classified as the first true melting pot of different cultures and backgrounds, this as a result of the empire needing to ever expand to sustain economic growth by conquering its neighbors and forcing its culture and laws upon them.
But then growth peaked, the empire became extended, it could no longer afford its military might, its culture peaked, internal strive became pervasive while foreign adversaries kept challenging its predominance and the people lost trust in its government as corruption and nepotism became the primary means to power and influence.
Some may say Rome as a society peaked during the time of Octavian who became Caesar Augustus, himself reaching power aided by status and wealth following a bloody civil war, but there was peace and prosperity during his long reign. But then came the Caligulas, the Neros, the despots and tyrants, the year of the four emperors. Sure there were periods of renaissance, but chip by chip what was an advanced culture became degraded. The cohesive respect for the dream that Rome represented slowly got torn apart from the inside. Social, cultural, religious and ideological differences made the empire ever more difficult to govern. During the time of great religious upheaval Emperor Constantine made a bold attempt to unify the diverging empire, making Christianity the state mandated religion banning all other religions or even diverging views of Christianity. To no avail. 120 years later, Rome the great empire that had lasted for centuries was no more, too great were the divisions and structural forces that had torn at the fabric of the empire. Rome, the shining city of a million+ people, became deserted, the Colosseum, long the host to bloody spectacles attended by tens of thousands became a grazing ground for sheep.
I dare say neither Augustus, Julius Caesar, Cicero, or any of the well known figures of Rome’s glorious past could have imagined such a decline.
I’m obviously not predicting such a collapse for America, but all of us today have come to take civilization for granted, but what is civilization without a basic amount of shared reality, values and respect?
Which brings me to the here and now: Let’s acknowledge that on the science front we do not appear to be at a peak, many more advances are in the pipeline to come. But the same could have have been said about Rome, after all its industry and innovation continued to flourish way past Octavian’s time. But just because we have an iPhone in our hands doesn’t make us better people.
So let’s look at culture. If information technology and the internet offered the promises of vast access to knowledge and information and thereby help create a better educated and more enlightened population these first 20 odd years of the internet appear to be a complete failure. Has culture and civil discourse improved over the past 20 years or has it degraded? Based on what I see in our political and social discourse, and especially on how people are conversing with each other on social media and media in general, I see a complete breakdown in social discourse.
I’ve been hanging out on this planet for a few decades now and I can honestly say I’ve never seen so much hate, vitriol, ignorance, anger and disrespect in my life. And dare I add sheer stupidness and ignorance? It is dismaying seeing people often times utterly misinformed viscously at each other’s throats. No filter, no class, utter gutter. I don’t need to cite any examples. Every reader can think of plenty examples before I finish typing this sentence.
Lady Gaga recently described social media as the toilet of the internet. And boy, that toilet is clogged up and the stench appears to be getting worse as time goes on. Respect for institutions or government leaders or even each other? Forget it. Today’s internet would crucify Jesus before he could even perform a miracle. I can see the twitter attacks now: “Your carpentry sucks you socialist hack!”.
Everybody is fair game and in the process everyone gets diminished. The haters diminish themselves, any prospective leaders of conscience shy away in disgust and fear or look bloodied and soiled as constant attacks take their toll in the eye of public opinion.
What’s driving it all? Too complex to analyze in depth in this article, but suffice to say we are witnessing a massive divergence in culture and perception of reality and the reemergence of fanaticism.
There is an uncomfortable truth about the human condition: Once people become radicalized in mind and spirit it’s impossible to reason with them. Be it religion or politics. Ideology trumps facts. Allegiance to tribe becomes more important than sense of community or society and even educated and advanced societies can fall victim to radicalization.
And don’t think this is just a temporary fluke. History is full of examples of societies diverging and becoming radicalized and invariably these cultural shifts bring about unhappy endings. I don’t want to see an unhappy ending, but unfortunately only larger calamities end up bringing people back to a state of reason and acknowledgement that only a civilized discourse can bring about positive change. Yelling at each other on twitter just won’t do.
The last prominent example of the country coming together in recent American history was 9/11. The entire country pulled together. Now, not even 2 decades later, the country is the most divided in modern times with no hope in sight that it will get better anytime soon. Rather a dreaded sense lingers that the worst is still to come.
Which brings me to the government aspect of all this. Western democracies have become paralyzed by these internal divisions. Consensus building becomes virtually impossible, too far apart are the political bases, too fragmented the support to be able to address any complex structural issues. Debt and easy money have become the go to solutions to keep the consequences at bay. Politicians don’t need to fix anything knowing central bankers will always step in.
America is extended, riddled with debt and too reliant on ever more debt, past its growth peak, incapable and unwilling to address structural issues. Both political parties have given up on dealing with debt, illusory monetary policies such as MMT are invented to render structural issues as irrelevant. Meanwhile wealth inequality keeps expanding from administration to administration no matter who is in charge with voters distracted by the ideological divisions of the day, not trusting their leaders or each other.
And all this with 3.8% unemployment. What will this all look like during the next downturn? Nobody knows. Rome showed us to not take civilization for granted. It also showed us to not ignore structural problems before they become too large to tackle.
I want to be hopeful and I am hopeful because of all the great people I meet in real life and on social media, but America divided, show me you can come together and work together for a better future. I know you can do it, but until you do I worry about you.