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.
Thank You, Sir, for the thoughts you have shared in ‘The End of Trust’! Very well stated. Even spiritual faith and trust in God … as you alluded to in reference to Constantine, and true as well today, can’t overcome darkness if the masses don’t come to their senses … and seek the Light!
You’re not alone. I’m happy I don’t have any children because the future looks highly questionable. I still believe a small lunatic fringe is getting way too much attention and I certainly blame top-level politicos for fanning the flames, but change is driven from the margins.
Sad also that 9/11 — an event of highly questionable origins and sinister consequences (e.g., police state) — should be one of the last significant shared moments. Too many shades of prior government & media propaganda mobilization to push us all to unnecessary & unwanted conflict.
Have you seen “V for Vendetta”?
My daughter and I lament about the state we have gotten to but we have no answers as to what to do to change it all. Ya, we can vote but the corruption up the totem pole makes it seem less and less a viable solution. I’m getting tired and weary.
I believe we are creating a new normal.
We seem to be Ok being lied to.
We seem to be Ok with a leader who advocates violence towards the media.
We seem to be OK with so much I never thought this country would be OK with.
I wonder if the comparison should have been with Nazi Germany instead. That is more relevant than the Roman Empire.
It‘s not only the USA, it‘s at all western countries. There is a word subscribing this situation, the word is capitalism, The rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer and the middle class getting ripped of. The capitalism takes it all and they aren‘t satisfied until they own all.
Thank you very much for your thoughtful and consider comments. It is much appreciated.
Please keep up the your commentaries; it is needed indeed. Perspective.
I’m going to send this latest to each member of my family for a ‘good read’.
Thank you again.
Right on point Sven, I have one word for you, upon which mankind’s demise is resting:
Capitalism and communism are mere jargons. When people wish to ignore simple truths, they hide behind these jargons. The simple words I am alluding to are health and education. Banks and financiers must be kept away from these fields. In the US, and because of US leadership, in many other places where US money has reached and influenced society, money rules these fields. Consequently, people end up being far less healthy than they would otherwise have been; and education is dominated by strongmen and moneybags.
If you wish to address the ills of the society, address those issues first, the rest will address itself.
Corruption from the top down. First it was the bankers. Now it has permeates C-Suites. Surely but steadily society is rotting away. Just look at towns and cities across the Rust belt. That’s America’s future.
I made it a point somewhere early in my life not to worry about the greatness of The Nation. I was certain that many others would devote their lives to the project, get rich, and wreck the whole thing. Killing millions along the way because that’s what serious people do.
Traveling west in NW Iowa where the land descends into the Missouri River Valley and passes through the abrupt Loess Hills is a pretty sight. And looking West one can imagine the vast plains at the heart of the continent, and it abides. And what preoccupies the congressman from there today? With the snow now gone and the fields starting to warm in the sun? 8 trillion bullets.
Yes I made a wise decision not to worry about the greatness of The Nation. It destruction is in excellent hands. And the more you fret about the greatness of the nation the more it will elude you.
A note on MMT. I see Powell recently condemned the idea along with a bevy of other high level finance figures. My view is that because of Powell’s (and the financial powers that be) hypocrisy MMT is a virtual certainty in the near future. That is because the Fed has been applying MMT to the 1% (to the exclusion of – and detriment – the 99%) for almost forty years straight. Anyone in an ‘influential’ position to argue against MMT has already disqualified themselves from the argument by virtue of profiting off virtual MMT for the past forty years. Hate to add to the doom and gloom – but think it through.
Sven, do you partake in (reading) Armstrong’s daily blog? Much of what you’ve observed can be validated there many times over. After the “crash & burn,” as Marty puts it, financial capital of the world shifts to China in 2033. The search area is quite useful to the inquiring mind https://www.armstrongeconomics.com/blog/
The west is being “Deconstructed” by an ascendant neo-Marxist Globalist-oriented Left.
THE battle of our times concerns the various internal ‘culture-warz’ running inside all the Western Democracies and the central battle of our time: The Nation-States Vs the One World Order, with Patriots facing off against Globalists
I wrote about collapsing trust 5 years ago through the lense of Dmitry Orlov’s The Five Stages of Collapse (http://transitionvoice.com/2013/11/faith-and-trust-in-the-system-is-collapsing/). Orlov’s book is a must read in this vein. As he argued, the five stages of collapse: “Serve as mental milestones…[and each breaches] a specific level of trust or faith in the status quo. Although each stage causes physical, observable changes in the environment, these can be gradual, while the mental flip is generally quite swift.” Things just seem to be picking up speed since he published the book.
I’d venture that the core trouble with Western civilization is that the Church thoroughly disenchanted the entire Universe in a bid to maintain its power during the 16th and 17th centuries (by employing the ideas of people like Robert Boyle). The rationale is that when you can’t see value and meaning anywhere else but in the Church, then it’s to the Church you’ll turn for those things. The trouble is that it didn’t work out that way: people ended up unable to find value and meaning anywhere AT ALL. Descartes first became aware of this danger and sought to avert it by working out a proof for God’s existence based on the bare fact that he (Descartes) is a conscious and thinking ‘thing’, but Hume and others later came and picked the arguments apart, and still later Kant and others came along and told us that virtually all our ‘knowledge’ is really just the imposition of a web of ideas and concepts of our own making upon reality, which in itself is unknowable. In this way we are led step by step to the world of Yeats’ falcon, an utterly value-void Universe in which anything goes, nothing matters and you’re free to believe whatever you want. Solzhenitsyn said it well: men have forgotten God; hence this whole mess we find ourselves in.
I’m not a Christian, by the way. You don’t have to be one to endorse the idea of some Higher Power. Neither am I here to bicker with anyone on these issues. I just thought I’d share a few thoughts, that’s all. Take or leave them.
All this money printing won’t change a thing. The reality is that the global economy is based and reliant on energy, it’s extraction and application and is measured by the key formula of “Energy Returned on Energy Invested” (EROEI) – in other words net energy available for use.
When oil was first discovered EROEI was 100+:1 – 100 barrels of oil from one barrel of oil invested. We are now at 10:1 ratio which is insufficient net energy to keep our current global economic systems going. We are in fact in crisis already but it is being covered up with false statistics about GDP et al (itself gamed) and debt issued by central banks.
But the people do know the truth because their standard of living is falling and their wages have stagnated. The financial and money arena is merely a ‘claim’ on the real resources needed to fuel our economies so printing more money achieves nothing in the real world.
I have written a book about all this and a free pdf of my manuscript is available on request to: email@example.com
or to know more about EROEI
Once we purge the BORG from our country, you just watch how great America will be again. Until that day comes, we are all HOSED. Time to man up, dudes. A 2nd Revolution is inevitable.
Individual Responsibility is the only answer, as best articulated by Jordan Peterson. Look him up on youtube. Time very well spent. Also having some physical gold in your posession is rather timely good advice. Very good article, Sven.
Perhaps the answer, which, like trading, is best found in simplicity, can be summed up by a favorite phrase from Paul Harvey – “Self gov’t won’t work without self discipline” .
This broadcast from Paul rings so true today. Especially from 8:22 . You’d think he was
talking about this very moment in history and not as far back as 1965. The wisdom is still
(your first time through just listen – don’t watch – just listen !