How America (and Britain) Became Failed States
Take a hard look at America — and Britain — today. Since the last massacre, at a school, America had 10 more mass shootings just this weekend. Meanwhile, a paralyzed Congress can’t and won’t do anything about it — one side overtly lunatics, the other afraid of the lunatics. Then there’s Britain, whose Prime Minister is having a no-confidence vote for breaking his own lockdown rules…and partying. All of that in a dysfunctional nation whose main aim on the world stage now seems to be making enemies, and cheering in spite.
What went wrong with these countries?
America and Britain are examples of what should now be thought of as Fourth World Countries. By that, I mean the curious, striking phenomenon of developed countries having gone backwards so far so fast they’re now essentially failed states, rich countries which have made themselves poor ones, liberal democracies who’ve given up on that project, and are reverting backwards to bombastic nationalism, theocracy, authoritarianism, nations which are now making light-speed, turbo-charged regress.
You’ve heard of the “Three Worlds” notion casually — everyone has. But few know what it really means. It’s an idea that — when it was invented — meant this. There was the first world — wealthy liberal democracies. There was the “third world” — a term we don’t say much anymore, because it came to carry pejorative connotations — poor nations, struggling to develop. And then there was the second world — the communist one, behind the Iron Curtain.
If you want to think about how the world really works now, it’s divided up into Four Worlds, whereas the post-war one was divided up into three. It’s striking how much resonance this framework has again — with the tweak of adding the category of Fourth World Countries. Now that the idea of one integrated world is “deglobalizing” — or more simply put, unravelling — Four Worlds are emerging in its place.
There’s suddenly a Second World all over again. Russia’s brutal, bloody invasion of Ukraine makes that dismally clear. The West’s swift move to cordon it off financially, socially, economically put in place a new Iron Curtain. The Second World is Russia, with it’s imperialist ambitions to wage a forever war on as much of Europe as it can — and aligning with it, quietly, is China, trying not to ruffle too many feathers, while guzzling down Russian resources hungrily, thus funding its war machine. The Second World, just like during the Cold War, is pitted against the First — but this isn’t the Cold War: it’s something more sinister. Putin has invented a whole new kind of war — “hybrid war,” meaning that disinformation and misinformation radicalize entire populations, destabilizing democratic societies from the inside.
The First World used to thought of the world’s wealthy liberal democracies — but that age is over. Now the First World — what remains of it — is the world’s social democracies. It’s Western Europe, from France to Germany, north to Scandinavia, across the Atlantic to Canada, perhaps Australia, as it rejects a (LOL) climate change denier as head of state.
This is a marked and hugely significant change in global geopolitics — the first world isn’t made of liberal democracies anymore, but made purely, 100%, of social democracies.
Liberal democracies now make up the Fourth World. What do America and Britain have in common? They were liberal democracies — which never crossed the threshold of social democracy proper. And instead of seeking that path, they rejected it — they chose decades of austerity instead of building expansive, generous social contracts for all, made of basics guaranteed as human rights, as they are in Europe or Canada.
Today, Britain and America are remarkably similar places — or becoming, so anyways. In America, seeing a doctor might cost you your life savings. In Britain, good luck seeing one at all. In America, people live and die in debt because they can’t make ends meet — even if they pretend to be “middle class,” which is just a fiction at this point. So too is now fast becoming the case now in Britain, as everything from education to medicine is stealth-privatized. In both societies, downward mobility is the norm, living standards have imploded in ways not really seen since the Weimar Republic, and the public mood is embittered, angry, hopeless, and numb.
How did they get this way? They rejected becoming social democracies, like I said, but let me explain what that means. Britain and America had a choice — join Western Europe, Canada, Scandinavia, in developing true social democracies. That means things like expansive childcare and retirement, robust public media and transport, and on and on. Both rejected this approach. Instead, they chose a neoliberal path — the market was to provide everything, under the putative guise of efficiency, but really for the sake of profit. This went so far that Britain privatized its postal service. In America, it went so far that working public institutions don’t exist at all — and so there’s little, for example, to prevent guns and rage from spilling over into regular mass shootings.
America and Britain are now Fourth World Countries. Neither have functioning…anything. Here’s one of the Guardian’s columnists describing how dysfunctional Britain is. Everyone knows how dysfunctional America is. There are simply no systems that really work at all in either country. And when say “no,” I mean it. Brits are told to live without heating, by their shrugging leaders. Live without heating? What is this — the 14th century? Americans, meanwhile, are bankrupted perpetually by unpayable debt, which is just a way, painfully transparent at this point, to transfer wealth forever upwards.
All of this megafailure of systems — economic ones, social ones, cultural ones — had an effect. Both nations, too, now, are nasty places. They feel so markedly different than the great social democracies of Western Europe and Canada. The atmosphere and mood are ones of constant, omnipresent hostility — to everyone, from everyone. Xenophobia is passed off as normal and desirable under the guise of “free speech.” Open hate is the cultural norm. Bitterness and resentment are written all over people’s faces — not to mention their tweets, blogs, columns, public spaces — not warmth and friendliness. To be kind, empathic, human, open is to do something wrong, to be met with disdain and contempt — the authoritarian values of bigotry, prejudice, blind obedience, and unthinking, unbridled power-seeking have taken their place. Both societies have become incredibly spiteful places.
This terrible, tragic transformation occurred because in both Britain and America, a Great Reversal took place. An absurd, almost comical, surreal one. First, the middle class was destroyed, systematically. What was left in its place was effectively one vast underclass, and a handful of super rich. In both countries, the new underclass was told to believe that all this — the loss of their futures, savings, lives, possibilities, societies — wasn’t the fault of the very leaders who had made it happen. But that it was the fault of scapegoats.
And so in both America and Britain now, everything is scapegoating. When I say, everything, I mean everything. America’s politics are still dominated by the Big Lies of the Trump Era, which have metastasized in incredible, cancerous ways. Make America Great Again! Translation: cleanse this country of the Mexicans. Only now it’s not just Mexicans. Now it’s white kids, too, who happen to be gay — you can’t say the word gay at school in many places. Or else. Or else what? Maybe you get expelled, maybe you get arrested. Want to find out? Now it’s women, who are losing bodily autonomy, policed by citizen-vigilantes, conservative nutcases with machine guns — oh, sorry, I mean assault rifles. Now it’s little girls, too, who — get this, because it’s unbelievable, yet true — who are going to have their genitals invasively checked for fear of being transgender.
Look, I find wokeness as irritating as you do, probably. But when little girls are being molested — their genitals will be invasively checked and verified — as social policy, something has gone terribly, insanely, crazily wrong with a society. But this is where America is — and it’s where Britain’s heading. Everything is scapegoating. Brits, meanwhile, are still busy blaming Europeans for their problems — not the string of governments which made the incredibly foolish choices which left Brits poor, dazed, and confused enough to fall for the con game of Brexit in the first place. Imagine being a country that had an empire — and blaming Europeans for your problems. LOL. The Brits believe in the Great Replacement, only to a greater degree than Americans, and a weirder version of it, too. For them, even white Europeans aren’t pure enough to deserve to live in the Anglo-Saxon promised land. Crazy town.
Who’s writing this timeline?
America and Britain exemplify this new trend. Wealthy, developed countries which have become failed states. Just two decades ago, Britain had the world’s highest standard of living. It had the finest public broadcaster, the top healthcare system, rising incomes, savings, happiness, everything moving in a positive direction. Today? It’s unrecognizable. Everything has been shattered by two decades not just of misgovernance, but of malign leaders whose only goal was to wreck that very society — and they did.
This, too, is exactly what happened in America. Newt Gingrich and his ilk had the lunatic sociopath dream — a literal murder fantasy — of drowning the government to death in a bathtub. Who thinks like that? Who wants to kill their own government? And then just three decades later, there was an attempted coup. And that coup has never really stopped. The attempt on the Capitol morphed into the Republican’s efforts to rig the electoral process at fundamental levels, stacking offices with fanatics who openly plan to “reject the vote.”
There’s a direct line from wanting to “drown the government in a bathtub” to a coup. Everybody should understand this. It’s literally point A to point B, a straight, unbroken line. They are part of the same idea, which is wanting to destroy, to destroy governance, a society, people living in different ways, forms of expression and association, basic freedoms, just because you don’t like people exercising them in some ways, because you don’t like those people at all. And when that destruction happens, of consent, of peace, in its place, in the vacuum, every form of atavistic order, from theocracy to fascism to authoritarianism, jockey for power — or maybe combine, as they’re doing in America.
“Drowning the government in a bathtub” to a coup in three decades are the same idea, and that idea was always violence. You hardly threaten to drown someone otherwise. It’s a violent thing to want.
America and Britain both made this ruinous choice. Instead of expanding the boundaries of functioning societies, developing even more robust social contracts, they chose the opposite. They chose to “drown the government in a bathtub” — with the invisible hand of the market around its neck. But even a child can tell you that having a for-profit medical system or retirement system or education system isn’t going to work, because those are public goods, which must be governed for the public interest, and supported by public investment, which creates good jobs, lasting careers, a stable middle class, upward mobility, optimism, a sense of confidence in society, trust in institutions and between people.
That’s the lesson of the Fourth World. And the Fourth World is now here to stay. America and Britain aren’t coming back. They made their choice — not to become social democracies. There is little to no chance they can ever cross that threshold now. Instead, they were liberal democracies, who became failed states, marketizing everything, turning it into debt, impoverishing their own people, leaving a vacuum open for demagogues to blame it all on scapegoats. This is where Britain and America are trapped — and it’s probably where they’ll be for an age now.
This is the world we live in. It used to be made of Three Worlds. It’s made of Four Worlds now. Unfortunately for most of us, there’s still only really one good one.