There is “a large group of people who feel that they no longer have any effective stake or a just share in a particular system of economic or social relations aren’t going to feel any obligation to defend that system when it faces a crisis, or any sense even of belonging within it.” Scott Preston writes about this in Panem et Circenses.
When people feel disenfranchised and disinvested, disengaged and divided, they are forced to fall back on other identities or else to feel isolated. In either case, radicalization can follow. And if not radicalization, people can simply begin acting strangely, desperately, and aggressively, sometimes violently as they react to each new stressor and lash out at perceived threats (see Keith Paynes’ The Broken Ladder, as written about in my posts Inequality Means No Center to Moderate Toward, On Conflict and Stupidity, Class Anxiety of Privilege Denied, Connecting the Dots of Violence, & Inequality in the Anthropocene).
We see this loss of trust in so many ways. As inequality goes up, so do the rates of social problems, from homicides to child abuse, from censorship to police brutality. The public becomes more outraged and the ruling elite become more authoritarian. But it’s the public that concerns me, as I’m not part of the ruling elite nor aspire to be. The public has lost faith in government, corporations, media, and increasingly the healthcare system as well — nearly all of the major institutions that hold together the social fabric. A society can’t survive long under these conditions. Sure, a society can turn toward the overtly authoritarian as China is doing, but even that requires public trust that the government in some basic sense has the public good or national interest in mind.
Then again, American society has been resilient up to this point. This isn’t the first time that the social order began fracturing. On more than one occasion, the ruling elite lost control of the narrative and almost entirely lost control of the reigns of power. The US has a long history of revolts, often large-scale and violent, that started as soon as the country was founded (Shays’ Rebellion, Whiskey Rebellion, etc; see Spirit of ’76 & The Fight For Freedom Is the Fight To Exist: Independence and Interdependence). In their abject fear, look at how the ruling elite treated the Bonus Army. And veterans were to be feared. Black veterans came back from WWI with their guns still in their possession and they violently fought back against their oppressors. And after WWII, veterans rose up against corrupt local governments, in one case using military weapons to shoot up the courthouse (e.g., 1946 Battle of Athens).
The public losing trust in authority figures and institutions of power is not to be taken lightly. That is even more true with a country founded on revolution and that soon after fell into civil war. As with Shays’ Rebellion, the American Civil War was a continuation of the American Revolution. The cracks in the foundation remain, the issues unresolved. This has been a particular concern for the American oligarchs and plutocrats this past century, as mass uprisings and coups overturned numerous societies around the world. The key factor, though, is what Americans will do. Patriotic indoctrination can only go so far. Where will people turn to for meaningful identities that are relevant to survival in an ever more harsh and punishing society, as stress and uncertainty continues to rise?
Even if the American public doesn’t turn against the system any time soon, when it comes under attack they might not feel in the mood to sacrifice themselves to defend it. Societies can collapse from revolt, but they can more easily collapse from indifference and apathy, a slow erosion of trust. “Not with a bang but with a whimper.” But maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. It’s better than some of the alternatives. And it would be an opportunity for reinvention, for new identities.
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7/26/19 – An interesting thing is that the oligarchs are so unconcerned. They see this situation as a good thing, as an opportunity. Everything is an opportunity to the opportunist and disaster capitalism is one endless opportunity for those who lack a soul.
They aren’t seeking to re-create early 20th century fascism. The loss of national identities is not an issue for them, even as they exploit and manipulate patriotism. Meanwhile, their own identities and source of power has been offshored in a new form of extra-national governance, a deep state beyond all states. They are citizens of nowhere and the rest of us are left holding the bag.
“The oligarch’s interests always lie offshore: in tax havens and secrecy regimes. Paradoxically, these interests are best promoted by nationalists and nativists. The politicians who most loudly proclaim their patriotism and defence of sovereignty are always the first to sell their nations down the river. It is no coincidence that most of the newspapers promoting the nativist agenda, whipping up hatred against immigrants and thundering about sovereignty, are owned by billionaire tax exiles, living offshore” (George Monbiot, From Trump to Johnson, nationalists are on the rise – backed by billionaire oligarchs).
It’s not that old identities are merely dying. There are those seeking to snuff them out, to put them out of their misery. The ruling elite are decimating what holds society together. But in their own demented way, maybe they are unintentionally freeing us to become something else. They have the upper hand for the moment, but moments don’t last long. Even they realize disaster capitalism can’t be maintained. It’s why they constantly dream of somewhere to escape, whether on international waters or space colonies. Everyone is looking for a new identity. That isn’t to say all potential new identities will serve us well.
All of this is a strange scenario. And most people are simply lost. As old identities loosen, we lose our bearings, even or especially among the best of us. It is disorienting, another thing Scott Preston has been writing a lot about lately (Our Mental Meltdown: Mind in Dissolution). The modern self is splintering and this creates all kinds of self-deception and self-contradiction. As Preston puts often it, “the duplicity of our times — the double-think, the double-speak, the double-standards, and the double-bind” (Age of Revolutions). But don’t worry. The oligarchs too will find themselves caught in their own traps. Their fantasies of control are only that, fantasies.