Nomenclature means a lot to our pride. People take offense if they are told they are living in a collapsed culture. Collapsed implies over. Collapsed implies hopeless. Collapsed implies that we have failed. But at some point we have to look at people like my angry friend and admit that we are failing—on many, many levels. My friend was once a middle-class woman with a college degree and a profession. She raised children on her own after her husband died. And as she tried to push forward, her career started moving backwards. And then somehow, eventually, it came to a point where she was willing to do work of questionable legality to pay her bills and keep a roof over her head. The horror that awaited her if she were to became homeless was arguably much worse than the controlled environment of the massage parlor, even taking into account the occasional police raids.
Our culture is such that half of Americans probably think “If the money is good, so what?” There is no thought given to the proper way to live and to relate to people. There is no thought given to what such work does to the soul of this woman. The American thinking process jumps to the bottom line of the financial transaction, and declares victory if cash has changed hands. The woman is “richer” so for them she is better off. These same people see the American economy as rebounding. People are spending. Some people are getting rich. What’s the problem?
When everything is calculated in a purely financial light, we start to lose any sense of decency or community. I saw the end result of this process when I recently visited Philadelphia to look at properties. There are houses there under $10,000. While checking out the neighborhoods where these properties are, I made an astounding observation. Almost every block in these neighborhoods has at least one abandoned home. These homes are impossible to miss because of the state of disrepair they were in: porches or parts of roofs are literally collapsed. As if there could be any question as to their status, the city posts large warning signs when boarding them up. The visually offensive chartreuse or neon orange signs warn that “trespassers” could end up spending two years in jail. I wondered which the city had more of—abandoned houses or homeless families. Sadly, I actually saw an occasional homeless person wander through the area. I was tempted to go purchase them some tools and hardhats, and organize a take-over of abandoned buildings by the homeless.
I got in contact a friend who is well-connected in Philadelphia politics. I pressed him with the obvious question: shouldn’t the city be teaching the homeless how to fix up these abandoned eyesores that litter the urban landscape? His answer was a resounding “No.” Apparently the city has to protect the rights of property owners, who are hoping to turn a profit on these places. I wondered what kind of financial alchemy could possibly turn a profit on ugly houses in depressed neighborhoods that are in need of serious labor. It must have something to do with “quantitative easing.”
At one point during my Philadelphia adventure I walked toward an old abandoned factory which, in a better city, would have been turned into hipster lofts, and I saw a bookstore. I was overjoyed. The bookstore seemed like a beacon of light in this dark ghetto—right until I got close enough to read what was painted in huge letters on its wall. “We ship to prisons! Ask inside.” I didn’t. I already knew these clever people were doing very brisk business. In the early 2000s I would occasionally volunteer for Books Through Bars, an organization that sent donated books to the incarcerated. Back then jailed people seemed somehow more distant. As the end of the decade approached and I returned to America after living abroad, the prison system seemed much closer. I lived with my mother temporarily, and I would ride the bus to work. Every day, on the bus, I heard men loudly discussing their parole officers on their cellphones. What I might have overheard whispered in hushed voices in my childhood was now a subject the transit riding public could hear about loud and clear, whether they wanted to or not. Nor did the women seem any more reticent, as they discussed what they were planning to do with their food stamps and benefit money. Even if I wore earplugs I would not have been able to avoid hearing these people, or smelling the drugs they occasionally lit in the back of the bus.
All life seemed to revolve around the trifecta of prisons, handouts and drugs. Every few days a van would park directly in front of our house before visiting “friends” across the street. “What are they doing?” asked my mother angrily. “Dealing drugs,” I would explain flatly. Based on their shiny new van, the dealers were certainly doing better than I was. I was waiting to be credentialed as a doctor, and worried about being unable to afford my bus rides to work. They were making so much money they could eat endless restaurant-cooked meals in their van and leave the trash on my mother’s front lawn. “I don’t know why the police don’t do something about the fact… they are littering, LITTERING!!” my mother would start screaming indignantly. “The police are in on the action,” I informed her.
On a recent trip home I noticed that the drug delivery van has left the neighborhood. I wondered whether it was a sign of the times getting better or worse. Are they getting better prices somewhere else? Have drugs finally become an item for the middle class? Had the neighborhood demographics tipped it toward prescription drug abuse? Sadly, one of the least probable possibilities is that the police had actually done their job.
When looking at a country as large and complex as the USA, one can make any number of contradictory assertions and still be factually correct. The economy doing extremely well, and the economy is going to hell. One need look no farther than the banking industry to figure that out: the banks are bankrupt and require bail-outs; the banks are doing well and making healthy profits. American banks are in every way typical of American corporations: they are corrupt, reliant on the government to subsidize and support them, and produce mind-boggling riches for those that run them. At the bottom of the bank hierarchy are the tellers. The polite, well dressed tellers wear conservative new clothes and jewelry. They exude the kind of stability and class that reflects well on the banks. Yet about a third of them earn little enough to qualify for public assistance. They have joined the ranks of retail workers, restaurant workers, hotel workers and other service industry personnel who must rely on the welfare system in order to work. I suspect they will be joined by more and more recent college graduates who can not actually earn a positive sum after subtracting their student loan payments.
But rest assured that from each and every payment or delinquency notice or collection activity someone somewhere is making a profit. In this economy every action is monetized, even our very socializing. As you randomly clicked around the Internet to find this article, you generated income for tech companies. At some point, as every last penny was pushed or pulled out of your pocket, you began shifting from consumer to producer: you became a prosumer… and the machine that is American capitalism milked more profit still from your existence. Your eyeballs and clicks generated income based on some strange calculations by marketers. American-style capitalism now has you in debt and producing for it even as you consume, but that is now a middle class privilege, and no one is forcing people to make these choices.
At the bottom of the food chain are the forced producers. Those people are so broke that they have become superfluous to the normative economy. They seem to be channeled in one way or another into the prison system, where they become the ultimate producers. Their very bodies create profits for prison corporations simply by existing in prisons, while their arguably forced labor is compelled at pennies on the dollar to produce cheap consumer goods. The American economy seems to be succeeding at monetizing everything while producing fewer and fewer goods or services of any real value to anyone but a few rich people profiting off the entire system.
America’s political economy has changed incrementally enough that many people have not noticed what is really happening. It’s over for most of us. You can call it collapse, or you can call it restructuring. You can even call it a recovery. But you can not call it sustainable, or pleasant. The overall trajectory is toward decline, decay, destitution…
I’m sure some dyed-in-the-wool patriots will be angered or confused by this article. They may live in a safe, posh area of a city or a suburb, and see none of the decay I observed. Or perhaps, based on some vague ideas they heard at the university, they can guess that this different America is a place into which I have been redlined by my ethnicity. They can’t yet see that the fact that they can, for the time being, shield themselves so completely from this other America is a symptom of our problem—which is going to become their problem. There is little sense of a larger American community where people care for their fellow citizens.
But then no one seems particularly concerned with the plight of the doomed, and perhaps no one ever was. So what is the fundamental shift that is happening—one that we could call “collapse”? Well personally, if I look at myself as a black American, I’m not really in a culture of depression or collapse. It’s just more of the same, and in some ways things have never looked better. Arguably the issue that really has some people upset is the increasing equality—albeit an equality of suffering. Now that middle class success is no longer achievable for many young middle class white people, who are being called “the lost generation,” everyone can suddenly see what the rest of us have been complaining about for decades. This collapse is the collapse of dreams, hopes and expectations, not an obvious one like the collapse of the currency or the government. And if you have no hopes or dreams, and your expectations are sufficiently low, then you might not even be aware of it.
A really painful and obvious collapse isn’t in anyone’s interest, not even the people suffering under the unjust rule of America’s empire. The USA admits to a military presence in a staggering number of countries, and many middle class young people in all of these countries sit around in cafés cursing American imperialism. In reality, while the end of America might mean fewer drone strikes and assaults on the sovereignty of other nations, it might also mean misery and death for the emerging global middle class—the very class that supports the young global intellectuals who whine about the injustice of this arrangement. For the time being, what is really in everyone’s interest, here and abroad, is to keep playing along. Collapse? What collapse? We all have to keep pretending everything is fine, or things will get even worse quickly – for us. But if things are continuing to get worse for us in any case…