Covid has exposed the rot in American institutions and culture. Accepting between 500 and 2000 additional daily deaths with the concurrent restrictions on travel and interaction is nothing less than a complete societal failure. It is no longer hyperbolic to describe America as a failed state.
In March, it became apparent that the regulatory state was failing. It’s June and N95 masks still aren’t available on Amazon. The police decided to respond to protests against police brutality with more brutality. The law and order state has failed. More recently, the media has decided to eat its own. The New York Times has given its staff editorial discretion after they revolted over a Tom Cotton op ed and got the editor of the opinion section fired.
The only governing institution that appears to have the trust of the people is the army. In the private sector, the only sector that seems healthy is tech. However, its ever more difficult to get a sense of the real economy. Are stocks doing well because investors have long time horizons and are valuing companies based on discounted future earnings, or because investors expect the Fed to backstop any failures with record amounts of liquidity.
Recently there has emerged something of a consensus in certain circles regarding the nature of the challenge. Marc Andreessen’s ‘Its Time to Build’, is emblematic of this approach. The old system has failed, it is necessary to build a new system, new institutions, that can help put America back on track. Of course, this is easier said than done.
Most of the calls to build are from Silicon Valley. Affecting change requires a broader social movement, more strategic alliances, than currently exist. Silicon Valley is itself locked into a war with the Acela Corridor, particularly media like the New York Times. Any new tech article or app brings a ritual showing of contempt from each side on twitter. Meanwhile, red states have decided that there is no pandemic, instead there is a DemPanic, and as such masks are not necessary.
My purpose in this essay is not to catalogue America’s failures, nor to participate in the ongoing culture war. Instead, I would like to attempt to diagnose our situation and how to escape it. Our society is unhealthy, what can we do to make it healthy? How can we create a culture of builds and celebrates building?
Tanner Greer identifies the problem with American culture today as being managerial, instead of entrepreneurial, “the main question in American social life is not ‘how do we make that happen?’ but ‘how do we get management to take our side?’” We are raised in impersonal institutions, trusting them, and believing that success only requires aligning the institutions goals with your own.
I remember in a 6th grade field trip. Our class was walking along a trail and came to a road. The teacher stopped us and said, ‘now we’re going to learn how to cross a road’. Of course, we were well aware of how to crossroads. Our increasingly lengthened childhood robs us of any agency, creating a sense of learned helplessness. The result being surrounded by institutions which no one living built, which no one fully understands, which nevertheless govern our day to day lives. Modernity requires more. Our governing institutions must be responsive to our needs.
Rebuilding our culture is not something that can be done overnight. The culture war is a distraction from the long-term challenge. Success will not come from owning the libs or silencing the cons. George Packer writes, comparing the 2020 to 1968, ‘America was coming apart at the seams, but it still had seams.’ We must understand the magnitude of the challenge and begin planting the seeds which can be harvested decades from now. The best guide to our current situation is past societies that managed to reverse their decline or revive themselves.
The Roman Republic underwent decades of unrest and civil war until it transformed into an empire. The fight began in 88 BC with the first war between Marius and Sulla. The second civil war between Marius and Sulla occurred less than a decade later, from 83 to 81 BC. Several smaller conflicts occurred until Julius Caesar invaded Rome in 49 BC, eventually winning in 45 BC and crowning himself dictator. Of course, Caesar’s reign was short lived. It was not until 30 BC that Augustus finally defeated Marc Antony, bringing a degree of stability and beginning the Roman Empire.
The Qing dynasty similarly demonstrates how dysfunctional institutions can last for decades. The First Opium War ended in 1842, exposing China’s helplessness against foreign aggression. Though the Qing dynasty ended in 1912, in 1942, one hundred years after the end of the First Opium War, Manchuria was being ravaged by the Japanese. While there were reform efforts, they were never able to gain the levers of power to try to reverse the decline.
This is not to say that America is in for decades of civil war. Our cultural division do not align with geographical divisions making civil war unlikely. On the other hand, at least a decade of civil unrest seems likely. The collapse of institutions is not something that can be fixed overnight.
Further, I do not want to claim that the Roman Republic or Qing dynasty are the best models for our current situation. I am sure better historians than me can think of superior analogies. I chose the Roman Republic and Qing dynasty as examples because I have passing familiarity with them and their distance from our day to day lives allows us to take a more civilizational view.
So how should we think about America’s future?
First, there is much to be optimistic about. After decades of minimal technological innovation, of which most of it was in computers, there are seeds indicating that biotech and transportation could begin impacting our everyday lives. Second, despite our current cultural dysfunction, America has a high reservoir of talent and ingenuity.
That being said, the institutional improvement required to reverse the decline will take time to develop. Over the last few months many people became aware of the institutional failures, which is a start. Further, as institutions continue to fail, people will have to rediscover their entrepreneurial talent. Getting management on your side only works if management exists and is semi-competent.
Ultimately decline is a choice. We as a people decide whether we want to accept decline, whether we want to live off existing rents, cannibalizing future generations, or whether we want to build. Overcoming decline cannot be done alone, it requires coordination. We must regain our understanding that we can come together and solve problems. We must build and celebrate those building.