Andrew Potter’s latest book is On Decline: Stagnation, Nostalgia, and Why Every Year is the Worst One Ever.
Seven months into Joe Biden’s presidency, Americans – along with the rest of the Western world – are beginning to realize that Donald Trump wasn’t the cause of our problems, but merely a symptom of them. And just as Mr. Trump wasn’t the source of what ails us, the Biden presidency isn’t the solution. The rot in the foundations of the West is deep, and we are still in the early stages of figuring out just how bad things are going to get.
One of the more alarming features of our current moment is how a lot of serious things seem to be going wrong at the same time. Just as it looked like the COVID-19 pandemic had been brought under control, the Delta variant arrived. In Afghanistan, the continuing peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban fell apart this summer as the U.S. skulked out of the country – and with the withdrawal of foreign forces complete, the Taliban have retaken the country with astonishing speed. And this comes on the heels of the latest IPCC climate report, which suggested that we have already reached a position where many of the more dangerous aspects of climate change, such as deadly heat waves and powerful hurricanes, are close to being irreversible.
What these and other looming crises have in common is that they are marked by a failure of some combination of political conviction, state capacity and collective action. We have lost the ability to solve big problems and meet big challenges, and there is every reason to think this is only going to get worse, thanks to the effects of a number of long-standing trends. These include the economic and technological stagnation that has been in place since at least the 1970s, the rise of highly polarized and tribalistic politics, and the high decadence of the internet-fuelled culture wars.
These trends have a mutually reinforcing character to them. Economic growth doesn’t just give us more stuff, it tends to make us better people. When everyone believes that things are getting better – that the pie is getting bigger for everyone and will continue to do so – they become more open to newcomers and more sanguine about diversity. But when growth slows or stalls, the opposite happens. People look at the shrinking pie, look askance at their neighbours, and become more close-minded and suspicious. This leads to reactionary politics, which are greatly exacerbated by the highly toxic hothouse nature of the internet, especially social media. The current culture war between the woke members of the ctrl-left and the conspiratorial nihilists of the alt-right is to a large extent a matter of social-media political dynamics colonizing our real-world institutions.
The way Western governments struggled to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic has been basically one long case study in seeing all of these trends at work. From the earliest days of the pandemic, there has been a sharp divide between the incredible scientific work that was done – identifying the virus, developing tests and treatments, and ultimately a vaccine – on the one hand, and the lethargic and largely ineffectual political and bureaucratic effort that went into making use of that work. But even when governments were moved to action, they found themselves hamstrung by a population riven by tribalistic responses (such as to mask mandates) and magical thinking (such as with anti-vax beliefs). We are, increasingly, a society unable to confront and rationally address the problems we face.
It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way, since we in the West have for a long time congratulated ourselves on having pretty much figured progress out. Economic growth, technological innovation and political emancipation under the banner of liberal democracy was just what we do here – and we had every expectation that it would continue indefinitely. We even had a name for it: the end of history.
But instead of progress, things are actually going backwards – including in many of the places where we thought it was most deeply entrenched, in particular the United States. Is it any wonder then that the world is such a mess? Civilization advances through the resolution of increasingly large and complex collective-action problems, and that was the chief function of many of the global institutions that were built after the Second World War. Military alliances, trade deals, transnational regulatory bodies – these were all the building blocks of the stability and prosperity of the postwar era.
It is looking like we have reached the limits of our capacity for global collective action. The fiasco in Afghanistan has revealed the UN and NATO as highly ineffective organizations. Free trade has been discredited, geopolitical tensions are rising, and the world is retreating into protectionism and mercantilism. It’s been nearly 30 years since the Earth Summit in Rio led to a groundbreaking climate convention, but we are no closer today to taking meaningful action on climate change.
All of this is almost certainly a sign of what is to come. For the past 200 years or so, the relentless pace of innovation and discovery has made us rich and comfortable in ways that our ancestors would find miraculous. To them, our age would look like one giant and seemingly endless party.
Except all the evidence points to the party coming to an end. This doesn’t mean the apocalypse is nigh, but it does mean as an increasing number of major problems go unresolved, life will get more and more difficult every year. At some point in the future, we may look back upon this time and recognize that this is when we started to realize we were in decline.
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