Why Didn't America Become Part of the Modern World?
The Great Lesson of the 20th Century — and How America Never Learned It
When I say "the modern world", what do you think of? Probably a great city somewhere, with broad avenues, spacious parks, art and culture, old museums, people buzzing about, public transport thrumming.
Now think of America. People dying for a lack of insulin. Young people who can't afford to start families of their own. The average person living perched right at the edge of ruin, one missed paycheck, one illness, one emergency away from disaster. Kids massacring one another at schools. Infants on trial. Politicians who proclaim "God is a white supremacist!" An endless and gruesome list of stuff that's beginning to put the dark ages to shame.
Here's what I think. American never joined the modern world. It's the modern world's first failed state. It became something like a weird, bizarre dystopia, replete with falling life expectancy, hand-to-mouth living, relentless and legendary cruelty, instead of a truly modern society instead. But why?
The creation of "modernity", as intellectuals sometimes call it, was one of history's greatest accomplishments. But what is this strange word, "modernity"? What does it mean to be "modern"? I don't think that we need grand abstruse theories to really get it. I think it hinges on one simple, crucial, and deceptively beautiful insight.
Poverty unleashes animal spirits in human beings which lead to ruin, catastrophe, and war. That's the essence of modernity — I'll come to precisely how this great insight changed the world. First, I want you to understand how we learned it.
You might think — "well, that's simple! Duh!" Ah, but the truth is it's anything but. For millennia, human beings didn't understand that, did they? So the world was run by a long succession of feudal and tribal systems. Poverty was enforced, created, and managed. Some people were peasants and serfs. Others still were slaves. And atop them sat a tiny number of nobles, or owners, or kings. What was the result of this model of social order?
It was endless war. Societies had to compete for land, for "resources", which mostly meant new slaves and peasants. But why? Because the vast majority of people, being poor, couldn't create much. They couldn't, for example, build great hospitals, discover antiobiotics, and then pioneer healthcare systems. They were just peasants. And when the peasants grew angry, the nobles had two choices. Revolution — or war. And usually, war was easier than fighting off a revolution. So: centuries of endless, bitter war. While the world went precisely nowhere, in terms of how well people lived, until the industrial revolution.
After World War II, human beings learned a great lesson. Germany, driven to poverty by war reparations, had turned to fascism. Finally, a set of great minds made the link. Poverty. Ruin. Extremism. Fundamentalism. Fascism. Authoritarianism. War. All the gravest ills we know of, all the diseases of the body politic, are caused by poverty, which is the deprivation of possibility. And they understood, too, that poverty isn't just financial — but it can also be a deprivation, for example, of social bonds, of opportunities, of meaning, of status, of purpose. There are many kinds of poverty, and money is just one.
(So these great minds set about rebuilding a world — yes, a whole world — which would be free of poverty. The explicit goal was to end war forever. Utopian? Sure. We've forgotten that today — they don't teach it to us. Have you ever wondered why? It's because today's wise men are cynics, and cynics are fools. But I digress. A world without poverty, and thus a world without war. Were they successful? The world has in fact made long strides to eliminating extreme poverty. And that's a result of the institutions these great minds created. The World Bank. The UN. And so on. A limited, but meaningful success. The point of these institutions was to invest in poor countries — and break the vicious cycle of violence which had come to rule the world.)
Europe took a special lead, though. After the war — quickly — it redesigned its societies to be places of equality, opportunity, and fairness. It understood that poverty had caused its ruin, opening the Pandora's box of extremism, racism, hate, fascism. And so it quickly gave all its people — at least richer European countries — exactly all those things you thought of when I asked you "what do you think of when you think of a modern place?" Public healthcare, transport, media, finance, housing, safety nets, and so on. The time, money, and freedom to live with dignity. As a simple example, Britain's NHS was the world's first public healthcare system — created in 1948. Europe was trying to create a place where everyone had the bare minimum of a decent life — so war would never again recur. This was the birth of a truly modern society. It was a European creation — though in a way, I suppose, America lent military might. But the ideas, the will, the innovations — all these were European.
What was happening in America at the same time? It was still a segregated country. Europeans were building great public institutions — NHSes and BBCs and pensions systems, for everyone. America was building drinking fountains for "colored people". How could it build a modern society? So while the world was becoming modern, eliminating inequality, poverty, injustice — America wasn't. It was stuck in the past — and that is where it remains. Segregation might be gone — but America never really became a modern society in the way that we discussed earlier. It's more like a failed modern state, a state that failed at being modern. It started late, and even then, took too few strides, too hesitantly — and is now collapsing before it reached the goal. Are these things linked, somehow?
Now you know what modernity is. It's the idea that poverty causes ruin, and so the primary job of a modern society is to eliminate poverty, of all kinds, to give people decent lives at a bare minimum — and a social contract which does all that. Hence, Europe became a place rich in public goods, like healthcare, media, finance, transport, safety nets, etcetera, things which all people enjoy, which secure the basics of a good life — all the very same things you intuitively think of when you think of a "modern society" — but America didn't.
But the question we still haven't answered is why. Why did America never join the modern world? The answer goes something like this.Americans never learned the greatest lesson history taught. That poverty causes ruin.
You see, in America, poverty was seen — and still is — as a kind of just dessert. A form of deserved punishment, for being lazy, for being foolish, for being slow. For being, above all, weak — because only the strong should survive.
So Americans devised a very different kind of society. It didn't have a social contract — a set of public institutions which manage public goods for people, healthcare and transport and finance and childcare and so on — it's thinkers supposed it didn't need one. It only had markets. If markets rewarded the rich — while crushing the middle class and poor — so much the better. Markets were the truest judges of the worth of a person. And if a market thought a person was worth a billion dollars, and another one nothing, that was because the first person must be a billion times better a person than the second.
So in America, poverty wasn't seen as a social bad or ill — it was seen as a necessary way to discipline, punish, and control those with a lack of virtue, a deficit of strength, to, by hitting them with its stick, to inculcate the virtues of hard work, temperance, industriousness, and above all, self-reliance. The problem, of course, was that the great lesson of history was that none of this was true — poverty didn't lead to virtue. It only led to ruin.
So what was the inevitable result of a nation which didn't learn history's greatest lesson, which though poverty was good for people? Unsurprisingly, it was….poverty. The old kind: 40 million Americans live in poverty, while 50 million Mexicans do. Surprised. And a new kind, too. The middle class imploded, and Americans began living lives right perched right at the edge of destruction. Less then $500 in emergency savings, having to choose between healthcare and educating their kids, a without retirement, stability, security, or safety of any kind. America never joined the modern world in understanding that poverty leads societies to ruin — and so it quickly became the rich world's first poor country.
What happened next? Well, exactly what history suggested would. That imploding middle class, living lives of immense precarity, sought safety in the arms of religion, superstition, and myths, at first. And then in the arms of extremism. And finally, in the arms of a demagogue, leading a nationalist, proto-fascist movement. It was exactly what happened in the 1930s — and it still is.
So. What has anyone learned? Funnily, sadly, as far as I can see, not much. America never joined the modern world — that is why its people live such uniquely wretched lives, paying thousands for ambulance rides, which even people in Lahore or Lagos don't. But the consequences weren't just poverty. They were what poverty produces — nationalism, authoritarianism, fascism, social collapse and implosion, as people, enraged, lost trust in society to be able to protect and shelter them. But no one has learned that lesson. Not America's intellectuals, certainly. Not its politicians, leaders, thinkers. Not its people, either, unfortunately.
So here America is. Modernity's first failed state. The rich nation which never cared to join the modern world, too busy believing that poverty would lead to virtue, not ruin. Now life is a perpetual, crushing, bruising battle, in which the stakes are life or death — and so people take out their bitter despair and rage by putting infants on trial. History is teaching us the same lesson, all over again. Americans might not even learn it the second time around. But the world, laughing in horror, in astonishment, in bewilderment, should.