Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The decline of the American Empire

It is no exaggeration to say that America ain’t what it used to be. Several articles I have read recently indicate this, whether they focus on Trump’s disastrous presidency, on social or educational matters. One in particular caught my attention yesterday (see here), and another this morning (see here), both of which draw one’s attention irresistibly to the same conclusion: the United States of America is a society not only in disarray, but in an advanced state of decay.

In the first of these articles, Rania Khalek pulls no punches about America’s decline, comparing it unfavourably with European countries as follows:

“Spending time in Western Europe, as I have done the last several months, provides some serious perspective on America’s decline. In most European countries, like Germany for example, public transportation works efficiently and there is a social safety net. While homelessness is a problem, it’s nowhere near as rampant as in the US and usually seems to be associated with addiction. People in Europe are generally much healthier and happier, housing and food and higher education are affordable and people don’t spend all their time working – they are able to take vacations and enjoy life in a way the vast majority of Americans are not. Europeans are typically entitled to lengthy paid maternity leave, whereas in the US working class women are forced to return to work in as little as two weeks.”

As to the question, why this is the case, the answer is, as with most things involving humans, complex. One gets an inkling of this complexity from what Khalek informs one regarding a recent United Nations report on poverty in the US. She quotes Philip Alston, the special reporter of the United Nations on ‘extreme poverty and human rights’, writing in the report referred to:

“The United States is one of the world’s richest, most powerful and technologically innovative countries; but neither its wealth, nor its power, nor its technology is being harnessed to address the situation in which 40 million people continue to live in poverty…I met with many people barely surviving on Skid Row in Los Angeles, I witnessed a San Francisco police officer telling a group of homeless people to move on but having no answer when asked where they could move to, I heard how thousands of poor people get minor infraction notices which seem to be intentionally designed to quickly explode into unpayable debt, incarceration, and the replenishment of municipal coffers. I saw sewage-filled yards in states where governments don’t consider sanitation facilities to be their responsibility, I saw people who had lost all of their teeth because adult dental care is not covered by the vast majority of programs available to the very poor, I heard about soaring death rates and family and community destruction wrought by opioids, and I met with people in Puerto Rico living next to a mountain of completely unprotected coal ash which rains down upon them, bringing illness, disability and death.”

So why, if America is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, does it fail to provide the material circumstances that European countries are capable of providing for their citizens? One of the reasons, Khalek points out, is the fact that – instead of spending money on its people – America’s leaders pump vast amounts of it into “prisons and war”. Small wonder her opening sentence in the article reads: “As the wealthy continue sucking the country dry, the question now isn’t if the US will cease to provide a decent standard of living for its people. Rather it is how many people will be sacrificed on the way down.”

Not surprisingly, therefore, inequality in America continues to grow, not only in terms of wealth, but – related to this – in life expectancy, too. Khalek informs one that, given the inequalities in income, there are counties adjacent to one another that are separated by as much as 20 years’ difference in life expectancy on the part of the people living there. According to researchers, this striking gap between rich and poor counties in the US resembles the gap between wealthy, developed countries and poor developing countries, except that this is occurring within one country that is supposedly a wealthy, developed country. What hides this decaying interior of America are its GDP-figures, which give the impression that everything is hunky-dory, while it really reflects, as it explicitly states, its Gross Domestic Product – mainly the value of commodities produced by its factories, IT industries, service companies and the like. But it tells you nothing about the numerous homeless, income-less people in its streets.

As Khalek writes laconically, “It seems that the US in many ways, after having destroyed other parts of the world, has turned inward on itself, sacrificing its most vulnerable citizens at the altar of capitalism.” These include American students, who are carrying a burden of $1.4 trillion in student loan debt, and many old people, who cannot afford to stop working – they literally have to work until they die. Among the mortality rates that she supplies, one of the most chilling figures is that up to 45000 people die annually because they cannot afford health insurance (which Donald Trump wants to cut back even more). This bathes the US in a very bad light compared to European countries, as well as Canada, where the ‘social safety net’ includes state health care services available to all citizens.

Khalek concludes her article on a less than hope-inspiring note: “Perhaps none of this should come as a shock in a country where the rich are getting richer, the poor get poorer and the middle class is collapsing, with most Americans living one emergency away from financial ruin.

“All empires fall after all. And Donald Trump is accelerating the process. His Republican tax plan was a massive giveaway to the rich. It even included a special tax cut for private jet owners. The US might have the highest child poverty and infant mortality rates in the developed world, but the political class believe private jet owners deserve a break!”

Trump seems to be a disaster at many levels, even if the rich are flourishing under his (pseudo-) presidency. The second article referred to above is a reminder of his sympathies for the NRA (National Rifle Association) and for extreme right-wing supporters in the US, as his faux pas in Charlottesville showed last year when he could not refrain from blurting out that there were ‘fine people on both sides’, or something to that effect (the other side being those who protested against the far right).

In his response to the latest school gun massacre at a school in Florida these sympathies surfaced yet again when he addressed the nation, and, failing to mention guns or American gun culture even once, he preferred to suggest that it had something to do with (lack of) ‘mental health’. Even a mainstream American news agency like CNN (see second article, above) cannot avoid issuing a strongly worded indictment in the face of this lamentable event:

“In Washington, political alienation is now so intense that the world’s most powerful nation can’t agree how to keep its next generation safe in school — or fix the system regulating immigration, the human lifeblood which has been America’s foundation.

“The frozen, acrimonious politics of Capitol Hill and the antagonism of a White House that knows only how to attack were exposed Thursday as Americans tried to process the horror of kids mercilessly killed in yet another school massacre.”

All of this does not augur well for the future of America, and given its intertwinement with other countries in a globalised world, nor does it for the rest of us, especially when South Africa has tended to follow the American economic example of ‘liberal (capitalist) democracy’ rather than the ‘social democracies’ of Europe, with their emphasis on the socio-economic well-being of their citizens.

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