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Pandemic signals the end of the American era

THAT’s actually the subtitle of an extraordinary essay by noted Canadian-Colombian anthropologist Wade Davis in the Aug. 5, 2020 issue of Rolling Stone, with its main title “The Unraveling of America.”

I had also used that term in my column last June that was titled “The unraveling of the colossal deception that is America.” My piece used as a jumping board two of the most shocking things that have been happening in the United States this year.

First, what was supposed to be the richest nation with the most advanced medical institutions in the world, the best bureaucracy and the smartest citizens was being brought to its knees by the pandemic. Since June, America’s quagmire has deepened and is now the most infected nation on earth with 5.5 million cases and with the most deaths — 172,606.

Second, torn apart was the deception that the US is a the land of “all-men-are-born-equal,” when African Americans — and include there all non-Caucasians — are suffering a ferocious yet hidden racism that led to the public execution last May by the police of a black man suspected of some minor felony.

Photo from Rolling Stone.

Davis’ Rolling Stone essay saw more though, and worse for America: “The pandemic marks the end of the American era,” it boldly augured.

“Pandemics and plagues have a way of shifting the course of history, and not always in a manner immediately evident to the survivors. In the 14th century, the Black Death killed close to half of Europe’s population. A scarcity of labor led to increased wages. Rising expectations culminated in the Peasants Revolt of 1381, an inflection point that marked the beginning of the end of the feudal order that had dominated medieval Europe for a thousand years.

“The Covid (coronavirus disease 2019) pandemic will be remembered as such a moment in history, a seminal event whose significance will unfold only in the wake of the crisis. It will mark this era much as the 1914 assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the stock market crash of 1929 and the 1933 ascent of Adolf Hitler became fundamental benchmarks of the last century, all harbingers of greater and more consequential outcomes.”

Davis surveys history to lay the foundations of his end-of-America thesis:

“No empire long endures, even if few anticipate their demise. Every kingdom is born to die. The 15th century belonged to the Portuguese, the 16th to Spain, 17th to the Dutch. France dominated the 18th and Britain the 19th. Bled white and left bankrupt by the Great War, the British maintained a pretense of domination as late as 1935, when the empire reached its greatest geographical extent. By then, of course, the torch had long passed into the hands of America.”

While Davis didn’t bother to mention it, obvious in his account is that a nation’s military might (driven by technology and maintained by money) paradoxically explains its rise as an empire — and its fall.

“The US, virtually a demilitarized nation on the eve of the Second World War, never stood down in the wake of victory. To this day, American troops are deployed in 150 countries. Since the 1970s, China has not once gone to war; the US has not spent a day at peace. President Jimmy Carter recently noted that in its 242-year history, America has enjoyed only 16 years of peace, making it, as he wrote, “the most warlike nation in the history of the world.” Since 2001, the US has spent over $6 trillion on military operations and war, money that might have been invested in the infrastructure at home. China, meanwhile, built its nation, pouring more cement every three years than America did in the entire 20th century.”

Other than the sapping of its resources in order to maintain its vast military apparatus deployed in every corner of the world, Wade ascribes America’s decline, its being pushed over the ravine by the pandemic, to the wide chasm between its haves and have-nots.

Davis writes:
“Economic disparities exist in all nations, creating a tension that can be as disruptive as the inequities are unjust. In any number of settings, however, the negative forces tearing apart a society are mitigated or even muted if there are other elements that reinforce social solidarity — religious faith, the strength and comfort of family, the pride of tradition, fidelity to the land, a spirit of place.

“But when all the old certainties are shown to be lies, when the promise of a good life for a working family is shattered as factories close and corporate leaders ship jobs abroad, the social contract is irrevocably broken. For two generations, America has celebrated globalization with iconic intensity, when, as any working man or woman can see, it’s nothing more than capital on the prowl in search of ever cheaper sources of labor.”

Davis points out that the egalitarian ethos of the 1950s has vanished and the illusion of a middle-class society has been torn asunder:

“In economic terms, the country of the 1950s resembled Denmark as much as the America of today. Marginal tax rates for the wealthy were 90 percent. The salaries of CEOs were, on average, just 20 times that of their mid-management employees.

“Today, the base pay of those at the top is commonly 400 times that of their salaried staff, with many earning orders of magnitude more in stock options and perks. The elite one percent of Americans control $30 trillion of assets, while the bottom half have more debt than assets. The three richest Americans have more money than the poorest 160 million of their countrymen. Fully a fifth of American households have zero or negative net worth, a figure that rises to 37 percent for black families. The median wealth of black households is a tenth that of whites. The vast majority of Americans — white, black, and brown — are two paychecks removed from bankruptcy. Though living in a nation that celebrates itself as the wealthiest in history, most Americans live on a high wire, with no safety net to brace a fall.”

Social democracy
Davis seems to advance a remarkable thesis that countries that have fared well in controlling the pandemic, are those which are the more egalitarian nations, with social democracy as their zeitgeist, rather than competitive capitalism. He contrasts for instance Canada and the US:

“When American friends ask for an explanation, I encourage them to reflect on the last time they bought groceries. In the US there is almost always a racial, economic, cultural and educational chasm between the consumer and the check-out staff that is difficult if not impossible to bridge. In Canada, the experience is quite different. One interacts if not as peers, certainly as members of a wider community.

“The reason for this is very simple. The checkout person may not share your level of affluence, but they know that you know that they are getting a living wage because of the unions. And they know that you know that their kids and yours most probably go to the same neighborhood public school. Third, and most essential, they know that you know that if their children get sick, they will get exactly the same level of medical care not only of your children but of those of the prime minister. These three strands woven together become the fabric of Canadian social democracy.”

Davis of course might well be contrasting our experience in supermarkets here to those in Canada.

Davis is certainly not a fan of China, with, he says, its “concentration camps for the Uighurs, the ruthless reach of their military, their 200 million surveillance cameras watching every move and gesture of their people.” But he seems to be certain that the “hinge of history has opened to the Asian century.”

A major letdown though is that while Davis points out that social democratic countries — that is, more egalitarian, less individualistic societies — have fared better in containing the epidemic compared to the US, he has such anti-China blinderson that he couldn’t see that it might in fact be the Chinese social cohesiveness and egalitarianism that has made it the biggest winners in the war against Covid-19. Indeed, less the political aspect, China might well be “social democracy with Chinese characteristics.”

With our excessive aping of US society, is it that lack of social bonds, that extreme inequality that explain why our two biggest metropolises are the epicenter of the epidemic, while outside of them — in the less urban areas — Covid-19 seems to be under control, as my own experience in a small town in Metro Manila’s south?

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