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How America Stopped Thinking

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Or, Why America’s Way of Thinking Doesn’t Matter to the World, to Itself, or to the Future Anymore

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Here’s a tiny observation. American thought doesn’t matter anymore.

The ideas American intellectuals produce don’t matter — they haven’t lifted living standards in decades, which go right on declining, along with America’s economy, polity, and society. Even poor countries don’t want to become America anymore — did you know even nations like Rwanda are developing public healthcare, rejecting the American model of development? And the ideas American produces certainly don’t matter to its rich peers — the EU isn’t exactly denying its citizens healthcare just because American economists think it’s a crime against humanity to give people affordable insulin.

So. American thought doesn’t matter to the world, to the future, or to Americans, either. How did it end up here?

Now. You’re right to say I’m overgeneralizing. By “American thought” I mean what is generally accepted within the confines of mainstream discourse — not every single idea in America — just ideas that would be acceptable, uncontroversial, invisible, even. Like art, it’s hard to pin down. So you are welcome to accept or reject my definition. Still, it’s hard not to see that American ideas, concepts, ways of thinking about the world, society, economics, human beings, democracies, are all fast becoming irrelevant, just not working in any way, yet at the same time, the more broken all those get, Americans, especially intellectuals seem to cling harder to them — in a kind of grand Soviet irony.

So here are my five reasons American thought stopped mattering.

American thought is shallow. I mean that in a very specific way, not as an insult — it is narrow-minded, constricted, choked off. The job of American intellectuals now seems to be to prescribe ideas for people to live their lives — instead of understanding why those lives aren’t flourishing. Yet for that reason it seems that American intellectuals cannot imagine life outside predatory capitalism at all. So American psychologists invent notions like “grit” and “resilience”, and American economists invent notions like “full employment” and “productivity” and theories about how money equals happiness. These aren’t just new buzzwords for the same old myths of individualism and self-reliance — they’re also just prescriptions for how to survive the depredations of predatory capitalism. What they are not really empirical, philosophical, or intellectual examinations of what a full, vibrant life, society, democracy, or economy genuinely is — and whether all those are better outside predatory capitalism, which appears to be the hard limit at which American thoughts stops, ends, cannot go beyond.

American thought is also arrogant. It doesn’t matter because it doesn’t study problems that matter anymore, especially not to the world. It can’t — it’s too busy prescribing ideas for how to survive the bitter trials of predatory capitalism, instead of investigating if a different world is possible. It is assuming away the problems it should be studying. Hence, American thought doesn’t seem interested whatsoever in studying, for example, why even a nation like Spain has five years’ higher life expectancy than America now, why American democracy was so fragile, why American living standards are the lowest in the rich world, why it costs half of median income just to give birth, why Americans are so uniquely cruel now, and what it costs them. All these are problems worth studying. But American thought will not even concede that these things even exist as problems — instead, it tells people to have “grit” and “resilience” and “productivity” and “jobs”, assuming away the idea of great social, economic, cultural, and psychological problems in the first place. So what is there left to study that matters?

American thought should be studying why people who have healthcare, pensions, stability, security, safety are happier, saner, closer, smarter, wiser, have better democracies, more cohesive societies, more prosperous economies, not to mention live longer — but because it can only ever work within the paradigm of predatory capitalism, it cannot. Hence, it’s dwindled into irrelevance. It can’t explore anything new, study countries that work better, or seem to understand that the problem is the paradigm it’s stuck in now — a point we’ll return to at the end.

American though is also insular and provincial now. American intellectuals now mostly only cite and study…other American intellectuals. It is a self-referential game. But they are all working within the same framework, paradigm — predatory capitalism, which causes them to assume away the very problems they should be investigating — so how can any intellectual progress be made? It isn’t. Hence, I’ve rarely seen one offer up, for example, Baudrillard’s ideas of culture, Lacan’s psychoanalytical theories of love, Melanie Klein’s theories of relationships, Habermas’s notion of democracy, or Nobel laureate AK Sen’s criticisms of capitalism — to name just a few ideas that have shaped the world, but Americans are taught to ignore. In fact, it is Thomas Piketty — a French economist — who is taking economics forward today. Why is that? It is because Piketty does not just read American thought, like Americans do. He understands that the world, history, and futurity are bigger than a tiny number of mostly irrelevant American ideas. But American intellectuals do not. They do not think that the world matters — and ironically, that is why they don’t matter to the world much now.

American thought is superficial. I mean this one, too, in a very specific way — not as an insult. It does not have good “fundamentals”, or what we’d call philosophical first principles. Good: valid, accurate, empirically real. Hence, its theories of everything are wrong — but American intellectuals aren’t interesting in rethinking them, only in proclaiming them and propounding them, never mind that they simply do not work. A simple example is America’s theory of human nature — people are predatory and cruel, hence greed and power and ruthlessness are good, weakness and frailty are bad, therefore only the strong should survive, because that’s what’s efficient, and thus society becomes a giant arena, a contest, a jungle. Doesn’t that sum up what most of American economics, politics, and psychology say?

Ah, but people aren’t inherently predatory — babies are born empathic, curious, and humane. Cruelty is something we are taught. The very first principle is dead wrong. And yet, because more or less all of American thought rests on just such a foolish, easily disproven first principle — its economics, psychology, and politics all rest squarely on the myth of the human being as predator — it cannot make any real progress. It’s stuck twisting people into bizarre, contorted roles no human being can fit — cogs in the machines of their own self-destruction, who should be more “resilient” so they can survive the act of destroying themselves — which ends up making a society without a social contract, an impoverished economy, and a culture of cruelty. And in that way, American thought ends up cheating people, ultimately, of themselves.

American thought is going to need paradigmatic change if it wants to matter again. Change at the level of first principles, from the roots to the branches. It is going to have imagine, examine, and study why life outside predatory capitalism is now better in every imaginable way — not simply pretend that the American present is the only world which can ever exist, peering deeper into an illusion. American thought is going Soviet, in an irony of history — it’s insularity, provincialism, superficiality, arrogance, and the fierceness with which it clings to all those, out of sheer wrong-headed ideology, now resemble its great historical enemy.

Let me finish with a historical analogy. Once, intellectuals accepted that the sun span round the earth, which was the center of the cosmos. Their job was to create ever grander theories which justified it. Human beings are divine! They are the kings of all creation! And so they spent all their energy building grand cathedrals — and pondering alchemical principles. Human progress never happened in that age.

It took a Galileo to say — “Wait. Your paradigm is wrong. The sun does not spin around the earth. You must imagine, and then investigate, the universe anew.” And from tiny seeds like that came enlightenment, renaissance, industry, freedom, liberation — all the many names of progress. The story’s the same — only this time, the paradigm is predatory capitalism, and the place is America.

Of course, I have oversimplified my story. But perhaps you see my point. American thought doesn’t matter anymore. But that has happened many times in history. When a time, age, or place cannot think anymore, that, too, is a kind of collapse.

 June 2018

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