4th June, 2022
By Umair Haque
There are statistics, and there are statistics. Here’s one. America’s had 20 mass shootings since the Uvalde massacre, 10 days ago. That’s two a day.
Americans, I think, see mass shootings as a social problem. They aren’t. They’re something far more abnormal — and telling — than that. Mass shootings — ultra regular ones, more than one a day — are a sign of social collapse. America’s mass shooting problem is perhaps one of the ultimate signs — and forms — of how societies collapse. They encapsulate almost perfectly how societies come undone.
The signs of American collapse are everywhere you look. From its sclerotic politics, where nothing ever gets done — except regress into theocracy and authoritarianism. To its economy — in which the average American struggles to make ends meet, lives and dies in debt — while the ultra rich grow ever richer. To its society, in which young people have little to no chance of a decent life, and downward mobility is now the norm. Right down to its culture, where Instafluencers and comic-book heroes act as numbing, dumbing agents.
It’s in this context that mass shootings should be understood. There are symptoms of a collapsing society, but none quite ring alarm bells like regular massacres.
I’d never say that mass shootings aren’t about guns. Of course they are. But they are also about so much more. They are social collapse in one dismal, gruesome act of ultraviolence.
We looked for a chart of mass shootings over time. We were surprised that we couldn’t find one. This is how bad American media really is. It doesn’t even cover the most urgent and pressing issues of all with any kind of rigor or care, really. We had to make our own. See what it shows? An exponential rise in massacres — random acts of extreme violence.
Massacres are now an everyday fact of American life. Stop and think about that for a second, because it’s not true anywhere else in the world. At least outside war zones. In America, though, massacres — extreme, shocking, random acts of incredible violence — are literally just a fact of life, yet another dismal one that Americans are supposed to put up with. That, my friends, is what social collapse is. There couldn’t be a clearer example of it.
What does social collapse really mean? It’s a formal term — not just a casual statement of hyperbole. It means that a society comes undone along many dimensions. Socially, culturally, economically. What’s happening in America is all of that. Think of proximate causes, and ultimate causes. The proximate cause is guns, true. But the ultimate cause of these regular massacres is a society that’s imploding.
What’s happening in America is people snap. There’s a kind of total breakdown of society. And as society breaks down, people revert to the law of the jungle. Hence, the regular massacres.
What stands in the way of such extreme violence, usually? Many things do — at least in civilized societies. Yes, you can’t get machine guns — sorry, I mean “assault rifles.” But more than that, too. There are norms against violence. There are values of dignity and tolerance. Life isn’t a degrading, brutal battle for survival, one against all the rest. People don’t feel like losers all the time. There isn’t the endemic, mass loss of confidence in institutions and people. There isn’t disinformation and misinformation available at every avenue — with little to no debunking — literally conditioning people into paranoid delusions. People have basic rights, to things like healthcare and shelter and income, and so there’s a feeling of stability in society. People aren’t primed to explode.
All kinds of social and cultural and economic mechanisms are at work preventing explosion of extreme violence. At least in civilized societies, because that’s what it means to be a civilized society.
Why does Europe have such robust social contracts — ones which guarantee the average person everything from healthcare to decent media to education to retirement? Why did Canada follow its lead — and not America’s? Have you ever wondered?
The reason is explicitly to prevent violence. In the wake of World War II, it was widely understood that collapsing societies lead to explosions of violence. The Weimar Regime became Nazi Germany just that way. The violence grew organized and coordinated to the point of attempting the horror of a “Final Solution.” Europe understands all too well the link between degradation and violence.
But America doesn’t.
In America, there are no guardrails. None. One mistake, one misstep — and you’re done. Your life is over. Here’s a million dollar medical bill. Sorry, you’ll never be able to afford a home, retire, pay off all that debt. No matter how hard you work, it doesn’t seem to matter much. Unlike Europe and Canada, Americans have no protections in life against losing it all.
It’s in that context that mass shootings emerge as the ultimate sign of social collapse. I’m not saying that every poor or desperate person goes out and shoots up a school. Of course not. But I am saying that in a society where there are no working social, cultural, or economic mechanisms of protection from degradation, dehumanization, where life feels so insecure and unstable, where you’re forever perched on a razor’s edge, one where more or less everyone feels anxious, afraid, alone, desperate, and like a loser much of the time…violence is primed to explode.
And then you can get a gun.
In formal terms, we’d refer to all this as a catastrophic loss of social…everything.
Social capital — trust, relationships. Have you noticed how mass shooters are usually young men — with few to no real relationships? Few friends, no girlfriends, their only human contact other guys online just like them, egging each other on in a chain reaction of radicalization?
That coalesces into a total breakdown of social norms. Normally, at least in functioning societies, hate isn’t really permitted. There are laws against it, and those laws become norms. You can’t just abuse people. But in America, it’s different. Under the guise of “free speech,” the far right has made bigotry and prejudice and supremacy normal all over again. Of course, that’s hate, not “free speech.” I don’t have the right to harass or dehumanize you. “Free speech” is about the government censoring all of us, not you abusing me.
In America, norms against hate don’t really exist anymore, if they did at all. Hence, the lonely young men who become mass shooters just hang out online and…goad each other into massacres. Hardly much of a surprise when far right members of Congress send their colleagues death threats.
The norms that inhibit violence in America have completely broken down. They just don’t exist anymore, and it’s weird, creepy, and disturbing. You can see that in deeper ways, too, if you look. Here’s a tiny story. There was a poor homeless guy at the little cafe I used to go to who one day passed out right in front of heatstroke. They wouldn’t even give him water. My wife was irate. She bought some from them, and gave it to him.
They wouldn’t save a man’s life. That is how deeply violence permeates America now. But you can’t have a functioning society like that. I’ve never even seen that happen in poor countries.
Fast forward to us being back in Europe. We went out just the other day, and there was a homeless man right beside a cafe in our neighborhood. The girls working there brought him tea and something to eat. That’s the difference between Europe and America in one simple example.
And it’s not OK. Americans gloss over the way that norms of decency have broken down in their country. They pretend that it never happened, or that it doesn’t matter. But it does matter. It matters a very great deal. It’s entirely understandable — and grimly predictable — that in a country where homeless people are left to die of heatstroke, nobody even giving them water, that mass shootings, too, would occur. Both are symptoms of the same social breakdown — inhibitions towards violence, an indifference to human life, a complete and catastrophic loss of social capital.
Why didn’t the people at the little cafe in America care about the homeless guy literally dying on their doorstep? The answer to that question’s as grim as it is insane. Totally insane. Money. My wife had to buy water from them to give to the homeless guy. This is even when they have a tap for free water. But the line was “that’s only for paying customers.” We tried to point out that a man could be dying.
LOL. Nobody cared. And I mean nobody. Nobody working at the cafe. Nobody sitting at the cafe. Nobody. Except us, and a guy who was also walking down the street. He turned out to be French. You see what I’m getting at, maybe.
They wouldn’t even offer up a cup of water because of money. That’s an example of the economic end of social collapse. Everything in America’s about money, to an insane degree. But when everything’s about money — and people are so desperate for it they won’t even give a dying man a cup of water — then it’s a sure sign that something’s very, very wrong. For a society to be so selfish that a dying man can’t be given water is also to say that people have grown so afraid and frightened for themselves that all they can think of is survival. That life has become so bleak that no form of collective care or relationship is even really possible.
That a dying man couldn’t get a cup of water for the sake of money tells us just how Darwinian America’s become. And when Darwinism’s applied to societies, it’s called fascism.
It’s in that context that mass shootings are the ultimate form of social collapse. They encapsulate all of that. The indifference to life. The disinhibitions against violence. The breakdown of social capital and social norms. The way that a failed economy has made it impossible for Americans to think beyond themselves, because life is every person against every other one. The way that hate has been normalized — and the way that relationships and trust have imploded. The way that life is one awful Darwinian struggle, over and over again, every day, and it never gets better.
But when life is just that, some people will snap. More and more, as life gets worse and worse. That is why mass shootings are accelerating. They didn’t used to happen much in the 90s. They’re a new thing. They parallel American collapse’s timeline almost perfectly, because they’re the ultimate symptom of it.
Some people will snap as societies collapse — collapse into brutality, degradation, Darwinian self-preservation, all semblance of being a society, a community, a set of people caring for one another erased, annulled. And Americans are snapping. They’ve turned back to fundamentalist religion. To overt fascism. To delusional conspiracies like “the great replacement.” Not all of them, but many of them, millions. And some of them snap in even harder ways, and become mass killers.
But those mass killers are at the end of a spectrum. Of people snapping. Their minds and spirits coming undone. Giving up on the idea of society — and reverting back to tribal violence, hate, vengeance for imagined grievances against hated subhumans. Along that spectrum, too, lie America’s budding theocrats, fascists, authoritarians, supremacists, and more. It’s no wonder that the latter justify the former. And seem to be on their side, so that nothing ever happens about these massacres. All these groups are on the same side of the spectrum — people who’ve given up on the idea of a modern, peaceful, civilized society, and now only believe in hate, violence, and revenge, ultimate power, over the despised subhumans, whether they’re women, or minorities, or kids, or all three.
Americans need to understand all that. Mass shootings tell us something. Guns exist in many, many places, but mass shootings don’t. America has these massacres because it’s collapsing as a society. It is stopping being one. Life is desperate, malignant, and frightening, and people are snapping. They’re losing their minds to hate, rage, and despair — and while not every lunatic shoots up a school, America’s lunatics do all share in common the idea of hurting people.
As society has frayed into a vacuum of a chaos, nothing is left to deter anyone from doing their worst — politicians, billionaires, everyday fanatics, theocrats on the Supreme Court, mass shooters. And when that happens, the most violent lunatics howl in rage — and let loose the demons of hate.