Masking the rot and fragility is not the same thing as strength or permanence.
The great irony of the past 75 years of expanding consumption is the belief that all these decades of success prove the system is rock-solid and future success is thus guaranteed. The irony lies in the systemic fragility that’s built into the large-scale industrial production that generates endless surpluses of energy, food, fresh water, etc. and the global financial system that delivers endless surpluses of capital and credit to be distributed by public authorities and private owners of capital.
The key driver of increasing efficiencies has been scaling up production by concentrating ownership and capacity into a few quasi-monopolies/cartels. In industry after industry, where there were once dozens of companies, there are now only a handful of behemoths with outsized market and political power which they wield to retain their dominance.
For example, where there were dozens of large regional banks in the U.S. not that long ago, relentless consolidation has led to a handful of supergiant too big to fail banks which can take extraordinary risks (and undertake criminal skims) knowing that the federal government will always bail them out and leave the banks’ corporate criminals untouched.
Two of these too big to fail banks recently paid fines in the billions of dollars, yet no one went to prison or even faced criminal charges. This highlights the systemic problem with concentrating capital and power in the hands of the few: too big to fail means corporate wrongdoers have a permanent get out of jail free card while the small-fry white-collar criminal will get a fiver (five-year prison sentence) for skimming a tiny fraction of the billions routinely pillaged by the too big to fail banks.
The net result is a two-tier judicial / law enforcement system: the too big to fail “essential” companies get a free hand and the citizenry get whatever “justice” they can afford, i.e. very little.
This concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few corporations is of course state-cartel socialism in which the public good has become subservient to the profits of corporate owners and insiders, and the skims paid to the state’s insiders. The state enables and enforces this concentration of private wealth and power in a number of ways: regulatory capture, the polite bribery of lobbying, the revolving door between government and private industry, and so on.
The public good would best be served by competition and transparent markets and regulations, but these are precisely what’s been eliminated by relentless consolidation and the paring down of the economic ecosystem to a handful of too big to fail nodes which work tirelessly to eliminate competition, transparency and meaningful public oversight.
This ruthless pursuit of efficiencies and profits has stripped the economy of redundancies and buffers. Production supply chains have been engineered to function in a narrow envelope of quality, quantity and time. Any disruption quickly leads to shortages, something that became visible when meatpacking plants were closed in the pandemic.
Supply chains are long and fragile, but this fragility is not visible as long as everything stays within the narrow envelope that’s been optimized. Once the envelope is broken, the supply chain breaks down. Since redundancies and buffers have been stripped away, there are no alternatives available. Shortages mount and the entire system starts breaking down.
Quality has been stripped out as well. When markets become captive to cartels and monopolies, customers have to take what’s available: if it’s poor quality goods and services, tough luck, pal, there are no alternatives. There are only one or two service providers, healthcare insurers, etc., and they all provide the same minimal level of quality and service.
The moral rot in our social, political and economic orders is another source of hidden fragility. I’m constantly told by readers that corruption has been around forever, so therefore nothing has changed, but these readers are indulging in magical nostalgia: things have changed profoundly, and for the worse, as the moral rot has seeped into every nook and cranny of American life, from the top down.
There is no “public good,” there is only a rapacious, obsessive self-interest that claims the mantle of “public good” as a key mechanism of the con.
As I discussed in Everything is Staged, everyone and everything in America is now nothing more than a means to a self-interested end, and so the the entirety of American life is nothing but 100% marketing of various cons designed to enrich the few at the expense of the many.
That America was a better place without endless marketing of Big Pharma meds and colleges hyping their insanely costly “product” (a worthless diploma) has been largely forgotten by those indulging in magical nostalgia.
What few seem to realize is all the supposedly rock-solid permanent foundations of life are nothing more than fragile social constructs based on trust and legitimacy. Once trust and legitimacy have been lost, these constructs melt into the sands of time.
A great many things we take for granted are fragile constructs that could unravel with surprising speed: law enforcement, the courts, elections, the value of our currency– these are all social constructs. Once legitimacy is lost, people abandon these constructs and they melt away.
It’s clear to anyone who isn’t indulging in magical nostalgia that trust in institutions is in a steep decline as the legitimacy of these institutions, public and private, have been eroded by incompetence, corruption, dysfunction and the rapacious self-interest of insiders.
What we’ve gotten very good at is masking the rot and fragility. Masking the rot and fragility is not the same thing as strength or permanence. The nation is about to discover the difference in the years ahead.