I’ve been contemplating a lot recently on how modern industrial civilization would collapse. (That it will collapse was no question to me.) The term ‘collapse’ of course invokes fear and anxiety in most, as it implies a sudden, irreversible, truly catastrophic event on epic proportions. One really bad day all shit breaks loose then suddenly — puff! — everything goes up in smoke. (Mind you, this does can happen: it is called nuclear war, the probability of which is increasing should warring parties insist on further escalation — poking nukes under the other’s nose — instead of peace talks.) If we manage to avoid this rather unwelcome outcome though, collapse, I argue, will unfold at a much-much slower pace and will only be visible in retrospect.
Before we delve deep into what the future has in store for us, however, we must understand there are several types — levels if you like — of collapse. All of them share the trait of happening under the surface for years and decades, only to resurface in the form of a crisis, which then defies all methods of resolution and permanently ends the old status quo.
You can find a detailed description of the various steps leading to social breakdown in Dmitry Orlov’s list based on his experience living through the collapse of the Soviet Union. My goal however was not to reproduce his findings here, but to offer a different perspective. Orlov’s steps, to me at least, look like distinct phases in each of which the collapse of a certain structure (financial, commercial, political, social and finally cultural) has already been completed. What really fascinates me though is the process of how we get there, and how things might unfold on the way. Does it really happen in a rapid succession of events, one leading to another, or rather it is something more ephemeral, slowly building momentum then bursting into the surface — only to disappear from sight as quickly as it has appeared?
In my mind there is no strict hierarchy in the process of unraveling: a country or region might skip phases, while another might flicker back and forth between them before moving on. There is also a significant chance for a country to survive (a partial) collapse, then experience a period of revival (even growth again) — only to resume the slow grind as resources run low once more. Complex systems like our societies are highly adaptive and find “creative” ways to circumvent problems — but they cannot avoid the inevitable.
If one takes a look at what has been going on in Britain nowadays has a firm grip on how political collapse in the making looks like. In this particular case the financial elite has decided to coupe the shortest-lived prime minister of a once proud empire, shortly after the previous one’s position became untenable.
This whole process shows how little say the average voter had in all of this, in a system which — in theory at least — is still a democracy looking after the wellbeing of its constituents. If you still have hopes that the newest incumbent of Dawning Street will be serving the voters’ best interests though, then think again.
The true tragedy of losing democracy has already happened a long time ago; what we see today is nothing but tragic comedy. A farce, played by decorative strong looking front men for a deliberately dumbed down audience. Behind the scenes though one sees a classic caste warfare, seemingly waged between various elite groups, but in fact fought at the expense of the lower castes (that is, against the 99% of people) in order to keep the top dogs afloat a little longer. Yet, whenever the next election is due, folks will keep showing up in front of ballot boxes hoping that this time it will be different.
Spoiler alert! It won’t be. Whoever gets behind the wheel next time will keep serving the globalist financial-economic elites’ best interests obediently, while offering nothing more than more austerity to the people… For a long time now, voters were choosing between preselect candidates only, carefully vetted against a screening process to prevent anyone with even the slightest chance to disrupt the status quo getting close to power. If someone manages to do just that, he or she will be out sooner or later, facing all sorts of legal investigations.
The only difference allowed to remain between candidates on offer is the rhetoric — in a rather dumbed down sense. The distinction in narratives in this system has been reduced to whether one loudly proclaims that he or she serves the globalist elite or hides his or her intentions behind a smokescreen of nationalism. The only geopolitical question allowed to be asked is whether to harass Eurasian powers from the west or from the east. Or was it the other way around, and they were harassing us…? Who remembers? Anyway, one thing remains to be certain:
“Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia.”
― George Orwell
This is not a permanent state though. There is no stable, enduring equilibrium in a system this dynamic. All this Orwellian dystopia is unfolding against a backdrop of depleting resources, and with them a rapidly fading hope for Western powers to preserve their dominance — both in an economic and in a military sense. It just so happens that the most developed and industrialized nations on Earth were the ones who have used up their cheap resources first, and by now have fully become dependent on the rest of the world to serve their needs.
It is a lesser known fact, but the Soviet Union fell only a couple of years after they had experienced their own peak in oil production. Being locked out of globalization though, they were immediately faced with their limits to growth. They have soon found themselves in a civilizational challenge their inadequate systems could not cope with. Yet, people living through this turning point in history simply could not imagine that their country could literally fall apart in just a matter of years as a result, despite all vectors pointing in that direction.
Is it possible then that the West is facing its own civilizational challenge as we speak? Can the depletion of their cheap resources and their inability to uphold global hegemony lead to their political collapse? I’m not saying that the United Kingdom, the European Union or the United States will fall apart tomorrow, but as I see things today all of these entities are on a sure-fire path towards breaking up. It’s a tedious process, already long in the making, yet it is denied by every participant until the very last moment.
Then “all of a sudden” it just happens.
Economic policy is coming from politics — at least this is what we are told. As we have seen in the case above, with the death of democracy this is no longer the case, if it ever was.
What we see today in the ‘free world’ (where people are ‘free’ to think whatever they’re allowed to think), is that corporations write legislation, receive tax cuts and hefty orders from the government, and where lower castes are forced to accept austerity, rising interest rates on their loans, and ever higher energy and grocery bills — not to mention healthcare or education costs. In the meantime, the populace is free to select which candidate they would like to hate or love the most, while their handlers (ahem, “donors”) laugh all the way to the bank — as all the gladiators of the political arena forward their interest, one way or the other.
If economics is indeed downstream to politics, then the unfolding economic collapse is ultimately a result of the ruling caste’s failed imagination; manifesting itself in a botched culture filled with utopias, magical thinking and a complete disregard to physical reality.
Life is not a science fiction filmed in Hollywood though. There are no evil villains, nor civilizations running on some form of an infinite energy source, or planets waiting to be colonized. Our elites did not dare / want / like to imagine a future of limits and modesty, instead they’ve drove past through all barriers and warning signs without breaking.
We are in a Thelma and Louise moment: off the cliff, in the air. Most of us started to have a sinking feeling in our stomachs as gravity pulls us down, yet we believe that an eventual hard landing can be avoided, and the gradual upending of our comfortable lifestyles is still avoidable.
Most westerners are still unable to imagine, that the good old days are now gone, and hardship awaits. However, the reality of us being in overshoot together with our utter reliance on once cheap fossil fuels (leading to resource depletion and climate change) will not disappear just because a large faction of our societies choses to pay no attention.
What we are witnessing these years is the end of growth, however uneconomic it was in the past four to five decades. All those magic numbers representing GDP and growth were artificially inflated with an exponential explosion in debt since the 1980s, hiding the fact that there is still a one-to-one connection between real economic growth and the expansion of our energy flows. Now that the latter is predictably over (and effectively self-terminated for Europe), it is not at all hard to figure out what will happen to the former.
We are witnessing a slow motion trainwreck. As energy flows run lower faster in one region, and slower in others (where exports are still possible and in fact quite profitable), we will increasingly see previous superpowers and empires scrambling to replace their rundown resources with supplies from regions who still have something to burn.
Now, that resource rich African and Eurasian states have shown a fig to Western powers, the rivalry and infighting among former Western allies will intensify — together with inequality within their societies, as the wealth pump turns into veritable sucking machine. Growth must survive, no matter how cosmetic, and how limited it is to an ever-shrinking elite population.
Political and economic collapse walk hand in hand, until they completely spin out of control in yet another self-reinforcing feedback loop. As the general population gets poorer from rising costs and due to wages / pensions being unable to keep up with inflation, the less products and services they would be able to buy.
Less products means less income for corporations and less tax revenues after their sales. Corporations then will do everything within their power to claw back as much as possible from wages, save on product quality, or to move production to places where it is cheaper to run business — without having second thoughts about ruining their customer base in the process. This would of course result in people being fired, and those who could retain their jobs forced to accept ever lower pay (in real purchasing value).
Rinse and repeat.
Nationalizing key industrial and energy assets will remain out of question, in fear of communism on the face of it, but deep inside motivated by the loss of the last remaining revenue streams for the wealthy elite.
Economic collapse will happen to weaker more import dependent economies first, leading to the local currency’s loss of value, then a sovereign debt crisis. Sri Lanka is exhibit A of this process — only to be closely followed by the UK and the EU. In the end when the country is literally on its knees, the IMF cavalry is allowed to ride in pridefully, cherry-picking assets and transferring them to their handlers at dirt cheap prices.
If this sounds predatory, even cannibalistic to you, then welcome to catabolic collapse. A stepwise process, where resources get freed up by “smaller, local” crises — driving previous owners bankrupt, only to be eaten up by larger forces so they can return to at least a semblance of growth. While this may sound evil, or conspiratory even, this is perfectly what a large unconscious system does as it runs out of energy — not entirely dissimilar to a large animal starving to death — eating up its own muscles then shutting down organs one by one.
Death is a road, not an end state. There are good times, when there is an occasional free lunch, but there are increasingly more bad times when all seem to crumble. How will this effect societies as it unfolds? What can we expect? This will be the topic for a later post.
Until next time,
Image credit: Pixabay