Voices from Russia

Sunday, 4 February 2018

How Societies Collapse: Or, The Eerie Parallels Between Rome, Nazi Germany, and America


A little reflection occurs to me every time I write about American collapse. Societies collapse in much the same way… there’s something like a universal way of collapse. Yet, the whole problem begins with the fact that human beings, having needy egos, find their own downfall difficult to accept. Perhaps, you yourself will object… you’re a mighty citizen of a proud society. Ah. Do you think the Incas, Mayas, Romans, or Nazis ever thought that they obeyed the laws of history? Of course not. Becoming a powerful society makes us vulnerable to collapse because it leaves us puffed up with hubris. We cry:

We shall never fall! Our thousand-year reign has barely begun!

To think one is above history is precisely where collapse begins… people who don’t understand how societies fall can’t do a whole lot to stop it. We begin the story of how a society falls thus… there’s an almost hysterical atmosphere of denial that it ever could.

Step One

The economy stagnates. Life becomes harder and meaner. An atmosphere of cruelty permeates. However, élites must deny stagnation… otherwise, they admit that they failed… in this way, society never repairs the social contract.

Step Two

Neighbour turns on neighbour for a constant share of a dwindling pie. They must compete more and more viciously to maintain the living standards of their parents and grandparents. Social bonds blow apart. Norms begin to disintegrate.

Step Three

Growing ever more anxious and desperate, seeking a truce in what has become an unwinnable battle for survival, people turn to strongmen, glorified thugs, revelling in indecency, thus flaunting their power over broken norms and failed social contract. If they live in a democracy, people turn to strongmen for the very safety democracy failed at giving them. This is the authoritarian moment. The moment at which decline implodes into true collapse… irreversibly, usually.

Step Four 

The strongest tribe begins to exterminate the weaker ones (not illegally, but perfectly legally, in little steps of scapegoating, exclusion, blame, and expropriation). This is the poisoned womb of authoritarianism giving unholy birth to fascism. This thus preserves the illusion of constancy… that is, the insiders’ economic portions remain stable, but all that happened is that a society achieved it by excluding or eliminating whole social groups altogether, leaving more for the pure. This fact is a secret from the people, officially… but who can’t be aware?

Step Five

However, because simply exterminating the weak didn’t solve the original problem of stagnation, a society dooms itself to forever taking its neighbours’ harvests or falling apart. This is how fascism leads to atrocity, war, and mass murder.

Do you see how this all fits together, like pieces of a puzzle? Ignorance of this great and terrible cycle underpins so much human suffering that perhaps it’s the single greatest evil in history. Yet, our first tendency is to deny that it’s happening to us, isn’t it? Therefore, every step is harder and harder to untake… a gravity created by our own weaknesses… our needs for superiority, for belonging, for infantile security. Now, it’s easy to see how universal collapse was the case in Nazi Germany. Nevertheless, what’s harder to see is that it has also been the case throughout history… right down to today. All that really differs is what lights the spark of stagnation… the rest of the steps then follow predictably, if living standards do not rise.

In agricultural societies, this spark was literally often a failed harvest. Perhaps the rains or rivers ran dry for a season. Soon enough, they sacrificed virgins atop the temples. However, the gods stayed deaf. Tribes then went to war, to prove their worthiness to the gods. This was more or less the story of South America, India, and pre-imperial China, for millennia. In industrial and mercantile societies, the spark of stagnation was a shortage of raw materials. Hence, the drive for constantly-expanding empire and conquest. Nevertheless, as soon as those basic inputs dried up… whether cotton, sugar, or tea … then, again nations went to war (when they weren’t busy warring, they were putting people to work in fields, to stave off stagnation and collapse again). This was the story of post-Enlightenment Europe, in which men claimed to be people of reason, but the simple truth was they were just as much victims and perpetrators of the economics of collapse as ever before in human history, perhaps, even more so.

How do modern economies differ? It isn’t because they don’t run out of raw materials, like information… they do, eminently: the raw materials in our case are money, human possibility, and opportunity. They haven’t “run out” in an absolute sense, but in a relative one… they are in shortage because the top layer hoards them. We learned this much from giants like Keynes… no economy has to stagnate anymore. Harvests may fail and raw materials run out, but there’s a better way out of stagnation than war and violence. It’s to invest in economies at the precise moment they are failing, employ the desperate in realising themselves, and that way, avert the rage, fury, and despair that lead to scapegoating, tribalism, extremism, war, and ultimately, self-destruction. Those old agricultural economies might better have put people to work building aqueducts instead of fighting their neighbours. However, they didn’t… and we aren’t, either. Our mistake is to learn nothing from theirs. Do you see the genius of Keynes’ insight? It was to say that we can best stop collapse at its first step… the other four, if taken, are usually too late, each leading inevitably to the next.

Now that I have given you a tiny theory of collapse, let’s place America upon it, as an example. America grew short of the raw materials of a modern economy… money, possibility, and opportunity. The average person’s income began to stagnate in the 70s. They began to live shorter, meaner, more brutal and disconnected and inhumane lives. Any competent economist should have predicted, on this basis alone, an eventual crisis. That is, if not resolved, it’d lead to a textbook social collapse. Nevertheless, America doesn’t have many good minds left… so few did predict such… and no one listened to them very much.

Therefore, the fuse of stagnation lit the bomb of collapse. It inflamed America’s old racial wounds, as neighbour turned on neighbour, forced to compete viciously for a constant share of a shrinking social pie. However, to maintain a constant share of a shrinking pie is an impossible task for everyone in a society. So, just a few decades later, weary of this bruising everyday battle that life had become, Americans gave up, en masse, on democracy… trust collapsed, social bonds blew apart, turnout was meagre, and civic engagement was nonexistent. Instead, they turned to drugs, violence, escapism, and extremism for consolation. Eventually, along came a strongman… who offered them not just consolation but a solution. This was an authoritarian moment… an instant when decline implodes into collapse. Now, the rest might not be history… but that much certainly is, isn’t it? When you think about it, what’s striking isn’t America’s exceptionalism… but that no amount of power, might, or glory made it immune from history. American collapse follows precisely the same steps as every other great and memorable one in history. Nevertheless, why would we have ever thought otherwise?

Here is the point inside the point. I think about it a great deal these days, brooding, a little sadly. Americans are interested in the symptoms of collapse… but not the causes. In this way, they became something like tourists of democracy… not participants in it. How can a people who don’t understand collapse then address it, let alone rebuild the ruined institutions, norms, and values it points to? Collapse is a universal process of human societies. We’re no better than our ancestors, neighbours, or our descendants… we never will be. The sooner that we understand how, why, and when a collapse occurs… even though it conflicts with our own need to feel mighty, special, and privileged… perhaps, the less prone to it we’ll be.

30 January 2018

Umair Haque



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