How Civilizations Collapse — And Ours is Beginning To

This Is Why the World Is Spinning Out of Control

Photo from Unsplash

Written by Umair Haque and published in Medium.com 2/21/2022

You and I woke up to a terrifying new world today. War in Europe is now all but a reality again, after a lifetime of peace. War by a major military power, seemingly bent on Nazi style dominance and aggression.

That was only the second relevant fact of the day. The first?

Our governments have basically given up on Covid — to the desperate pleas of doctors and scientists, all of whom know that doing so will only prolong the pandemic, and make it much worse. We are as little as nine letters of DNA away from a truly terrible variant — one that makes Delta look like a walk in the park. That’s what science knows — not politics says.

What is really going on here? If you feel that all this is deeply frightening, chilling, that’s because it is. You are probably, like most of us, consumed with dread, which is the “freeze” part of the trauma response. That’s psychology. But the more urgent question is about our world.

So what happens from here?

In every great collapse, there are roughly three stages. We might call them something like neglect, decadence, and implosion. Sure, I’m oversimplifying — but all models do that. We are just trying to explain the present and predict the future a little bit, its general contours, its shape and weight.

Where we’ve been is cycling through the first two stages of collapse, neglect and decadence. And now we are approaching the event horizon of implosion. That is the last and final stage of collapse.

What happens in the “implosion” stage of collapse? Things spin out of control. They reach a point where they can no longer be managed. The conventional systems and orthodoxies and paradigms stop working. Tipping points are hit, and dynamics accelerate into implosive trajectories, which, by and large, become unstoppable.

Does it feel like the world is spinning out of control right about now? That is because we are at the edge of the “implosion” stage of collapse. We are dancing right at its verge. That is the point at which control is well and truly lost, and then things really go to hell.

I know that sounds dire. Please take a moment to hear me. I don’t tell you these things because I want to “doomsay,” which I’m often accused of. My motivations are always under question and attack. Do you know why that is? Because they hard to understand under our capitalist system and its values. I warn you because I genuinely care about you. That’s baffling to most because in our system, it’s not supposed to happen. People are supposed to do what’s profitable, not what’s right. Listen. I walked away from a lucrative career being a typical pundit because I couldn’t bear it. The good matters to me. I never want any being — you, a little animal, anyone — to suffer. I warn you because I care. That is totally incomprehensible to pundits, within the capitalist system, and that is why they constantly attack me with ad hominems.

I digress because I really want you to understand my motivations at this point in our relationship. I value our trust and community a very, very great deal. It is a wonderful and beautiful thing to experience every day.

We have built a community here that is pure of heart and rich in caring, intellect, wisdom, truth, goodness. But in that way, it is completely different from the corrupt and malicious world which surrounds us.

That world is now spinning out of control. And that loss of control is the hallmark of the “implosion” stage of collapse.

Let’s do a couple of examples to bring this little framework — three stages of collapse — home. Think of the canonical example, Rome. My little framework is very much along the lines of Toynbee, the great scholar of Roman collapse. Rome fell through, first, neglect. Its great public goods were underinvested in — whether aqueducts or fountains or squares and temples. People grew poor as a result. And finally, democracy collapsed. Caesar crossed the Rubicon, and took over, in a desperate, misguided attempt to become Rome’s saviour — and tyrant. He failed — thanks to Brutus and the Senate. But then nobody saved Rome — and the negligence only continued. Augustus became its first emperor, as democracy waned.

So then, because the negligence never ended, came the period of decadence. A hundred short years after Caesar crossed the Rubicon, Caligula was emperor. And his corruption, his orgies, his horse in the Senate — all these have become the stuff of legend. Fifteen year later came Nero, and his fiddle.

Negligence bred decadence. Instead of deciding to address the negligence which was bringing Rome to the point of ruin — leaving people impoverished, desperate, the empire crumbling at the edges — inequality had now spiralled to the point where Rome’s elites simply stopped caring at all. They preferred their orgies and wine and villas to trying to restore order and justice and prosperity. Who cared if their civilization was crumbling? Surely it would last another millennium or five anyways.

And decadence bred, at last, implosion. The empire flew apart. Its enemies marched and attacked it. Cults grew. The average person lost faith in it. Its once proud democracy was now a distant memory. Its armies could not keep the peace, or even secure its borders. Bang. A century after Nero came Commodus — the witless fool under whom Roman implosion has become the stuff of legend.

Why am I going through this retelling of history with you? Imagine life at each of these three stages. In the period of neglect, life wasn’t too bad. Sure, maybe your local aqueduct didn’t work very well, or your town square was in need of maintenance. But society’s basic systems — security, food, water, medicine, democracy — they all still worked.

Nobody much, in that era, would have predicted the ugliness and sordid humiliation of what was to come just a few short decades later, under Caligula and Nero. That Caligula would try to put his horse in the Senate, to drive the point home that Roman democracy was a joke. That basic systems like democracy, food, water, security, medicine would all have begun to break down. That Rome itself would burn, while its emperor fiddled. Life in that age? The age of decadence? It was brutal and desperate and ugly, for the average person. It was beginning to become a desperate battle for self-preservation and survival, while elites mostly laughed and partied and ate fine desserts.

But even then, few could have predicted what was to come next. The age of implosion. What was life like then? Society as Romans once knew it had basically stopped existing. The most basic guarantees — rights, security, stability, systems for food and water and money, had simply stopped working. You didn’t know when your village might be invaded, when life might simply fall apart into shattering violence and brutality and irrevocable ruin.

Life at each of these stages got worse — in special ways. Dramatically worse. Worse in ways that the last stage didn’t predict, and largely laughed at the warning of. And so much worse, by the end of it, that everything was out of control. By Commodus’s era, Rome could not manage its problems. Its mechanisms of order didn’t work anymore. It couldn’t impose control. Its armies were shattered. Its fields were barren. Its great waterways were crumbling ruins. And so on. Everything had spun out of control.

Now. Maybe you begin to see where we really are as a world. We have gone way, way past the age of neglect. Past the age of decadence. Now we are at the edge of the age of implosion.

Let me walk you — quickly — through how each of those stages played out for us. The age of neglect for us? We had a chance, my friends. We could have spent the surplus of our civilization doing things that genuinely expanded the human good. Like educating every single child on the planet, and giving every adult a thorough education, too — inoculating ourselves against fascism. Like giving every life on the planet healthcare — preventing today’s pandemics. Like creating a democracy that genuinely worked for the globe — not just ones that were still contested by fanatics globally — a democracy that let the world’s once abundant resources be shared fairly, and thus used wisely. Such a democracy would have prevented the economies of the richest nations, like America, from being based solely on overconsumption.

We had a century or more to do that. But we didn’t do that. And so we entered the age of decadence. That age was when the entire global economy’s point was to supply goods and services for Americans to overconsume. Our consumption ratio as a civilization is far, far too high: 80% of our economy is consumption. Any farmer can tell you: you can’t reap 80% and only plant 20% and hope to have a harvest for very long. But the entire global economy was predicated on this. China and India became labour centers which basically supplied Americans with huge cars and cheap steel and pointless gadgets and so on. Walmart and Amazon became the way station of this economy.

This age of decadence is best exemplified by the American McMansion. By the 90s, American culture had become a quest for a certain kind of life — a McMansion and a fleet of huge cars, in some giant suburb, at the end of some giant highway. Who really needed to live like this? If everyone in America was going to live like a king — then the truth was that it was costing the planet. Democracy. Life on it.

Instead of investing those resources in educating the planet or giving it healthcare or rights or freedoms…the entire point of global political economy became to let Americans live the lifestyles of mindless ultra-consumption. The very ones for which they became scorned and mocked around the globe as selfish, thoughtless idiots. Could any civilization like this really last? Americans numbered 300 million people or so — and the resources of an entire planet, from its raw materials to its labour, were basically pressed into service so they could live like kings.

Decadence. In Rome, in any civilization, the age of decadence is about a kind of corrosive inequality. How was it fair that if you were in 90% of the world, you’d be consigned to a life of poverty and poor education and illness…while America took all the world’s gains and goods, in a way that was about excess, greed, selfishness, narcissism?

The opposite of decadence is intellect, goodness, truth, justice, equality. We didn’t build a world like that. We built one where Americans could live flashy lifestyles of complete and utter excess — huge houses, multiples of huge cars, multiple air conditioners, huge debts — while the entire rest of the world was neglected. And so, ultimately, was America itself.

The next stage of decadence was American elites growing rich while its own working and middle class fell into penury. Remember how Roman elites partied and were fed grapes and had orgies while their citizens fell into poverty, unable to find work, feed themselves, educate their kids? That was more or less exactly what was happening in America. Go to Manhattan or DC or San Francisco, and you’d see huge, huge mansions or penthouses in the sky rising — by the hundreds. But go to any town or smaller city, and you’d see devastation, poverty, drug addiction, despair, and blight. Decadence had spread from America versus the world, to American elites versus their own average citizens.

And now we are at the stage of implosion. Things are spinning out of control. Precisely because we underinvested for so long. We didn’t give every life on earth healthcare — from poor people to animals — and so we are getting pandemics. And because our leaders cannot find a way to manage them, we are simply giving up. War is breaking out in Europe again, as demagoguery rises — the very same demagogue starting that war is the one who destabilised America, too. Not a coincidence. Decadence. Neglect. Breeding implosion.

I could go on with plenty of examples. We’ve barely bothered to do anything about climate change — and within a decade now, swathes of the planet will be uninhabitable. The consequences will make Covid’s lockdown look like cakewalks. People won’t have homes to be locked down in. Economies will have to bear the immense costs of cities sinking, regions burning, provinces turning into Fire or Flood Belts, refugees fleeing, businesses closing for good, harvests failing.

That’s not even the big one. Then comes mass extinction — life on this planet beginning to die off at the species level. It is happening now, but we will feel it when one species critical to a certain chain is gone — and bang, that chain suddenly stops working. There goes our food. Water. Medicine. There go our oceans, rivers, forests, fields. The world as we know it no longer exists then. Remember not being able to get stuff on the shelves when Covid hit? Now imagine that, but permanent. That is the future we’re heading into.

I need to warn you about this. And you need to plan for itI don’t mean that you should turn into Glenn from the Yukon on that one survival show I like to watch. Run for the hills! You can if you want, but the truth is that isn’t going to work for most of us. We need to exist in collectives and communities — not just as rugged individuals.

You need to begin thinking all this through nowHow will I survive the age of implosion? How will I educate my kids? Where will my income come from? Where will I put my savings? Do I have a way to feed my family, if things fail for a time? I even mean simple things like wearing masks, because yes, they work, even cloth ones, and a worse variant is coming. Or simpler things, too, like saving more and spending less, because lean times are coming.

I can’t tell you what your plan should be. But I can tell you that you are going to need one, now. It could involved leaving a failing state — like moving out of America, if you have the resources. That is a very wise thing to do. It could mean thinking of a new career altogether. It could mean retiring, and building a more independent life in a working country, even if your kids don’t understand why yet. Or it could mean listening to your kids, who are often far more attuned to all this than we adults are, and asking them for their answers.

We are going to have to make these plans. And share them. So that we become communities and collectives. It only works that way. Yes, you can survive in a shack by yourself with a gun and knife — not a problem. But we are talking about something bigger. Not just surviving, but retaining some aspect of civilization. Surviving with goodness, grace, truth, nobility. With art and science and literature and culture and society intact. We cannot do that as individuals.

So we need to, in my opinion, begin making plans and sharing them. This is how I’m going to deal with implosion. This is how I’m going to. Oh, that’s a great idea. I didn’t think of that before! Thank you. May I join you? Sure you can — let’s join hands and do it together. You bring the art, I’ll bring the science. We are stronger together.

Our future, my friends, is in community. Communities which let civilisation survive a dark age. We need to start building them now. It’s not going to be easy, and I don’t have a magic wand. We just have something even stronger. Each other.

Does America Have a Future?

Review of Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s book, How Democracies Die

Reviewed by Joseph Langen

It would be comforting to think that our American experiment in democracy can survive its current dangers as it has in the face of past threats. Yet our survival is not assured in today’s socially and politically turbulent climate.

How Democracies Die places our current challenge into the context of previous and more

current democracies which failed or at least struggled with their own crises. The authors report that in the past, democracies have collapsed in the face of violent attack.

More recently, democracies have crumbled due to insidious challenges from within. They see America as facing the second type of challenge.

They point out that the Constitution gives us basic rules to support the US democracy. Our society is further bolstered by unwritten norms, the most important being mutual toleration of rivals as a legitimate part of our society and restraint from attacking those with rival approaches to managing our society.

They note that American factions coexisted fairly well before the Civil War. Our country broke into open conflict during the Civil War and remained in conflict until the end of Reconstruction. After that we had another period of relative cooperation until the 1960’s Civil Rights Act. Cooperation has been declining since then, leaving us with racial equality on the books. Yet polarization has worsened over the years culminating in the Trump fiasco.

It appears that both sides cooperate better when racial equality is off the negotiating table, a sad state of affairs. Battles over civil rights, especially with regard to racial equality, have been joined by conflict over migration, religious beliefs and the nature and purpose of culture.

The book discusses three possible outcomes of our polarized society.

  1. First is a recovery of democracy. Trump and Trumpism fall or fade into irrelevance in the face of public disgust.
  2. Second is continuing and worsening of the divide with no tolerance or forbearance related to issues which divide us. At some point this trend would result in the death of a functioning democracy. This second possibility is on the horizon if Trumpian Republicans manage to control the presidency, Congress and the Supreme Court with anti-democratic power.
  3. Third is continuation of polarization and disregard of unwritten conventions keeping a modicum of peace, resulting in political warfare with an uncertain outcome. Whether a blend of individual freedom and egalitarianism would survive remains to be seen.

For us to survive as a nation, we must restore the endangered guardrails of tolerance and forbearance as well as overcoming polarization and fair elections. This will require compromise and softening of stances by everyone on both sides, particularly with regard to political rhetoric in both the major political parties. We must also address the needs of those neglected in our society as well as developing social policies favorable to everyone rather than just those favored by the political side in power at the moment.

Will we be able to come together as a society despite our differences? That remains to be seen. Can we set aside our partisan ideals or at least soften them while we focus on building a society supportive of all its members?  This book clearly lays out the existential problems facing us, possible outcomes and what we need to do for our democracy to survive, Our future lies in the balance. Get ready to do your part.

Our Fascist Future?

Tucker Carlson Has Seen the Future, and It Is Fascist

Orban’s Hungary is the road map for American authoritarianism.

Photo by Matt Hardy on Pexels.com

Written by Jonathon Chatt and published in The Intelligencer 8/4/2021

In 1919, the progressive journalist Lincoln Steffens visited the nascent Soviet Union and declared, “I have seen the future and it works.” Tucker Carlson’s weeklong visit to Budapest, where he is using his Fox News show as an infomercial for Viktor Orban’s illiberal regime, is being conducted in much the same spirit. “If you care about Western civilization and democracy and families, and the ferocious assault on all three of those things by the leaders of our global institutions, you should know what is happening here right now,” Carlson gushed to his viewers.

Of course, “democracy” is not a category description any small-d democrat would apply to Hungary, a state that has “dropped any pretense of respecting democratic institutions” under Orban, according to Freedom House, which no longer categorizes it as a democracy at all.

These are not mere details, and Carlson is not overlooking them. He is laying down a marker in the highest profile way he can that Orban’s iron fist is the future the Republican Party should want. The splashy imprimatur of a Fox News prime-time personality, who is probably the right’s most influential media figure, is an important milestone in the Republican Party’s long evolution into authoritarianism.

It is certainly not Hungary’s economy that has attracted a growing number of American right-wing admirers. Hungary has fallen behind its central European peers as Orban’s corruption and crude populism have spurred many of the nation’s wealthier citizens to leave. Nor is there much conservative inspiration to be mined from Orban’s pandemic management, which has been simultaneously more heavy-handed and less effective than other European governments’.

The Trump administration lavished Orban with praise. Trump has even likened the Hungarian strongman to himself, calling him a “tough man, but he is a respected man … probably, like me, a little bit controversial, but that’s okay. You’ve done a good job, and you’ve kept your country safe.” Trump’s ambassador in Budapest confessed frankly that his boss envies Orban’s ability to bully and suppress his critics: “I can tell you, knowing the president for a good 25 or 30 years, that he would love to have the situation that Viktor Orbán has, but he doesn’t.”

The right’s entrancement with Orban has emerged fitfully over the last decade. One could find defenses of the Hungarian regime in places like the New York Postthe Federalist, the Heritage Foundation, and National Review. Yet, until recently, open support for Orban’s Hungary was an idiosyncratic minority position on the American right.

Orban’s regime has forged links with the conservative movement, including a lobbying campaign in Washington and a right-wing think tank in Budapest, where Carlson will deliver a speech Saturday. At this point, American conservatives who denounce Orban’s kleptocracy are now the minority.

What makes this alliance especially chilling is that Hungary is the model of democratic backsliding that has loomed largest in their imaginations of internationalist thinkers. Orban’s corruption of a former democracy occurred step by step. He gerrymandered the electoral map to give his supporters an overwhelming advantage, stacked the judiciary with supporters, leveraged state power to force large businesses to support his party, and installed supporters in charge of the country’s largest media organs. (Think about Trump’s efforts to bully Jeff Bezos into putting a leash on the Washington Post by denying Amazon a lucrative Pentagon contract, and you have a picture of the methods Orban has used, with more success.)

Hungary’s democratic backsliding was slow and gradual, without a single dramatic moment when its character flipped from democracy to dictatorship. Even now, it retains the surface trappings of a democracy without the liberal characteristics that make those processes meaningful. If America ceases to be a democracy, it will likely follow a path similar to Orban’s.

The broad lesson of Trump’s presidency is that clumsy, violent efforts to seize power — such as the January 6 insurrection — will meet with intra-party resistance, but subtler power grabs will not. Republicans decided to shrug at abuses like Trump using American diplomacy as a lever to coerce Ukraine to smear his opponent, refusing to accept the election outcome, or using the presidency to line his own pockets. They have enthusiastically joined in state laws to restrict voting and hand power over elections to party hacks.

What they seem to want is a leader who shares Trump’s contempt for democracy, but possesses a subtler touch. That is the vision Orban offers.

The difference between the left-wing American enthusiasts for Soviet communism a century ago and the conservative enthusiasts for Orbanism today is that at least the former were blinded by devotion to an ideal. They believed and hoped the Soviets were building a workers paradise and allowed this dream to blind them to the terror state that actually existed. Carlson is not ignoring Orban’s iron hand. For him, the repression is the very allure.