On Apocalypse scenarios

A recent post by Jeff Culbreath at “What’s Wrong with the World” spoke to a theme which, I trust, everyone has seen a few times:

Respectable (and not-so-respectable) pundits have been predicting a worldwide economic collapse for the better part of three years now. The advice of these “doomsday investors” to their wealthy clients amounts to this: buy rural property, preferably a self-sufficient farm, somewhere far away from the big cities; and stockpile essential supplies, especially gold, guns and ammunition. It’s an old idea that is becoming mainstream.

Arturo Vasquez responded sharply:

There is something uniquely American about these disaster porn type fantasies about the collapse of civilization. Sort of like saying: “well, now is my chance to live how I want to, without the interference of the gummint!” I think Mr. Culbreath does knock that sentiment down a couple of notches towards reality, but the fact that people make an industry out of it (and make movies about it) says a lot about our culture. The truth is, we have so much, and are afraid of losing it. But fear makes people do all sorts of stupid things.

I was living in Argentina when their currency devalued in 2002 and the presidency changed hands a couple of times. Maybe they are more used to that stuff down there, but in spite of what the media made of all of it, cats didn’t begin to marry dogs, it didn’t start to rain frogs, and life continued on pretty much as usual. The more realistic scenario in this country is that we become more like a Third World country: the rich get richer, and so forth. Heck, the upper class of Sao Paulo, Brazil, can’t even drive down the street for fear of kidnapping, and they fly home in helicopters.

While such social stratification is far from desirable, it is also far from societal collapse. All the talk of building a wall on the border with Mexico will soon be accompanied by a quieter movement to build walls within to keep the growing lower class out. Maybe that is my own “nightmare scenario”, but it has already happened in many parts of the world, so why not here?

I’m particularly bad at reading tea-leaves, and so I’m not the one to decide who has the better argument. But Arturo does a very good job at raising the question of whether apocalypse scenarios are too optimistic. When confronted by decadence, authoritarianism, and a sense that ones liberty is slipping away, it’s easy to comfort oneself with the notion- no doubt supported by plausible arguments – that the system will soon be swept away by economic and political collapse. But for one who sees the apocalypse coming, it is more horrifying to contemplate the possibility that the system might not collapse- and that ten, forty, or a hundred years from now, America will feel pretty much the same as it does now, even after a few more financial meltdowns or wars- or even after the apocalypse. Isn’t there something horrible about this? I think so- who wants to think that even an apocalypse can’t change “the system”? But I lean towards thinking that something like this horror is true – after all,  if the people have become so habitually rapacious or complacent to rapine that collapse is inevitable, they will carry these same habits with them into the world that must sprout up after the collapse. Whatever you build after you smash “the system” must be built by those who have only ever known “the system”. We think that there must be some purgative effect in starting from a clean slate, when in fact we can only give the clean slate to the very people who have just written what we wanted to erase.

Perhaps the hope that we invest in an apocalypse is not a natural hope, that is, it is not for something that nature or a political association can provide. Perhaps as soon as we are talking about real change in a natural or political context, we are not talking about something that can’t be achieved by dramatic transformations, but only by slow, plodding, frustrating, incremental ones. There is something unsatisfying about this, and which should lead us, to some extent, not to seek satisfaction in what nature or human ingenuity can provide.

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8 Comments

  1. July 18, 2010 at 1:33 pm

    But in response to a claim like this:

    “Whatever you build after you smash “the system” must be built by those who have only ever known “the system”.

    Why not say “but if this were true, then the Constitution would have been written by King George, reconstruction would have been done with the Confederate states, and the Marshall plan would have been executed with input by Nazis! Things short of complete Apocalypse can have pretty dramatic effects.”

    This is true, but I was working off the assumption that our longings for justice, and in fact the sort of longings that make us hope for an apocalypse, are more general than what can be provided by wiping out a party or a people after a war. What can be accomplished by wars, on the balance, is part of the gradualist moves of nature or political affairs, and can accomplish various true goods only by being bound up with a good deal of both intended and unintended wickedness.

  2. Brandon said,

    July 18, 2010 at 7:19 pm

    In a sense, I suppose, it has happened before; the Roman Empire survived economic meltdowns, invasions, civil wars, large-scale natural disasters, etc., and ‘the system’ just kept on going — it outlasted the empire itself, in fact, at least as far as the West was concerned. That’s what feudalism was: Diocletian, in an attempt to handle one of the empire’s economic meltdowns, made decrees that sharply limited economic mobility. This system kept going, a slight change here, a slight change there, becoming serfdom.

    I think you’re right that in some sense the apocalyptic scenarios are popular because they are consolatory, and for precisely the reason you suggest: they guarantee a new birth, however difficult the labor pangs. The more chilling prospect is a death that drags on so long that everyone begins to feel powerless in the face of its appearance of never ending.

  3. peeping thomist said,

    July 18, 2010 at 7:45 pm

    not with a bang, but a whimper

  4. The 27th Comrade said,

    July 19, 2010 at 12:02 am

    No previous civilisations were as delicate as these modern ones are. Subsistence has only recently become a bad word. You all, in these here comments, cannot go a week without eating imported stuff. Perishable, imported stuff. Even if the roads and electricity and fuel remained, but nobody loaded a ship with anything, people would have to eat each other. In the space of a few months.

    But that is not the real problem. The real problem, I think, is this idea of entitlement. People actually think it is somehow their right to be able to eat without knowing any farmers even by first name. Perhaps they should eat off a supermarket aisle, but it is the apex of the entitlement mentality to expect that this kind of thing—which is their only route to food—should continue regardless of a worthless dollar, East-West war, and/or civil strife, and it is what will cause the modern society to get a massive shock.
    And that is just food.

    It doesn’t have to end in flames, but neither did the dollar have to end like this.

  5. The 27th Comrade said,

    July 19, 2010 at 12:04 am

    @peeping thomist: Reading Dalrymple, I was thinking pace him, “Both with a bang, and a whimper.”

  6. July 19, 2010 at 4:11 am

    There is a lot of the typical American messianism in the survivalist tendency, and I have to concede that it crosses the cultural divide between left and right. (Though a lot of hippies got it out of their system by the 1970’s). I can concede the dangerous nature of modern covetousness in the First World that could be a recipe for disaster. On the other hand, the wealthy and powerful don’t seem to automatically disappear in a crisis. I don’t have any statistics, just anecdotes from my studies of Latin American political economy, but why do we assume that such a “crisis” would be an equal opportunity disaster for everyone? Does it have to do with our fantasy of America as an un-stratified, essentially classless society (or rather, a society that is dominated by a politically vocal middle class)?

    What if parts of America just go into an “apocalyptic” scenario (ever seen inner-city Detroit?) while certain areas are left with all the marbles, and the populace is too scared to say anything lest they lose the little that they still have? What if the apocalypse is not the apocalypse for everyone, just a silent majority, while an upper class and those who benefit from the crumbs falling off of their table continue on as usual (if only as the lumpenbourgeoisie of China and the rest of our creditors)?

    One thing is for sure, it will be different. In Argentina, you would go by the “villa miseria” (slum) and see shacks put together by cardboard and aluminum siding. What was most surreal, at least for this American, was the satellite dish sticking out of the flimsy roof. In that case, I have seen the future, and it is ghetto-digital.

    • July 19, 2010 at 11:44 am

      Another thing I wondered about is the peculiar American characteristic (among those in the first world, at least) to solve its problems with guns. This makes for a pretty strong force multiplier when one reaches the point of wanting to vent his anger at the government.

      Or maybe what I’m thinking is this: in most of the first world (at least all the parts of it I have experience with) the citizens simply think the government is a haughty, ivory-tower bourgeois and that there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Americans might talk this way, but in practice they still think- and Europeans would say they still naively think- that the government is beholden to them, that voting makes a difference, that “anyone can make a difference” etc. Again, the flip side of our rhetoric about “anyone can grow up to be president” (which can still stir the heart of the darkest American cynic) is that the president must be the same as everybody. What this means is that as soon as Americans start to think that they are being treated like subjects who were born with saddles on their backs, there is going to be a level of anger and a sense of betrayal that an Italian, Frenchman, or Englishman would not feel at thinking the same thing. And even if the European did feel betrayed by this, I doubt it would cross his mind to reach for a gun.

      Then again, in order for an American to be willing to march to Washington with guns, he’s have to be willing to miss a few nights of TV.

  7. Matteo said,

    July 19, 2010 at 8:09 pm

    “What this means is that as soon as Americans start to think that they are being treated like subjects who were born with saddles on their backs, there is going to be a level of anger and a sense of betrayal that an Italian, Frenchman, or Englishman would not feel at thinking the same thing.”

    You’ve got that right (damned right!, actually), although I seem to recall something about the French kicking their aristocracy to the curb a couple of centuries ago…


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