Reinventing Collapse

Dmitry Orlov book Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Example and American Prospects, published in 2008 ISBN:0865716064 (Thin Book: 176 pages) - Survivalism bit?

I anticipate that some Americans will react rather badly to having their country compared to the USSR. I would like to assure you that the Soviet people would have reacted similarly, had the United States collapsed first. “Of course the United States collapsed,” they would have said, “and why wouldn’t it have?

One key observation is that the US economy is dependent on the availability of cheap, plentiful oil (Cheap Oil) and natural gas to a greater extent than any other country. Once oil and gas become expensive (as they already have) and in ever-shorter supply (a matter of one or two years at most), economic growth will stop and the economy will collapse. The term “collapse” as I try to use it here has been given a precise meaning by JohnMichaelGreer’s theory of catabolic collapse in his 2005 book How Civilizations Fall: A Theory of Catabolic Collapse. Under this theory, Collapse can be calculated to occur when “production fails to meet maintenance requirements for existing capital” The theory adds some much needed rigor to the poorly understood recurring phenomenon of advanced societies suddenly going “poof.”

I would like to humbly suggest that any long-term plan it attempts to undertake is doomed, simply because crisis conditions will make long-term planning, along with large, ambitious projects, impossible. Thus, I would suggest against waiting around for some miracle device to put under the hood of every SUV and in the basement of every Mc Mansion, so that all can live happily ever after in this suburban dream, which is looking more and more like a nightmare in any case. The next circle of denial revolves around what must inevitably come to pass if the Goddess of Technology were to fail us: a series of wars over ever more scarce resources.

Civilizations do collapse — this is one of the best-known facts about them — but as anyone who has read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire will tell you, the process can take many centuries. What tends to collapse rather suddenly — and with far greater regularity than civilizations — is the economy. An economy does not collapse into a black hole from which no light can escape. Instead, something else happens: society begins to spontaneously reconfigure itself, establish new relationships and evolve new rules, in order to find a point of equilibrium at a lower rate of resource expenditure. Note that the exercise carries a high human cost: without an economy, many people suddenly find themselves as helpless as newborn babes. Many of them die sooner than they would otherwise : some would call this a “DieOff.

When faced with a collapsing economy, one should stop thinking of wealth in terms of Money. Access to actual physical resources and assets (Barter), as well as intangibles such as connections and relationships (Social Capital), quickly becomes much more valuable than mere cash.

Perhaps it is difficult for a people that attempt to quantify every kind of risk in terms of its monetary value to think about a type of risk that can only be compensated for through accepting a different living arrangement.

But even if the steps you take are largely symbolic, their value as mental preparation will not be. An economic collapse is the worst possible time to suffer a nervous breakdown, yet so often this is exactly what happens. Taking an unsentimental look at what is coming up can help put you at the top of your game at a time when everyone around you is reeling in shock and flailing about randomly. This will make you a very useful person, both to yourself and to others, in making the best of a bad situation. This is also something that you and I should realistically expect to be able to achieve. (Survivalism)

The Soviet Union and the United States are each either the winner or the runner-up in the following categories: the space race, the Arms Race , the jails race, the hated evil empire race, the squandering of natural resources race and the bankruptcy race. In some of these categories, the United States is, shall we say, a late bloomer, setting new records after its rival was forced to forfeit. Both believed, with giddy zeal, in science, technology and Progress, right up until the Chernobyl disaster occurred. After that, there was only one True Believer left.

The bankruptcy race is particularly interesting. Prior to its collapse, the Soviet Union was taking on foreign debt at a rate that could not be sustained. The combination of low world oil prices (Cheap Oil) and a peak in Soviet oil production (Peak Oil) sealed its fate. Later, the Russian Federation, which inherited the Soviet foreign debt, was forced to default on its obligations (Sovereign Debt), precipitating an international financial crisis. Russia’s finances later improved, primarily due to rising oil prices along with rising oil exports, and it is now well on its way to becoming an energy superpower. The United States is now facing a current account deficit that cannot be sustained, a falling currency and an energy crisis, all at once. It is now the world’s largest debtor nation, and most people do not see how it can avoid defaulting on its debt. According to a lot of analysts, it is technically bankrupt and is being propped up by foreign reserve banks, which hold a lot of dollar-denominated assets, and, for the time being, want to protect the value of their reserves. This game can only go on for so long. Thus, while the Soviet Union deserves honorable mention for going bankrupt first, the gold in this category (pun intended) will undoubtedly go to the United States, for the largest default ever.

A superpower must continually ingest plenty of highly skilled and motivated personnel — managers, scientists, engineers, military officers — who must be willing to endure hardship, give up their best years, ruin their health, perhaps even give their lives, slaving away designing and building things, fighting and doing all the dirty work. Motivating the needed quantities of people with money is out of the question, because that would not leave enough for the ruling elites to siphon off. The Upper Class-es tend to already be highly motivated by both money and status, but they also tend to be allergic to dirty work, and they can never be numerous enough to satisfy a superpower’s appetite for flesh. The only thing that can possibly provide the necessary motivating force is an idea: a communal myth (Master Narrative) powerful enough to cause people to commit their insignificant yet essential selves to the righteousness and glory of the great whole. A superpower’s vitality is critically dependent on the sustaining power of this myth. Shortly after it fails, so does the superpower.... America'’s belated and half-hearted answer to the classless society of the Soviets is the Middle Class society. After wallowing through the Great Depression and grasping at straws during the New Deal, the United States reaped a gigantic windfall following World War II, as the only large industrial player left standing. Much of the rest of the world’s industrial infrastructure had been bombed to rubble, giving the United States an opening. They used it to put every American within striking distance of achieving a cheap simulacrum of landed gentry, symbolized by a detached house surrounded by a patch of land big enough to accommodate private parking, a patch of grass and some shrubbery, and adorned, as an absolute necessity, by one’s own private automobile. American society is classless, at least in theory, since no one wants to admit to being either Upper Class or Lower Class. There is, supposedly, one large and homogeneous Middle Class; in fact, though, there is a small upper portion and a large and rapidly expanding lower portion. (see A 20th Century Economic Theory)

The universal right to drive a car (AutoMobile) is the linchpin of the American communal myth. Once a significant portion of the population finds that cars have become inaccessible to them, the effect on the national psyche may be so profound as to make the country ungovernable. Solving the underlying transportation problem, through the reintroduction of public transportation or other means, is beside the point: the image of the automobile is indelibly imprinted on the national psyche and it will not be easily dislodged.

Both the United States and the Soviet Union aspired to achieving better living through science, staking their very existence on the ability to deliver technological fixes to all manner of existing problems, as well as to all the unforeseen new problems (Side Effect-s) that were created in the course of applying technological fixes to existing problems. The inability to either prevent or successfully mitigate catastrophes, which, in a technology-based civilization, shows up as the inability to deal with a set of technical challenges, eventually destroys the population’'s faith in the system. In a society where every kind of prestige and status emanates from the exercise of technical prowess, such failure destroys trust and undermines respect for every kind of authority.... The Soviet Union failed to remain technologically competitive in three important technological categories: food production, consumer goods and information technology. None of these factors was lethal on its own, but the combination was quite damaging, to the prestige as well as the pocketbook. It is uncanny that the United States now appears poised to fail in these same categories as well — which is why I chose to include them here. (Food Supply dependent on Cheap Oil, ConsumerGoods all imported thus also dependent on Cheap Oil to get here, IT)

  • (on IT): It took a while, but the United States eventually found ways to approximate the Soviet failure in this area, and is presently hard at work looking for creative ways to kill the goose that lays golden eggs — by developing some secretiveness and tight central control of its own. The US is executing a three-pronged attack on the goose: through enforcing Intellectual Property laws, through criminalizing work in the area of computer Security and through perpetuating a fraud called Enterprise software, which has become something of a poster child for national dysfunction.

The Chernobyl disaster has some elements in common with the handling of the humanitarian disaster following Hurricane Katrina. Similarities include lack of truthfulness in addressing the immediate consequences, loss of ancestral lands and political appointeeism (a horse specialist nicknamed “Brownie” was thrust in command, based on his credentials as the college roommate of a friend of the President). After Hurricane Katrina, the government continued to claim that the refugees were being evacuated, while in reality they were herded together, turned back by police and national guard troops when they tried to walk out of the disaster zone and allowed to die. As with Chernobyl, the government continued to lie until there was a public outcry, with much damage to the reputations of all concerned.

Russia has scaled back Defense Spending considerably after the Soviet collapse, but the defense budget of the United States has kept growing like a tumor and is on course to match and surpass what the entire rest of the world spends on defense. While one might naively assume that the rest of the world is quivering before such overwhelming military might, nothing of the sort is occurring. There is a little secret that everyone knows: the United States military does not know how to win. It just knows how to blow things up. Blowing things up may be fun, but it cannot be the only element in a winning Grand Strategy. The other key element is winning the peace once major combat operations are over, and here the mighty US military tends to fall squarely on its face and lay prone until political support for the war is withdrawn and the troops are brought back home... The lesson that the United States desperately needs to learn is that their trillion-dollar-a-year military is nothing more than a gigantic public money sponge that provokes outrage among friends and enemies alike and puts the country in ill repute. It is useless against its enemies, because they know better than to engage it directly. It can never be used to defeat any of the major, nuclear powers, because sufficient deterrence against it can be maintained for relatively little money. It can never defuse a popular insurgency, because that takes political and diplomatic finesse, not a compulsion to bomb far-away places. Political and diplomatic finesse cannot be procured, even for a trillion dollars, even in a country that believes in extreme makeovers.

What few people realize is that there is an American counterpart to the Brezhnev Doctrine. It is the Carter Doctrine, which states that the United States would use military force if necessary to defend its national interests in the Persian Gulf region. Carter announced it in a State of the Union speech in January of 1980, in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It is in the national interest of the United States to be able to efficiently exploit the oil resources of Iraq and direct the resulting flow of oil to eager motorists back home. The military failure in Iraq (which as of this writing appears complete) is tantamount to a declaration that the Carter Doctrine is no longer in effect. The ensuing backslide will mean more than just the loss of Iraqi oil production; it may force the US out of the entire region. Coupled with other unhappy developments, such as the ongoing devaluation of the US dollar, widespread oil production shortfalls due to oil field depletion and increasing political instability in several oil-exporting countries, this may cause the US to lose access to oil in other regions as well. This will not make motorists back home happy. Moreover, it will spell the end of the American dream of global dominance and the definitive loss of superpower status.

In the end the jails race has been won by the Americans, who are currently holding the world record for the percentage of population held in jail. Here, the judiciary meat grinder relies less on secrecy than on obscurity, gorging itself on the poor and the defenseless, while being careful around the moneyed and the privileged. To mask its naked aggression against its citizens, the United States has traditionally used the fig leafs of constitutional rights and due process. But the ill winds now blowing across the country have wilted this decorative flora, and not a week seems to go by without some new reports of abuses or atrocities. The American justice system favors the educated, the corporations and the rich, and takes unfair advantage of the uneducated, the private citizen and the poor. (Oligarchy) In recent years, appalling numbers of those awaiting execution have been exonerated as a result of DNA testing. This amounts to an attempted murder rate high enough to condemn the entire criminal justice system that is responsible for it and, at the very least, ban everyone involved in it from further public service. But nothing of the sort is likely to happen, since most of the victims are poor and are therefore of no consequence to the larger system. As ever-increasing numbers of people find themselves lapsing into Poverty, they will also find that they cannot pay what it takes to secure a good legal outcome for themselves. They will start to see the system not as one of justice but as a tool of oppression, and will learn to avoid it rather than look to it for help.

Beyond the mere indignity of having to rush around with bundles of worthless paper, national bankruptcy (Sovereign Debt) brings more serious effects. One is that a large segment of the population -— pensioners and others on fixed incomes -— are left penniless. Another is that imports grow scarce. In the case of the United States, which imports over half of its energy and a large proportion of its consumer goods, this will mean gasoline shortages, blackouts and empty shelves in stores. These are accompanied by a credit crunch, which makes it impossible to finance new projects. The combined effect of these disruptions causes business activity to slow to a crawl and personal incomes to plummet, driving down government revenues, in turn causing government services to be curtailed. For most people in the US, rich or poor, life without Money is unthinkable. They may want to give this problem some thought, ahead of time.

For each of the two superpowers, their sense of identity has been firmly rooted in their singular ideology — either Socialism or Capitalism. It is their extreme adherence to one or the other that has doomed their societies, and economies, in the long run. All of the more successful developed nations are both socialist and capitalist to different degrees, because by this point in time it is very well understood that ideology has its limits... AlbertCamus also indicated a specific failure of both systems: their inability to provide Creative, Meaningful work. We see this failure in the very high rates of depression. We attempt to define depression as a psychological ailment, but it is a symptom of a cultural failure: the inability to make life meaningful or enjoyable. (Hmm, are the Mixed Economy countries like Scandinavia really doing any better? I don't think so. I think this is more of an Industrial Age/BigWorld issue, rather than being tied to which set of economic Game Rule-s are being set.)

The American election system is one of optional false choice: the one uniquely meaningful choice that is perennially missing is “NoneOfTheAbove”. The Soviet Union had a single, entrenched, systemically corrupt political party, which held a monopoly on power. The US has two entrenched, systemically corrupt political parties (Two Party System), whose positions are often indistinguishable and which together hold a Monopoly on power. In either case, there is, or was, a single governing elite, but in the United States it organizes itself into opposing teams to make its stranglehold on power seem more sportsmanlike. It is certainly more sporting to have two capitalist parties go at each other than just having the one communist party to vote for. The things they fight over in public are generally symbolic little tokens of social policy, chosen for ease of public posturing. The Communist party offered just one bitter pill. The two capitalist parties offer a choice of two placebos. The latest innovation is the photo finish election, where each party pre-purchases exactly 50 percent of the vote through largely symmetrical allocation of campaign resources and the result is pulled out of statistical noise, like a rabbit out of a hat. It is a tribute to the intelligence of the American people that so few of them bother to vote.

The United States generally could not draw on public support in expanding its sphere of influence and relied on various other techniques, such as political assassinations (as in Iran, Iraq and Chile), which were often carried out through a proxy. Outright invasion was tried on a few occasions, with very mixed success. But another technique, which went under the guise of promoting economic development, worked quite well for a time. Here, a country’s natural resources were developed and exploited by providing development assistance. (International Development) In recent years, the United States has also attempted to stage-manage democratic revolutions in various unfortunate countries that were formerly part of the Soviet sphere of influence. These were the work of the Color Revolution Syndicate... This, and other similarly delusional efforts to rekindle the Cold War, signal the desperation felt by the American propagandists. With Iraq a resounding defeat, with the wider War on Terror only succeeding in doubling the number of terrorist attacks, and with a war against Iran unwinnable even as a board game played by retired generals, the US desperately needs an enemy to justify having a military that cannot win.

Whether directly or indirectly, it can provide food and shelter, medical care, the means for getting around, education for one’s children, support in old age and so on... While the Soviet Union provided most of these key services using the public sector, the population of the United States is critically dependent on the private sector for most, if not for all of them. We will find that this arrangement may provide a higher Standard Of Living while the economy is still functioning, but that it is far from optimal for survival once it shuts down.

All successful adaptations to the new circumstances will have to be made at the local level, and will have to rely on existing infrastructure, inventory and locally available talents and skills. When faced with such developments, some people are quick to realize what they have to do to survive and start doing these things, generally without permission. A sort of economy emerges, completely informal, and often semi-criminal. It revolves around liquidating and recycling the remains of the old economy. It is based on direct access to resources and the threat of force, rather than ownership or legal authority. People who have a problem with this way of doing business quickly find themselves out of the game.

With the official economy at a standstill, the old capital, consisting of stocks, bonds and cash, quickly becomes worthless... On the other hand, personal connections, favors and physical access to needed supplies prove to be of abiding value.

In the United States, very few people own their place of residence free and clear, and even they need an income to pay Real Estate taxes. The real owners of real estate in the US are banks and corporations. People without an income face homelessness... In the US, most of the land is privately owned, some by people who put up signs threatening to shoot trespassers. Most “public places” are in fact private, marked “Customers Only” and “No Loitering.” Where there are public parks, these are often “closed” at night, and anyone trying to spend a night there is likely to be told to “move along” by the police.

The population of the United States is almost entirely car-dependent (AutoMobile), and relies on markets that control oil import, refining and distribution, as well as on continuous public investment in road construction and repair. The cars themselves require a steady stream of imported parts and are not designed to last very long. When these intricately interconnected systems stop functioning, much of the population will find itself stranded. Once cars become inaccessible to a significant portion of the population, not only will this development sound the death knell for the myth of American inclusiveness, but the anger and envy of the automotively dispossessed will quickly make cars an unsafe form of travel for the rest of the population. The resulting environment is likely to run the gamut between what we see in Israel (paramilitary security, high walls and watchtowers, and private roadways for the rich) and what we see in Iraq (endless checkpoints, roadside bombs and armed convoys).

Without a concerted effort to rebuild transcontinental Rail Road links prior to the onset of crisis conditions, once the airlines and the interstate highway system become a thing of the past, the two coasts will remain connected by the Panama Canal only, forcing them to part company. There is no evidence that such an effort is even being considered. Navigable rivers and canals will once again start serving a vital function, determining which population centers remain in communication with the rest of the world, with the rest becoming largely isolated.

The most successful form of transportation by far is the Bicycle. While there is currently a bicycle for almost every person in the US, these bicycles by and large sit still in garages and basements, rusting and gathering dust. About a tenth of them might be rideable at any given time. If large numbers of people attempt to start using them, the immediate effect will be a shortage of bicycle tires, which deteriorate due to dry rot. Even if this problem finds a solution, it will soon be discovered that the vast majority of the bicycles are in fact toys designed for sport, not for hauling loads or for the rigors of a daily commute, and most of them will fail within a year of hard daily use. Overhauling them requires a wide assortment of imported spare parts, which is unlikely to be available. The old three-speed Columbias and other antiques, which were designed to carry 300 pounds and to go 100,000 miles between overhauls, will suddenly become highly prized.

Paradoxically, these (Soviet Union industry) very failings and inefficiencies made for a soft landing. Because there was no mechanism by which state enterprises could go bankrupt, they often continued to operate for a time at some low level, holding back salaries or scaling back production.

What parallels can we draw from this to employment in the post-collapse United States? Public sector employment may provide somewhat better chances for keeping one’s job. For instance, it is unlikely that all schools, colleges and universities will dismiss all of their faculty and staff at the same time. Nor will government agencies, government-funded research labs or government contractors involved in support and maintenance activities. It is somewhat more likely that their salaries will not be enough to live on, but they may, for a time, be able to maintain their social niche. Properties and facilities management is probably a safe bet: as long as there are properties that are considered valuable, they will need to be looked after. When the time comes to dismantle them and barter off the pieces, it will help if they are still intact, and if you are the one who has the keys to them.

One major difference is that the Soviet Union was entirely self sufficient when it came to skilled labor. Both before and after the collapse, skilled labor was one of its main exports, along with oil, weapons and industrial machinery. Not so with the United States, where not only is most of the manufacturing being carried out abroad, but a lot of service back home is being provided by immigrants. This runs the gamut from farm labor, landscaping and of fice cleaning to the professions, such as engineering and medicine, without which society and its infrastructure would unravel. Most of these people came to the United States to enjoy the superior standard of living — for as long as it remains superior. Many of them will eventually head home, leaving a gaping hole in the social fabric. (Maker-s)... This may mean that even in areas where there will be ample scope for innovation and development, such as restoration of rail service, or renewable energy, America may find itself without the necessary talent to make it happen.

When confronting hardship, people usually fall back on their families for support. Since for many people in the US this option has been foreclosed by their atomized living arrangement, we need to look to other possibilities. Most surprisingly, Americans make better communists than Russians ever did, or cared to try. They excel at communal living, with plenty of good, stable roommate situations, which compensate for their weak, alienated or nonexistent families.

Most of the children are humans-“Lite, deprived of the stories, myths and trials that human children have been put through for the past few million years, minus a bizarre century or two — and so are gravely ill-equipped for life outside the artificial life support system. They are an industrial product: almost from birth they are placed in an entirely artificial social context, where they are evaluated, classified and shoved through a series of institutions, to be readied for a lifetime of service in a system whose feedstock is a commodity human product: Grade A human, marketable skills up-to-date, properly credentialed. Even if their parents and grandparents were intact and able to impart wisdom, the children had not been programmed to process that sort of information. All that the people in the US can hope for is that strangers will be nice to them... The two most important social institutions within the US are the individual and the nuclear family, and neither is designed to survive economic collapse.

Most people in the United States cannot survive very long without an income. This may sound curious to some people in the US: How can anyone, anywhere survive without an income? Well, in post-collapse Russia, if you didn'’t pay rent or utilities (because no one else was paying them either), and if you grew or gathered a bit of your own food, and you had some friends and relatives to help you out, then an income was not a prerequisite for survival. To keep evil at bay, Americans require money. In an economic collapse, there is usually hyperinflation, which wipes out savings. There is also widespread unemployment, which wipes out incomes. The result is a population that is largely penniless... The commonsense approach to reconciling yourself to the prospect of not having any money is to look for ways to survive without needing any... However, instead of concentrating on this commonsense approach, a great many people who are aware of the energy predicament and its implications for the US economy prefer to concentrate on a high-risk approach: hoarding (cash, Gold)... How much is this stuff really going to be worth?.. Those who are most helpless will find themselves on the inside, in institutional settings such as jails, asylums and hastily organized camps for the internally displaced, kept alive while the institutions hold together and supplies last. Those who are more resourceful will find ways to remain on the outside, and may find themselves pursued and persecuted as terrorists, while the institutions hold together and supplies last, but eventually they will be left alone as the supplies needed to continue persecuting them run low.

As the flow of products is curtailed, disposable products simply vanish. After an initial period of hoarding, they become available sporadically and in small quantities, but are now treated carefully and reused as much as possible. Disposable cups, plates, bags, syringes, shavers and countless other items suddenly become far less disposable... An old-fashioned straight shaver, or a stainless steel-and-glass syringe, suddenly become prized possessions.

With enough effort at subjugating nature, through chemical farming, genetic manipulation, pumping down non-replenishing aquifers, ethanol production and other weapons of mass desertification, anything is achievable, even starvation, right here in the US.

Shortly before the Soviet Union'’s collapse, it became known informally that the ten percent of farmland allocated to Kitchen Garden-s (in meager tenth of a hectare plots) accounted for some 90 percent of domestic food production. During and after the economic collapse, with the government stores quite uncontaminated by food, and often closed altogether, these plots became lifesavers for many families... What many Russians practiced, either through tradition or by trial and error, or sheer laziness, was in some ways akin to the new organic farming and PermaCulture techniques. Many productive plots in Russia look like a riot of herbs, vegetables, and flowers growing in wild profusion. In the waning years of the Soviet era, the kitchen garden economy continued to gain in importance. Beyond underscoring the gross inadequacies of Soviet-style command and control industrial agriculture, the success of the private kitchen gardens is indicative of a general fact: agriculture is far more efficient when it is carried out on a small scale, using manual labor... In addition to small-scale farming, forests in Russia have always been used as an important additional source of food. Russians recognize and eat just about every edible Mush Room variety and all of the edible berries... he combination of local food stockpiles administered by politicians conditioned to treat bread riots as career-ending calamities, the prevalence of government institutions that attended to the sustenance of their employees and plenty of kitchen gardens, meant that there was no starvation and very little malnutrition.

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