And then what?
I like that you consider how the breakdown of the west might play out in the long term. So many here have reached the painful reality that the government will not and really, as composed and oriented, cannot govern effectively anymore.
You're conclusions are very bleak and, from where we stand now, that seems appropriate. However alongside the constant and rapidly moving social breakdown of the west, there is another process working in tandem that should be considered in any long term protections on where this all ends.
Since WW2, the west has enjoyed a relatively stable society with strong economic and political underpinnings. Economically, the root of this stability has broken down in small ways slowly and then in the last 3 years, very rapidly in large and very obvious ways. Over that period a Keynesian reformist form of Capitalism meant to prevent the type of social revolution seen in 1917 has degenerated to a system essentially for by and of a collection of Billionaire Oligarchs which locks nearly the entire population into a debt slavery that is so overwhelming real economic activity and development have ground to a halt. To replace the somewhat healthy real economy that developed after WW2 in the west, financial transactions in which nothing is produced now make up most of the "production" of the west.
This change was slow and developed over decades. It is now complete and the small social dislocations it caused have become overwhelming social problems. The breakdown has in the last years has become so pitched it is now impossible to ignore. So, you have masses of western citizens suddenly coming to the correct realization that they cannot trust their government or it's corporate salesman at all. This sudden realization has to say the least shocked and traumatized millions. They remain in that state at the moment and thus appear inert, which leaves the impression that only existing forms of organized violence like gangs, islamists, or state groups like police and the military are the only viable players in the years to come.
I think this is an error. Society is predominantly made up of people compelled to work for a living or live in a cardboard box. This vast majority gets up early, focuses on achieving goals as a team and in the process produces everything that is consumed the world over. With the breakdown they have become increasingly conscious of themselves as a class, an oppressed, manipulated and abused class that does all the work of society. They are also actively searching for alternative ideologies in an effort to return to a stable and fair society, which is why you and many others have become increasingly popular.
The state of shock and confusion that this class is now in will not last forever. Undreamed of political alternatives will appear and grow, some horrific others quite rational and orderly. To imagine the future in this situation means to also consider how this class is going to change politically and socially. Imagining the future with just the organized actors on scene today is a bit short sighted. Especially in view of history 1789-1865-1917.
"For the first time in modern western history, there are no groups with organisations and ideologies waiting in the wings, either to launch a struggle for power, or to profit from a power vacuum"
That quote is true for now, but will it remain the case as the breakdown persists and worsens? And as you stated it as "the first time in history", doesn't that seem like a strange anomaly? It is an anomaly that is attributable to the global dominance of West since WW2 and the consequent economic stability that flowed from that dominance at least in the west itself. This reality allowed people to believe they lived in a an eternally viable socioeconomic system. That illusion is now gone, all at once.
That period is over and the new reality will work a change on masses of people. It's important to consider that side of the question as well. How will they change, what perspective will they develop, and how will they organize themselves and enter the struggle to fill the power vacuum?
The idea that all these productive, proactive working people will just become a bunch of gawking spectators while the existing organized violence battles it out is just unrealistic imo.
It's time to imagine the possibilities in the current breakdown not just the hardships.
"One of my consistent themes has been that this kind of thing cannot go on forever. Given the many developing crises that are jostling for priority now, social breakdown, either self-generated, or more likely a consequence of multiple economic or environmental and health crises, may well not be far away. In fact social breakdown is perhaps already here, even if, as William Gibson might say, it’s not evenly distributed."
Sure it can go on forever, or at least for the foreseeable future. One of my consistent themes is that the West will increasingly resemble Brazil, albeit a Brazil with worse weather, less attractive females, shittier music, and a more hyperbelligerent foreign policy.
And such an arrangement suits the elites just fine, thank you very much.
Like Brazil, you will see increasing ghettoization, but the average frustrated Brazilian oligarch doesn't care whether a given favela is ruled by Commando Vermelho or Terciero Commando or someone else, since he never has to go there. Like Brazil, you will hear touching appeals to Muh Rule Of Law but only when politically convenient. As a practical matter, there will be sets of laws for the poor, some administered by government forces and others by gangs or other informal forces, all brutal and none of whom answer to any authority when dealing with the poor. The oligarchs are unconstrained by any law other than their own.
Happy horseshit rhetoric aside, this has been the way things worked for most people throughout most of history. The West had a good run, but it is rapidly reverting to the mean. The Iron Law Of Oligarchy always wins in the end.
One of the things that they won't tell you is that, throughout history, the common people have often been the biggest supporters of autocrats, tyrants and absolutists, because these were the people who protected them against the oligarch class, the local baron or zamindar, the person who was much more involved in the oppression of the average frustrated peasant than some far away king. The petty nobles were the ones demanding limits to royal authority, Magna Cartas and talk of civil rights, mainly because they wanted to restrict the power of the King and to increase their own rights.
"How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?" - Samuel Johnson
It seems obvious to me that the possibility of societal collapse in "the West" can't be properly understood without foregrounding the role of European global colonialism, and if there's any coherent definition of the concept of "the West" at all, it's probably congruent with the regions of Europe (along with its former settler-colonies) that have functioned as the metropoles of global colonial empires. Your essay seems to take for granted (or at least leaves it unstated) that "areas of poverty" in Western societies are synonymous with areas of "high immigration," continually repopulated with "more and more desperate waves of new immigrants, ready to be exploited in their turn," as if desperate impoverished immigrants seeking to enter the West are some kind of constant and functionally inexhaustible stream like electromagnetic radiation from the sun -- but of course demographically significant one-way migration into Europe isn't a historical constant, and instead of treating its relatively recent ubiquity as some kind of mysterious uncaused cause, we should pay closer attention to how wealth and resources have been systematically extracted from the vast majority of the world and hoarded by the societies of "the West," with the migration of people essentially just following belatedly over the same pathways that the migration of economic value has already traversed.
The damaging effects of colonialism on the moral character of societies that perpetrate it are well described in works like Aime Cesaire's "Discourse on Colonialism" (the West "tolerated Nazism before it was inflicted on them; they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimized it, because, until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples; they have cultivated that Nazism, they are responsible for it, and before engulfing the whole of Western, Christian civilization in its reddened waters, it oozes, seeps, and trickles from every crack") but I think it's also useful to consider the damaging effects of economic dependence on imperial plunder, not just in the quantitative economic sense of how we'd make ends meet in the absence of cheap foreign labor whose outputs can be purchased for a fraction of the wages we receive for our own labor, but also in the more qualitative cultural sense of how difficult it would be for us to recover our long-lost memory of what it would even look like to live within our collective means, to improve and maintain what we have instead of discarding and replacing, to rely on each other for survival instead of assuming we can all exist as perfectly spherical liberal individuals in a frictionless social vacuum.
In that sense, the colonial metropoles of northern and western Europe may have a very rough adjustment period ahead of them to return to a more sustainable pre-colonialist economic and cultural equilibrium, but colonial settler societies like the US or Australia may well be functionally equivalent to outposts on the Moon -- like a space station built on the presumption of constant resupply from Earth, these societies' cultural norms and ways of life have been built from the ground up on the presumption of constant inflows of economic value from our colonial peripheries, and forcing such societies to live within their means at best would transform them into something they've never been before, and at worst would simply destroy them outright.
I’ll point to Russia’s experience again. The state didn’t disappear or fully fail in the 90’s. It just wasn’t very effective at much beyond being co-opted by what was effectively organized crime. And that bled into the state functioning more like organized crime than we in the west expect. (I’ve never been to Africa but I’m sure there are similarities.) The traffic cop was still a traffic cop and was a state official, but not so constrained as one might like the police to be and as corrupt as anyone else in government.
Business went on, though it too was infused with facets of organized crime tacked onto deep corruption within the state. You could make quite a lot of money in legitimate business … or you could end up dead because of a business “deal”.
And yet a lot of the hallmarks of order remained. I can’t remember ever seeing anyone smoke in a metro station. That may have just been fear of the cleaning ladies who enforced the cultural norm of them being non-smoking. Things still functioned, but not the same and not as well. People just got on with it.
In the west the poor will likely be less upset by our coming experience. They’re used to things not functioning and just having to get on with it. They’re - on the whole - far more familiar with elements of the “black market” in one way or the other. At the extreme end, most homeless people wouldn’t notice much if the government ceased to function effectively or even went away all together. For the middle and upper classes, the shock will be rude.
The fantasies many have of a Mad Max kind of world won’t come true. Everything will just suck more. Everything will become harder and more unreliable. Things will probably become more generally violent. And we’ll all just have to figure out a way to get on with it.
After coming across your writing a few weeks ago I have been going through your back-catalogue, these essays are a highlight of my week. Thank you!
This piece (and some of your others exploring similar themes) reminded me of an interesting article written by Alex Hochuli in American Affairs two years or so back - “The Brazilianisation of the World”. With your references to Africa I couldn’t help but feel Latin America (or the New World as a whole, really) provides another interesting comparison for the future of governance in the West.
The American continent is also politically modern - built with constitutional Republican systems, it is often prone to patterns of strongman behaviour and violent ideological conflict and overhaul. No post-independence American state has, in the last century, gone to war with another post-independence American state. Conflict is localised - guérilla conflicts, civil wars, revolutions, urban gang conflict. Patterns of social exclusion are usually drawn on highly racialised class lines, violence often follows this.
Importantly, the modern states of the American continent have historically been demographically turbulent and highly multicultural - either because of colonial depopulation and repopulation, immigration, and changing population structures. While they are typically good at integrating disparate groups into the nation as an identity, they are often poor at integrating disparate groups with each other.
I suspect that a lot of the violence in Latin American societies is due to the fact that there is a certain sort of internal normlessness (in a Durkheimian sense) - few stable ‘whole of society’ institutions that are able to effectively govern interactions between or within disparate groups, even where there are no obvious alternatives to remaining part of one polity (which is also why demagogic strongmen do so well - I’m sure you could find similar parallels in diverse societies ike Modi’s India). I also suspect this is why the US’s ‘melting pot’ approach historically worked so well, because the US was very good at enforcing certain civil-society norms, although I am not sure this is still the case.
Where I’m getting to with this is that I think certain European societies have sort of undergone a Latin Americanisation - their national and state identities are modern, not grounded in old monarchies or religious orders, and their norms are modern, too. The problem is that European civil society is still in large part founded on norms that came out of older, homogenous cultures that are relatively inaccessible (and thus bad at integrating) newcomers, even as these societies become increasingly diverse.
Newcomers see the state as a hostile vessel for a parochial and exclusionary civil society, but the state does not actually function as a nation-state and at least officially operates under liberal neutrality. What that means though is at the point of state crisis or failure, it actually has no constituency whatsoever. More importantly, while I think modern Latin American societies are broadly post-ethnic-conflict (even though ethnic and racial identities are drawn across class and cultural lines, there are rarely major gaps in worldview or religious identity that lead to overt conflict), I’m not sure this would be the case in Europe.
I would suggest that the reference point for the future of the collapsing states is not any existing functioning societies but formerly complex societies that fell apart and disappeared into the fog of history (https://www.amazon.com/Collapse-Complex-Societies-Studies-Archaeology/dp/052138673X). Socieities that survive have, as you put it, the structure of communities and tribes to fall back on if the modern state falls apart (commentators have marveled at how quickly Iraqis discovered religion and tribes after 2003. But Saddam Hussein's gov't retained what might be termed some version of the Millet System, with tribal and ethnic ties playing meaningful role in how rewards of the state are distributed, as I understand it--i.e. loyal Shi'ites to the regime were given roles within the state so that they would act as the representatives of the state to their tribe as much as, or more than, the vice versa). We don't really have that now: modern multiculturalist "community leaders" in US usually don't have any credibility with their "communities" but are skilled at saying things that make PMC feel good about their own preconceptions about these "communities." In fact, a lot of "communities" (not just so-called "minorities.") don't have obvious focal points any more.
One interesting thing that people not from US have found peculiar about US politics in the past is that, if citizens have issues with the workings of the (federal) state, they didn't go to the offices of the state, but to the office of their member of Congress. This, is, of course, consistent with the traditional role of the members of Congress: they were members of the local "tribes," defined along the myriad interlocking social networks that exist locally (social, religious, and business associations, school ties, unions, etc), who represent their collective interests vis-a-vis the "quasi-foreign" entity of the state. This is not really the case now (and the change has been gradual over past 30-40 years): members of Congress are, for most part, no longer really members of the local community--they don't come back to their constituencies often (there used to be many members of Congress who flew back weekly to attend several Sunday services), the "services" they provide to their constituents are often highly bureaucratic, not different from other parts of gov't bureaucracy that people might be having difficulties with, etc. Of course, there really aren't the kind of complex social networks that used to define the local "tribes" any more. In some ways, US has always been a more effective version of Lebanon and US political system a more peaceful variant of Hiz'bullah. No one, sadly, realizes this even in retrospect.
PS. Now, I don't think this is not necessarily a bad way to run a functioning state: in fact, I'd describe this as the American model of state-building: state as a supplementary tool built on top of highly developed, stable, and peaceful network of local communities and tribes that are generally self-sustaining, but in need of outside support and/or coordination for some things beyond their capabilities. I'd even say that this is a very efficient method of building and maintaining a "strong" state without becoming too overbearing or sclerotic, if all the pieces fall into the right places. But this presupposes functional, stable, and fairly cohesive local communities that are capable of more or less taking care of themselves with their own resources much or even most of the time normally. If the communities fail, the American state model becomes far more fatally flawed than a more "conventional" state, the evidence of which we are seeing more and more of.
John Kenneth Galbraith said that "every successful revolution is the kicking in of a rotten door." Though there is no one waiting in the wings at the moment, a door this rotten is an invitation to put on some boots.
I agree that many places will end up with less centralized control, like Africa. But in some cases, I expect some kind of ideology to emerge that is capable of wresting control from the decaying government.
Historically, feudalism followed the collapse of a civilization as competing war bands settled down into more formalized structures, but I suspect that that is over a much longer timeframe than you are considering here.
There has been some discussion lately about the parallels between competing oligarchies run by billionaires, and the politics of feudalism that held sway for five centuries in Europe. The corporate model, which is the 'political' model most of us live with at least from 9-5 every day, is not a democratic one, and it's run into shaky ground with all the offshoring and outsourcing, but it otherwise seems to have worked pretty well as a political model. I'd be curious whether what might fill the power vacuum as western governments continue to lose legitimacy, is a kind of melding of oligarchic feudalism and 'corporatism', where people turn, effectively, to their employer for the security and provisions they once expected from their government. Of course oligarchies and corporations do not currently have armies to coerce obedience and protect assets, but the economic power they have over their people (to promote, reward, demote or dismiss) works pretty well to keep people in line.
Food for thought again, thank you.
A little about law. Some Maxims via https://famguardian.org/TaxFreedom/LegalRef/MaximsOfLaw.htm#Law :
Consent makes the law. A contract is a law between the parties, which can acquire force only by consent.
Consent makes the law: the terms of a contract, lawful in its purpose, constitute the law as between the parties.
To him consenting no injury is done.
He who consents cannot receive an injury.
Every consent involves a submission; but a mere submission does not necessarily involve consent.
A contract founded on a base and unlawful consideration, or against good morals, is null.
The agreement of the parties makes the law of the contract.
The contract makes the law.
Agreements give the law to the contract.
The last three demonstrate a fundamental meaning of 'law' as any mutually agreed-upon contract; that agreement is now a Law between those two (or more) parties.
We consent to operate within a jurisdicion of national laws which have been written out for all citizens to read and which we are assumed to be bound by given we consent to live within such jurisdiction. If we don't like it, we are free to go and find a jurisdiction with different laws/contracts/agreements.
So the underlying basis of law is consent, aka agreement.
What is surprising to me is how pervasively good most people are, how relatively little violence there is. I live in low income, small-town rural Mexico where there is quite a bit of burglary with the occasional murder. But generally speaking driving around and walking down the streets, it feels safe, open and very normal. Because most people are basically good. Not all, and those who are not can do great damage, but most.
It would be good if our societies, including their leadership, were better able to appreciate and foster this collective goodness. Unfortunately in keptocracies such as ours that is not regarded as either of interest or a priority.
Another thoughtful essay with which I agree on much of the musings. Once commentator contends that your assertions are "very bleak", and this is true, yet looking around at all that is going on today and where exponential debt is taking us, I think your predictions are conceivably likely indeed.
On law I read somewhere a long time ago that at its most basic the underlying basis was:
1. Do not encroach on other persons or their property (criminal law)
2. Do all you agree to do (contract law)
Seems simple yet today we have tens of thousands of laws following up on those dramatically simple concepts and millions of lawyers spending a lifetime arguing about the minutia of them.
You state, and have stated before, that the basic primal question for any given person or family is "who will protect me?" I'd like to offer a slight refinement that I think illuminates what you're getting at in the article and the fundamental problem with Western politics you've made it your mission to bring to the understanding of your readers:
"Who will organize my protection?"
This immediately shows why Nazi Gauleiters did and were able to take on air raid marshal duties: they were the Schelling points for local political organization, and everyone in the local sphere understood that, including themselves.
Aside, have you read Alfred Willard Jones' "Before Church and State"? It's not strongly related to this article, but your laying out of the fundamental philosophical bases of modern political organization brought it to mind. It's an exegesis of the realm and government of Louis IX's France through primary sources, of interest both for historical reasons and as a worked example of an alternative to the foundation of government on the idea of force.
"We have Twitter and contract law"
Well one of those has been X'ed out (no big loss, social media is not social structure) and tort law is becoming a relic of my distant youth.
Everyday for me provides another nail in the coffin for the dearth of competent Western leadership..
It pleases this geezer to see the question of authority pondered. On his personal WordPress blog, one Category adorns every post: Authority. Authority is the core "problem" today in geo-political, national, community, corporation, family, and personal strategics, operations, and tactics. Where is it, what is it, who has it, and why? Authority is a spiritual reality before it is any other kind, or it isn't at all.
"But again, few western countries actually have the resources to combat this kind of threat on any larger scale and for any long period of time. "
Most western countries have the physical resources indicated. The moral and intellectual resources indicated most western countries do not have. As Martyanov says, they lack "the tool kit."
Seen any riots in Moscow or St. Petersburg of late? Vladivostok? Yekaterina? Remember Pussy Riot and their fate? You don't pussyfoot with agents of chaos, if you're civilized.
In Afghanistan during the latter years, an entire Marine Division sat in their posts and outposts waiting to be attacked. Their commander was furious, but under orders. The only in-country US kinetic force allowed by ISAF during that period was conducted by a Company of the 75th RR.
At the same time, never in the entire US military-diplomatic-financial occupation of that country was the industrial-scale heroin processing and shipping center in the triangle between the Helmand and Khash Rivers targeted. Why is that? It's still working, around the clock. No damage done. There.
Weber is an atheist. He didn't get it.
I'm interested in the process of the rise and fall of governments. In the US, we have a declaration of their purpose and reason for their inception - "...We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, ...", (https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript) but I've recently developed a strong feeling that Mancur Olson's 'stationary bandits' (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mancur_Olson - "... Olson argued that under anarchy, a "roving bandit" only has the incentive to steal and destroy, whilst a "stationary bandit"—a tyrant—has an incentive to encourage some degree of economic success as he expects to remain in power long enough to benefit from that success. A stationary bandit thereby begins to take on the governmental function of protecting citizens and their property against roving bandits. ...") have a lot to do with it as well, and have been wondering how it will all end. Thanks for providing a version of the likely future.