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In a Handful of Dust

All things considered, it’s a good time to think about how much we can know about the future in advance. A hundred years ago last Saturday, as all my European readers know and a few of my American readers might have heard, a young Bosnian man named Gavrilo Prinzip lunged out of a crowd in Sarajevo and emptied a pistol into the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, who were touring that corner of the ramshackle Austro-Hungarian empire they were expected to inherit in due time. Over the summer months that followed, as a direct result of those gunshots, most of the nations of Europe went to war with one another, and the shockwaves set in motion by that war brought a global order centuries old crashing down.

In one sense, none of this was a surprise. Perceptive observers of the European scene had been aware for decades of the likelihood of a head-on crash between the rising power of Germany and the aging and increasingly fragile British Empire. The decade and a half before war actually broke out had seen an increasingly frantic scramble for military alliances that united longtime rivals Britain and France in a political marriage of convenience with the Russian Empire, in the hope of containing Germany’s growing economic and military might. Every major power poured much of its wealth into armaments, sparking an arms race so rapid that the most powerful warship on the planet in 1906, Britain’s mighty HMS Dreadnought, was hopelessly obsolete when war broke out eight years later.

Inquiring minds could read learned treatises by Halford Mackinder and many other scholars, explaining why conflict between Britain and Germany was inevitable; they could also take in serious fictional treatments of the subject such as George Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking and Saki’s When William Came, or comic versions such as P.G. Wodehouse’s The Swoop!. Though most military thinkers remained stuck in the Napoleonic mode of conflict chronicled in the pages of Karl von Clausewitz’ On War, those observers of the military scene who paid attention to the events of the American Civil War’s closing campaigns might even have been able to sense something of the trench warfare that would dominate the coming war on the western front.

It’s only fair to remember that a great many prophecies in circulation at that same time turned out to be utterly mistaken. Most of them, however, had a theme in common that regular readers of this blog will find quite familiar: the claim that because of some loudly ballyhooed factor or other, it really was different this time. Thus, for example, plenty of pundits insisted in the popular media that economic globalization had made the world’s economies so interdependent that war between the major powers was no longer possible. Equally, there was no shortage of claims that this or that or the other major technological advance had either rendered war impossible, or guaranteed that a war between the great powers would be over in weeks. Then as now, those who knew their history knew that any claim about the future that begins “It’s different this time” is almost certain to be wrong.

All things considered, it was not exactly difficult in the late spring of 1914, for those who were willing to do so, to peer into the future and see the shadow of a major war between Britain and Germany rising up to meet them. There were, in fact, many people who did just that. To go further and guess how it would happen, though, was quite another matter.  Some people came remarkably close; Bismarck, who was one of the keenest political minds of his time, is said to have commented wearily that the next great European war would probably be set off by some idiotic event in the Balkans.  Still, not even Bismarck could have anticipated the cascade of misjudgments and unintended consequences that sent this particular crisis spinning out of control in a way that half a dozen previous crises had not done.

What’s more, the events that followed the outbreak of war in the summer of 1914 quickly flung themselves off the tracks intended for them by the various political leaders and high commands, and carved out a trajectory of their own that nobody anywhere seems to have anticipated. That the Anglo-French alliance would squander its considerable military and economic superiority by refusing to abandon a bad strategy no matter how utterly it failed or how much it cost; that Russia’s immense armies would prove so feeble under pressure; that Germany would combine military genius and political stupidity in so stunningly self-defeating a fashion; that the United States would turn out to be the wild card in the game, coming down decisively on the Allied side just when the war had begun to turn in Germany’s favor—none of that was predicted, or could have been predicted, by anyone.

Nor were the consequences of the war any easier to foresee. On that bright summer day in 1914 when Gavrilo Prinzip burst from the crowd with a pistol in his hand, who could have anticipated the Soviet Union, the Great Depression, the blitzkreig, or the Holocaust? Who would have guessed that the victor in the great struggle between Britain and Germany would turn out to be the United States?  The awareness that Britain and Germany were racing toward a head-on collision did not provide any certain knowledge about how the resulting crash would turn out, or what its consequences would be; all that could be known for sure was that an impact was imminent and the comfortable certainties of the prewar world would not survive the shock.

That dichotomy, between broad patterns that are knowable in advance and specific details that aren’t, is very common in history. It’s possible, for example, that an impartial observer who assessed the state of the Roman Empire in 400 or so could have predicted the collapse of Roman power outside the Eastern Mediterranean littoral. As far as I know, no one did so—the ideological basis of Roman society made the empire’s implosion just as unthinkable then as the end of progress is today—but the possibility was arguably there. Even if an observer had been able to anticipate the overall shape of the Roman and post-Roman future, though, that anticipation wouldn’t have reached as far as the specifics of the collapse, and let’s not even talk about whether our observer might have guessed that the last Emperor of Rome in the west would turn out to be the son of Attila the Hun’s secretary, as in fact he was.

Such reflections are on my mind rather more than usual just now, for reasons that will probably come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog. For a variety of reasons, a few of which I’ll summarize in the paragraphs ahead, I think it’s very possible that the United States and the industrial world in general are near the brink of a convusive era of crisis at least as severe as the one that began in the summer of 1914. It seems very likely to me that in the years immediately ahead, a great many of the comfortable certainties of the last half century or so are going to be thrown overboard once and for all, as waves of drastic political, economic, military, social, and ecological change slam into societies that, despite decades of cogent warnings, have done precisely nothing to prepare for them.

I want to review here some of the reasons why I expect an era of crisis to arrive sooner rather than later. One of the most important of those reasons is the twilight of the late (and soon to be loudly lamented) fracking bubble. I’ve noted in previous posts here that the main product of the current fracking industry is neither oil nor gas, but the same sort of dubiously priced financial paper we all got to know and love in the aftermath of last decade’s real estate bubble. These days, the rickety fabric of American finance depends for its survival on a steady flow of hallucinatory wealth, since the production of mere goods and services no longer produces enough profit to support the Brobdingnagian superstructure of the financial industry and its swarm of attendant businesses. These days, too, an increasingly brittle global political order depends for its survival on the pretense that the United States is still the superpower it was decades ago, and all those strident and silly claims that the US is about to morph into a "Saudi America" flush with oil wealth are simply useful evasions that allow the day of reckoning, with its inevitable reshuffling of political and economic status, to be put off a little longer.

Unfortunately for all those involved, the geological realities on which the fracking bubble depends are not showing any particular willingness to cooperate. The downgrading of the Monterey Shale not long ago was just the latest piece of writing on the wall: one more sign that we’re scraping the bottom of the oil barrel under the delusion that this proves the barrel is still full. The fact that most of the companies in the fracking industry are paying their bills by running up debt, since their expenses are considerably greater than their earnings, is another sign of trouble that ought to be very familiar to those of us who witnessed the housing bubble’s go through its cycle of boom and bust.

Bubbles are like empires; if you watch one rise, you can be sure that it’s going to fall. What you don’t know, and can’t know, is when and how. That’s a trap that catches plenty of otherwise savvy investors. They see a bubble get under way, recognize it as a bubble, put money into it under the fond illusion that they can anticipate the bust and pull their money out right before the bottom drops out...and then, like everyone else, they get caught flatfooted by the end of the bubble and lose their shirts. That’s one of the great and usually unlearned lessons of finance: when a bubble gets going, it’s the pseudo-smart money that piles into it—the really smart money heads for the hills.

So it’s anyone’s guess when exactly the fracking bubble is going to pop, and even more uncertain how much damage it’s going to do to what remains of the US economy. A good midrange guess might be that it’ll have roughly the same impact that the popping of the housing bubble had in 2008 and 2009, but it could be well to either side of that estimate. Crucially, though, the damage that it does will be landing on an economy that has never really recovered from the 2008-2009 housing crash, in which actual joblessness (as distinct from heavily manipulated unemployment figures) is at historic levels and a very large number of people are scrambling for survival. At this point, another sharp downturn would make things much worse for a great many millions whose prospects aren’t that good to begin with, and that has implications that cross the border from economics into politics.

Meanwhile, the political scene in the United States is primed for an explosion. One of my regular readers—tip of the archdruid’s hat to Andy Brown—is a research anthropologist who recently spent ten weeks traveling around the United States asking people about their opinions and feelings concerning government. What he found was that, straight across geographical, political, and economic dividing lines, everyone he interviewed described the US government as the corrupt sock puppet of wealthy interests. He noted that he couldn’t recall ever encountering so broad a consensus on any political subject, much less one as explosive as this. 

Recent surveys bear him out. Only 7% of Americans feel any significant confidence in Congress.  Corresponding figures for the presidency and the Supreme Court are 29% and 30% respectively; fewer than a third of Americans, that is, place much trust in the political institutions whose birth we’ll be celebrating in a few days. This marks a tectonic shift of immense importance.  Not that many decades ago, substantial majorities of Americans believed in the essential goodness of the institutions that governed their country. Even those who condemned the individuals running those institutions—and of course that’s always been one of our national sports—routinely phrased those condemnations in terms reflecting a basic faith in the institutions themselves, and in the American experiment as a whole.

Those days are evidently over. The collapse of legitimacy currently under way in the United States is a familiar sight to students of history, who can point to dozens of comparable examples; each of these was followed, after no very long delay, by the collapse of the system of government whose legitimacy in the eyes of its people had gone missing in action. Those of my readers who are curious about such things might find it educational to read a good history of the French or the Russian revolutions, the collapse of the Weimar Republic or the Soviet Union, or any of the other implosions of political authority that have littered the last few centuries with rubble: when a system loses legitimacy in the eyes of the people it claims to lead, the end of that system is on its way.

The mechanics behind the collapse are worth a glance as well. Whether or not political power derives from the consent of the governed, as American political theory insists, it’s unarguably true that political power depends from moment to moment on the consent of the people who do the day-to-day work of governing:  the soldiers, police officers, bureaucrats and clerks whose job is is to see to it that orders from the leadership get carried out. Their obedience is the linchpin on which the survival of a regime rests, and it’s usually also the fault line along which regimes shatter, because these low-ranking and poorly paid functionaries aren’t members of the elite. They’re ordinary working joes and janes, subject to the same cultural pressures as their neighbors, and they generally stop believing in the system they serve about the same time as their neighbors do. That doesn’t stop them from serving it, but it does very reliably make them unwilling to lay down their lives in its defense, and if a viable alternative emerges, they’re rarely slow to jump ship.

Here in America, as a result of the processes just surveyed, we’ve got a society facing a well-known pattern of terminal crisis, with a gridlocked political system that’s lost its legitimacy in the eyes of the people it governs, coupled with a baroque and dysfunctional economic system lurching toward another cyclical collapse under the weight of its own hopelessly inefficient management of wealth. This is not a recipe for a comfortable future. The situation has become dire enough that some of the wealthiest beneficiaries of the system—usually the last people to notice what’s happening, until the mob armed with torches and pitchforks shows up at their mansion’s front door—have belatedly noticed that robbing the rest of society blind is not a habit with a long shelf life, and have begun to suggest that if the rich don’t fancy the thought of dangling from lampposts, they might want to consider a change in approach. 

In its own way, this recognition is a promising sign. Similar realizations some seventy years ago put Franklin Roosevelt in the White House and spared the United States the hard choice between civil war and authoritarian rule that so many other countries were facing just then.  Unless a great many more members of our kleptocratic upper class experience the same sort of wake-up call in a hurry, though, the result this time is likely to be far too little and much too late.

Here again, though, a recognition that some kind of crash is coming doesn’t amount to foreknowledge of when it’s going to hit, how it’s going to play out, or what the results will be. If the implosion of the fracking bubble leads to one more round of bailouts for the rich and cutbacks for the poor, we could see the inner cities explode as they did in the long hot summers of the 1960s, setting off the insurgency that was so narrowly avoided in those years, and plunging the nation into a long nightmare of roadside bombs, guerrilla raids, government reprisals, and random drone strikes. If a talented demagogue shows up in the right place and time, we might instead see the rise of a neofascist movement that would feed on the abandoned center of American politics and replace the rusted scraps of America’s democratic institutions with a shiny new dictatorship.

If the federal government’s gridlock stiffens any further toward rigor mortis, for that matter, we could see the states force a constitutional convention that could completely rewrite the terms of our national life, or simply dissolve the Union and allow new regional nations to take shape.  Alternatively, if a great many factors break the right way, and enough people in and out of the corridors of power take the realities of our predicament seriously and unexpectedly grow some gonads—either kind, take your pick—we might just be able to stumble through the crisis years into an era of national retrenchment and reassessment, in which many of the bad habits picked up during America’s century of empire get chucked in history’s compost bin, and some of the ideals that helped inspire this country get a little more attention for a while. That may not be a likely outcome, but I think it’s still barely possible.

All we can do is wait and see what happens, or try to take action in the clear awareness that we can’t know what effects our actions will have. Thinking about that predicament, I find myself remembering lines from the bleak and brilliant poetic testament of the generation that came of age in the aftermath of those gunshots in Sarajevo, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow

Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,

And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,

And the dry stone no sound of water. Only

There is shadow under this red rock

(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),

And I will show you something different from either

Your shadow at morning striding behind you

Or your shadow at evening rising up to meet you:

I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

It’s a crisp metaphor for the challenges of our time, as it was of those in the time about which Eliot wrote. For that matter, the quest to see something other than our own shadows projected forward on the future or backward onto the past has a broader significance for the project of this blog.  With next week’s post, I plan on taking that quest a step further. The handful of dust I intend to offer my readers for their contemplation is the broader trajectory of which the impending crisis of the United States is one detail: the descent of industrial civilization over the next few centuries into a deindustrial dark age.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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