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Chapter 10. History and Prophecy
On the last day of the last year of the twentieth century, a small group of ageing hackers and former hippies gathered in San Francisco around a rather unusual clock. Taller than a person, it looked like the strange offspring of a romantic liaison between the Antikythera device and Charles Babbage’s difference engine. While the world outside counted down the seconds to Y2K, the small audience waited in silence for the clock to do its thing … Click! Whirr. Bong! Silence. Then again: Bong! note 227
The audience let out their breath. They could have set the clock and heard it strike twice like that whenever they wanted, but to hear it strike twice at the proper time was something else. This clock was the first prototype for the Long Now Foundation’s ten thousand-year clock. It was designed to strike once to mark each new century, and twice — like today — to mark each new millennium.
Why ten thousand years? The history of what we might recognise as civilisation runs about ten thousand years into the past, and without any other clues to guide us, we might guess that we had wandered into the story about half-way through. A clock to tick through the rest of history would run for another ten thousand years.
What’s the point? The point is to make people think about the long term future, and to take it seriously. When the clock next strikes the century, I confidently expect that I will be long in my grave, but human life will still go on. What will it be like by then? What will be the consequences of the choices that you made while you were alive? The point of the clock is to make you think.
Ten thousand years is one hundred centuries, and a century is a long time. Long enough to be born, grow old and die. Long enough for virgin forest to be cut down and transformed into farmland with roads, towns, theatres and laughter. Long enough for the same farmland to lapse back into forest, with buildings reduced to mere outlines on the ground, and only the sound of birdsong and mosquitoes.
On this longer timescale — the longue durée as historian Fernand Braudel called it — we can see patterns not visible at the pace of everyday life. The events of close-up history are mostly just ripples and froth on top of the slower, more powerful ebb and flow of the longue durée. On the scale of centuries we see the fortunes of nations rise and fall; we see societies transform and evolve. And on an even longer scale, we see whole civilisations grow and collapse. note 228
In this last chapter I want to show you three key patterns in the longue durée, factors that in the past have been precursors of collapse. Rather disturbingly, all three factors seem to be present in Western civilisation as I write. What are our prospects? How much danger are we really in, and what can we do about it? I will return and try to answer these questions later, but first let’s look at the three factors: external shock, elite mismanagement and production crisis. note 229
An external shock might be an invasion, a plague, a change in weather patterns or some other Act of God, fatally disrupting the normal operation of a society. Such disasters are almost always unpredictable, one-of-a-kind “black swan” events. Preparing for any particular disaster is a waste of effort, because it almost certainly won’t happen. Some disasters are so huge that collapse is inevitable. But faced with smaller disasters, some societies will survive while others will collapse. What makes the difference? note 230
The key is how brittle or robust those societies were before the disaster: how much “slack” did they have? Efficiency is all very well, but to be robust, systems need slack. Think of a hospital, faced with a local emergency. Would you rather be taken to the efficient hospital which can exactly cope with everyday demand? Or would you rather arrive at the inefficient hospital, the one which can treat you right now, because it has excess capacity?
In the good times, slack looks like avoidable expense — a waste of money. Managers are rewarded for cutting out slack. But in an emergency, slack is the difference between survival and collapse. Systems without slack are brittle and prone to sudden failure. Soldiers are well aware of this, and tend to have a queasy pit-of-the-stomach feeling when “all reserves are committed” — they understand that when there is no slack left, the do-or-die moment has arrived.
The second factor, elite mismanagement, is dismissed by some historians as too weak an explanation for past collapses. For example, Joseph Tainter says that “any rational dominant class, however oppressive, must make some provision for the welfare of the populace on which they rely.” If that is the case, explaining elite mismanagement boils down to explaining why “some elites behave rationally and some don’t.” Tainter writes off the whole topic, saying that “until some theory is developed concerning the expression of elite rationality vs. collective suicide, we may confidently dismiss the elite mismanagement argument as unproductive.” note 231
But we should not write off the topic, because we hold in our hands the theory that Tainter wanted. We have seen that social instruments tend to degenerate into institutions; we have seen that establishment elites tend to focus on their infinite games. These infinite games may be about wealth or dignitas or treasure or even who has the biggest monument. Some members of the establishment, the long-termers, understand that they are playing an infinite game. They understand that in order to keep the game going, they need to make compromises and pursue victory less than wholeheartedly. They need to “leave money on the table.”
Others, the short-termers, never realised or perhaps forgot that this was an infinite game. Instead, they play a finite game and try to win at all costs. They try to preserve institutions which support their position in the game, even when reform is desperately needed, even at the cost of their society’s collapse. The establishment choice, between “rationality” and “collective suicide” is determined by the balance between long-termers and short-termers, between those who try to keep the infinite game going and those who treat it as a finite game and try only to win. So, as an explanation for collapse, elite mismanagement is useful and productive, despite Tainter’s reservations.
The third factor, production crisis, has been best analysed by John Greer, who is Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids of America. (To be frank, some people find this title a little off-putting, assuming that it must indicate woolly thinking. Don’t worry. Greer’s thinking on this subject is as clear as anyone’s and his analysis subsumes the “resource exhaustion” and “complexity collapse” theories advanced by other authors.) note 232
Greer’s explanation goes like this. In all societies with complexity greater than hunter-gatherers, we can classify almost all things into one of three categories: resources, capital and waste. note 233
“Resources are naturally occurring factors in the environment which can be exploited by a particular society, but which have not yet been extracted and incorporated into the society’s flows of energy and material.” For example, this includes coal and iron-ore still in the ground, fish in the sea, and land which is currently wild, but could be used for agriculture. It also includes human resources such as children who could one day work, but are too young right now. It also includes skills or discoveries which have not yet been made, but could be made with the available tools and techniques.
“Capital consists of all factors from whatever source that have been incorporated into the society’s flows of energy and material but are capable of further use.” For example, this includes farm land, crops, tools, factories, buildings, ships and domestic animals. It also includes any productive human capital, for example, peasants, technicians, engineers and policemen. (Greer makes no distinction between “physical capital” and “labour.”) It also includes social capital, in the form of social instruments and intellectual capital in the form of knowledge and skills. (Note that money is not a form of capital, but as you would expect, just a technique that helps groups of people decide how best to use capital and resources.)
“Waste consists of all factors that have been incorporated into the society’s flows of energy and material, and exploited to the point that they are incapable of further use.” For example, this includes waste heat from power-plants, broken or discarded tools, pollution, human workers at the end of their working lives and the information lost when a library burns down.
The relationship between these three categories is that capital is the mechanism which transforms resources into new capital and waste. Some waste is the unavoidable operational expense of using capital to produce new things. For example, the laws of thermodynamics mean that there must always be some waste heat from a power plant. Other waste appears because capital tends to wear out when it is used and to decay even when it is not used. Some waste appears because we enjoy producing it, for example a fireworks display.
Clearly this classification is a gross simplification of reality, but it serves to explain certain consequences which will almost always be true regardless of the details. In particular, because capital tends to self-destruct whether or not it is used for production, this means that in order to preserve today’s capital for the future, we must devote some part of production towards maintenance and replacement. This maintenance requirement means that even if the supply of resources is adequate, a society can still experience a maintenance crisis if it cannot meet the replacement needs of existing capital.
It’s easy to see that this is the case if capital is mismanaged. For example, a society might devote itself to producing mansions and fireworks rather than doing needed maintenance on roads and bridges. Eventually this transport infrastructure will start to fall apart, but by then the backlog of maintenance will be so great that it will be impossible to repair all the roads and bridges before more of them disintegrate, perhaps a great many more.
However, this maintenance limit must be reached at some point whether or not there is mismanagement. Software hackers have a rule of thumb that says creating software is only 30% of the effort — maintaining it over its lifetime accounts for the other 70%. So, it is easily possible for a hacker to create more software than they can maintain. The only alternative when that happens — and it happens every day — is to simply abandon some of the software. note 234
You might feel that this may be true in the world of software, but in everyday life could we ever have too much stuff? The idea seems counter-intuitive, not to say contrary to the spirit of our age. But imagine if everyone had a large mansion, with dozens, maybe hundreds of rooms, set in a grand estate with lawns and trees. (Feel free to embellish this with a swimming pool, stables and maybe a golf course if you like.) Now, mansions need a lot of maintenance — dusting, cleaning, painting, repairing, gardening and so on. If everyone has a mansion there will be no-one with the time to do that work for you because they will all be busy working on their own mansions. To reduce the effort to something manageable, you would be forced to live like an impoverished aristocrat, using only a few rooms in one wing of your mansion and leaving the rest to go to ruin — capital decaying into waste.
In a maintenance crisis, some forms of capital will necessarily be lost: buildings will decay; machinery will break and not be mended; skilled workers will retire or die and not be replaced; knowledge and technology will be lost. In extremis, the capacity to keep people alive and healthy may be reduced to such an extent that human capital is lost wholesale to famine and disease. However, provided that resources are still as readily available, or are depleted but self-renewing, then a maintenance crisis will be self-limiting. The society will tend to oscillate above and below the maintenance limit.
Unfortunately, if resources are consumed faster than their renewal rate then we run into a rather worse problem. As resources become more difficult to obtain, this can be compensated by applying more capital. Compare, for example, walking into the forest to gather firewood versus switching on a gas-fired heating system. For heating our houses, gas is easier and quicker, but it also relies on a vastly greater capital infrastructure. As resources become scarcer, even more capital must be applied to deliver the same outputs as before. Coal mines go deeper; oil production shifts from land to coastal waters then to the deep sea. But eventually there must be a limit to how much capital we can use to extract these scarce resources, if only the maintenance limit that we have already seen.
When no more capital can be devoted to extracting scarce resources, the result is not the self-limiting maintenance crisis described above, but rather a self-reinforcing catabolic collapse: part of the capital must decay to waste because it cannot be maintained, but this reduction in capital leads in turn to a reduced ability to extract scarce resources. Without those resources, part of the remaining capital must decay too, because it cannot maintained. And so on, round and round again: less capital means less resources means even less capital. Eventually, with almost all of the former capital transformed to waste, only a small fraction of the previously available resources can still be extracted. Worse than that, most of the social and intellectual capital, which are the heart of a civilisation, are also transformed to waste. The civilisation has collapsed.
These three factors of external shock, elite mismanagement and production crisis are the symptoms or precursors to collapse. When we look at Western civilisation what do we see? What are our prospects? Where exactly should we look? Western civilisation has tendrils and concentrations across the whole globe. But there is one clear leader, dominant since the end of the Second World War, spared from the destruction in the old European heartland. That leader is, of course, the United States. Now, if we found precursors of collapse in other places, at the periphery or even in the old heartland, we could perhaps write them off as unimportant. But if we find them at the core, in the United States, that would be a disturbing sign. Unfortunately, we don’t have to look very hard.
The United States is certainly in the grip of a production crisis. Signs of at least a maintenance crisis are very obvious. In 2009, the American Society of Civil Engineers looked at various infrastructure, including bridges, dams, roads, railways, water supply and sewage treatment plants. Their Infrastructure Report Card awarded the USA a “D” grade, and estimated that it would take 2.2 trillion dollars to restore this infrastructure to good condition, assuming that work started immediately. That bill had gone up from 1.6 trillion dollars when they last issued such a report card in 2005. note 235
Agriculture also has a maintenance deficit, but this has been masked by massive inputs of chemicals and energy. Farming depends fundamentally on one item of capital — soil — and this item has been literally blowing away in the wind. In the United States, around 3 cubic kilometres disappears into the oceans each year, about one kilogramme per square metre of farmland. This is a problem because even under good conditions, soil forms between 5 and 50 times more slowly than this. Even the soil that remains is becoming poorer and poorer in quality, because farmers harvest crops each year but fail to replace soil nutrients. This in turn means that the food they grow is itself less nourishing than it was a century ago. note 236
But the situation today appears to be more than just a maintenance crisis. It looks as though a catabolic collapse is already in progress. Greer places the start of the collapse in 1974, because that was when the industrial heartland of the United States began to decline into the “Rust Belt.” Whether or not we agree with Greer’s choice of date, it is unarguable that the United States’ capacity to produce goods for itself — and the rest of the world — is now very much diminished. That productive capacity was not maintained and rebuilt, but instead it was allowed to disintegrate into waste. note 237
So nowadays, although the United States still is a consumer, a large part of that consumption is satisfied by imports from the foreign countries which maintained and expanded their capital. For relatively low-tech consumer goods, the production happens in China, while high tech “producer’s goods” — machine-tools, precision components and advanced materials — are made in Japan or Europe. note 238
In return for these imports of capital, the United States gives money to those other countries. The one thing which the United States is still producing in large quantities is money. But remember that money is not capital. Money is just a token promising to its holder some capital in the future. It appears extraordinarily unlikely that the United States can ever deliver on all those promises. When that realisation becomes common, the capital available to the United States will suddenly become much smaller.
Perhaps the clearest sign of catabolic collapse can be seen in oil production. (This is a problem for the whole world, but particularly for the United States because its need for oil is so great.) When we look back to 1930, the energy in one barrel of oil would be enough to find and deliver 100 barrels in return. By 1970 that had dropped to 25 barrels and by 1990 to around 15 barrels. Today, the energy in one barrel of oil would only be enough to find and deliver three barrels in return. The reason for this, of course, is that the easy to find, easy to extract oil was used first. The United States had the first oil industry, and its new oil discoveries peaked in 1930. United States oil production peaked 40 years later, in 1970. World oil discoveries peaked in the 1960s, which led to predictions that world oil production would also peak 40 years later, just after the start of the twenty first century. note 239
Those predictions seem to have come true, and the prospects for the future were already clear enough in 1977 for President Jimmy Carter to propose, in a televised address to the nation, that investments should be made immediately in other energy sources. Nothing happened. Although action could have been taken in the 1970s, when the problem was already clear, nothing was done.
That failure to act brings us to the second symptom of collapse, elite mismanagement, and here the picture is even more dismal. In the face of a maintenance crisis, or even catabolic collapse, it’s possible to use capital and resources differently, more effectively, and sidestep that collapse by bringing maintenance needs into balance with resources. But to achieve this, the establishment elite would need to change society’s institutions, and reconstruct them into social instruments that solve society’s problems. In the United States, the establishment elite shows no sign of doing this, in fact quite the reverse.
The establishment has, for at least a century and a half, been playing an infinite game of wealth — the aim being to accumulate the most money before you die. In the past, this infinite game has been supported by long-termers like President Franklin Roosevelt, who reformed society’s institutions in the 1930s, despite squeals from other members of the establishment. However, the American establishment is nowadays dominated by short-termers who fiercely resist any attempt to change the institutions which bring them advantage. If they notice at all, they assume that the infinite game will always continue without any need for compromise.
In retrospect, we can pick out two particularly bad ideas promoted by the United States’ establishment: military Keynesianism and shareholder capitalism. Although each of these ideas sprang from only a handful of minds, they were supported by most of the establishment in thousands of individual choices. Not so much a conspiracy as a convergence of self-interest. note 240
Military Keynesianism began in 1950 with the decision by President Harry Truman to place the United States on a permanent war footing. Only the military spending of the Second World War had finally pulled the United States out of the great economic depression of the 1930s. After that war was over, the establishment worried that people would not have enough money to buy all the goods that were being produced, even though they wanted them and needed them. (This had been the essential problem in the 1930s.) The result could be another depression, which would be bad for profits and spoil the infinite game of wealth. note 241
Rather than take a chance, the establishment decided to keep military spending by the government at wartime levels. Historian Chalmers Johnston coined the term “military Keynesianism” as a shorthand for government expenditure intended to boost the economy, but disguised as a military necessity. In the 1950s, it certainly did the trick — it put money in the pockets of ordinary Americans, and it put even more money in the pockets of the establishment, the people who owned and operated the arms factories. But this source of income became indispensable to the establishment, and it continued decade after decade. It’s hard to be precise, and hard to decide exactly what to include, but it’s not too far from the truth to say that for many years the United States government spent around half its budget this way. The United states spent more preparing for war than the rest of the world put together.
Now the objection could be made that the United States needed to spend this money, as it faced up to the Soviet Union in the Cold War. But fragments of evidence tend to show that the primary purpose was indeed to spend the money, not to achieve a military aim. For a start, an incredible amount of money was just wasted. In 2001, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld admitted that the Department of Defense had lost track of a total of 2.3 trillion dollars. They knew they had spent it on something, they just didn’t know what they had got in return. note 242
The weapons purchased by the Americans were often half-hearted. In contrast, Soviet weapons were invariably serious and robust. For example, in 1976 a Soviet pilot stole his MIG-25 interceptor and landed it in Japan. When Western experts took the aircraft apart, they were at first amused by its archaic valve electronics. Then they realised that although old-fashioned, the electronics would continue to work after the electromagnetic pulse of a nuclear explosion, unlike the electronics in their own aircraft. It was designed for war.
However, the clearest evidence that the United States military expenditure was primarily for economic purposes comes from what happened — or rather didn’t happen — when the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of the 1980s. For the whole of the following decade, the military expenditure continued unabated, even though the former enemy was no longer a threat. If the Cold War was really a war, surely there should have been a demobilisation? It was more than ten years before the amorphous enemy in the “war on terror” appeared to justify the expenditure.
If military Keynesianism boosted the economy, why was it such a bad thing? It was bad because capital and resources devoted to the military were not available to satisfy the other needs of society. Civilian capital of all kinds went unmaintained — physical, social, human and intellectual — while the capital produced by the arms factories was itself fundamentally unproductive, just half-a-step away from waste. (Remember that a bomb never makes anything — its job is to turn itself and its target into waste.)
The other particularly bad idea promoted by the establishment was shareholder capitalism, a concept invented in the 1970s and elevated to dogma in the following decades. Shareholder capitalism is the principle that the interests of the owners of a company are paramount, and the interests of workers, customers and society at large count for nothing. (You may be surprised to learn that before the 1970s, it was generally accepted that companies had a duty to those other parties — sometimes poorly fulfilled, but expected nonetheless.) note 243
Shareholder capitalism was tenuously justified on the grounds that if profit was the only concern, companies would become more efficient and so in the end everyone would benefit, not just the owners. Furthermore, the cheerleaders for shareholder capitalism insisted that anything which stood in the way of profits was bad, and government regulation was especially bad.
From our perspective, we can see that this was merely a self-serving play by establishment short-termers, keen to gain an advantage in the infinite game of wealth. They certainly succeeded at that. By 2011, the establishment share of wealth in the USA was at an all-time high, while the bottom half of the population had essentially nothing — debts and assets on average cancelling out. However, by promoting the dogma of shareholder capitalism, the short-termers had a hugely corrosive influence on social instruments and they also rendered the establishment as a whole quite incapable of any long-term decisions. note 244
To see the corrosion, you have only to ask yourself: why would anyone, in an enterprise motivated solely by the greed of the owners, seek anything other than their own personal advantage? Even some of the short-termers recognised that they had an agency problem: how could their agents, the company managers, be expected to act greedily on behalf of the owners, but have better moral standards when they acted on behalf of themselves? The only workable solution to this conundrum was to accept that, at least for company officers, greed was intrinsically good. (Those in the lower ranks of companies were expected to behave more honourably, and wait for the wealth to “trickle down” to them.)
So, personal and corporate greed were aligned perfectly, and the managers who acted for the owners were rewarded obscenely well for taking narrow, short term decisions. Firms were broken up and capital destroyed rather than make long-term investments which would take years to pay off. The establishment hired politicians to revoke laws regulating business, with the promise that “free market capitalism” would be better for everyone. Manufacturing companies closed their factories and morphed into importers and finance companies. The way this played out is perhaps best summarised by musician Frank Zappa, who in 1989 said:
THE VERY BIG STUPID is a thing which breeds by eating The Future. Have you seen it? It sometimes disguises itself as a good-looking quarterly bottom line, derived by closing the R&D Department. note 245
By 2011, the situation was sufficiently dire that establishment long-termers were saying the same thing in public. For example, economist Paul Roberts, formerly Assistant Secretary of the Treasury under President Ronald Reagan, wrote: note 246
Conservatives and especially libertarians romanticize “free market unregulated capitalism.” They regard it as the best of all economic orders. However, with deregulated capitalism, every decision is a bottom-line decision that screws everyone except the shareholders and management.
In America today there is no longer a connection between profits and the welfare of the people. Unregulated greed has destroyed the capitalist system, which now distributes excessive rewards to the few at the expense of the many.
If Marx and Lenin were alive today, the extraordinary greed with which Wall Street has infected capitalism would provide Marx and Lenin with a better case than they had in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The establishment elite will always play some kind of infinite game. Because they were not concerned about the future of their infinite game, because they treated it as a finite game and tried only to win, the short-termers obtained more wealth and became dominant in the establishment. The balance between “rationality” and “collective suicide” depends on whether the long-termers or the short-termers have the upper hand. As I write, in the United States the balance is clear.
Let’s now turn our attention to the remaining precursor of collapse, external shock. Some external shocks, for example the the Huns in the late Roman empire, actually arrive quite slowly. If we look around, we might already be able to see signs of what will unfold in the future. (Though whether that would change our decisions, any more than it did in late antiquity, is another matter.) Other external shocks are “black swans” which arrive without warning, but from the perspective of the longue durée, we can see that they are regular visitors. Although timing will always be a mystery, we can catalogue these visitors and consider how prepared we are to meet them. note 247
In the category of external shocks which arrive slowly, one obvious candidate is “global warming.” Clearly this is perceived, like the Huns, as not such a big deal, because nothing much is being done about it. Whether this is the right judgement remains to be seen — there’s too much uncertainly in the climate models to be sure, particularly concerning the soil as a carbon reservoir. If climate change does turn out to be a serious problem, there seem to be technical fixes that we could apply — provided our civilisation has not already collapsed. For example, we could inject sulphur dioxide into the upper atmosphere, reflecting sunlight and cooling the earth. (One explanation for the lack of warming over the past decade is that the new Chinese coal-fired power stations, burning sulphurous coal, have had exactly this effect already.) note 248
The catalogue of other, faster-moving external shocks is so long and varied that it would read like a shopping list of disaster movies. It must include earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, asteroid impacts, solar mass ejections, plagues and of course wars. Mostly these would not be overwhelming in themselves, but in a brittle society, even a small disaster could be the last straw. Most Western societies, but particularly the United States, have become dramatically more brittle over the past few decades.
Structuring a whole society without slack so as to make slightly more profit for the owners is not a very clever move. “Just in time” can easily turn into “far too late.” Engineer and writer Dmitry Orlov, who had first-hand experience of the collapse of the Soviet Union, describes how people in Russia muddled through their crisis. They survived the chaos and crime and violence precisely because in the Soviet Union there was so much inefficiency. With this cushion of slack and a stock of robust easy-to-maintain capital they mostly survived the experience. Western civilisation is not so well prepared. note 249
So … what are our prospects? Firstly, it’s important to realise that there are technical things which we could do to improve our position, even in the face of apparent catabolic collapse. Our primary need is for electricity. If we don’t have that, we have nothing. Clearly, while we still have capital and resources based on fossil fuels, we should build some new capital in the form of “renewable” electricity generation, and try to make its maintenance requirements as small as possible. But that won’t be enough. note 250
We also need a substantial number of nuclear power plants, but they would have to be better designed, with radically reduced maintenance requirements. (A possible candidate here is the “travelling wave reactor” promoted by philanthropist Bill Gates. This uses as fuel the nuclear waste which we would otherwise have to guard at great expense.) Ideally, we would like to be able to generate electricity even more straightforwardly, maybe by cold fusion if that were ever really possible. (Interestingly, the US Navy — pragmatic as ever — continues to experiment with cold fusion despite the scientific world turning its back on the idea. Who knows? Maybe there’s something in it after all.) note 251
As well as securing our electricity supply, we should ensure that other physical capital is made robust and durable, not designed merely for “profit” and thrown away after a short working life. We should also ensure that our human capital is more effective and needs less maintenance. (If you wonder what that might look like, go back and re-read the first part of this book.) And perhaps most importantly, we should ensure that we have better social capital — social instruments, not institutions.
In fact, I believe that we will only achieve success in all those other things if we can reform today’s institutions and make them into social instruments. Many commentators on our present difficulties focus only on the technical problems, on our production crisis. They assume that if the case for a technical solution is clear enough, then the establishment elite will act and save the day. They forget, or do not notice, the problem of elite mismanagement. An establishment dominated by short-termers will continue to play what remains of their infinite game while civilisation crumbles around them. They will resist reform to the end.
Carroll Quigley characterised the ideology of Western civilisation as fundamentally optimistic, rejecting despair, believing “that the world is basically good and that the greatest good lies in the future.” I would like to be optimistic about the United States, but I find it difficult to imagine the American establishment reconstructing itself into the flower of Western civilisation. That would be the best outcome, but I fear that something dark and quite contrary to the Western spirit has taken root there. This darkness says that the world is basically bad, that the best is in the past, that the “greatest generation” have already come and gone. The darkness fears the collapse, and says: hold on to what you have, as long as possible. Whatever else happens, where the darkness rules, Western civilisation will have already met its end. note 252
I suppose that I most fear the dark future in which the United States somehow hangs on without reform at the edge of collapse. The American establishment has in the past to been remarkably happy with slavery. I fear in the future they would be equally happy to rule as tyrants over a dispossessed underclass, slaves again in all but name. The worst aspect of this future is that the darkness would continue to seep out and poison the rest of Western civilisation.
If the United States did collapse, what would happen to the rest of Western civilisation, to the old heartland in Europe and to the “little Europes” scattered around the world? When the Soviet Union collapsed, that signalled the end of Communism around the world. If the United States collapses, that would signal an end to the global influence of the American short-termers, but I think Western civilisation itself is more robust. It survived partial catabolic collapse in the 14th century and has reconstructed itself at least twice since then. The fate of the scattered fragments of Western civilisation will depend on whether the various Western establishments avoid the darkness and manage to reform their own institutions. Piece by piece, survival is possible. It can still be true that “the world is basically good and that the greatest good lies in the future.”
The dominant influence over this new world would not be the United States. It would most likely be China — a very strange ending to our earlier tale of blood and gold. An ending which would have seemed impossible a century ago. What would that mean? What impact would a dominant China have on the remains of Western civilisation? It would depend on how much the tendrils of Western civilisation have already penetrated into China. Today China simultaneously venerates as patron saints the political philosophers Karl Marx and Adam Smith — both as Western as you can get. The Confucian past is still there, but China has gone through such epic changes over the last century and a half that it’s extremely unclear what the civilisation of China really is right now. Perhaps it is a mixture, gestating into something new. Historian Giovanni Arrighi, consciously thinking of the longue durée, has speculated that China might be the next leader of capitalism, last in a trail leading over the centuries from Genoa to Holland to Britain to the United States. Perhaps, but capitalism is not the same as Western civilisation. note 253
On the other hand, the Chinese establishment is certainly keen to make the future of its people better than their past, if only out of a sense of self-preservation. The idea that “the greatest good lies in the future” is a key element of internal propaganda, and probably a genuine aim. But the Chinese Communist Party is an unlikely home for the spirit of Western civilisation. (Imagine the Mafia with an HR Department and an encrypted telephone network. To a first-order approximation that is the Chinese Communist Party.) We will have to wait and see. note 254
In the end, the fate of Western civilisation will probably be determined most of all by the nature of the infinite game played by our establishment elite. The infinite game of wealth seems to have reached a natural limit, but it is not the only game. The establishment in our past has certainly played rather different games — the original Royal Society and later echoes, like the Lunar Society, valued truth and beauty more than money. Money was necessary, but truth and beauty were important. A crucial distinction. Then, somehow, the accountants came to rule our hearts. But there are worlds beyond money: the smile of a baby in your arms; the sound of the sea at sunset; the tears of the mourners at a graveside. Money is necessary, but money is not everything.
Time to choose a different game.
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Version: DRAFT Beta 3. Copyright © Stuart Wray, 29 December 2011.