Things Can’t Go On This Way

There is a broadly felt sense that “things can’t go on this way”. The explanations vary with the politics and predilections of the speaker: maybe national debt, or immigration, or wealth inequality, or decaying social trust, or partisanship, or declining religiosity, or urbanization, or feminism, or the environment, or financialization of the economy, or populism, or overpopulation, or any number of things. On and on it goes, but I believe most people felt or intuited “things can’t go on this way” and then sought an explanation to fixate on.

Recently a professor of King’s College published an article calling for greater awareness of the potential for civil war in the West, and notwithstanding all his education he demonstrates how a simple sentiment can be filtered through one’s preoccupations. The author of this particular example is an academic and military theorist. He finds causes for “things can’t go on this way” in the civil war and instability research he’s read, and he predicts a future that gives the greatest scope for him to expound on his variant of “Fifth Generation Warfare” theory. Forecasting a Second Great Depression would not give him the same opportunity.

That doesn’t mean he’s all wrong. Many (dare I say most?) of the explanations and evidence for the national feeling of crisis aren’t baseless. It’s easy to argue that we’re living in a late-stage imperial state with declining foreign influence and domestic capacity. If all else fails to fail, certain kinds of popular sentiments can become self-fulfilling and there are many people who believe in an imminent doom. A collapse of society and/or government is at least possible.

However, times of crisis are chaotic and more difficult to predict almost by definition. The more seriously someone takes the idea that our society is ripe for collapse, the less seriously he should take any particular forecast. Therefore any particular collapse forecast is fundamentally unserious. If there is a civil war of the predicted type this professor hopes he (and his theories) will be immortalized, and if not he’ll be forgotten amid all the other dire predictions: the historian predicting the “Thucydides Trap” major power conflict between rising China and falling West, the gold bug predicting the end of the fiat monetary system, the prepper predicting the social collapse that will let him live out his fantasy of being warlord of suburbia, the evangelical predicting the coming of the AI-empowered Antichrist regime…

Additionally there are myriad possible futures that are much less cinematic while also fulfilling the “things can’t go on this way” sentiment. Consider the phenomenon of ‘sanctuary cities’ where local governments refuse to enforce (and perhaps even aid the violation of) black-letter federal law. Consider also the recent move by Texas to actively remove federal law enforcement from a stretch of the border so that the state could (in an inverse of the sanctuary cities) enforce laws that the feds won’t. Perhaps by extrapolation our future is an acrimonious devolution and decentralization.

Imagine a future where federal laws and court decisions keep getting written, to be celebrated (or cursed) in headlines yet with ever-decreasing influence over what actually happens. Where national infrastructure gets worse and government more corrupt, but elections happen on schedule. Where prices go up and wages go down, but the stores remain mostly stocked. Where the police still make arrests, but many people stop paying taxes because the government can’t afford (or isn’t competent enough) to track down more than a handful, as is already the case in contemporary Italy and Greece. In this hypothetical there’s a real collapse, but no Black Tuesday stock market crash, no nuclear exchange, no civil war, no ‘national divorce’, no singular crisis of any kind. It took little time to come up with this example, and who can say it’s less likely than the 5GW civil war of the celebrated Dr. David Betz of King’s College?

Of course maybe even that is too dramatic and we find out that things CAN in fact keep going on this way for quite some time. Or even get better – I’m not optimistic but it’s been known to happen.

There’s some irony in that the difficulty of predicting the future makes it easier to answer the question “what are we to do?” None of us are likely to be in a position to change the big picture (whatever it may turn out to be), and only generalities can cover so long a list of possible risks. I’ve had reason to survey various radical groups, militias, cults, etc. who could be considered preppers or prepper adjacent and so I’m willing to guess at the major schools of thought on how best to prepare for civilizational crisis.

First, there’s the stereotypical prepper with his basement full of ammo and canned beans. He (and I suspect a proper survey would show it’s almost always ‘he’) is mostly living out an anarcho-libertarian power-fantasy, dreaming of a world where might and a man’s word are all that matter. In this category too are the “billionaires buying bunkers“, doing the same thing with bigger basements and thicker doors. Besides the problem with trying to arrange one’s life by daydream, these kinds of preppers are solitary. Other people are considered a threat rather than as potential allies or even as a resource (one can esoterically read the zombies in zombie apocalypse planning as non-preppers who want the prepper’s canned beans). Solitude is a horrible plan for surviving a crisis, let alone for ‘rebuilding civilization after the fall’ or some nonsense like that.

Second, there’s the communitarian prepper, popular in both the religious radical right and the socialist/communist radical left. This school of thought has the advantage of planning for a village rather than a solitary hero, but has many of the same practical recommendations– and problems. We arguably got to see a recent trial run of the compound/commune approach with the 2020 “Capital Hill Autonomous Zone” (the so-called CHAZ) in Seattle, 2020. It didn’t run or end well. A pile of useless activists do not a functional micro-society make, and as with earlier communes (Waco comes to mind) external forces were eventually mobilized to take the whole project down. Both bunker and commune preppers assume a complete anarchy that allows their unique efforts to triumph against negligible opposition, but there aren’t many crises that could produce such a pure social vacuum. They say Rome wasn’t built in a day, but neither did it fall in a day – and when it did fall there were still local governors and/or barbarian tribal leaders (who were sometimes the same thing) rather than anarchy.

Community is not bad. Nor is it a bad idea to have some emergency food, water, and medical supplies (I’ve seen people recommend FEMA’s official emergency preparedness advice as a solid intro to prepping even if the government doesn’t advertise it that way). However, the monomanias and fantasies that fill the prepper world are not practical. To quote another commentator on the subject, what do you do “when civilization disappears but the government does not?” That’s the kind of situation that describes both the article’s 5GW civil war and my own ‘non-cinematic collapse’ counterpoint, along with almost every other crisis short of a post-nuclear wasteland. Therefore somebody truly concerned with the real breadth of possible civilizational catastrophes should be interested in investments that are hard to confiscate and flexible in application. So what are we to do? I conclude that practical advice for someone truly concerned about the future is nearly indistinguishable from general good life advice.

Have people you can rely on. 

Have skills people can rely on you for.

It’s always a good idea to invest in family, friends, and skills – they’ll just matter that much more if there is in fact a crisis.



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