No Different This Time

The chorus of “Georgia On My Mind” that has flooded the Western media with broken-record persistence for the last few weeks, though it’s accomplished little else, has at least provided a few delicious snippets for connoisseurs of historical irony. We’ve seen the same politicians who backed the invasion of Iraq and the partition of Serbia insist that nations should not invade other nations, and that the territorial integrity of even the most jerry-rigged of today’s nation-states must be considered sacrosanct. Even by contemporary standards of moral posturing, this is breathtakingly ingenuous.

The Russians, for their part, are having none of it. The insistence of Western powers on treating Russia as a conquered province, rather than a proud nation with valid security concerns along its own borders, made an explosion inevitable; goad a bear often enough, and sooner or later it will turn on its tormentors. The war in Georgia, furthermore, is much more likely to be the beginning of a Russian response than the end. When the United States raised the stakes by signing an agreement to base missiles in Poland, the Russian government promptly replied by promising a military response. It seems unduly optimistic to hope that this response will consist of harmless gestures.

Amid the gunfire and oratory, though, a point with much broader application seems mostly to have been missed. Fifteen years ago, by most definitions of the term, Russia was a failed state, with a government coming apart at the seams, a military on the verge of mutiny, an economy being systematically looted by Western business interests and homegrown plutocrats alike, and an impoverished population struggling to survive in the face of food shortages, collapsing public health, and spreading pockets of local anarchy. All this followed one of the most dramatic discontinuities in modern history, the collapse of the Soviet Union.

That collapse has been used as a central piece of evidence for the claim that other industrial nations, especially the United States, could face similar discontinuities in the near future. Uncomfortable though this suggestion might be, it has quite a bit of merit, and several recent books – Dmitry Orlov’s mordant Reinventing Collapse in particular – have made a solid case for the possibility. Still, that case needs to be put in a wider context. Two decades on, Russia is no longer the failed state it briefly became at the bottom of the arc of collapse. Resurgent, resentful, and by no means unwilling to use its substantial natural resource base as a geopolitical weapon, Russia is back, and its return to the international scene as a major player is just as relevant as its earlier collapse.

The Russian trajectory from superpower status through collapse, contraction, stabilization, and recovery makes an interesting contrast, in particular, with the more common imagery of collapse that circulates in the peak oil community and elsewhere these days. While the events of the Soviet collapse were dramatic enough, the things that did not happen during that collapse are in many ways as important as the things that did. Despite economic collapse, for example, urban populations did not turn into starving mobs roving the landscape. Instead, as existing supply chains broke down, local entrepreneurs jerry-rigged new ones, and the backyard gardens of the Soviet era went into overdrive to keep most Russians fed even in the darkest days of the collapse.

In the same way, while Russia’s social order frayed to the breaking point and entire regions became battlegrounds for warring criminal gangs, this glimpse into the abyss of a Hobbesian war of all against all was not followed by the vertiginous plunge into anarchy that plays so large a part in today’s imagery of collapse. Instead, the great majority of Russians responded by moving in the other direction, backing the reestablishment of state power in the late 1990s even at the cost of individual liberty. Given the way that the rhetoric of democracy had been used to justify the looting of Russia’s economy and natural resources in the decade before then, after all, it’s hardly surprising that a common bit of Russian humor these days twists demokratiya – the Russian word for “democracy” – into dermokratiya, which works out to “rule by excrement.”

More generally, one of the crucial lessons of the Soviet Union’s collapse is that it was a self-limiting process. As bad as it was – and as Orlov and others have documented, it was much worse than anything Americans have experienced in living memory – it did not keep on getting worse; it bottomed out, stabilized, and then gave way to recovery. While Orlov’s own take on the prospects of American collapse is much more nuanced – and, at least to my mind, much more realistic – it’s very common to see this side of collapse roundly ignored in discussions of the fate of industrial society in America and elsewhere.

In these essays, and in much more detail in my book The Long Descent, I’ve suggested that this gap between the realities of collapse in history and the imagination of collapse in contemporary culture unfolds from the presence of cultural narratives that were originally borrowed from religious sources and repeatedly mapped onto secular history despite their consistent failure to anticipate the shape of any actual future. Recently, that claim has come in for some sustained criticism, ranging from suggestions that it misses the real points at issue to claims that it’s simply a rhetorical straw man used to brush aside competing viewpoints.

It’s not surprising that an attempt to contextualize today’s peak oil debates in this way would come in for criticism. Still, it can be shown that talking about the wider context of those debates is neither an irrelevancy nor a rhetorical gimmick. Perhaps the clearest way to do this is to point to another example of the same phenomenon – one that, just now, shows the relationship of narrative to reality with unusual clarity.

Two or three years ago, it was quite common to hear people insist that investing in real estate was the opportunity of a lifetime, a can’t-lose deal guaranteed to make the fortune of anyone canny enough to get on board. An impressive array of pundits, many of them equipped with Ivy League degrees, backed up these claims with books, articles, and seminars arguing that a new economic era had dawned and prosperity was within reach of all. The few critics who challenged these claims were denounced, often in heated terms, for failing to notice the huge and important differences that distinguished the real estate boom from failed speculative bubbles of the past.

Today, with housing prices in freefall and most of the industrial world’s largest banks scrambling to stay solvent under a cascade of failed mortgage loans, it’s clear that the pundits were wrong – totally, wildly, disastrously wrong – and their critics were right. What makes this relevant in the present context is that most of those critics did not make their case by examining the real estate bubble in fine detail. Instead, they recognized the real estate bubble shared a common cultural narrative with every other speculative bubble in modern history, from the Dutch tulip mania of the 17th century to the tech-stock bubble of the 1990s. They understood, as a result, that whenever anybody claims that a new economic era has arrived and some asset or other will increase steeply in value forever – no matter what the asset is, or what the circumstances happen to be – the proper response is to head for the exits as fast as possible.

This insight proved accurate because the arguments for a permanent real estate boom weren’t simply the straightforward response to circumstances that most real estate speculators believed they were. The speculators, and the pundits who encouraged them, were projecting a cultural narrative onto the inkblot pattern of a temporary and, to start with, relatively modest rise in real estate values. That narrative isn’t simply the generic conviction that real estate, or tech stocks, or tulips are destined to rise in price forever; it includes nearly all the rhetoric deployed in defense of that indefensible claim. (Read John Kenneth Galbraith’s trenchant The Great Crash 1929 and then look through the overenthusiastic articles on real estate that peppered the popular press in 2004 and 2005, and you’ll find any number of stock-jobbers’ claims from the flapper era recycled, sometimes word for word, for the twenty-first century’s first boom and bust.)

One of the essential claims made by the speculative bubble narrative, in turn, is precisely that “it’s different this time,” and the hard lessons of the past not only can but must be disregarded. Since any speculative bubble you care to name has some unique features – there had never before been a global real estate bubble, for example, and the ramshackle financial architecture tacked together to keep the bubble going was mostly brand new – it’s always possible to defend, at least to the satisfaction of speculators, the claim that the bubble in question isn’t a bubble and won’t pop. Events refute that claim over and over again, but it remains unassailable in each instance until and unless the underlying narrative is seen for what it is.

My argument, basically, is that the narrative of total collapse is another example of the same kind. Since the late 19th century, when religious apocalyptic began to lose its grip on the Western imagination, a narrative as stereotyped and dysfunctional as the narrative that drives speculative bubbles has circulated in the industrial world. That narrative claims that the world faces collapse of a historically unprecedented kind: sudden, complete, and final. Like the bubble narrative, the collapse narrative brings its own rhetoric with it, and applies that rhetoric to currently favored catastrophes – peak oil, global warming, the Y2K crisis, nuclear war, race conflict, every major comet of the last century and a half, you name it – in the same way that the bubble narrative applies its rhetoric to the asset class du jour. Like the bubble narrative, in turn, the collapse narrative always insists that the failures of the past don’t matter, because it’s different this time.

The narrative of collapse shares another feature with the bubble narrative: it produces consistently inaccurate predictions about the future. Again, people have been predicting collapse in the terms of the narrative for around a century and a half, using arguments identical in form to the ones now being used to justify the same predictions today, and the results have not exactly been good. This isn’t simply a function of the future’s obscurity, for other approaches – based on other, more nuanced narratives – have yielded better results. Arnold Toynbee and Oswald Spengler both made predictions about the cultural evolution of the modern West, for example, that have proved quite prescient. For that matter, the central argument of The Limits to Growth – that unlimited economic expansion would bring industrial civilization up against hard planetary limits in the first half of the 21st century, leading to an age of crisis and contraction – seems far more plausible now than it did when first published.

This reasoning undergirds my suggestion that it’s crucial to recognize the collapse narrative for what it is, and set it aside as a guide to the future, just as anyone hoping to make sense of economics in the real world would be well advised to start by setting aside the bubble narrative. Insisting that it’s different this time, and a way of thinking about collapse that has consistently produced false predictions for a century and a half is going to turn out accurate this once, just doesn’t seem plausible to me.

I suspect Dmitry Orlov is right that America is facing a collapse along the same lines as the Russian experience. If that happens, though, it’s just as likely that twenty years on, something like the rest of the Russian experience will have replicated itself as well, and an approximation of today’s United States will have undergone some degree of recovery from collapse. Equally, other regions of the world will likely be experiencing their own trajectories through the twilight of the petroleum age, and some of those trajectories will include sudden downward jolts of varying severity. Over the long term, as I’ve suggested, all those trajectories will trace out a broad pattern of decline, but history shows that the decline of a civilization is a complex thing, and there’s no reason to think that it will be different this time.