Former USA

by wjw on February 18, 2009

From the Long Now Foundation: Dmitri Orlov foresees collapse.

The idea that the USA will go the way of the USSR seemed preposterous at the time. It doesn’t seem so preposterous any more. I take it some of you are still hedging your bets. How is that hedge fund doing, by the way?

. . . If there is one thing that I would like to claim as my own, it is the comparative theory of superpower collapse. For now, it remains just a theory, although it is currently being quite thoroughly tested. The theory states that the United States and the Soviet Union will have collapsed for the same reasons, namely: a severe and chronic shortfall in the production of crude oil (that magic addictive elixir of industrial economies), a severe and worsening foreign trade deficit, a runaway military budget, and ballooning foreign debt. I call this particular list of ingredients “The Superpower Collapse Soup.” Other factors, such as the inability to provide an acceptable quality of life for its citizens, or a systemically corrupt political system incapable of reform, are certainly not helpful, but they do not automatically lead to collapse, because they do not put the country on a collision course with reality. Please don’t be too concerned, though, because, as I mentioned, this is just a theory. My theory . . .

. . . By the mid-1990s I started to see Soviet/American Superpowerdom as a sort of disease that strives for world dominance but in effect eviscerates its host country, eventually leaving behind an empty shell: an impoverished population, an economy in ruins, a legacy of social problems, and a tremendous burden of debt. The symmetries between the two global superpowers were then already too numerous to mention, and they have been growing more obvious ever since . . .

. . . Right now the Washington economic stimulus team is putting on their Scuba gear and diving down to the engine room to try to invent a way to get a diesel engine to run on seawater. They spoke of change, but in reality they are terrified of change and want to cling with all their might to the status quo. But this game will soon be over, and they don’t have any idea what to do next.So, what is there for them to do? Forget “growth,” forget “jobs,” forget “financial stability.” What should their realistic new objectives be? Well, here they are: food, shelter, transportation, and security. Their task is to find a way to provide all of these necessities on an emergency basis, in absence of a functioning economy, with commerce at a standstill, with little or no access to imports, and to make them available to a population that is largely penniless. If successful, society will remain largely intact, and will be able to begin a slow and painful process of cultural transition, and eventually develop a new economy, a gradually de-industrializing economy, at a much lower level of resource expenditure, characterized by a quite a lot of austerity and even poverty, but in conditions that are safe, decent, and dignified. If unsuccessful, society will be gradually destroyed in a series of convulsions that will leave a defunct nation composed of many wretched little fiefdoms.

idiotgrrl February 18, 2009 at 2:30 pm

If that’s who I think it is, he has no idea of where America’s regional fault lines are.

Ralf the Dog February 19, 2009 at 12:48 am

Such an optimistic view. I think his perceptions have been tinted by the fate of his homeland.

It also Sounds like he has been reading S. M. Stirling’s change books (Good books, however that’s not where I want to live.) We should be working on reducing our imports. We should also be working on expanding our exports. How can we sell more stuff if we deindustrialize? Yes, the American people and government need to learn to live on a budget, however, becoming a nation of peasant farmers is not the way to get out of debt.

halojones-fan February 19, 2009 at 6:09 am


He’s right about exactly one thing–which is that societies decide for themselves whether to stay or go.

The problem is that suicide has a powerful attraction for the weak-minded; after all, the weak have no immunity to drama, and what’s more dramatic than death? It’s the ultimate Ultimate. And what’s cooler than being present during The Death Of Civilization? You get all the benefits (decades of technological and infrastructure development) with none of the costs (norms and mores that produced the discipline which allowed said development.) Apple sells you a shiny new iPod, and then you go steal twelve thousand dollars’ worth of media to put on it. Then you go down to the coffee shop and spend two hours not buying anything while you expound on the terrible fact that nobody ever seems to do anything anymore.


I like how Orlov claims that the Soviet collapse is exactly equal to the American collapse(*). Production inefficiencies caused by ponderous bureaucracy are NOT THE SAME THING as difficulties in risk management caused by bad business practices.

(*) which has been Just About To Happen since maybe 1992, but that doesn’t stop people from describing how it already happened.

dubjay February 19, 2009 at 8:54 pm

I’m agree that Orlov doesn’t seem to quite grasp the flexibility of our post-industrial society. But on the other hand his words are given a certain gravitas by the fact that the society he was born in actually =did= collapse, and he knows first-hand what that looks like.

Ralf the Dog February 20, 2009 at 12:52 am

I have always been impressed by the Russian sense that bad things are inevitable. It is almost artistic in a cheep sort of coffee house way. I am even more impressed with the American ability to take something that is inevitably bad and turn it into something good.

The problem is, we have become fat lazy and perhaps a bit stupid. A little bit of hardship will get us back into shape in a short time.

Ralf the Dog February 20, 2009 at 6:22 pm

Correction, I was wrong. After looking at the stock market, “It’s the end of the world as we know it.”


Sorry for the double post.

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