June 23, 2013

Dmitry Orlov's "The Five Stages of Collapse"

One of the things I like best about Dmitry Orlov's writing is the almost complete lack of qualifiers or "hedging" phrases.  He makes his pronouncements without weasel words or syntactical escape hatches he might use later if one of his predictions fails to materialize.  Although, I have to say, he never makes a prediction definite enough to expose himself to such a criticism, at least in terms of time.  America is going to go through several stages of collapse, of that Dmitry is quite certain, and maybe a couple of them have already happened. For the big ones, however, all we are told is that they are on the way.  Maybe we'll get lucky and arrest the devolution before complete political collapse happens, but don't ask him when such widespread failure will materialize.

The Five Stages are suggested, Mr. Orlov tells us, by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's five stages of the grieving process.  For the American nation-state (and for advanced industrial countries generally), the five cognates of grief are: 1. Financial. 2. Economic. 3. Political. 4. Social. 5. Cultural.  The suggestion is that financial collapse, in the form of the Great Recession of 2008, has already happened.  Economic collapse is well under way.  The political system is wobbling, and there are certainly large pockets in the country where social collapse is evident, for example, Detroit, which has lost over half of its former 1.8 million residents over the last 20 years or so, and where about half of its 143 square miles are now simply vacant land. 

It occurred to me while I was reading Dmitry that the writer he most reminds me of is Leon Trotsky.  Not so much the content, because Orlov is certainly no Marxist, although he's originally from the Soviet Union.  It's the uncompromising, lapidary style that harks back to the great Communist polemicist.  I can recall reading an essay written by Trotsky in defense of President Cardenas's nationalization of Mexican oil in 1938.  Dripping with irony, informed by peerless logic, written in powerful, compelling prose.  Dmitry is sort of like that.  He is so little compromised himself (living, as he does, on a boat in Boston Harbor) that he doesn't suffer from the cognitive dissonance of most American "liberals," who are every bit as much ensnared in the country's business rackets as those they presume to criticize.  An American liberal icon is someone like Bill Clinton, who makes a couple of hundred grand each time he gives a speech to fat cats about the plight of the little guy.

Maybe the most interesting and resonant insight I've read so far in Dmitry's book concerns his ideas on why representative democracy in a country as large as the U.S. simply doesn't work anymore. That's a subject that occurs to me on a pretty regular basis.  Orlov contrasts the U.S. Congress and Administration apparatus with such local institutions as the Pashtun jirga in Afghanistan, which is simply a group of tribal elders sitting in a circle and deciding matters for the village.   In such a system, there is direct accountability and a connection between who's deciding and the effects of the decision.  By contrast, an American is "represented" by Senators and Representatives he doesn't know personally, who are largely media and public relations creations, and who make their decisions primarily, it would seem, out of a sense of solidarity with a party apparatus in Washington, D.C. which arranges their cash infusions (campaign donations) to ensure their perpetual incumbency.  And beyond mere party adherence, the Solons of the Potomac become part of a Media-Political-Military Complex which responds primarily to the cultivation of their own power base.

I was thinking about this problem in just these terms recently when considering the perplexing hyper-conservatism of Senator Dianne Feinstein, who is probably the most hawkish, anti-civil liberties Congressperson working under the Capitol Dome.  There is simply no intrusion into American privacy, no outrage by the National Security Agency, that can ruffle her serene determination that, the Constitution be damned, America is going to remain "safe" even if it means that she personally will read every American's email.  Dianne Feinstein is from San Francisco, one of two "liberal" women Senators from California.  She never utters a peep about the Fourth Amendment.  There is no war of choice she won't vote for, enthusiastically. She is reelected because she's already there.  She sponsors no signature legislation, there is nothing about her representation that is especially "Californian," and yet there she sits, year after year after year.  In a way, she's a California version of Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, except that Lindsey at least occasionally comes up with a colorful turn of phrase.

Anyway, collapse.  Yeah, I suppose so, some day.  Everything changes, right?  All empires erode, disintegrate, become victims of their own excesses, right?  I get it.  Dmitry seems tired of writing about it, to tell the truth.  It's an interesting diversion, but whatever comes about will happen because of its own inevitable dynamics.  Dianne Feinstein isn't going to do anything about it.  She and husband Richard Blum, the mega-billionaire business tycoon, will just chill at their Presidio Heights mansion, maybe tool on up to Nancy Pelosi's Napa Valley spread in September and taste the early pressings of this year's pinot noir, then kick around the latest nonsense from Tom Friedman's dispatches from the Swiss Alps and Davos.

Come to think of it - collapse: hell yeah.

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