Monday, November 4, 2013

Systematic collapse or collapsing systems? Review of Orlov's The Five Stages of Collapse

In the parking lot of the guest house where I stay in Banga, Burundi, 105 people were killed in the civil war which ravaged the country from 1995 to 2005. It is a coincidence that I read Orlov’s book The Five Stages of Collapse in Burundi. This small, but densely populated country on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, experienced a deadly kind of collapse in the shape of a civil war. Over 200,000 people were killed in that war.

How does Burundi fit into Orlov’s stages of collapse? Not so well, I am afraid.

Orlov does not spend a lot of time convincing people that collapse is imminent. His readers would have already understood it. Orlov says he wrote the book to help us deal with collapse; we can not avoid it, as it is unavoidable, but survive it, and possibly find our way back to a nice society. His second cardinal accomplishment is to provide us with “taxonomy of collapse.”

Stage 1: Financial collapse. Faith in “business as usual” is lost.
Stage 2: Commercial collapse. Faith that “the market shall provide” is lost.
Stage 3: Political collapse. Faith that “the government will take care of you” is lost.
Stage 4: Social collapse. Faith that “your people will take care of you” is lost.
Stage 5: Cultural collapse. Faith in the goodness of humanity is lost.

The taxonomy is quite helpful. The presentation of collapses as stages which occur in a certain logical order is more problematical. For instance, while there are examples of financial collapse which trigger commercial collapse which trigger political collapse, there are also examples of collapse that are mainly driven by political issues, which in turn might influence finances and markets. Burundi is a case of a political collapse, and perhaps a social collapse, coming before the commercial collapse. Some of Orlov’s own examples, such as the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fate of the people Ik, also contradict the idea that a collapse follows a certain order. To my knowledge financial collapse did not trigger the fall of the Soviet Empire.

It may be a fair assumption that a collapse of the current financial global market system - and thus of modern society - will start in financial markets (as has already happened), and cascade further according to Orlov’s trajectory.  Then again, how can we be sure about that?

Orlov’s perspective on the market economy is damning. He analyzes how global competition drives all economic agents into economically efficient behavior, simultaneously making them inefficient from other perspectives. The selling of one’s labor is described as “desexualized prostitution.” Trade and market relations have been allowed to take command of a too large part of our lives. We care for family, friends and kin, and normally do not interact with them as a market, and engage in monetary transactions. Money and market relationships should, according to Orlov, be reserved for dealing with those you cannot trust, and, largely, for non-essential goods. This, today, is turned on its head. 

When Orlov says that a commercial collapse is not so bad, since we can fall back on a gift economy for essentials and use the market only for luxuries, he assumes that the essentials can be provided within the cozy circle of kin and friends. This might be possible, but it also assumes that our essentials do not include a large number of modern products and infrastructure. Are cotton clothes essential? Are sugar, telephones, computers, bicycle chains, etc., essential? None of them would easily materialize in a barter economy limited to kin and friends.

Orlov’s views of how social collapse will unfold are not pleasant. He does not claim to serve us only what is agreeable either. However, I find his views a bit too negative. I also find them contradictory. He makes much of a story of two communities living side by side: one, a typical middle class, well-educated, well-behaved community with law-abiding citizens, and the other, a typical criminal underworld community with its citizens engaged in drugs, black marketeering and crime. He thinks it is apparent that the criminal sub-culture is superior in hard times. To me that seems to contradict his praise for “mutual aid” as promoted by Pyotr Kropotkin(a Russian anarchist), someone whom he attributes many interesting pages to.

Orlov certainly has a point when he writes, “Under emergency conditions, the previously enacted rules, laws and regulations will amount to an essentially lethal set of inflated standards, unachievable mandates and unreasonable restrictions, and attempting to comply with them or enforce them is bound to lead to inaction at best and armed conflict at worst.” There are probably few, if any, good ways to de-complexify complex societies. Perhaps, I just have a higher faith in humanity to adjust, for better or for worse, to new conditions. In discussing social collapse, Orlov puts his faith (!) in religion being the institution that can take us over to another new social contract and civilization. His argument is based on the premise that religions have been able to survive many social collapses and to some extent have provided a refuge for civilization.

The strategy to try to survive the collapse by being self-sufficient is not a viable one. It may work for a few people but “for the rest, it might be better to abandon the idea of finding a safe place to be, and to concentrate instead on discovering a safe way to be—in company with others.”  In other parts of the book, though, he takes a much more individualistic perspective, and the reader is advised to hoard items which might come in handy when financial and commercial systems have made money meaningless. In line with this is also the analysis of who is best adapted to survive a collapse: they should be indifferent to suffering; have the will to survive; have the ability to persevere in spite of loneliness and lack of support from anyone else, and, have “the sheer stubborn inability to surrender in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, opposing opinions from one’s comrades or even force.”

Orlov sees human social bonds and actions as primitive, leading us to act as a herd of sheep. We have to turn to the solitary geniuses for our salvation. They are more highly evolved according to him, and it is thanks to “brilliant loners and eccentrics” that progress is made. Later in the book, he emphasizes family and similar bonds as being of utmost importance and central to humanity. I wonder if I missed something, or, did he?

The contradictions might have been resolved with more critical editing. Orlov also rants and goes off into side-discussions that are only vaguely related to the main thread of the narrative. For example, he dismisses charities and philanthropy as demeaning (they might be, but it is hardly a central discussion for the stages of collapse); he has a distinctly gender-biased discussion about how men and women react to the threat of collapse; and he discusses the merits of various national languages in some detail, without really making clear to us how Chomsky’s Universal Grammar has anything to do with cultural collapse. They do not add much to the main discourse, though some of them can be amusing and interesting. 

Orlov should be credited for daring to challenge many established views and promoting concepts that are not so often promoted, even within the collapseological community. He has the guts to question the prevailing market religion, not only because it is giving undesired results, which many agree with, but more importantly, because it is built on the wrong foundation.

One can easily be provoked by Orlov, but, then again, this seems to be his mission. After all he wants us to think for ourselves and not just accept what he says. The prose is also full of memorable and entertaining statements such as, “The intelligence of a hierarchically organized group of people is inversely proportional to its size, and mighty military empires are so big, and consequently so dumb, that they never, ever learn anything.” I encourage you to take on Orlov’s challenge.

Start by reading the book.

Dmitry Orlov was born in Russia but moved to the US as a teenager. For the past five years he has been experimenting with off-grid living and renewable energy by giving up the house and the car. Instead, he has been living on a sailboat, sailing it up and down the Eastern Seaboard, and commuting by bicycle. He believes that, given appropriate technology, we can greatly reduce personal resource consumption while remaining perfectly civilized.

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