This essay comes with a caveat: that the process of descent into a failed state has already been very much at play. And for a long time, too. At least since the 2008 economic crash, the core of global imperialism has been transitioning into the kind of instability which its military has inflicted upon nations like Libya and Yugoslavia. And during this last year in particular, the collapse has been accelerating.
These initial stages of the societal unraveling, built upon the dismantling of social services, infrastructural neglect, and engineered living standard drops from our half-century of neoliberalism, have become most noticeable during 21st century America’s greatest moments of crisis. This is because during these points, the hollowing out of the country’s social support systems have made it undeniable that our civilization is increasingly unequipped to handle shocks. Hurricane Katrina with its massive needless suffering due to cruel neoliberal policies; Covid-19 with its more than half a million avoidable U.S. deaths due to the country’s lack of a universal healthcare system; last year’s California fires with their overburdening of a neoliberal state firefighting model which relies on prison slave labor; these are the ways that our late-stage capitalist socioeconomic paradigm has been multiplying the destruction from natural disasters and diseases, many of which have themselves been exacerbated by capitalism’s furthering of the climate crisis.
This is the brutal instrument through which our capitalist ruling class is worsening the current stage of our civilizational collapse, the stage where kleptocrats engineer ways to make the crises worse so that the desperate population can be looted further.
The present step: “You never let a serious crisis go to waste”
The statement above was made by Barack Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who was observing about the 2008 financial crash that the drivers of capital now had an “opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.” And even before the government put these words into action by funneling hundreds of billions to Wall Street while making the financial system too concentrated to properly regulate, neoliberal policy-makers were applying the same logic when it came to Hurricane Katrina. As Jamie Peck wrote in the 2007 essay Neoliberal Hurricane: Who Framed New Orleans?
“What began as a ‘decidedly unnatural disaster’, in Neil Smith’s words, has been ruthlessly transformed into a malformed reconstruction programme that blames, and morally reregulates, the most vulnerable victims, while setting in train ‘[w]holesale gentrification on a scale unseen in the United States’. This is about as far from a ‘people’s reconstruction’ as one could imagine — a programme of contracted-out urban structural adjustment, designed in Washington and New York. An urban catastrophe that disproportionately impacted the poor, the infirm, and the elderly perversely resulted in the pairing of programmes designated for precisely these groups. According to the neoliberal script, it was not a lack of resources, private transportation, or out-of-town support systems that placed some of the most-needy New Orleans residents in the storm’s path; it was the long-run consequences of urban welfarism — and its racialized cast of supported characters, including the workless, the feckless, and the lawless, absentee fathers, inert mothers, and criminalized youths.”
In the years since then, as the country has been afflicted by increasingly severe fires, storms, and droughts along with a pandemic, those eager to profit from disaster have expanded upon this model of pushing out the most vulnerable. This systemic driving down of living standards in relation to the climate crisis and our recent public health catastrophe have been a vicious cycle; Covid-19 and the extreme weather events have both given neoliberal politicians an excuse for further deregulation, austerity, wage cuts, and privatization, and have been made more destructive by the neoliberal policies which existed prior to these events.
In the next several decades, this feedback loop is going to keep getting worse. Our ruling class, facing a decline of U.S. global hegemony and a weakening of capital as a result of the current “Greater Depression,” will squeeze us more than they’ve ever squeezed us. It’s estimated that the climate crisis will facilitate the largest upward transfer of wealth in U.S. history, with the country’s poorest counties being expected to lose up to 20% of their income by the middle of the century. And this is just the most surface-level aspect of the turmoil which the lower classes are going to be thrust into, in addition to the economic deprivation they’re already experiencing.
Last year, environmental reporter Abrahm Lustgarten explained just how many people in the U.S. will be forced into slum conditions, homelessness, and effective refugee status by the coming climatic disasters:
“Across the United States, some 162 million people — nearly one in two — will most likely experience a decline in the quality of their environment, namely more heat and less water. For 93 million of them, the changes could be particularly severe, and by 2070, our analysis suggests, if carbon emissions rise at extreme levels, at least four million Americans could find themselves living at the fringe, in places decidedly outside the ideal niche for human life. The cost of resisting the new climate reality is mounting. Florida officials have already acknowledged that defending some roadways against the sea will be unaffordable. And the nation’s federal flood-insurance program is for the first time requiring that some of its payouts be used to retreat from climate threats across the country. It will soon prove too expensive to maintain the status quo.“
He expands upon these points to explain how the migration created by these destabilizing events will lead to further social breakdown:
“One influential 2018 study, published in The Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, suggests that one in 12 Americans in the Southern half of the country will move toward California, the Mountain West or the Northwest over the next 45 years because of climate influences alone. Such a shift in population is likely to increase poverty and widen the gulf between the rich and the poor. It will accelerate rapid, perhaps chaotic, urbanization of cities ill-equipped for the burden, testing their capacity to provide basic services and amplifying existing inequities. It will eat away at prosperity, dealing repeated economic blows to coastal, rural and Southern regions, which could in turn push entire communities to the brink of collapse. This process has already begun in rural Louisiana and coastal Georgia, where low-income and Black and Indigenous communities face environmental change on top of poor health and extreme poverty.”
Even this understates the magnitude of the migrant crisis we’re going to face. Those more temperate areas in the Pacific Northwest and the Mountain West are largely themselves going to be rendered uninhabitable; Lustgarten continues that “13 million Americans will be forced to move away from submerged coastlines. Add to that the people contending with wildfires and other risks, and the number of Americans who might move — though difficult to predict precisely — could easily be tens of millions larger.” Already, the Mountain West is in the climate crosshairs in a way parallel to California, with the region experiencing the same kinds of increasing droughts, fires, and heatwaves that California is. It’s another feedback loop in our vicious cycle of humanitarian crisis.
Throughout this deterioration of our social systems, we’re going to see ever more price gouging (as just happened in Texas when the deregulated electric companies took advantage of the storms there), ever more privatization, ever more deregulation, and ever more cutting off of social services. We’re also going to see ever more state repression, which at a certain point will cross the line into being not merely heavy-handed policing but actual domestic warfare.
The next step: “drain the swamp of non-combatants”
The worse the social inequality from our collapse gets, the more class tensions will be inflamed. And the more we’ll see uprisings like this last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, which emerged right after a sudden plunge into economic depression and for this reason turned into likely the largest protest movement in the country’s history. As the years go on, this scenario where the spontaneous mobilization of the people gets maximized is going to be repeated, no doubt resulting in future revolts even bigger than the ones we’ve seen so far. These revolts will go along with the growth of revolutionary socialist organizations, which will be able to find ever more sympathizers as the evils of the capitalist state keep coming to a head.
The state wants to keep it so that these revolts can be contained by simply sending in the National Guard, militarized police, and unlabeled federal agents. The state’s worst fear is that the revolutionary socialists will make enough inroads among the masses to gain the support for a proletarian revolution. For now, the ruling class is content to try to pre-emptively stop this revolution, putting forth propaganda to confuse the masses and alienate them from Marxist theory; the CIA’s current campaign to flood the media with fabricated claims of socialist China committing a “genocide” against the Uyghurs is one part of this informational aspect of the class war.
But when the risk of a successful revolution gets substantial enough, the U.S. is going to bring its warfare tactics from abroad into our neighborhoods. A 2016 Pentagon training video anticipates that as unemployment, climatic disasters, and destitution proliferate throughout these next few decades, the military is going to have to invade some of the world’s largest cities—including ones like New York and Los Angeles—to retain Washington’s control over the increasingly unstable territories. The video observes that megacities in particular “are the future breeding grounds, incubators, and launching pads for adversaries and hybrid threats.” It concluded that due to the U.S. military’s lack of strategic knowledge about how to operate within megacities (I’m unsure if the military has gained better knowledge in this areas since 2016), their only options will be to either abandon these cities to the rebels, or “drain the swamp of non-combatants” so that U.S. Special Operations Forces can engage the insurgents without killing vast amounts of U.S. civilians.
This intent is reflected in a 2016 U.S. Army War College report which explains that the military will need to try its best to clear non-combatants out of impoverished neighborhoods and “bulldoze the slums” so that these hypothetical near-future domestic rebels can be engaged without constraint. Given that Philadelphia police bombed an entire city block in 1985 to snuff out a black liberation group, an action which decidedly wasn’t made with civilian lives in mind, it’s doubtful the military will truly carry out domestic combat with this kind of surgical constraint. Much more likely, civilians will be deliberately targeted by the military to try to terrorize the population into not backing the rebel forces. As the Pentagon video warns, even 1% of the population supporting Washington’s adversaries in a large city will represent tens of thousands of people, people who the government can only treat as enemy combatants.
For a while now, there’s already been precedent for the U.S. ruling class carrying out this kind of haphazard violence against the underclass during climatic catastrophes. As the Marxist site MR Online has written:
“When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, the city’s wealthiest residents evacuated well in advance and hired a private army of security guards from companies such as Blackwater to protect their homes and possessions from the mass of poor, mainly Black residents who were left behind. Investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill went to the city in the aftermath of the hurricane and witnessed first-hand the highly militarised and racialised nature of the response. One security contractor, hired by a local businessman, told Scahill his team had been fired on by “Black gangbangers”, in response to which the contractors “unleashed a barrage of bullets in the general direction of the alleged shooters … ‘After that, all I heard was moaning and screaming, and the shooting stopped. That was it. Enough said’”.”
We can expect these kinds of incidents to get more common. We can also expect the carpet bombings, drone strikes, and careless troop killings of civilians that Washington carries out in its global wars to be brought home, along with other genocidal warfare tactics like blockades of food, water, and medical equipment. These tactics, in addition to the explicitly planned neighborhood-bulldozing and forced urban evacuations, are going to further multiply the country’s domestic migrant crises. Large parts of the country will become like Libya, Syria, Yemen, and the other places U.S. imperialism has destabilized.
No one can say what year Washington will begin to import the more extreme tactics, or in which locality the war will start. But the Pentagon video and the War College report respectively describe these urban conflicts as “unavoidable” and “inescapable.” And a 2019 Pentagon report, which doesn’t describe these planned class warfare tactics but does outline how the National Security State aims to militarize American society, provides a good sense of what the conditions immediately preceding the war’s start will look like.
This report gives us a sense of the time frame in which the country will likely go from being increasingly dysfunctional to largely being a war zone, because it considers the potential for a collapse of the U.S. power grid within “the next 20 years.” If this is the number that the military intelligentsia have honed in on while speculating about when a larger social breakdown will happen, and therefore when such domestic military interventions will be carried out, we can at least say that the military’s anticipated war will fairly likely happen before 2040.
Regardless of the exact date for when this threshold into Syria-level instability gets passed, it’s likely that what will directly precede it is a massive provocation from the state. One which sways much of the populace in an already deteriorating area towards turning against the government. This inciting atrocity could be another police murder of an unarmed black man, or another city block bombing, or a massacre of protesters. Whatever it is, its likelihood will be expanded by the intensive role which the military plans to establish within everyday American life. As the Pentagon report says, when large swaths of the U.S. lose electricity or otherwise get plunged into instability, “The US Army will be called upon to assist in much the same way it was called upon in other disasters. Detailed coordination with local, state and federal agencies in the most high risk regions will hasten response time and minimize risk to mission.”
The report expects these ever-growing demands for domestic military intervention because as it says, “Most of the critical infrastructures identified by the Department of Homeland Security are not built to withstand these altered conditions.” It explains that “The power grid that serves the United States is aging and continues to operate without a coordinated and significant infrastructure investment. Vulnerabilities exist to electricity-generating power plants, electric transmission infrastructure and distribution system components.” Consequently, the “increased energy requirements” from a changing climate will overstretch “an already fragile system.”
As the report observes, such power grid failures will go along with numerous disease outbreaks, ones which scientists have since predicted will be even more deadly than Covid-19. Imagine a pandemic worse than the one we’ve been experiencing, but with likely most of the country also undergoing these consequences of a national power grid collapse that the report lists:
Loss of perishable foods and medications
Loss of water and wastewater distribution systems
Loss of heating/air conditioning and electrical lighting systems
Loss of computer, telephone, and communications systems (including airline flights, satellite networks and GPS services)
Loss of public transportation systems
Loss of fuel distribution systems and fuel pipelines
Loss of all electrical systems that do not have back-up power
Then will come the militarization of the impoverished communities most impacted by these collapses, or rather of what will be left of these communities. As columnist Michael T. Klare wrote in 2017, the intensifying hurricanes have already been greatly accelerating the militarization of our society:
“Think of this as the new face of homeland security: containing the damage to America’s seacoasts, forests, and other vulnerable areas caused by extreme weather events made all the more frequent and destructive thanks to climate change. This is a “war” that won’t have a name — not yet, not in the Trump era, but it will be no less real for that. “The firepower of the federal government” was being trained on Harvey, as William Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), put it in a blunt expression of this warlike approach.”
These dual threats—natural disasters and the state’s reactive drive towards bringing the wars home—will engulf ever greater swaths of the country. Already, we’re seeing an effort to expand the paradigm of quasi-military occupation which much of the country exists in, with the overflow of military equipment to police accelerating under Biden. And the spattering of mass shootings and right-wing terrorists attacks we’ve experienced during this last year is adding onto the process; as columnist John Soehr observed last month:
“How is a free republic supposed to react in good faith to bloody massacres like the one last week in Atlanta and the one this week in Boulder, Colorado, if the conflict between diametric rights is forever deadlocked? Well, the answer is obvious. It does not. It is paralyzed. It has been for two decades now. A problem of democracy cannot be solved democratically even as the problem continues killing wholesale. It’s no wonder many Americans have turned to military solutions to democratic problems, which, of course, make nearly everything worse.”
The final step: “How do I maintain authority over my security force after the Event?”
It’s estimated that over the next fifty years, around a fifth of the world’s currently habitable land is going to be rendered uninhabitable by global warming. In the United States, the parts that undergo this process will largely consist of the low-lying areas of the coasts, the localities which will be made unlivable due to the heat (for perspective on what this means, eventually Las Vegas will be so hot that no one living there can safely go outside), and the places that will be rendered unlivable due to fires and other disasters (like Southern California). As almost everyone in these places either dies or becomes a refugee, only the rich will have a guarantee of escape. At least in the immediate sense.
As media theorist and futurist Douglas Rushkoff has written about an experience from several years ago where he spoke to investment bankers at a private conference on “the future of technology,” the wealthy are anxious about how well they’ll fare after collapse gets so bad that they’ll have to permanently relocate to their remote luxury bunkers:
“After a bit of small talk, I realized they had no interest in the information I had prepared about the future of technology. They had come with questions of their own … Which region will be less affected by the coming climate crisis: New Zealand or Alaska? … Finally, the CEO of a brokerage house explained that he had nearly completed building his own underground bunker system and asked: ‘How do I maintain authority over my security force after the Event?’
“The Event. That was their euphemism for the environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, unstoppable virus, or Mr Robot hack that takes everything down … They knew armed guards would be required to protect their compounds from the angry mobs. But how would they pay the guards once money was worthless? What would stop the guards from choosing their own leader? The billionaires considered using special combination locks on the food supply that only they knew. Or making guards wear disciplinary collars of some kind in return for survival.”
Is this what a plutocrat is reduced to when his own system falls apart and he no longer has capital? A makeshift feudal lord that’s afraid of being eaten by his own guards and hopes a button will protect him? Morbidly funny as this potential comeuppance for the super-rich will be, what we’ll face when the collapse gets this dire is a horror similar to the kind that the Central American refugees are experiencing. The record number of refugees who’ve recently appeared at the southern border represent the first part in an ever-multiplying mass of people forced to flee the perils of late-stage capitalism. And if you’re in the United States, it’s more likely than not that you’ll be one of these fleers.
I don’t even need to describe the conditions we’ll be facing at this stage of our collapse in great detail, because we can already see these conditions in the places U.S. imperialism has so far damaged the very worst. After a dozen years under a U.S.-installed dictatorial regime, Honduras has become too rife with violence and poverty for much of its population to be able to remain. Libya has been torn apart by civil war following the 2011 NATO invasion, leading to slave trades and a failed state. Yemen has been experiencing the world’s largest humanitarian crisis due to the U.S.-backed Saudi resource blockade, with millions of its children being malnourished. These horrors are just the start of what the U.S. empire is about to do to the global poor; in the next fifty years alone, rising temperatures and sea levels will make the current homes of around a third of the global population unlivable.
I name the U.S. empire as the predominant guilty actor behind this situation both because the bloated U.S. military remains the world’s largest polluter, and because U.S. imperialism’s propping up of global capital perpetuates the functionings of the 100 corporations which create over two-thirds of carbon emissions. This is a crisis that has a clear primary perpetrator: our government. And it’s our government that will ultimately subject us to the same fate which it’s created for imperialism’s global victims.
As Professor Jem Bendell warned in his 2018 paper on the prospect of a climate-created civilizational collapse: “when I say starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war, I mean in your own life. With the power down, soon you wouldn’t have water coming out of your tap. You will depend on your neighbours for food and some warmth. You will become malnourished. You won’t know whether to stay or go. You will fear being violently killed before starving to death.”
As the steps towards this point progress, what we must do is build the mass movements towards revolutionary socialism which the ruling class is so afraid of. The constant waves of neoliberal shock doctrine policies, as well as our society’s ever-growing militarization and descent into violence, encourage paralysis and apathy. But as I’ve made clear throughout this essay, the collapse we’re experiencing is inextricably tied in with the forces of class warfare, which means every aspect of the chaos we’re experiencing is part of a larger power game. And unless we take power for ourselves and mobilize for the victory of our class, we’ll be rendered insignificant little pieces of capitalist detritus who get washed away by those more powerful than us.
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