Collapse is an overused word, a telescoping of events better described as a decline. The buggy industry didn’t “collapse” when the first automobile dealership appeared—Studebaker made both, nor did the vacuum tube disappear the day the first transistor was manufactured. The Roman and Byzantine empires didn’t collapse, they were transformed in a surprisingly orderly, if not voluntary, manner over a long period of time. No, they weren’t mere reorganizations or downsizing, and yes there were catastrophic events within those episodes, but a critical observer of the time would would rightly understand them to be something other than collapse.
It’s a mistake to telescope events, future or past. Nobody rang a bell in 1929 and announced, “Your attention please. This is the beginning of the Great Depression. Gather your shipping crates and stake out your places under a bridge before all the good places are taken.” The decline took three years, each one worse than the last. But it also included the biggest market rallies ever, although the market didn’t regain the level of 1929 until the early 1950s. Parts and pieces did collapse, but it was not a general collapse. It was a sharp, enduring but reversible decline. Social and governmental stratification actually increased in the interim. The modern middle class arose in those years. And it was an innovative and rather stylish era besides—compare a 1929 radio with a 1939 radio, or airliner, or movie, or automobile, or commercial building.
A true collapse is the sudden and catastrophic decentralization of everything all at once. Civil authority, either unwilling or unable to solve basic problems, forfeits the loyalty of all and retreats in disorder. Social stratification disappears—there are no privileges to be had. Interconnected commerce and communication as we have known them cease to be and regional autocrats compete for the pieces. With decentralization, depopulation and subsistence living, truly local economies arise similar to that of early Medieval times. In the main, the resilient and resourceful survive. An extinction-level meritocracy has no place for useless expertise. There are examples of such collapse, but none on the scale being contemplated by serious and respected analysts.
Now for the bad news. While decline doesn’t necessarily result in collapse, it always precedes collapse. As Hemingway said when asked how he went bankrupt, “Slowly. Then suddenly,” meaning the suddenness of collapse is superficial. The tip offs are as predictable as they are universal. Debased and manipulated currency. Schemes to confiscate or outlaw real wealth. Rule by fraud and force. Elitists and personality cults. Purchased allegiance. Showy displays of unmerited privilege. Deteriorating standards in education, deportment and mores. A steady drop in technological innovation. Overly complex, unpredictable and corrupt governance. And most ominous, a creeping conviction established authority is illegitimate at its root.
What to look for. When decline veers toward collapse the able and provident simply decamp. Skill and capital go where they’re wanted, whether it’s South Carolina or South America. In the last half of the twentieth century, Detroit and similar venues saw the industrious self-evacuate by the hundreds of thousands. Those places are now Third World outposts, wholly dependent on outside support with no good faith effort in return. They’re holding pens for the determinedly improvident who defy the simple requirements of reality itself, sometimes with violence but always with rancor. Productive, future-oriented people rightly discount the sales pitch once they see what’s in the box. Watch the oar-pullers not the drum beaters, when they jump ship they may know something important.
What to look for. Decline is reversible with effective countermeasures. The rate of decline can be slowed, even turned around if conditions for recovery set in place. It’s difficult and unpopular. Said another way, it takes statesmanship. Splashy but ineffective countermeasures signal desperation, ‘centerpiece’ initiatives chief among them. For cities it’s the bower bird notion, meaning sports facilities, gaudy do-overs of city centers and similar high-visibility squandering in time of scarcity. Misallocation of resources is not the less for being conspicuous. For DC it’s bailouts, emergency measures and marquee legislation. It’s neither necessary nor worthwhile to debate their merit. Results matter, words don’t. Find reliable data and watch trends, not specifics. What matters is a change in the rate of decline, whether up or down, not the decline itself.
What to look for. Should decline be accommodated rather than resisted, and given the political and financial opportunities on the short side, the official narrative will be buoyant where all else suggests it’s unwarranted. The data they present is unlikely to be reliable. Consider it self-serving hearsay. Be alert to your local conditions instead, and gauge them for yourself. Facts, especially the boring ones beneath most people’s notice, can’t be schmoozed away. Take note of parking lot usage, business openings and closings, demographic changes, local tax revenues, the finances of charitable outfits and hospitals, local crime rates and the like. Pay attention to the anecdotal, it may tell you nothing reliable about the specifics but there is value in knowing what people believe to be true. Read your newspaper and note especially the police reports, want ads, sheriff’s sales, hiring and layoffs. Compare your findings with friends and correspondents to build a more reliable ground-level picture.
Sometimes decline is merely decline, bad enough, and we’re capable of more with good will and effort. But collapse takes no effort, it’s a default by nature. Those entrusted with the well being of the people are willingly and knowingly using decline as a honey pot, their personal or ideological fortune growing with each kick of the can. True collapse is discounted as nihilist ravings or the daydream of anarchists and Gaia romanticists, an unserious topic other than for Hollywood or doomer novelists. Perhaps they believe this. Perhaps they only prefer we believe this. We know collapse comes wrapped in decline yet they keep peeling back the layers, their audience applauding each time disaster doesn’t jump out of the box. It’s a good crowd to stay away from.