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“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.” ~ H.L. Mencken

The graphic view of catabolic collapse as a serpent eating its tail was familiar to the ancients. Descriptions of collapse of industrial society tend to focus on our consumption and depletion of the natural resource base that is essential to its survival. An example is my synopsis of John Michael Greer’s description of catabolic collapse. As a holist however, I see a broader pattern of catabolism, some of whose processes I will describe in this essay.

Holism is a minority perspective and not well understood in an age where power elites have fostered the convenient fiction of a world of independent elements. The emergence of a scientific paradigm due to the initial success of the reductive method provided impetus for the spread of this atomistic thinking. In the reining Reagan/Thatcher worldview, the notion of society itself becomes a mirage – nothing but individuals each pursuing his self-interest.

Therefore, a brief digression may be needed to flesh out the holistic worldview. If we can sweep aside the dominant worldview reinforced under the official narrative, it becomes obvious that we inhabit a universe made up of complex clusters or webs of interacting and interdependent parts. Among humans, arrangements of social obligations knit together societies, however poorly in many cases today. The larger ecosystems we inhabit hold together thanks to intricate webs of mutual assistance that Ugo Bardi has honored with the label “holobionts”. If it were all competition, bloody in tooth and fang as the standard narrative portrays it, our universe would have collapsed long ago. Our greatest need is to gain clues as to how things in our universe change over time. To achieve any such understanding, it is necessary to investigate these complex wholes. Hence, in this essay we will look at how the wholes that make up the structures of modern society – their social, political, economic and cultural forms – change under catabolic collapse.

General considerations: a global view

In the history of the rise and fall of civilizations from the time of the ancient civilizations of the Near East, China and the New World to the present, a universal characteristic is that few of the citizens were aware of their collapse until long after they had begun to fail. Our current Industrial civilization began to fail decades ago, but again, few believe it is happening. The reasons are worth analyzing, in the hope that readers will become aware of the symptoms.

One obscuring circumstance is that different parts of the civilization fail at different times and rates. At the same time a constant narrative of information under elite control paints a distorted picture in the public mind to minimize each new crisis of the system. Because of the obvious relationship between the events and their false portrayal, in this essay I will attempt an integrated analysis that describes the overall effect.

Geographical differences

Geographical differences are due to differences in remaining reserves of energy and other resources, and differences in their rates of use and distribution. Also, the more unrestrained forms of capitalism cause more rapid failure, for several reasons.

Under laissez faire capitalism, a habit of little restraint on extravagant consumption of finite resources leads to early scarcities, with which a public used to seeing discretionary consumption as a necessity cannot cope. At first this can occur both in a core country like the US and at the same time in the nations most open to capitalist plunder of resources. Later in the global decline, an advantage in the less developed countries appears: peasant populations that were least integrated into the global economy, having retained more pre-industrial technologies, can better adapt to the collapse of industrial civilization.[1]

Also, the anything-goes capitalism practiced in the US has allowed the capitalist class to deindustrialize its economy in favor of investment in parts of the world where it can practice unregulated pillage of resources and exploit cheap labor, like Mexico or China. Globalization of the US model has infected US vassal industrial economies as well, starting with Europe and spreading elsewhere. Capitalist financial elites have temporarily mitigated the effects of deindustrialization by artificial means: debt financing of cheap imports from the emerging industrial economies. This cannot last. Revolts against deindustrialization and its effects on the prosperity and economic security of majorities are already occurring in the US and its European vassals.

Finally, a tradition of minimal public intervention makes these economies vulnerable to crises that require a centrally organized response: war, epidemics, environmental disasters or sudden financial collapse, for example.

While capital flight occurs in the mature industrial economies, emerging industrial economies – principally China and allied economies like Russia, Iran, possibly India and the East Asian economies – continue to experience growth for a time as long as markets remain strong for their products and natural resources remain. These countries are creating a multipolar counterweight against the declining unipolar system led by the US. As insurance against a failing US-led global system, they are building domestic markets and creating alternate international currency and financial transaction institutions to replace the ones previously dominated by Western global capitalists. Economic growth in the multipolar group is also affected by declining natural resources and is therefore temporary. Economies with less access to such resources, especially fossil energy, will experience degrowth soonest, as described below.

All the emerging economies have strong private sectors, including state-run sectors that act like capitalist businesses. China, for example, has state-controlled corporations of global stature that sell shares on stock markets and borrow from private banks. However, they typically have strong traditions of public oversight and economic planning that often give them an advantage over laissez-faire economies.

Differences in remaining reserves of resources

Russia has the largest land base and a large reserve of fossil fuels, minerals and forest. China is now on track to become the largest industrial economy by the end of the decade. The present economic alliance between China, Russia and others in the multipolar group has the potential to continue economic growth much longer than the rest of the world. On the other hand, the mature industrial economies – US, Europe, and Japan – having depleted much of their domestic resource base, have become increasingly reliant on imperial client states for resources. As these economies weaken due to deindustrialization, they will lose the capacity to control client states. Western elites are currently trying to maintain and even extend their hegemony with color revolutions and economic warfare they call “sanctions” in recalcitrant states. As the domestic economies of the Western imperialist states weaken, these efforts are gradually stalling out and the area of control of the Western Empire is shrinking. The global picture, therefore, is one of countries responding at different rates and times to a general situation of declining net energy.

Degrowth in the United States

Domestic oil production reached an all-time peak in 1970, as oil geologist King Hubert had predicted over a decade earlier. Control over the world oil price shifted to a consortium of foreign producers. People in the US began to experience degrowth in the 1970s due to rising energy costs and the resultant inflation, but most saw it as a temporary setback. Indeed, inflation stabilized with the dropping world oil price in the 1980s, and in conjunction with an economic ‘house cleaning’ forced by high interest rates, served to revive the economy. This mitigated the effects of deindustrialization that occurred as China opened up lucrative investment opportunities for Western capital (in exchange for massive transfer of technology rights).

However, the flight of heavy industry to the Asian Pacific rim and the Asian conquest of the US auto industry had created a permanent ‘rust belt’ in the center of the country. The Reagan – Bush – Clinton policies of the 1980s and 1990s transferred the tax burden downward and eroded the social safety net, and by the 2000s incessantly rising energy costs caused the brief return of prosperity to evaporate. The ruling elites used government policy to artificially prop up the economy, or at least a semblance of it.


To meet daily necessities in an age of economic decline, resources once used to maintain infrastructures in the face of 2nd Law entropy can be diverted for a time. A farmer facing bankruptcy typically lets buildings and equipment gradually wear out, and thus puts off the inevitable. Likewise, in the whole country, the dilapidation of infrastructures – highways and bridges, and utilities like water, sanitation and electric grid has been going on for some time. Seen in conjunction with the decades-long export of heavy industry on the part of the investor elite, the very industrial capacity of our society may be permanently lost, weakening the nation in its foreign relations. For example, in a recent report to Congress, the Pentagon acknowledged that the US no longer had the capacity to wage a major war. Not only the industrial plant but the engineering skills were now deficient, incapable of a rapid buildup in the weapons industry such as was possible in WWII.

In another attempt to mitigate the loss of prosperity, financial elites have created a discount consumer economy of Walmarts, Kmarts and Dollar Stores to flood the US market with cheap imports from the industries they previously exported to cheap labor regions. They hide the drop in quality behind brand names of products once made in America.

The economic decline prompted another government intervention: cheap credit. One effect of virtually unlimited usury – the standard tool of socialism for the rich – was to accelerate the concentration of wealth at the top. Another was to artificially inflate stock markets and create financial bubbles – overheated sectors like real estate or non-viable industries like hydrofracked oil, which sustained a false perception of prosperity. The saturation and eventual abuse of credit spawned exploding credit bubbles and threw the financial sector into crisis, which the government parried initially with bailouts and eventually by steady money printing. The ultimate result will be the loss of the reserve status of the dollar, thus a dead-end street, propped up for now only by the global perception of the dollar as a safe haven for stored wealth. The weakening of the dollar currency and gradual loss of its reserve status will have several ripple effects, some of which are already beginning to occur. It will raise the cost of all imports, whatever their quality, and cause a further decline in prosperity. The US will lose its ability to use the dollar reserve currency as a weapon of political and economic control in client states of the empire. Thus the end of cheap energy and raw materials that began to bite decades ago has created a cascade of accelerating unexpected consequences, for which there is no solution.

Disaster Capitalism

As ruling powers discovered that they could control a society more easily by indoctrination than by force, and when electronic media were invented that could easily spread a potent message, they developed sophisticated narratives that worked wonders of manipulation and eventually created a fictional reality in the public mind. This means of social control has worked for a century, but began to lose traction as policies described above of cheap credit and war spending failed to revive the economy. As a result, ruling elites have used their control of media to distract from the failing economy by manufacturing mythical threats and engineering catastrophes – a kind of disaster capitalism – which they then use to fabricate episodes of fear. They use the climate of fear to justify wars and other policies that serve their interests.

Engineered fear attacks in the Western world started off in high gear at least 70 years ago with Cold War ideology, an attempt to manufacture the threat that ‘The Ruskies are Coming!’, when the real fear, in the hearts of our rulers, was that the idea of an alternative to capitalist wage slavery and debt peonage might spread. The McCarthy witch hunt was the great enabler. Added to that was the fabrication of a ChiCom threat starting in 1949, rather amusing, since for decades neither China or the West would have any truck with the other. With the demise of the USSR and the rise of partially secularized Muslim states taking increased control over their oil, the elite’s story tellers produced a scare detonated nicely by 9/11: the Great War on Terror. Then, with the success of the Trump campaign in 2016 it suddenly became the War on Populism, with Trump and his deplorables as the resurrection of Hitler. These days it’s a virus, one of allegedly over 150 floating around in the Corona category that cause seasonal epidemics, a convenient scapegoat for a collapsing economy.

The discredit of institutions

The growth of a population rebellious enough to support an unpredictable presidency like the Trump administration is evidence that disaster capitalism is not working anymore as a pacification strategy amidst growing economic insecurity and real poverty. Not limited to the US, revolt has spread throughout Western Europe, taking different forms – yellow vest movement in France, Brexit in the UK, renaissance of the radical right in Germany, and a general revolt against the anti-virus lockdown policies in most of Western Europe.

While ruling elites still manage to control government policy, their real challenge and fear is the growing revolt, which promises to continue regardless of the party in power. In the US, deep state operatives surrounded a politically inexperienced president and manipulated him into obedience. But they could not silence his speechifying or quell his ability to capture media time and stay in the public eye. Trump’s real threat was to voice criticism of the neoliberal system itself that, whether sincere or simply pandering to his base, few leaders since JFK had done, and thus gave direction and strength to a rebellion that had been weak and incoherent.

Elite reaction was to openly weaponize the mainstream media and the Democrat Party to take down the Trump administration. Never more than a propaganda arm of the ruling class, most of the media has thrown away all pretense of objectivity. In its attack on the working class base of the Trump presidency, the Democrat Party lost any façade of progressive liberalism that it previously enjoyed. These institutional losses of credibility further fuel the atmosphere of revolt in a vicious circle, a loss of credibility that promises to be long lasting.


The catabolic symbol of the snake eating its tail finds expression in all major institutions of a civilization that is experiencing the beginning of degrowth. It entails the erosion of cover stories like ‘free press’, ‘democracy’ ‘academic freedom’ ‘nonintervention’ and ‘sovereignty’. The Western ideal of liberalism itself is tarnished as self-proclaimed liberals openly embrace censorship and disregard for the rule of law at home and unauthorized wars abroad. Government and banker collusion to play tricks with monetary policy, foster unlimited usury and replace a real wealth economy with a speculative, debt economy is destroying the trust in money itself.

Perhaps the present state of affairs is best understood when placed in a larger historical context. Anthropologist David Graeber and political economist Michael Hudson think and write history in the holistic style of Spengler and Weber and the world systems school that uncovers patterns of civilizational change over la longue durée. More specifically, unlike much economics and political science today that caters to the ideological needs of ruling elites, they consider that the study of the production and distribution of wealth cannot be adequately understood apart from the study of the distribution and exercise of decision-making power. Their approach follows that of the early political economists like Adam Smith, Mill, Ricardo, Marx and even Locke and Hobbes.

Each seeing the subject from his own angle, Graeber and Hudson present a broad historical panorama of civilizations struggling with alternating conceptions of economic life and the morality of how social relations regarding obligations of exchange, credit and debt are handled.[2] Whenever the morality of exchange is characterized by a generalized sense of obligation based on favors owed (as in most families or healthy neighborhood community – which Marcel Mauss called a gift economy) or, at a larger social scale, custom or law regulate obligations according to status in a social hierarchy (as is the feudal hierarchy of the Middle Ages), inequality is relatively limited and is conducive to social peace. But they find that whenever the morality of economic relations is reduced to precise calculation, debt and usury are allowed free reign, and market values come to reign supreme, then endlessly rising inequality, eventual slavery of various sorts (including wage slavery and debt peonage), war, and civilizational collapse eventually follow, sometimes temporarily relieved by Jubilees, which erase indebtedness. They see the modern age, dating from the end of feudalism, as one dominated by the latter conception. If the modern age, as it crumbles, is to give way to something new, it will need a different moral basis of how humanity manages economic relations and the obligations that creates.

At the present historical juncture, where a nearly global form of civilization appears to be experiencing some sort of tipping point, the Graeber and Hudson studies are timely. Covering several millennia and forms of civilization from ancient China to modern Western Europe and North America, they record an array of attempts to deal with the definition of debt and obligation in social organization, which they see as central to the form a civilization takes. As such, they offer a range of possible futures to think about at a time when much thinking about these questions runs in narrow channels based on false assumptions.

[1] The Peasants Shall Inherit the Earth

[2] Graeber, David. 2014. Debt, the first five thousand years.

Hudson, Michael. 2018 …and forgive them their debts: Lending, Foreclosure and Redemption From Bronze Age Finance to the Jubilee Year.


Karl North has been a student, a farmer, a business owner, and a teacher. As a student, his strongest focus for over 50 years has been systems ecology and political economy (the power relations in social systems). 

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