On “Black Swans,” “fat-tailed sheep” and future history.

"Any large-scale political unit is a complex system. Most great empires have a nominal central authority — either a hereditary emperor or an elected president — but in practice the power of any individual ruler is a function of the network of economic, social and political relations over which he or she presides. As such, empires exhibit many of the characteristics of other complex adaptive systems — including the tendency to move from stability to instability quite suddenly.

The most recent and familiar example of precipitous decline is the collapse of the Soviet Union. With the benefit of hindsight, historians have traced all kinds of rot within the Soviet system back to the Brezhnev era and beyond. Perhaps, as the historian and political scientist Stephen Kotkin has argued, it was only the high oil prices of the 1970s that "averted Armageddon." But this did not seem to be the case at the time. The Soviet nuclear arsenal was larger than the U.S. stockpile. And governments in what was then called the Third World, from Vietnam to Nicaragua, had been tilting in the Soviets' favor for most of the previous 20 years.

Yet, less than five years after Mikhail Gorbachev took power, the Soviet imperium in central and Eastern Europe had fallen apart, followed by the Soviet Union itself in 1991. If ever an empire fell off a cliff, rather than gently declining, it was the one founded by Lenin."  Niall Ferguson


The parallel is obvious and Feguson makes it specific later in the essay.  We are over-extended in many fields and the possibility of a sudden and catastrophic reversal looms.   People in the US do not realize that they are much poorer than they have been led to believe.  We will probably not see again the artificially high standard of living that we enjoyed so much.

Does anyone remember a little book by a Russian named Andrei Amalrik?  It was published in the 80s I believe.  It foretold the collapse of the USSR's planned economy.  In 1980 I was en route to Yemen for duty and went to a series of briefings at CIA as part of my preparation.  One of the lecturers was a retired CIA analyst who told us that the Soviet Union was a wildly distorted state that had one foot in the heavy industry needed to sustain their rivalry with NATO and the other foot in the 19th Century peasant economy of Tsarist Russia.  He, too, predicted collapse.  I didn't believe it at the time, but after years of associating with Soviets in Yemen I knew he had been correct.  The level of poverty at which Soviet personnel stationed in Yemen existed was pathetic.  They thought poor little Yemen was a land of milk and honey.  Soviet officers' wives would stand in tiny street stalls and bargain with Qat chewing shopkeepers over the price of a few eggs.  Meat, they never bought.  It was just too expensive.  The Soviet military mission was full of fairly senior officers with mouths full of rotten teeth.

The USSR fell with a crash that was astonishing.  pl


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44 Responses to On “Black Swans,” “fat-tailed sheep” and future history.

  1. Chris says:

    It’s an interesting counterfactual to wonder how long the Soviet Union could have held together if Gorbechev had been a bit more ruthless and managed to hold the Union together by force.
    I would think that the technological and economic differential between the USSR and USA would have become so great at some point that the only thing needed to end the cold war was for the US to realize it.

  2. rfjk says:

    The Russians never had a middle class. They had serfs who transformed into urban proletarians, which was just an ideological slave as opposed to a slave chained to the soil.
    The depression and WWII generation were always saying how poor everyone was and didn’t know it, simply because everyone was poor. The extermination of affluence within the US middle classes will not destroy America.

  3. rfjk says:

    I also forgot to mention that an E-1 enlistee makes approximately 30% more in pay and benefits than his civilian counterpart. That’s certainly a hell of lot more than I was paid, and a trend-line that will continue and increase over time, no matter what happens to the US economy or the affluence of the American people.

  4. VietnamVet says:

    Yes, the parallels between the Soviet Union and the USA are astonishing. Since the Iraq Invasion, I felt that the American Empire would not last much longer. But, nine years in, we are still soldiering on.
    The one fact that gave hope was that every 4 or 8 years the Federal Government changed Administrations. A mighty blow was struck against that hope today with the decision to forgo the Rule of Law and try the 9/11 prisoners in military courts and keep GITMO open.
    There is no difference between the Bush and Obama Administration. Both subscribe to the false belief that killing Muslims, one at a time, will pacify the Middle East. As long as there are American troops in the Middle East there will be an insurgency against the foreign occupiers. The wars will only end when America withdraws. There is not enough money or the will to send in the millions of troopers to actually pacify the Middle East. Likewise, America will not longer provide medical and dental care for every citizen.
    The only chance that the American Empire could continue was with soft power, the rule of law, and the constant push for human rights and justice. Government by the people, of the people, for the people. This has disappeared. All that is left is propaganda, war profiteers and crazies.

  5. walrus says:

    Empires rot from within.
    The Soviet union fell because the fiction that a planned economy could perform with anything like the efficiency of a free market system could no longer be maintained.
    Once this truth was evident to the common man, as it was first in Poland, followed by East Germany, it was only a matter of time. The Chinese correctly identified this defect in Communist theory and started free market reforms around 1980.
    The obvious question is, can America rejuvenate or is it bound for the same scrapheap? Previous postings regarding the level of interest and understanding among Americans in the world outside the USA are worrying.

  6. Jackie says:

    This is the same Niall Ferguson who was urging us a few years ago to become an Empire? On second thought, never mind!

  7. Heped host a Soviet youth soccer team visiting US on tour in US in 80’s. Under 13s! All were malnourished and could not believe the food choices being offered. If a youth travel team was malnourished you can imaging those not in that “elite” and their fare.

  8. jonst says:

    rfjk wrote: “The extermination of affluence within the US middle classes will not destroy America.”
    I would not bet on that proposition. Me personally, anyway. It depends how you define “affluence”.

  9. confusedponderer says:

    As for wealth and E-1 enlistee, I can’t quite believe it, but alas: What about some US military families apparently requiring food stamps to get their families through?
    Just curious.

  10. Ael says:

    As a rule great empires do not come apart without rivers of blood and millions of refugees.
    The astonishing thing about the fall of the USSR was the *lack* of a crash.

  11. Matthew says:

    Col: I just returned from walking Hadrian’s Wall. Empires need limits. Hadrian understood that. I hope Obama has a Hadrian Plan….any plan to match our actual security needs with Washington’s over-sized ambitions. Basically, I’s like to see some policy, besides needlessly angering the Turks.

  12. N. M. Salamon says:

    While I hope that collapse does not befall the USA, the basis for collapse is well estabilished, the infrastructure/ mode of commerce of the USA can not stand without extremely large amount of OIL, at least not til the tranportation issue is solved without reference to diesel/gasoline [natural gas/large public transport, de-emphasis of trucking].
    Dimitri Orlov’s book : Reinventing Collapse [I read it] is an extremely good analysis of the problems the USA faces vis-a-vis oil depletion, and or loss of reserve currency status, His blog is at:
    As was noted in a recent column in NYT, trying to live with goods made in USA is extremely hard already, and yet the USA is far from the point of collapse.
    The Feds have to cut DoD and financial institutioons’ help and invest in public transport etc issues [including making agriculture less oil dependent – no it takes 7 calories to serve one calorie of food in the USA].
    Good Luck!
    Re Ael:
    The question has already been noted that the USSR collapsed without automatic attempt to save itself with war. Whether the USA will go quietly or not will depend on her leadership, God help mankind if it is NEOCON at the time of the balck swan.

  13. Brian McNamara says:

    A friend in Nha Trang told me that after our war ended, the locals took to calling the Russians “American without money.”

  14. The Twisted Genius says:

    In the late 80’s and early 90’s, I worked with a small number of extremely bright East Europeans and Russians who were trained in the Soviet Academy of Science system. Not one of them had any faith that their respective governments were any good. They loved their countries, but hated their governments. In fact, they didn’t see any government as inherently good or worthy of trust. They thought highly of Americans and the American way of life, but had no more faith in our government than they had in theirs. In many ways, their attitudes mirrored the attitudes of our teabaggers.
    I wonder how this disdain and distrust of the political system may have contributed to the collapse of the Soviet and East European governments.. and what it might say about the future of our government.

  15. Allen Thomson says:

    I read his “Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?” shortly after it was published in 1970, and it did shape my thinking about such matters thereafter.
    But, as perusing documents in the CIA’s FOIA collection shows, the notion that USSR might not last didn’t make its way into estimates until the last minute.

  16. Patrick Lang says:

    I was in Tunis once when the Soviet Black Sea Fleet was making a visit. Groups of their sailors wandered the streets each under the supervision of an officer. I watched a group bargain with a street vendor for locally made cigarettes. They had no money and were trying to trade him Young Pioneer and Komsomol pins. I stood in the group and told the Tunisian vendor in Arabic that I would buy the pins from him and that he should give them a pack apiece. He asked who I was. I told him and he roared with laughter and started handing out cigarettes. The Russians looked puzzled. pl

  17. Fred Strack says:

    An E-1 has a base pay is $17,364. The civilian equivalent works out to $8.34 an hour. Except no-one in the civilian world lets you work overtime, which is paid at time and a half. No one on active duty get OT, they do get shot at.
    In the last few years being in the US army this also meant two tours in Iraq/Afghanistan, a stop loss and another tour. Does anyone think they are overpaid?
    confused, military families eligible for welfare is not new. In 1966 my father left the USAF since as even as an E-9 his 7 kids made him eligable for food stamps.

  18. Allen Thomson says:

    Just to follow up on the Soviet collapse idea,

  19. R Whitman says:

    Looks like we have a bunch of “after the fact” commentators on the fall of the Soviet Union.
    In the 80’s no one with any power in the US government believed the the USSR would fail. The US defense and intelligence bureaucracy missed it completly. There were probably a few analysts isolated in the basement out at Mclean who thought so but they were the company nuts.
    In 1991 I participated in several major contracts for equipment to be shipped to the USSR and none of my contacts had any foreknowledge. It was business as usual. These people were upper management of a major industrial establishment still operating today.

  20. kao_hsien_chih says:

    @Twisted Genius
    I read it somewhere that Lech Walesa was a big fan of the Teabaggers, and was even endorsing some of the candidates associated with them.
    Kinda funny that you’d have noticed that about so-called anti-Communists in Eastern Europe back then…

  21. ex-PFC Chuck says:

    Your mention of the book by Andrei Amalrik brings to mind The Final Fall published in the mid-70s in France by French-American grad student in demographics Emmanuel Todd. It was his PhD thesis and it argued, based on the analysis of various publicly available demographic data, the fall of the USSR was imminent. His advisers tried discourage him from accepting a publication offer, thinking it would hurt his career. In 2002 Todd wrote After the Empire a similarly pessimistic book about the USA. So far his predictions are tracking quite nicely.

  22. Stormcrow says:

    Empires rot from within.

    No, generally not. There’s almost always either an exogenous shock, or severe overextension, or both. Usually, both in combination.
    Rome was getting along – not always easily or peaceably, but coping. Endemic civil wars and all.
    Until the Persian Empire got the ruling elite they needed, to transition from a potential superpower to a superpower in being.
    The immediate result was the Third Century Crisis.
    Rome managed to restabilize, but without any real reserve capacity left at all.
    Which left them high and dry when refugees-in-arms started to show up on the Danube frontier, circa 376 AD. All a situation like this needs to go from “marginal” to “collapse-in-progress” is one mistake.
    Spain? Double whammy.
    Ran out of money because (i) they were overextended, and (ii) the gold inflation ran down the purchasing power of the income they had.
    Add to this the loss of irreplaceable training cadre at Rocroi, and it was all over.
    Brits? Inevitable.
    For the better part of 200 years, they showed everybody that one little island with an First Industrial Revolution industrial base could hold half of the rest of the world in check, if that half didn’t have such a base.
    But at the end of those two centuries .. they were still just one little island, without the asymmetric advantage of sole possession of an industrial economy.
    Britain’s exogenous shock was the strategic consequences of two World Wars inside of 30 years. When the impact of merely the first one was more than the structure of their extended empire could stand.
    That’s the thing that boggles my mind about what’s happening to us.
    We can probably get along decently enough without our overseas hegemony. The Europeans have managed to do without theirs, once they decided to really stop slaughtering each other every couple of decades.
    But we’re eating out our own vitals right here. When our collapse hits, it’s not likely to leave a viable nation-state in its wake.
    To the best of my knowledge, this sort of collapse has no historical precedent.

  23. GregB says:

    As a youngster and in my teens in the 80’s I was fed a media diet of fear about the Soviet Union. An enemy so ruthless and heartless that they fashioned toys into bombs to kill young, innocent children of pious Muslims in Afghanistan.
    I remember hearing over and over that it was such an evil empire bent on world domination that it would never give up power voluntarily and we would eventually go to war with them in order to stop the communist march of aggression across the globe.
    Then in my early 20’s the Soviet Union called it quits without firing a shot.
    Strange times indeed.

  24. different clue says:

    rfjk, I am not certain that Russia never had a middle class. Russia never had the hugely populous urban and suburban middle class we had recently, to be sure. But very late in the Czarist day, a minister named Stolypin pushed as hard as possible to create systems for private outright
    ownership of farmland by individual peasants to create the basis for a rural property-owing lower-middle farmer class. This class became just big and successful enough that the Communists felt compelled to stamp it out so as to rule utterly unopposed.
    In the Great Depression, while many farm families lost their farms; enough farm families survived as little landowning families to remain the sort of social class which Stolypin had tried to create in Russia. And WWII saw enough job increases to give many people a well-founded sense of economic survival prospects, even if not material affluence. If our present decline merely takes away our material goodies and pleasures we can handle that, however ill-manneredly. But if our present decline takes away our brute survival prospects as well; we won’t be so nice about it.
    Trying to understand the “Black Swan” concept leads me into a mental Klein bottle. I think Mr. Taleb means it to refer to the event so far outside the mental framework and paradigm-field of a society that no one within that society could even imagine it. Just as no one in Europe could imagine a black swan. And suddenly, they were faced with one. But how can we prepare for something which is far beyond our ability to even imagine? The best we can do to handle the black swans of tomorrow is to make our societies broad-based and humane enough that we can reliably trust eachother to help eachother individually and collectively (governmentally) through the strangest of events.
    While the events Amalrik predicted may have seemed like a Black Swan to the Communists, they were no Black Swan to Amalrik; who after all did predict them. What do we call something which is accurately predicted by someone but derisively disbelieved or not even registered by all around him? Since such a person is called a Cassandra, after Cassandra’s curse (and Cassandra’s predictions were all correct), perhaps we should call such an event a Cassandra Swan. It is exactly predicted by the Cassandra who predicts it, and it is resolutely dismissed until the Cassandra Swan itself hovers ten feet overhead and relieves itself upon the upturned faces of the disbelieving crowd. Perhaps we should lift the curse from the Cassandras among us, and begin preparing for the arrival of the big strange birds which our own Cassandras are envisioning and predicting quite clearly.

  25. YT says:

    Y’all: Talkin’ ’bout causes of collapse, this here’s a timely article —
    What happens when a people cease the interest & ability to rule ’emselves? Listen to the youth of

  26. walrus says:

    “I was in Tunis once when the Soviet Black Sea Fleet was making a visit. Groups of their sailors wandered the streets each under the supervision of an officer. I watched a group bargain with a street vendor for locally made cigarettes. They had no money and were trying to trade him Young Pioneer and Komsomol pins. I stood in the group and told the Tunisian vendor in Arabic that I would buy the pins from him and that he should give them a pack apiece. He asked who I was. I told him and he roared with laughter and started handing out cigarettes. The Russians looked puzzled. pl ”
    An acquaintance had a KGB retirement watch. I offered him $200 for it, but no sale. It would have gone to an acquaintance of James Jesus Angleton if I could have got it, with much kudos to me.
    All before your time.

  27. JM says:

    Good Lord. Ferguson reminds me of a freshman pothead who’s read a few books in his first college class in political history and thinks he’s sorted it all out.
    NF: “In the same way, the challenges that face the United States are often represented as slow-burning. [Cleverly being ironic, he writes] It is the steady march of demographics…not bad policy that condemns the public finances of the United States to sink deeper into the red. It is the inexorable growth of China’s economy, not American stagnation, that will make the gross domestic product of the People’s Republic larger than that of the United States by 2027.”
    And the fact that China’s population is 5 times the size of the US population has nothing to do with that? We are expected to assume that the average productivity of the US worker will always be 5 times greater than that of the average Chinese worker?
    NF: “Yet, less than five years after Mikhail Gorbachev took power, the Soviet imperium in central and Eastern Europe had fallen apart, followed by the Soviet Union itself in 1991.”
    What? Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost – of exposing the rot within the SU – had nothing to do with it? Gorby gets the top job = fall of Soviet Union?? Crikey. Pretty lame analysis, in my view.
    Ferguson knows zip about economics. I’d bet a month’s salary that he thrives on his current hipness in conservative circles.
    What will “weaken a long-assumed faith in the United States’ ability to weather any crisis”? Fear. There’s nothing to fear but that.

  28. Part of the core curriculum requirments where I teach is an introduction to World History, two semesters in the freshman year. There are a number of textbooks to choose from and we currently are reviewing our options for the 2010-2011 academic year.
    One overall theme is the interaction between complex societies (civilizations) and another is the rise and fall of such with a particular emphasis on leadership issues.
    Over the past decade, my students have not had any problems with the basic concept of the rise and fall of great powers, “overextension,” and failures of leadership, etc.
    Paul Kennedy in his The Rise and Fall of Great Powers Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (New York: Random House, 1987) provides an informed academic view.
    The conservative political strategist Kevin Phillips in his American Theocracy The Perils and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century (New York: Viking, 2006) does an excellent job focusing on the present American “empire.” This is a very useful book by an expert on US politics.
    The academic subject of World History was developed in Germany during the 18th century by Schiller and by professors at Goettingen University. The economic-international trade/finance/colonies dimension was stressed in particular by Professor Heeren, a profound scholar.
    I would note that in the ante-bellum United States of the 1830s 40s and so on Prof. Heeren’s books in translation (Bancroft’s for example) were used in our universities including Harvard.
    Today our “leadership” elites have been intellectually Zionized, Fabianized, Neoconized, Behaviouralized, Carl Schmitt-ized, Hans Morgenthau-ized, Leo Strauss-ized and etc.
    US foreign policy today appears as a miasmic aimless blend of 19th century British imperialism and latter day wannabee Roman imperialism.
    This is billed as world “leadership” by the aforesaid elites who believe themselves to be “shaping” the coming “New World Order.” Or so they are told (and tell themselves) over cocktails at various Bilderberg, Trilateral Commission, and Davos conclaves….not to mention at the influential, and thoroughly Zionized, Council on Foreign Relations in NYC.

  29. SAC Brat says:

    I always have in my mind the contrast between the reality in the Soviet Union compared to the image promoted by those who had an interest accenting perceived threat. It comes to mind when new threats are bandied by analysts and the yellow press. I like your comments about Soviet analysts on the subject on the podcast thread.
    My recently passed away uncle had been an embassy guard in Moscow in the early 1960’s and then went on to be a university professor of Russia studies. He was very good with the Russian dialects, traveled often, lived in the country while studying and hosted many exchange programs. His applications to be a US government analyst or consultant were always turned down.

  30. Green Zone Cafe says:

    This is the same Niall Ferguson who was urging us a few years ago to become an Empire? On second thought, never mind!
    No kidding. He’s also one of the “bomb Iran” crowd, which is exactly the sort of thing which might bring us down swiftly, as the Chinese, Russians and everyone else team up to punk the USA out.

  31. “From 1956 to 1961, under the sponsorship of the National Bureau of Economic Research, Nutter undertook a massive study of the history of the economy of the Soviet Union culminating in the publication of The Growth of Industrial Production in the Soviet Union, 1962, Princeton University Press. His extensively documented study attempted to correct the widely-held view that Soviet industrial production had grown at a pace much greater than that of Western economies. The study concluded that Soviet economic growth over the first half of the 20th Century was indeed remarkable, and that there had been periods of growth spurts which, taken out of historical context, might suggest that the Soviet Union would eventually overtake the United States in economic capacity. But when the entire Soviet period was taken into consideration, Soviet growth lagged behind Western economies and Soviet economic capacity showed every sign of falling further behind rather than catching up with the West. At the time of its publication, the study’s conclusions were not highly regarded by many Sovietologists who held that Soviet growth rates were much higher than those represented by the study. In the intervening years, as the fall of the Soviet Union revealed more realistic data, Nutter’s estimates of Soviet growth rates have been vindicated; in fact, if anything Nutter overstated rather than understated Soviet economic performance…”
    Prof. G. Warren Nutter taught in the Economics Department at the University of Virginia.

  32. DaveGood says:

    Clifford Kiracofe,
    you said…
    “Today our “leadership” elites have been intellectually Zionized, Fabianized, Neoconized, Behaviouralized, Carl Schmitt-ized, Hans Morgenthau-ized, Leo Strauss-ized and etc.
    US foreign policy today appears as a miasmic aimless blend of 19th century British imperialism and latter day wannabee Roman imperialism.”
    As a UK citizen I insist that almost every term and person you refer to in the above statement is entirely home-grown American and has sod all to do with anything that ever came out of Great Britain.
    Furthermore as far Niall Ferguson goes,… He’s making a lot of money rooking the Yanks with incoherent half baked theories.
    Let him, you keep the twat, we don’t want him back in the UK, which is why he’s over there.

  33. Castellio says:

    Those who traveled in Russian during the time of the Soviet Union encountered people anxious for the system to fail. It seems not to be written into the history books, but in a very important way the people themselves “shrugged off” the totalitarian system. They didn’t want the almost total economic collapse that went with this, but they wanted change. They had ceased to participate, and had undermined the regime.

  34. anna missed says:

    In “The Evolution of Civilizations”, Carroll Quigley describes 7 stages in the evolution of societies. We seem to be in stage 5, “age of conflict” or stage 6, “universal empire”, as both these stages follow up stage 4, “age of expansion”.
    Essentially, when a societies institutions fail, the society fails to expand, and its human potentials are squandered in fit of irrational and ultimately, counterproductive behavior. If this is not reversed through either reform or circumvention of institutional failures, then other means of expansion will be found through things like foreign intervention, bubble economics, and/or autocratic political consolidation – all of which only hasten the move to stage 6 “decay”, and stage 7 “invasion”(or death of the society/civilization).
    I would urge anyone interested in a unified empirical theory on how ALL societies/civilizations evolve to read this book.

  35. mlaw230 says:

    Fred Stack: I don’t begrudge whatever our active duty folks can get paid- but your comparison is a little off. This is not to say they are overpaid, there are many hardships beyond the possibility of being killed that defy valuation, but it furthers the point that most everyone else not of the “elite” are underpaid and the army of the empire is relatively well paid.
    An E-1’s base pay does equal about $8.30 per hour(after 5 months), but the enlistee also gets room (BAH/or on ship or barracks), board (Chow)and free health care. That works out to be worth about $2,200 more a month.
    Quite a few young guys that have “done their duty” are staying in, or going back, because they can’t afford not to.

  36. WP says:

    Walrus wrote, “The obvious question is, can America rejuvenate or is it bound for the same scrapheap? Previous postings regarding the level of interest and understanding among Americans in the world outside the USA are worrying.”
    I am more worried about the understanding among Americans that our national myth is busted. Control over things within by the citizenry is deeply eroded and the real wealth of the nation is being concentrated by a very few who understand how to milk the system. The fundamental idea of American individuality and equality is progressively not descriptive of our experiential reality.
    In every society, there is some sort of tacit, unspoken mythic understanding of reality that holds it together. Civilizational collapse is foreshadowed by a divergence of the realities of day to day existence from the societal myth. Then, all of a sudden a transforming idea or event snaps the myth in a sort of system break that creates chaos until a new myth can be formed or until everything gets obliterated. Belief in the old myth becomes nonsensical.
    The rise and fall of the Soviet Union is a great example of the founding and demise of such a societal myth. As industrial Russia began in the late Nineteenth Century and a small educated middle class emerged, the myth of divine right of the Czar was crumbled by the mythical language of communism. WWI triggered a system break fostered by the language and ruthlessness of the Bolsheviks. Suddenly, everyone was in the brotherhood of workers and peasants. Continued belief in Czarism was nonsensical.
    Then for sixty or so years the myth of communism and brotherhood of workers grew and then rotted under the selfish stupidity of the dictatorial command economy that simply did not function. (WP’s Basic Principle of Economics: Markets always work and cannot be suppressed.) The underground remnant of private enterprise kept the thing hanging around until the electronic and technical revolution during the 1980’s created so much wealth in the West and opened the Soviet Union to televised views that broke any possibility of anyone any longer being able to believe in the Soviet system any longer. The myth-ethic upon which the system was based was so far from reality that it could no longer be tacitly believed and became nonsensical. The Soviet People’s myth system just collapsed one day and everybody just quit the myth and began adjusting. The People just decided, in a whole group to try something, anything, else.
    Social systems are like earthquake faults; stresses eventually become unsustainable and then everything moves very fast.
    The United States is founded upon a similar tacit ethic originated in the eighteenth century ideas of Liberty, Justice, Due Process, and free elections. The myth was supported by a young, prosperous, and educated middle class with a real ability to define political discourse through a vibrant press and a real variety of electoral candidates accountable to the voters. The free citizenry was innovative and creative in developing new technologies and products. Wealth increased system wide. Citizens had real input and power as a group and actually controlled their own course through a mostly honest process of self-government that worked.
    Now, that myth is diverging significantly from experienced reality. The national government has been hijacked by narrow special interests. A large segment of the population is reaching unemployment, retirement, and penury. Public education is steadily being starved and destroyed the myths of the right wingers. Insufficient capital has been invested in the youth that must support the old. Many of the workers in their prime have been trained for jobs that no longer exist. Manufacturing needs fewer and fewer workers with the result that a huge segment of the population, uneducated enough to work an assembly line, is no longer needed. We now live in a world of “abundance,” where everything needed can be manufactured in uneconomic excess, but that does not provide employment sufficient to enable sufficient consumer income to purchase the products that can be produced so efficiently. We have not yet figured out how to support the millions of people we no longer need as workers, but who we need desperately as consumers.
    Technology is now in place that is so omniscient that it can discern where everyone is and what they are doing all of the time. The technology being used against the citizenry now makes the novel 1984 look childish. It awaits someone to take hold of it to oppress and control everyone. The legal system, particularly the Supreme Court, has put in place the fundamental laws that would support a totalitarian and authoritarian society never before known to man. Few Americans know the horrific scale of authoritarian laws now in place that have taken away the real liberties of the People to be safe and secure in their persons, homes, and private affairs.
    The tacit myth and actuality in the United States is rapidly diverging. Like Walrus, I wonder, but I wonder what is going to happen when the Americans realize how penurious the nation has become because of its imperial dreams, ruinous wars and it race for security? When the system break arrives, and it will, will our technological capacity put us under a super totalitarian regime as we seek “security” or will it renew our progress toward a just and free society.
    I wonder and worry. Language of leaders counts! Whose mythical words will form our next great American myth? One must not forget that while Franklin, Jefferson, Washington, and Adams oversaw the system break with the British crown, Hitler and Lenin were once viewed as saviors of broken systems.
    The language of the system break is congealing and bubbling up. What is it saying? Does anyone know a tea partier?

  37. Allen Thomson says:

    Another on the fall of the USSR:
    I’d note that the SOVA mentioned therein sent two fairly senior officers with lots of clearances on a country-familiarization trip to Russia in mid-August 1991. When the coup came, they were on a river boat on the way to Moscow. Arriving in Moscow, Intourist, ever conscientious, loaded their party on buses and completed the tour. The tanks and troops in the streets were an unexpected extra. Then they got on an Aeroflot flight and came back to Langley.

  38. DaveGood,
    I agree Ferguson is a less than desirable. I do recall he was spouting some balderdash about empire a few years back as Jackie also recalled.
    Leo Strauss spent time in the UK in the 1930s studying Hobbes and perfecting his strange and exotic theories before he arrived on our shores. Zionism was given a push by Balfour and Churchill I think you would agree. The Fabians began their penetration (“permeation”) of the US body politic a century ago.
    I have not intended to give any impression that I am anti-Brit. As a matter of fact a good part of my family is from there, Gloucester-Bristol-Somerset-West County although they migrated here almost four centuries ago.
    I remember with gratitude Elizabeth and Walsingham and Raleigh and Humphrey Gilbert and such as we wouldn’t be here without them, would we?
    Anna Missed,
    A friend of mine was a student of Prof. Quigley in the 1950s at Georgetown. Quigley was, indeed, very well informed and produced several essential books.

  39. stickler says:

    Two things strike me after reading these comments:
    1) Nobody commenting on the fall of the USSR should ignore the triumph of that state over Nazi Germany. At horrendous (sometimes self-inflicted) cost, sure, but in May 1945 it was Soviet soldiers raising the red flag over Berlin. Stalin’s system was unloved and surviving on brute force in 1939. By 1945 it had taken the worst Hitler could throw at it, and had crushed the Wehrmacht. That triumph was worth near limitless admiration and loyalty, at least until Afghanistan proved the weakness of the Red Army.
    2) No discussion of the fall of Rome (Western Empire, anyhow) can omit the role of the pandemic which struck in the third century. Even more so the plague which decimated Justinian’s empire in the sixth century. The demographic impacts of these events were incalculable and left the state apparatus crippled.

  40. anna missed says:

    WP makes an important point in that societies often crystallize around a central idea or myth. And that when this central idea or myth finally cracks under the weight of bloated and intransigent institutions it’s too late for Humpty Dumpty to be put back together again. I would say that in the United States this idea or myth can be encapsulated in the more academic notion of American exceptionalism. Or the notion, that the American system of individualism, unregulated capital markets, less government intervention in personal affairs, and equality under the law will produce an egalitarian, meritocratic society, that will (without government intervention) act ethically in defense of its own self interests. This then, is the exceptional alternative to the historic determinism of communism or socialism.
    Its this idea, or myth, that appears – like the breakdown of the institutional communism in the former USSR – to be shattered in present day America.
    The problem that occurs when you have a breakdown of the central idea/myth is that all solutions to the crisis become impossible, because all solutions either involve reforming or circumventing the idea/myth itself, which is resisted in the name of the idea/myth itself. Hence, the idea of reforming the financial interests would involve empowering big government, as would circumventing the insurance industry to fix the the health care mess. And so as nothing can get fixed, and so as a result we become locked into the same determinism we thought we had transcended in the first place.

  41. YT says:

    WP said: “Social systems are like earthquake faults; stresses eventually become unsustainable and then everything moves very fast.”
    “The trouble was that our Russian builders simply could not lower
    themselves to think about ordinary human beings in terms of a sensible,
    human-scale architectural plan. Instead, they absolutely had to raise a
    tower to the skies–a Tower of Babel. They could not be satisfied with
    the ordinary, healthy, bold stride with which a man walks to work and
    home again. They had to dash into the future with seven-league steps.
    “Let’s break with the past!” And all at once it becomes necessary to
    sweep away the whole world, leaving not a trace behind. And most
    important–all our Russian smart guys surprisingly know all about
    everything. … They know how to train a rabbit to light matches. They
    know what the rabbit needs to be happy. And they know what it will take
    to make the rabbit’s offspring happy in two hundred years.”: opera singer Fyodor Ivanovich Chaliapin
    Ah, the follies of all empire-builders. The neocons aren’t the first to visualize a far-fetched future. The know-it-alls of the 21st. c.

  42. Mark Gaughan says:

    Back in the 1980s (I don’t remember the exact year.), a friend of mine travelled to Russia with a church group to help build a church there. He said everywhere folks had gardens growing their own food. (There was not much for sale in the grocery store except jars of Borscht.) Even old women knew how to spot weld dilapidated old cars together to keep them going. A number of times their bus going back and forth from where they were staying to the church, was stopped by police and they where shaken down for money. A couple of bucks from everyone on the bus added up to many months worth of income for those police. If the church group complained they were told that they would be taken to the police station and would have to pay many more police there, so they paid on the bus. Also, at 7:00 in the morning, you couldn’t get a cup of coffee, but the vodka kiosks were already doing a brisk business.

  43. Got A Watch says:

    I see the biggest and most fundamental problem is that the “elites” in the USA (and by extension the West in general) who are supposed to “lead” have failed to exercise any responsibility at all. Except with their most important business, lining their own pockets at taxpayer expense.
    I would argue that America is no longer a “free” nation, but just an advanced crony oligarchy married to corporate fascism. With a thin layer of “democracy” on top for appearance sake. It was a bloodless coup that few noticed over the last 15 years or so, and was so complete that opposing forces are all but rendered irrelevant. The public face is the Wall St mafia known as The Squidmen, you know the names.
    For those who doubt this, consider Washington, who rushed to bail out their financial paymasters despite the fact the vast majority of the populace were opposed to bailing out Wall St. Voters are just sheeple, to be shorn of their money but otherwise ignored. The US requires A sound banking system to prosper, not the one you have which is only focused on looting.
    The leadership class has failed as a whole, and so the nation has failed. Some might argue this is by design, but I put it down to simply greed and narrow focus on “getting mine” without regard to outcomes and history. They “won” individually, and the country lost collectively. It requires a special kind of power hunger to enrich yourself at the expense of your nations future. Maybe they envision being in charge of a nation that resembles downtown Detroit is still a win in their eyes.
    With “leadership” like that it seems clear to me that the collapse has already happened. It only remains for the Potemkin village facade to fall away under the weight of history.
    The point of financial ‘no-return’ may have already been passed – the amount of debt amassed could be insurmountable. Budgets could be cut to 0 and there still would not be enough revenue to balance the Budget and pay down the deficits.
    Irresponsibility has squandered the wealth of the nation, as the future was mortgaged to support extremely bad decisions made in the past. An “empire” that requires loans from foreigners to survive is not worthy of the name.
    Recognition of the true state of affairs and final collapse are the only stages left. Denial can’t overcome reality forever, whatever lies the captured media class may utter.
    I recall I said much the same a few years back, and nothing has changed, the cancer has spread.

  44. VietnamVet says:

    My final comment on your comparison to the Soviet Union is “Has the American Empire already collapsed?”
    Could be! An economic mushroom cloud hit today: Banks Face Writedowns after FDIC Auctions Program Will Pay Homeowners to Sell at a Loss
    The only way Wall Street and the Bankers could make their billions in bonuses since being bailed out by tax payers is to count their reserves at their full face value rather than their actual worth. If forced to sell their mortgage based securities at their actual value, one or two big banks are going down.

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