The Three Threats

There are three threats to our Liberal society in the U.S. (i.e. liberty for all, the rule of law, and democracy). Each threat exists as a separate, distinct possibility, but they can also be intertwined, such that one would entail one or more others. One threat is political collapse, another threat is economic collapse, which would almost certainly lead to political collapse, and the other threat is global warming, which will almost certainly lead to the collapse of Liberal society if it is not arrested.

Political collapse would mean the establishment of some kind of authoritarian or even totalitarian regime. Historically, the establishment of such regimes has followed from periods of societal chaos, when a nation has become ungovernable. The takeover of power by the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917 and the rise to power of the Fascists in Italy and the Nazis in Germany in the early 1930’s are perhaps the most notable examples, but every tin-horn dictator that has ever led a coup has done so in those kinds of circumstances. The inability of our national government to govern — due to the intractability of conservatives, who equate political compromise within the Liberal framework with moral compromise — could create such a scenario in this country.

Economic collapse would most likely be the result of debt. It has become fashionable to pooh-pooh debt as a problem, but ours is a monetary economy, and in it debt is money. All of the money in our economy is debt (“Re-thinking the Economy’s Fuel System”).

Debt must be serviced: the interest must be paid and the principal repaid. Servicing debt requires income.

So the very money that is the fuel of the economy depends for its existence on the incomes being generated by the economy. If those incomes were to fail, such that those debts could not be serviced, the money itself would be destroyed. That is how total the destruction of the economy would be if economic collapse were to occur: the money on which it runs would collapse. At the same time, debt itself makes the economy more fragile, more susceptible to disruptive events.

Collapse could come from within. An economy with money in the form of debt is a hyper-interdependent economy. That means a big problem in any part of the economy can easily become a huge problem for the whole economy. All debt is a form of ‘leveraging’, and we all remember the role leveraging played in the financial sector when a big problem there very nearly collapsed the economy and did in fact result in the Great Recession. Because our money exists in the form of debt, our entire economy is one enormous tapestry of leveraging.

Collapse could be precipitated from without, in the form of an ‘external shock’. War is one way that could happen. It doesn’t even have to be a war in which we are directly involved. Any war that would disrupt the international ‘supply chain’ on which our economy depends could cause such a shock, especially if it disrupted a really critical import, such as oil. A terrorist attack, if large enough, could cause such a shock. A cyber attack is a particularly dangerous possibility. A serious epidemic could cause such a shock. So could a large-scale disruption of the supply chain involving food. [I wrote that yesterday (3/2/2020); today I read this; a significant rise in oil prices would trigger higher inflation, increasing the stress on incomes strained to the limit to service debt.]

That last one brings us to global warming. Not only Liberal society, but civilization itself depends on agriculture, as it has from its very beginning. For as long as civilization has existed Earth has had the same climate. There have been localized events and periods that were aberrations, but the planet as a whole has had the same climate for the relatively brief time that civilization has existed — several thousand years.

Agriculture was developed and has existed in that climate. Global warming is changing that climate. At a minimum, changing the climate represents a possible threat to agriculture.

Civilization doesn’t only depend on agriculture, but on large-scale agriculture. The people living in cities (and towns, etc.) who do not grow food depend on large-scale agriculture for it.

It is possible that global warming could create conditions on this planet in which human life itself could not exist, but even if did not come to that it could create conditions in which the large-scale agriculture on which civilization depends would not be possible. If that happens cities, etc. will collapse, and the people inhabiting them will evacuate them, spreading into the countryside in a desperate quest for survival. The values of Liberal society would be about the last thing on anyone’s mind.



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Stephen Yearwood

Stephen Yearwood

unaffiliated, non-ideological, unpaid: M.A. in political economy (where philosophy and economics intersect) with a focus in money/distributive justice