Will the Collapse of Civilization Begin With Global Corporatist Totalitarianism?


How To Save The World

I‘ve just finished reading Dmitry Orlov’s new book The Five Stages of Collapse. It made me realize that I have probably been making two fundamental errors in my thinking about how our civilization culture will collapse, and what we should do to become more resilient in the face of that collapse (taking steps like learning new personal and collective capacities, and re-learning how to create communities). My two errors were the failure to recognize:

  1. The Need to Stop Collapse at Stage 3: I have been thinking that there is only one type of collapse, one ‘end game’, though there are many different scenarios about how it will play out. Dmitry’s book made me realize that while financial, commercial and political collapse are inevitable, social collapse is not. What’s more, if we are able to halt collapse at the end of the third (political) stage, before social collapse occurs, life after collapse could be quite bearable, and more healthy, joyful and sustainable than life in our current culture. But if we slide into social collapse, all bets are off — life for what’s left of humanity could be, well, inhuman.
  2. How the Corpocracy May Aggravate Collapse: I have been going on the assumption that, during the Long Emergency that will end in the collapse of civilization culture and, if we are diligent and lucky, a much smaller but better human presence on the planet, we will have to cope with a cascading series of economic, energy and ecological crises. But now I realize that the Corpocracy — the executives of the world’s most power nation-states and the world’s most powerful corporations — have seen the writing on the wall and are already starting to work together to prevent or at least “manage” (incompetently, because complex systems cannot be “managed”) the first three stages of collapse. Not to save their citizens and customers, mind you, but rather to save themselves. The result could well be near-global corporatist totalitarianism — the ruthless (political and economic) oppression of the majority in order to hoard resources and protect the interests of a powerful, coordinated minority. And perhaps this fourth type of crisis might be the one we have to deal with first. Perhaps, in fact, it’s already upon us and it took the likes of Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden to wake us up to it.

dpBut let me take a step back and start with a brief overview of The Five Stages of Collapse. I’ve indicated the qualities of each of the five stages in the table above. While Dmitry calls the fifth stage “Cultural Collapse”, my sense is that all five stages are components of a cultural collapse (our now-global culture being ‘civilization’ culture), so I’ve taken the liberty of re-naming the fifth stage the Disintegration of Humanity stage, and grouped it with the fourth stage Social Collapse because I think they inevitably occur together in rapid succession. Dmitry says “it is probably worth everyone’s while to dig in their heels at Stage 3″, and that’s an understatement.

If you look at the Signs of Collapse in the table above, it is not hard to conclude that the first three stages — Financial, Commercial, and Political Collapse — are already upon us, and we just haven’t recognized them yet. And total system collapse can take a long time — decades in fact — and occur so gradually that we can’t see the forest (collapses) for the trees (constituent and precipitating crises).

Stage 1 Financial Collapse, he writes, is an inevitable consequence of usury — the lending of money at interest — though because our savings, government services, the food industry and international trade all depend on it, elimination of usury would be “an act of economic suicide for any Western nation”. Our globalized financial house of cards has a fatal design flaw. Dmitry explains:

Usury [is] best viewed as a form of systemic, institutionalized violence, … a form of extortion: whenever you have two groups, one that has all the money and another that has none but needs it to live, the former can extort payments from the latter for temporary use of the money… [But] lending at any rate of interest above zero eventually leads to a deflationary collapse followed by a quick but painful bout of hyperinflation… A national default is inevitable if a country’s sovereign debt is very high [often, in struggling nations, due to loans incurred by corrupt leaders who squirrel the money away in personal offshore banks] but its economy is dwindling… Forcing that country to pay a “risk premium” [high interest rate] brings the day of default that much closer [and brings] about the very thing it is supposed to mitigate against.

Once usury, and its consequence of spiralling, unrepayable debt levels, triggers financial collapse, this can in turn quickly lead to Stage 2 Commercial Collapse (due to lack of credit for commerce and the dependence on infinite amounts of cheap labour, cheap oil, cheap debt and growth) and hence to Stage 3 Political Collapse (due to plunging incomes and consequent plunging tax revenues). It’s never too early to prepare for this, he says, by building viable local communities based on “exclusive circles of trust” and “spontaneous local self-governance”, and shifting their economies from the usury-based global Industrial Growth economy model to a local Gift, Tribute and Barter economy model (tributes being payments based on allegiance, religion or tradition; barter would be done using personal transferrable chits backed by personal commodities and valuables, which, as explained in the book, is more flexible and value-sustaining than direct goods-for-goods trades).

Once Stage 3 Political Collapse has occurred, he says, there is no rebuilding the house of cards, no way to re-establish the unsustainable, complex hydrocarbon- and debt-powered financial and commercial systems that underpin today’s political and economic systems, systems which are in addition now massively dysfunctional due to what Dmitry describes as “the problem of excessive scale”.

Creating viable local communities, he says, with “social cohesion, a common sense of identity and compelling mutual interests, respect and trust”, is very difficult and in many areas may be impossible. A Gift, Tribute and Barter Economy depends on this, and is inherently exclusive. It eschews Trade (exchange of goods/services/money between disinterested strangers). It also eschews Charity (“a degenerate form of gift that cannot be reciprocated; a handout designed to please the benefactor”). Gifts will initially be based substantially on what is relatively abundant in the community — community labour (as in community work bees), community facilities (shared spaces like designated community kitchens and workshops), harvested food surpluses, and outgrown and surplus reusables — to the point they replace the Industrial models of work, rents and retailing entirely.

As Charles Eisenstein has said, as long as the Industrial Growth economy exists, we will have to live with one foot in it and the other in the Gift, Tribute and Barter economy (what is now increasingly being called the “Sharing Economy”). But Dmitry says we need to make the transition as quickly as possible and not “cling” to the old economy:

Gradually at first, but faster and faster, all economic relationships need to be deproletariatized and rehumanized — by dealing with people you actually know, face-to-face; by avoiding the use of money and documents while emphasizing [oral] agreements as a way of cultivating trust and knowing who [not to trust]; and by giving preference to [small, close circles of] family, friends and neighbours while [cutting] out everyone else.

The Mafia and other “organized criminal” groups, he asserts, are forms of alternative governance that emerge when the official governance bodies become dysfunctional (paralyzed by excessive size or excessive centralization, corrupt etc.)  As Stage 3 Political Collapse worsens, we need to see such emergent groups for what they are, and evolve community-based mechanisms for security that draw on their valuable characteristics while avoiding their abusive and non-egalitarian ones. Otherwise, he predicts, we’ll be plagued by thieves, extortionists and other criminals from outside our community who do not share our goals or values and seek only to exploit the Stage 3 power vacuum.

It was Dmitry’s chapter on Stage 3 Political Collapse that got me asking the question that is the title of this post. He writes:

The ultimate purpose of the nation-state is to maintain a political [and economic] system that can effect a perfect melding of industry, militarism and commerce; industry supports militarism by supplying it with weapons, militarism supports commerce by conquering new resources and markets, and commerce supports militarism by funding military spending.

It’s hard to read the litany of news of massive government surveillance, political and business corruption, violations of constitutional and international laws and human rights, trumped-up excuses for international “wars”, the use of torture, the cynical support of despots, the interment of whistle-blowers, the bailout and non-punishment of corporate criminals, the set-up and vilification of dissidents, and new laws and rulings that place the rights and privileges of corporations above those of citizens, and not get an uneasy sense that our political and economic leaders (rulers?) are fully aware of the state of Financial, Commercial and Political Collapse and its inevitable worsening, and are working furiously in their own interests, and against ours, to protect themselves from the effects of collapse while throwing us to the lions.

Corporatist Totalitarianism is the creation of a state that disenfranchises the majority and funnels all decision-making, wealth, power and security to an integrated Corporatist few. They do this ostensibly on the basis that this few know better than the masses how to deal with crises, but in fact they know there just isn’t enough of anything left to go around any more. So, like alphas in an overcrowded rat cage, they deem it appropriate to lie, mislead and deny, and to hoard everything they can steal for themselves and let the rest suffer and starve.

A Salon.com reporter recently quoted a Turkish professor of saying about Obama: “He talks like the head of the American Civil Liberties Union, but he acts like Dick Cheney.” Use of killer drones, force-feeding uncharged decade-long prisoners at Guantanamo, xenophobic border hysteria, lawless Grand Juries indefinitely incarcerating innocent people, the ruthless prosecution of Edward Snowden — these are the actions of right-wing extremism, and frighteningly comparable to the actions of leaders of nation-states just before democracy was replaced by brutal totalitarianism in the past around the world.

What exactly is “Global Corporatist Totalitarianism”? I would argue that it has these attributes:

  • the collusion among ‘leaders’ of governments of affluent nations and large global corporations to establish “we know better than you” policies that subordinate the interests of the public to those of the ruling group, and the concentration of wealth and power in that group
  • the suspension of all rights and freedoms in the interest of being able to maintain order no matter how bad things may get
  • the abandonment by the public of belief in the viability of participative representative democracy, due to constant and egregious abuses of the process by all political parties (once all parties are either controlled or eliminated by the ruling group)
  • the control and use of the media to misinform, oppress and terrify citizens to cow them into submission to the ruling group’s authority
  • a total surveillance state including the suppression of all dissent (of speech and action) under the guise of fighting “terrorism”
  • financial and military support of, and collusion with, despotic leaders in struggling nations, sufficient to allow continued theft and desolation of their land and resources, the wage enslavement of their citizens, their exploitation as consumers of the ruling group’s corporations’ products and its governments’ weapons, and the usurious “lending” of unrepayable and crushing debts to these nations, the proceeds of which are personally appropriated and offshored by the despots as the price of complicity with these atrocities
  • the dismantling of all regulations, taxes and organized labour groups that inhibit the unrestricted accumulation of wealth by the ruling group
  • the denigration of government as an appropriate agency for any purpose other than “security”, military and commercial imperialism, and fear-and-denial propaganda

If you’ve read The Shock Doctrine, you’ll recognize the growing presence of all of these attributes in our current political and economic systems.

How, while we’re working furiously to prepare ourselves for economic, energy and ecological collapse, do we begin to factor in the need to also prepare ourselves for what is essentially a corporatist coup, nation-state by nation-state, that deprives us of our rights to organize, to free speech, to freedom of association, and to dissent?

My hope was always that as the first three Stages of collapse played out, government would be mostly a passive and inept player, a victim rather than an actor. But if the ruling group installs worldwide the kinds of corporatist totalitarian regimes I describe above, I fear they may strenuously act to suppress or prevent many or all of the coping/resilience mechanisms we hope to employ (shown in the right-hand column of the table above) to reduce the suffering of collapse and start to transition to a much more modest post-civilization society. Specifically, they will work to obfuscate what is really happening in the world, thwart attempts to create self-sufficient local communities (free of the ruling group’s authority), and prevent us from creating a sustainable sharing economy, growing and gifting healthy, organic local food, living off-grid, living in “non-standard” housing, looking after our own health and education, and weaning ourselves off “employment”, money and socially- and ecologically-destructive goods. What we see as taking responsibility for our own well-being in the face of cascading crises, the ruling group will inevitably see as threatening all the levers of control of wealth and power they rely on keeping.

So while we’re struggling to cope with a plethora of economic, energy and ecological crises — market and currency collapses, loss of our life’s savings, massive unemployment, deflation and hyperinflation, interest rate spikes and credit cutoffs, underwater mortgages, oil and water shortages and rationing, energy and food price spikes, blackouts and brownouts, pandemic diseases, droughts, famines, floods, fires, storms, massive influxes of refugees, collapsing bridges and other infrastructure failures, and the loss of essential services — we’re also going to be struggling against a ruling group that is using all the wealth and power at their disposal to prevent us from taking sensible, local, independent, personal and community-based steps to reduce the suffering all these crises will create. They will try with all their might to make independence from the crumbling systems they oversee, illegal, even seditious. While we’re studying up on coping and resilience, we’d better study up on how to deal with this additional challenge too.

So what about trying to halt the collapse of civilization at Stage 3, after Financial, Commercial and Political Collapse, and before we decline into Social Collapse — the collapse of the very communities we need to create to cope effectively with the first three stages?

Dmitry offers up some ideas on how to cope with Stage 4 and 5 collapse, but they seem unconvincing. He argues that even in cultures that have collapsed utterly, it is possible to rebuild faith, and he suggests looking at religions that have successfully built a following in such cultures as possible models. I’m not persuaded. If the Ik people of East Africa he describes at the end of his book are indeed examples of such cultures, it is hard to imagine a way out, or a way forward; such cultures seem mercifully to be destined for extinction.

All the more reason why we have to work, starting now, to deploy the Stage 1, 2 and 3 coping and resilience mechanisms shown in the right column of the table above. We cannot afford to fail to halt the collapse at that stage, if we don’t want to exit the stage of existence on Earth as a species quickly and ignominiously. There is a huge amount of learning and practice to do, and, if and when we give up the folly of believing that Stage 3 collapse can be averted, we have time to do it, starting small, learning from our mistakes, communicating what works and what doesn’t with other communities preparing for collapse. We have lots to learn, too, from those in struggling nations and in impoverished slums and on the streets and on reservations, whose people have been, for the most part, living with cultural collapse all their lives, mostly at Stage 3.

Whether we will do these things, and whether the ruling group will be successful in preventing us from doing so, remains to be seen. It may be a battle fought and won or lost community by community in each nation-state. I expect we’ll be surprised at what emerges, and I believe the surprise will be pleasant, a Darwinian celebration.

After us, the dragons.


This article is beginning to get to where our thinking needs to be as we enter the inevitable, and greatly needed, collapse of dominator culture and its evil, unrestrained industrial technology, the now gigantic mess we have been taught to call “civilization.”

However, it still seems stuck in that first WTF moment of realization that everything is falling apart and how scary that is for almost everyone we know. But think about it. Are the lives of many subsistence farmers around the world going to change? Are the Mexican peasants, for instance going to be unhappy about having to abandon the mechanized fields of Central California to return to their homes and resume the ancient agricultural practices made impossible by cheap American subsidized imports? No, actually for many well deserving people collapse will be just what they needed. It will be a shock for folks who have become dependent on highly centralized systems of control and production. That was what the Cubans had to go through with the collapse of the Soviet Union. They are arguably better off for it. Havana produces most of its own food with urban organic agriculture and is happier for it. Victory gardens fed the US during WWII. The usual winner of the UNESCO prize for quality of life is the State of Kerala in India that has a per-capita GDP of about $350 and universal free education and health care with the highest literacy rating possible.

All this neurotic worry and panic is really annoying. I wish folks would calm that down and start thinking positively about the future and their neighbors. Really, cut it out. This is a great opportunity. As the centralized structures fail there is going to be a lot of unavoidable hardship, but there is no point in driving ourselves crazy imagining the worst, especially since all the sociological, psychological, anthropological and archeological evidence agues for our being quite capable of managing on our own once we shed the parasite of coercive authority and the sociopaths who love it. Plant potatoes and clam your well armed neighbors.


Marlene pointed out something to me this morning that struck me as to the point. We talk about collapse of culture, but we have no culture in the anthropological meaning of the term. Culture consists of meanings shared by a mutually supportive community tied to place, and we have no such communities. We are wandering around drowned in ersatz meanings cooked up by corporate and religious promoters, each with our own collection, with no support in sight. Here, I believe, is where we should concentrate our efforts: on building thoroughly grounded caring communities. To attempt to change the world is a gigantic waste of time, which we can’t afford. Let us detach from it in every way we can.

    That’s a good point. Industrial culture, dominator culture is a toxic mimic of the real thing in that they’re designed to self-destruct.

    M Scott Peck Published a book called A World Waiting To Be Born that is about that.


I agree that we need to walk the line between seeing the reality of collapse and feeling the joy of working locally to create more sustainable lives. If we don’t feel the grief of collapse, we live in a make-believe world. If we don’t feel the joy of possibility we become depressed and look forward to “ending it all.” Mary Pipher’s new book, The Green Boat: Reviving Ourselves in Our Capsized Culture, walks this line as well as it can be walked.

It helps me to remember that hope is increasingly becoming a revolutionary act, particularly when its backed by the reality of our situation. It also helps to remember that whatever I do, I’m going to die (so I don’t have to worry about that) and homo-sapiens, like all species will eventually die as well (so I don’t have to worry about saving “humankind.”)

So let’s get on with it. We live, as always, in interesting times. So let’s grab a hold of a piece of our best possible future, get busy, join with others, have fun, and know that we’re going to live as fully as possible as long as we can and when its our time to say “goodbye” we go out with grace, gratitude, and a good laugh.