The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Clear Talk About History’s Sweep

I’m fifty-six. I’ll be fifty-seven in less than a month. My hair is white, and my body’s not what it used to be, though in some ways it never was.

My parents were conservatives but I remember back in 1979, they thought Reagan was a bad idea. They were right, but he won, and I was 12 years old, just finished elementary school and about to go to boarding school, as my father had a job in Bangladesh, then the poorest country in the world.

Seventy-nine/eighty is when the world changed. It had been changing before: working class male wages in the US peaked in 68: there was the OPEC crisis, going off gold, stagflation, etc… But it was Thatcher and Reagan who locked in neo-liberalism, which was essentially a looting operation. Sell everything off, burn it all down, turn it into cash and damn the consequences.

And here I am fifty-six watching the end of their crass, stupid and selfish movement. They created the world’s richest rich; transfered the world’s manufacturing base from American allies to China, completely gutted the environment such that we’re now past important tipping points, and they did it with the support of a lot of ordinary folks who wanted to be wealthy without having to work for it thru housing price gains and a stock market that never went down.

Those people: the Reagan Democrats, well, a lot of them won in that they died before the bill came due but the bill is being paid and will be paid by their children, grand-children and great-grand-children.

It was all unnecessary, there were better ways to fix our problems. I’ve written a ton of those articles, so have others, I won’t go into it.

We humans, in the hegemonic power and its satrapies, chose to burn it all down and throw it all away rather than make the necessary changes to create an economy which wouldn’t destroy the planet and which would be good for everyone.

Because of this we’re in classic population over-shoot. Look it up if you don’t know what it is, but basically, animals that overshoot, and we’ve proved ourselves dumb animals, have violent population crashes, and that’s what’s coming.

I write about some topics again and again. I apologize to those who are tired of it. I do so for a couple reasons, the first is that as a mentor once told me “about the time you’re sick of writing it, people are just beginning to get it.”

the second is that I really want you to know. I care about my readers and I want you to get how bad things are going to be: that we’ve passed the peaks and are on the downslide, so that, perhaps, you can do something about it: not to stop it, it isn’t going to be stopped and anyone telling you it will is lying to you, but to prepare and perhaps suffer less.

The sweep of history is fast and slow. It’s slow when you look at a single human life: I’m not going to see the next upswing, I’m too old and not very healthy. It was my curse to be born at the time when an empire decided to destroy itself and the largest environmental disaster in human history was about to happen. I’m lucky, I supposed, compared to those younger than me, most of whom will not see the next upswing either, but won’t have seen some of the good times, even if I didn’t participate in them much.

But the sweep of history is also fast. From Thatcher in 79 to now is forty-five years. That’s not very long. When I read my first economic textbook back in the early 80s, it noted that the US had a trade deficit, but it didn’t matter because American still produced almost everything it needed.

In less than fifty years the greatest industrial power the world had ever seen pissed it away, deliberately. It’s probably not a bad thing, the US was a bad hegemon, though much worse after Reagan than before. The Chinese will start out better and their run will be interrupted by environmental and civilization collapse. The end of American empire is probably bad for me personally, as a Canadian, but I figure it’s a net benefit to the world.

Humanity’s probably going to survive, but the next hundred and fifty years or so are going to be UGLY. Still, if we make it, and I’m betting we will, there will be another side.

I’m not going to stop writing about our problems, but I do want to write my little bit about what a better civilization, during the long emergency and after, might look like, so I’ll try to write more about that.

Thanks to all my readers who have hung on for the ride. I know it hasn’t been the most pleasant: there just hasn’t been much good news to share and that’s not going to change. But that doesn’t mean it’s all gloom, there are some silver linings (like the US going under), and there is some reason to hope for the future and believe that what we do now may influence that future for the better.

Let’s see if we can do that.

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  1. Forecasting Intelligence

    Hi Ian,

    Broadly agree with everything you write on that macro outlook.

    Not sure the de facto American empire is the worst, the Soviets were worse and the Nazis would be have horrific but that is a different story.

    Looking ahead, I agree with you that we are tracking the LTG BAU dynamic lines of collapse and the tough times are coming.

    Those lines are macro (or global) and doesn’t capture the local and regional nuances and so far, despite the inflation/cost of living crisis I don’t feel that the huge hit has arrived yet. It should do by the 2nd half of this decade and/or going into the early 2030s.

    Greer’s latest post really captures some of the tectonic shifts coming, whether in terms of the loss of globalised supply chains and the end of globalisation and the end of the era of industrialised military hegemony.

    Its going to be a wild ride folks!

    What is also interesting is what will replace neo-liberalism. And this is where we probably disagree Ian.

    My take is the populist right is going to becoming dominant across the West and the centre-left/progressives are going to get crushed.

    National self-sufficiency, return of traditional values and borders and nationalism are the logical responses to the growing crisis. The EU is looking doomed longer term as well the last remaining “globalist/technocratic” experiment in the world.

  2. Ian Welsh

    No, right wing reaction is common to bad times. Stupid, in many cases, but common. I differentiate between what I want and what I predict/expect.

    There’s also going to wind up being a fair bit of green fascism.

  3. Daniel Lynch

    I said this before and will keep saying it: neoliberalism in the U.S. began with Jimmy Carter, not Reagan. Carter was and remains a likeable person, so people tend to give him a pass, but as president he sucked at most things.

    Besides, there were underlying problems with post-WWII capitalism. The Western version of Keynsianism (which was perhaps a bastardized version of Keynsianism) did not have answers to the 70’s stagflation, so it was discredited, and that opened the door for neoliberalism.

    Some might say the root problems went back even further, perhaps to 1944, when Democrats threw VP Henry Wallace under the bus and Truman was chosen in a smoky room. The rich elites who even then controlled the Democratic party did not like Wallace, and as the saying goes, you can have democracy or you can have concentrated wealth, but you cannot have both. And here we are. Add climate change and covid, and stir.

  4. different clue

    @Daniel Lynch,

    It was a private club of High Democratic Party Leaders who forced Wallace off the FDR ticket. Perhaps if FDR hadn’t been so prematurely old and sick he might have fought back and kept Wallace on it. I wonder how hard Wallace himself fought to save his presence on the ticket. I think the same Citizen-Voters who voted for FDR in 1944 would have voted for him just as much had Wallace remained on the ticket as they in fact did with Truman on it instead. Oh well . . . )

  5. Kevin

    I see the current rebuffing of American hegemony and the rise of china/russia as the only bright spot in global/ecological/technological trends. A new world order led by two non-colonialist powers that have much more respect for the idea of international agreements, equality of security, and win-win interaction will have a better chance of navigating the horrible times to come. Not to say a great chance…just better.

  6. anon

    Covid and climate change will end much of civilization as we know it. I’m trying to survive not getting Covid by wearing a mask as more people give into societal pressure and stop wearing one. I have hundreds of KF94 and KN95 masks stored because I expect to wear a mask indoors for the rest of my life.

    I’m also going to stay put in a cold weather climate where winters are becoming noticeably warmer each year. I predict by the time I’m old most warm climate areas will be nearly uninhabitable.

    I recommend storing these posts where they won’t disappear after this blog ends. People a century from now may find your predictions and those of your readers to be mostly spot on.

    I’d like to read more of your predictions for the next century and what we and our children and grandchildren can do to survive this mess. For me, it’s masks, air purifiers, and living in a place that won’t be overheated or underwater soon.

  7. @Forecasting Intelligence
    Sorry, but I will not stand by and watch you denigrate the United States. In terms of despotic behavior with deadly consequences, we are the exceptional, and for that matter the essential — no one in history has been as heartless as us in our colonial conquests.
    Furthermore, our bettors have the new Golden Rule: as we do to foreigners, let us do to the domestic fodder. Our bettors have trashed everything humanly possible.

  8. different clue

    It seems unfair to the memory of the apparently forgotten-about Mulroney to not mention his equal billing along with Thatcher and Reagan as one of the neo-liberal Big Three. ( Unless one feels that he was just a second-tier satrapy-leader up there on stage with them. But since Canada voted for him, he deserves some co-equal mention in all this . . . . particularly in his role as one of the three NAFTA co-conspirators . . . along with Bush/Clinton and Salinas de Gortari.

    Here is an article about the Big Three together with a picture of them all happy together. He is eulogizing the dead Thatcher as ” one of the world’s giants” which the world “has lost”.

    And I remember through the haze of years that Chretien was very pro WTO.

  9. “you can have democracy (and rule of law) or you can have concentrated wealth, but you cannot have both. ”

    Good thing the oligarchs divided the masses against themselves by raging against Mexicans, gays, and muslims. Otherwise the people might have noticed the lack of the former was created by the oligarchs.

  10. Curt Kastens

    At some future point between 2 days from now and 20 years from now the last human buries (or more likely eats) the second to the last human that human will not be in a position to know whether or not there are still humans living in a bunker complex along the shores of Lake Baikal. Unless of course that person is the last person in a bunker complex on the shores of Lake Biakal. If that person is the last person on the shores of Lake Baikal that person could not know if there are perhaps still people living along the north shore of Lake Supirior near Tumble Bay Ontario.
    And if I live to be 80, which I do not expect I will not know if any humans will be around after the earths environment recovers from what was done to it by humans.
    But certian considerations give me a an extra ordinarily strong pre dispostion to think that I know that answer to what the outcome will be.
    When will the permafrost stop melting? When will ice reapear in the arctic? When will ice return to the Antarctic? Ok the ice in the Antarctic might not be gone by 2050 but trillions of tons will be. When will the oceans currents start again? When will the methane cathrates that were realeased from the unstable arctic area be returned to the soil? How long will it take new insects to evolve?
    It might be a terrible thing to rob people of hope. It also might be a terrible thing to hide the truth from people.

  11. Carborundum

    One thing I have noted about middle age is that one can identify as young or old and it largely depends on temperament. Identifying as old is a huge mistake.

  12. mago

    I was a young Seattle chef when Reagan was elected, and I thought, we are so screwed, and so it proved throughout the 80’s, but I could never have forecasted the length and duration of that train wreck and its repercussions to this day.

    Of course I was also aware of the toxic Thatcher and always wondered how such an ugly monster ever ever gained and held such sway and power. (I figured she probably never got laid unless she paid for it, but she sure fucked over a lot of people.)

    Then I lived in Europe both north and south when there were still pesetas and francs and Deutschmarks and where an American passport was golden and where there were still hip scenes everywhere with poetry, music dance and art. Good beer, good wine, good company. Not anymore, baby. Or maybe, but I’ll remain skeptical. The decline happened quickly.

    Now I, too, am older. I’ve lived and cooked in a lot of places and have known and worked with people from all walks of life. It’s been my great good fortune. It’s all over and it doesn’t matter.

    For at least three decades I’ve wondered how the younger generations will fare in this age of accelerating degeneration and have arrived at diverse and mixed speculations. Doesn’t matter what I think or even what my worldly successes and failures may mean in the relative world.

    Thanks Ian for the service you provide with this blog. Views may vary here and there, but it doesn’t matter.
    Keep it going as long as you are able with your health issues and all.
    May the winds fill your sails and carry you beyond the storm(s).

  13. VietnamVet

    The future is here now. Congressional Republicans have thrown the monkey wrench into the war party’s endless wars. The Houthis have killed globalism. There is no enticement that will have them stand down other than Israel kowtowing to them and Yemen becoming the Guardian of the Gate of Despair into Red Sea and gets a transit fee for every ship passing through the Strait. Saudis and Egyptians have gone to war with Yemen and got nowhere. After 30 years of war in the Middle East, the USA has reached the end of the game.

    We shall see if Ukrainians can hold it together, avoid defeat and keep on fighting without lots of money and artillery shells with drones and trench warfare for a couple of years until Russia collapses or do they sign an armistice and build a DMZ like they should have in March of 2022 and saved a half a million lives.

    The world is now run by neo-feudal oligarchs and corporations. Human life does not matter a wit. The question is if Constitutional republican government written a couple hundred years after the Renaissance be can be restored? Will USA’s borders be manned and save Fortress America or does North America splinter apart with cities and the backcountry at each other’s throat.?

  14. Curt Kastens

    Is it worse to rob people of hope or rob them of the truth? I ask this quetsion now because my previous comment did not pass moderation and it had nothing to do with the Pandemic. I mean that my comment had nothing to do with the pandemic. I did not mean that the reason that my comment did not pass moderation was because of reasons that had to do with something other than the pandemic, such as a mega drought in the western USA. My clarification should water things down a bit.

  15. Quite Likely

    This is a little parochial. The shift to neoliberalism crushed the post-war middle class societies in the west that were the most appealing societies yet built, which makes it seem like the world is collapsing to people who lived through that transition. But for most of the planet that didn’t have that mid-20th century high wages and living standards have kept on rising. We have major problems to deal with of course, but we’re no more on track for an apocalypse or 150 years of chaos than we were 50 or 100 years ago.

  16. Adams

    “…my body’s not what it used to be, though in some ways it never was….” Reminds me of my favorite response when someone (much) younger than I asks how I’m doing, or defers to my advanced age.

    “The older I get, the better I was.” Literally true, but also suggests that the inevitable decline of memory in old age creates some space for “embellishment” of past accomplishments.

    Judging by your output, you still have lots of years left. You may see more that you will wish you hadn’t. But your obsessions are our enlightenment.

    Best regards

  17. GrimJim

    “Will USA’s borders be manned and save Fortress America or does North America splinter apart with cities and the backcountry at each other’s throat?”

    The good thing about that is neither can live without the other, nor without international trade.

    The US might be a breadbasket, but it is a highly industrialized breadbasket that relies on effective slave labor (migrants) for anything more fragile than corn, potatoes, and cucumbers.

    Take away the oil and migrants, no food. No food for anyone, as even small “family farms” are as dependent as the big industrial farms.

    Cities enable that international trade. No international trade, no cities, no backcountry, complete chaos and anarchy, starvation, and population collapse, from the cities of the coasts to the deepest valleys of the Rockies.

    It’s coming sooner than anyone realizes.

    One of Trump’s first acts will be to repudiate essentially every international treaty, organization, and agreement. That’s the framework under which all trade occurs. No one will ship anything to the US when they know the Great Deadbeat is in charge.

    I mean, a man who has reneged on every contract he’s ever signed? Who won’t even pay his attorneys? His word is worthless.

    And so it will be with the American dollar. Toilet paper, within hours of Trump being sworn in.

    I’d expect the first food riots within 48 hours.

  18. Jan Wiklund

    To me it seems preposterous that the whole world could be changed by two people alone. Of course there were more fundamental structures behind.

    The most important, I think were two.

    First, that the long wave of technology based on the car, the washing machine, the fridge, the arirplane etc ended. You can’t go on expanding the same lines of production forever, there will be no people there to buy the stuff. You will have to change to something completely new. To find investments in something new, so big that it con replace the old leading industries, state power has to be used. And those who have invested in the old will try to avoid that as long as they can. According to José Gabriel Palma, it was the “car-oil-complex” that lay behind neo-liberal politics.

    Second, that the capitalist class that had invested in the long waves got tired, out of ideas, lazy and complacent. They preferred to “outsource” to China rather than to bother with complicated production schemes, and contend to live off their wealth. And when they tired, the whole society that had gotten used to trust them tired also. This is for example the opinion of Charles Kindleberger.

    Reagan and Thatcher were only the idiots that happened to sit in government at the time. They didn’t call the tune, they followed.

  19. Ian Welsh


    of course it wasn’t just two people; a lot of work went into creating them and they were movement leaders/standard bearers. On the intellectual side I blame Milton Friedman more than any other, but there were plenty. And on the political side, well, it wasn’t a coincidence that both Kennedys, MalcomX and MLK were all assassinated in the 60s.

  20. Jan Wiklund

    I believe that whoever was in government at that time would have made the same decisions – provided that a hughe popular insurrection would have prevented them.

    According to the decisions were made as early as 1962. Simply told, the London banks decided to set up subsidiaries in Liechtenstein that did all the dirty business they were not allowed to do in the Bretton Woods countries. But the governments, who never have any qualms of armstwisting when a small and insignificant country breaks the rules said or did nothing. Apparently they thought what the banks did was absolutely right. Probably because they thought they could take part in the business themselves.

    And this was well before Thatcher.

    The postwar rules were set up because of the world’s most thorough labor movement in Scandinavia in the 20s and in the US in the 30s, the anticolonial movements in India and China, and the Russian revolution. The rulers were simply aware of the need to be serious to be allowed to stay in power. When the threat subsided, they went back to their usual business.

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