I was down in New Orleans back in May, and I took a swamp tour with a fella who was right out of central casting for a Cajun character, and he knew it, and he played it up pretty good. Tall, mustached, sun tanned, jovial, and full of stories about the friendly alligators who visit his back porch, and deep knowledge of all the plants in his domain that could heal, kill, or feed. He knew how to soften up crab shells by keeping them submerged for awhile, and he even grabbed a baby alligator right out of the water with his bare hands. And I thought, This motherfucker will survive anything. I’ve been thinking about that guy a lot lately. I should have gotten his number.
The signs that the long awaited end of times are finally upon us have been multiplying lately, and our politics have taken on a distinctly fighting over the last helicopter out of Saigon kind of a feel. Beneath the visible battles over health care, wages, and inequality, is a deeper fight playing out between people who are terrified of what’s coming, and people who figure it couldn’t be much worse than what we already have. They’re wrong about that, by the way. It can be much, much worse. The power goes out, food deliveries stop coming, anarchy in the streets, kind of worse. One more shock to the system and we’re there. And what are the odds that going forward from where we are, we get through the next five years without any more shocks? When you think about it that way, the irrational need to believe that electing a man who was on the TV a lot when we were further away from the brink than we are now will magically fix everything, is understandable. The only way out is through. But the more you have to lose in the through part, the more likely you are to convince yourself that the nation’s troubles are mostly cosmetic; nothing the removal of Trump and a few more starring roles for transgender actors couldn’t fix. Maybe throw in a couple of policy tweaks for those unreasonable leftists; free college for people making less than $10,000 a year and such. What do they want, the moon?
I had my car break down once about two hours outside the city and the only person who would stop to help was a Mexican immigrant who spent an hour trying to get it started. What I saw when he opened up the hood of his van to give me a jump has always stayed with me. The patchwork of fixes, strip downs and spit and bubble gum repairs he had done to keep it running were worthy of any robot design competition at MIT. I’m sure he’s been deemed an essential worker, and he’s probably out there somewhere repairing cars, or gutting chickens right about now, provided ICE didn’t get their grubby hands on him first. The truth is, most of the jobs that pay the most money don’t impart much in the way of real-world skill sets. You can’t consult your way out of a broken transmission, and you can’t use public relations on an empty larder. Its those backwoods Duck Dynasty types who know how to eat a nutria and like it, and 3rd world immigrants who are used to making do with whatever the Lord sees fit to provide, who will have all the advantages if the machines stop running. Is it any wonder that the impulse to burn it all down is radiating so strongly from the aisles of Walmart and the fulfillment centers of Amazon? And is it also any wonder that suburban professionals are so united in their determination to stop that from happening? The first shall be last, and the last shall be first, doesn’t sound so hot when you’re first.
And so, we find ourselves in a three-sided battle for the future, even though we usually acknowledge only two. There are the right-wingers who want a strongman to restore an imagined past of national glory (a pretty sure sign that your empire is crumbling - these folks always bubble up in the midst of imperial collapse), neoliberals who really want nothing more than to retreat into a fantasy world where a president who doesn’t say crazy shit every ten minutes will be enough to keep the whole thing from going sideways, and a hidden, but increasingly visible majority who want to push Humpty Dumpty off the wall, to see if they can put the pieces back together again in a more equitable manner. The first two stand in opposition to the third, although the Trumpists are the most likely to defect to the Apocalypse Now ticket in the clutch.
All three paths probably lead to the same place. There are just too many spinning plates in the air for none of them to hit the floor. Its not even clear that any of the available options will get us there any slower than the others. It will be for future generations, if they are any, to place blame for our failings as a people. But there’s plenty of blame to go around. In the end, we all let it get to this point together, from the boomers who sold our government to the highest corporate bidders, to Xers like me who remained silent while it was happening, to the millennials and Gen Zers who can’t be bothered to vote in a primary even though they have the most to lose. If there’s any comfort to be had, its in the fact that we are simply following a well-trod road, travelled by every great nation that’s preceded us. The particulars vary (except where they don’t-resource overrun, military overreach, the financialization of the economy), but no one has ever outrun the rise/level off/fall trajectory, and it doesn’t look like we’re going to be the first. At least our “Mad Emperor” phase is coming in a form so difficult to miss that its giving people time to prepare. When the most powerful country on Earth produces a contest between a cognitively impaired old corporatist and a Vegas-style wanna-be fascist for its leadership, you’ve gotta be blind, deaf and congenitally dumb to not see the writing on the wall.
So, what should you do in the face of impending societal collapse? Well, its probably best to pick up some useful skills if you don’t have them already. Planting, fishing, canning, first aid, water purification, that kind of thing. Cultivating some ability with a firearm couldn’t hurt. For all its failings, we’ve lived in the most prosperous, equitable, civilized times the world has ever known. The baseline of human history is quite different. There’s a lot more war, plague, famine, and general stabbing than what we’re used to. Because of our relative prosperity, we are the least prepared population in history for a reversion to the historical mean. So, get prepared. As for me, I’m gonna look up that alligator guy. Maybe he’ll take a Yankee Jew assistant willing to work for swamp survival skills and the occasional soft-shell crab.