Action at the End
It is my opinion, for what it’s worth, that the ends of colony and capital are on the way, but we will experience societal collapse before then. We will need to build before, through, and after this Collapse.
It seems sensible to start this discussion around the climate. So many issues press upon us, the likes of racist and fascist violence against oppressed people, systemic oppression by the state of those people along with any other poor people, and the whole compound of class violence against all workers by the bourgeoisie and the states that support them. But eventually, the climate effects of industrial actions under capitalism will permanently reshape human society and potentially kill billions of people. Indeed whether or not Deep Adaptation is a predictive model that works, some type of “societal collapse is now inevitable in the near term”. It sucks, but this is the end of the world.
Please note that this is not the first time the world has ended, and it might not be the last. (There is real but slim chance that it absolutely is, at least for humans.) In each of those endings, something new emerged from a ruin, and those new emergences were at best agnostic as to their orientation toward liberation for any given individual or class. Historical inevitability has no place in our analysis, even as we proclaim like a street preacher that The End Is Nigh. The End will not conform assiduously any one framework from the universe of political theory, and the ideas and theories that come will have to explain a world that was not foreseen in either the 19th or 20th centuries.
What Will Cause The End
If anyone tells you that they know what will cause the collapse of present society, you can be certain that they don’t know. While many green-minded folks feel rightly convinced that it will be climate change that pulls the trigger, and this feels both true and useful, this idea actually doesn’t bring a lot of prediction with it. Climate change could destroy our society in many different ways, and even Ends that don’t seem very ecodystopian at all are pressured on into existence by vanishing ecosystems and fossil fuels. It does not take an expert in geopolitics to imagine a partial list of likely End scenarios:
- The Political end of the United States of America. This seems the most imminent (and also immanent). November 2020 is very likely to change the USA forever, and it is possible that it will kick off a process of political-physical division (“Balkanization”), or political-cultural division (Holy Roman Empire-ization) that will ultimately bring the demise of the entity usually known as “The United States Government”. It is important to note that the economic fallout of this collapse would trigger collapses elsewhere in the world.
- The Political end of the European Union or the People’s Republic of China. Neither of these seem like the most likely or most pressing as of October 2020, but let’s keep in mind that the world is composed of a number of interlocking and brittle political and economic systems, and anything could happen. Should one or the other of these entities fail catastrophically, it would destabilize supply chains and economic systems around the world.
- Rapid climate-based end of several major cities. Often this is seen through the lens of flooding coastal cities, which is very likely but could be from storms or fire. There are 634 million people in coastal cities threatened by sea level rise, and even 10% of that number becoming displaced would trigger the largest mass migration in human history three times over. Since sea level is essentially uniform, this percentage will actually likely be much higher. With the enormous loss of capital from disrupted logistics and tourism this collapse would entail and the inability of most (if not all) nation-states to address internal and external migration pressures on infrastructure, chaos would certainly ensue.
- Global thermonuclear exchange. Nukes have not gone away, and states are in for massive flux. The chance that someone turns the two keys in the next 20 years is, well, not none.
- Rapid destruction of any global supply chain. This is admittedly kind of a catch-all for “climate change or political unrest that didn’t kill a state on the first blow”. International rail, shipping, air freight, and telecommunications are all threatened by one thing or another, and it won’t take megadeaths to kick off an economic collapse if something happens to the means of transportation, or to sites or sources of resource extraction, though such a collapse may certainly leave those megadeaths in its wake.
- Global rightward step. This is something that has happened and is happening. At some point in a global drift toward retrenched nationalism, outright war becomes inevitable. This could result in nuclear exchange or just a “conventional” World War III: “This Time, With Drones”. As attrition becomes more a matter of equipment loss and soldier casualties are mitigated, damage to civilians and infrastructure increases dramatically. The countries the US has invaded in the 21st century already know this, but it is very possible for global fascism to bring the war home, everywhere.
- Pandemic or Pandemics. Well, we have one right now. We don’t actually know what the end of COVID-19 will look like, or even *if* it looks like. The New Normal may actually be a permanently increased death rate in a few stubbornly right-liberal countries, but the effects could be a collapsed world economy, revolutions and coups in countries previously deemed impervious, or a collapse of global education systems. It is clear that climate change increases our likelihood of coming in contact with pandemic-potential viral and bacterial agents, so a new flu may do even more damage.
- The “Null” End. The details of society, economy, state, culture, and politics are very touchy, very intricate, and linked in ways that are not always necessarily clear. While some use the evidence around us to believe that society will steadily degrade, at some point during the decline of a major power in this interconnected world, a previously unseen switch will likely be bumped that ramps this up into a collapse. It may not be clear at the time what is causing The End. It may not even be clear in hindsight.
It is worth considering that none of these Ends lends itself very readily to organizing a new world — short timeframes for state collapse almost always seem to correspond to larger death tolls and physical infrastructure destruction, while long timeframes dilute urgency and increase the potential for highly organized fascism and other destructive politics. The oppressions we face today are not going to magically disappear during a Collapse, and new concerns will arise. However, the observant Actor At The End will find ways to take advantage of crises to build against oppression, watching for the fact that the first job will always be the preservation and improvement of lives without replicating existing oppressions or inventing new ones.
Decline, Decay, Collapse
If you’ll permit me a detour into the philosophical, I’d like to talk about categories. They’re all fake. Some of them are useful, but they’re all at least some level of fake. For examples: we categorize different forms of speech into distinct “languages” and different forms of life into “species”. But in the real world, languages blend into each other, species do too. Even the building blocks of the physical world have slippery definitions: what is an atom? On the surface this is an easy question, but the more you know, the harder it gets. The definitions of “planet” and “word” are similarly unclear. The idea that we can “discover” a type of thing, rather than to imperfectly categorize what is presented to us in the world or in our minds, is false.
So here I’m going to talk about three ideas that are perhaps even more difficult to define, which are categories and therefore at least somewhat fake: three phases that are now inevitable in much or all of our society, those of Decline, Decay, and Collapse.
When I say Decline, I mean twin phenomena. On one hand, the people’s freedom and material conditions are worsening. On the other, attempts to rectify these are suppressed, stalled, or worse, simply not forthcoming. This is the condition of much of the world right now, and those states that are not experiencing material Decline are more often than not in a position of liberatory Decline. Decline is not always the result of suboptimal management by the state (though all states tend toward Decline), but can be through the actions of other states or even individuals.
Decay is a position which may or may not accompany Decline. It is that no improvements to material or liberatory conditions are being made, nor is MAINTENANCE to those systems being performed, and attempts to rectify that situation are failing or nonexistent. All of the United States is in Decline, much of it is also in Decay. While a state is in Decline only, there is hope. States in the past have entered Decay, and many have done so more or less “gracefully”, though on the whole those states ceased to exist at some point. I would argue that with the economic pressures of climate change, in this brittle global capitalist system, there is no hope for any state that has fully entered Decay. Decay will always lead to Collapse, from here until the End.
Collapse is a condition in which material conditions begin to fluctuate wildly, state power declines rapidly, and cultural conditions begin to evolve very quickly. Migrations and mass deaths, genocides, droughts and famines, disease, and loss of technology may occur. Eventually, a state in collapse ceases to be, and may split, be put under the power of another state, or change in all but name such that the former state is no more. What distinguishes Collapse from a potential anarchist revolution (for example) is that such a revolution should, on the long term, lead to improved material and liberatory conditions, though perhaps with a breakdown during the revolutionary period. A Collapse isn’t “going anywhere”, it just is. It’s what happens when the systems put in place by cultures, institutions, and the state cannot survive a shock.
The states of the world are headed for Collapse¹. They may or may not linger in Decline and Decay, but whether or not they do, Collapse is the endpoint. We may want to pacify ourselves by believing that “The End” is not going to be all that we’ve worried about in science fiction (true), but that it will be a long slow era of Decline or Decay, followed by a revolutionary period. I’m sorry if that is your perspective, because I believe very strongly that you will live to see it disproven in horrible ways. You will likely live to see millions of deaths. You may live to see billions. The brittleness of our systems and the obstinance of capitalists all but assures it.
This is difficult to imagine. In the Cold War we had an eye to it, but since the 90s the so-called West has been subjected to a drudgery of monotonous historical events, the groaning wheel of empire crushing the Global South for oil and money and strategic position, but with the perception that it could not be stopped and would never change. The end of history, just one awful newsbite after another. Even the Trump Administration in the US, Brexit, hard-right regimes in Poland, the Philippines, Japan, and Brazil, none of it seems to do much but radicalize people who turn out powerless to stop the crushing. The extraction carries with it its own demise, and the totalizing destruction of all it created.
The End of Capitalism will take away the one joy capitalism ever offered to the leftist — it will make its own end something we cannot celebrate. It will destroy as many lives falling over as it did being built.
The Effects of the End of the World
It may seem somewhat impertinent to start a paragraph “The end of society as we know it will bring many changes”, but ultimately, that is what eschatology is. Only the truly willfully ignorant, those absolutely willing to gouge out an eye to prevent seeing depth, can view discussions of The End Times — whether it be politically, philosophically, religiously, or in whatever other way — as anything but a discussion of changes. Of course something will come after The End, and people who want to make a change in the world, after the end of the world, should think about what changes those are.
[A note: of course there will be right-wing violence by states (as long as any given state lasts) and individuals, through all phases of Collapse. This violence has inhered to states, especially in the Global North, since before the left/right political distinction was even made. This violence needs to be confronted now and will need to be confronted until it stops.]
- Massive change in lifeways. Especially in the empires, life centers around consumption, especially of consumer goods and services. Service economies will be instantaneously evaporated in most Collapse scenarios, economic tissue paper on a bonfire. Some people will find solace in what they imagine to be “The Old Ways”, reverting to what they can sustain in the post-Collapse environment, but be aware that most people do not have a handle on what their ancestors did, in the least. Most of the retrocession that takes place will be invented and there is little we can do to predict what those inventions will be. Others will invent new ways not as explicitly anchored to the past, and quite likely new habits and patterns of life will emerge that, were they shown to us in October 2020 would seem alien, perhaps revolting or deeply concerning. This presents the real possibility of the new world growing in the shell of the old, but we have to be conscious about it.
- Retrenchment and conciliation of cultures. Along with lifeways will move beliefs, belief systems, cultures, and languages. The Collapse era will bring rapid evolution in the way humans interact with, consider, and refer to their environment. Some cultural ideas from the pre-Collapse area may be reinforced (we should be lucky if anarchism and communism are among them), some will be shuffled off forever. Others will arise from the synthesis of ideas that come in contact with each other. In other words, same as it ever was, but faster and with holes. In these holes, we may find planting-spots for non-oppressive, decolonial, and anticapitalist ways of life.
- Trauma, trauma, trauma, trauma, trauma. There will be so much emotional, physical, spiritual, and every other kind of pain. From the loss of lifeways, to the loss of patria, to the loss of loved ones, to the loss of identities, to the loss of cities, to the loss of technology. Loss, harm, and trauma will be ever-present in a way that they are not now (and that is saying quite a lot). Healing and organizing that healing could well form the basis of the society that anti-capitalist decolonialists seek right now.
- Technology loss. We cannot maintain the production of high technology without massive rare earth mining operations, or finding an alternative to the use of those metals. Universities, government research institutions, and the technology industry all fail in the Collapse. We will be left to our own devices, literally. This may eventually lead to a Collapse-based resurgence in hacked-together tech, eventually to be supplanted by truly sustainable co-operatively produced tech, or it may lead to the end of the technology era ushered in by the so-called Renaissance — creating a world where the only technology produced is that which is necessary to accommodate disability and fend off starvation, thirst, and disease. Assisting in the reconstruction of necessary tools gives us the possibility of assuring that their make and distribution is no longer oppressive.
- Destruction and decay of infrastructure. Even before the Collapse — even now — infrastructure in the United States and much of the rest of the Global North is decaying. Roads and bridges are not being repaired, sprawling shopping malls are abandoned, giant suburbs and subdivisions start to sprout, then are abandoned or interminably delayed while essentially uninhabited — Potemkin villages to capitalism. During Collapse this will be accelerated, to the point that “restoration” to the old auto- and/or downtown-centered lifeways will not be possible.
- A “Hacked” Society: Recycling of tech and infrastructure. Needs will have to be met largely with what has already been built. Fortunately, if Collapse isn’t the result of particular military violence, there should be a surfeit of available housing (for example). People will have to become experts at finding, capturing, and modifying existing built resources for reuse. This will be dangerous as hell, as much of that infrastructure is massive, was built to varying safety codes, has not been maintained well, and will have survived whatever shocks have accompanied Collapse. But if the people can manage this directly without it being built into an economy, a state, or a bureaucracy, it could be the seed of a better world.
- The Unknown Unknowns. The size, shape, and nature of Collapse-inducing destruction may be unknown to survivors, presenting serious threats to migration, aid-building beyond the community level, and resource gathering. People will go from certain death to almost certain death, people will be hurt and killed seeking aid or seeking to render aid. Bravery, intelligence on the ground and over the airwaves, and connections between survivors will be paramount, and we need to be prepared to make those connections in a way that brings forth a non-oppressive connective network.
- General destructuring. Bureaucracies, traffic patterns, employment, currency, scheduling, timekeeping itself, routing via highway systems, on and on and on will be shuffled or scrambled or destroyed — life as we know it will be radically destructured. This will be hard for a lot of people! But also it presents one of the greatest opportunities for ending oppression, of everything that may happen in the Collapse. These structures were largely built to support capital. Building them to support human flourishing instead may well prevent capital from growing back.
- Culture shock and dream death. The future is the undiscovered country, and moving to a new country is hard. The suddenness of the Collapse will affect how difficult it is to adjust to emotionally, but in all cases, it will be rough. One of the greatest difficulties will be that people who had “dreams” of doing one thing or another with their lives will find the way blocked or destroyed. This will be very difficult for the very young or very driven. It will be up to those acting against oppression at the end of the world to find a way to build paths of personal interaction that can develop meaning for others. While of course, life is inherently meaningless, and all meaning comes from the framings of individuals’ experiences, those who want to build something better can help make those paths obvious or available.
- Cults. There are going to be so many cults. While this is not necessarily a bad thing — utopian cults are real and there have been many cult movements against oppression just as there have been many in favor of it — there’s a lot that can go wrong in even a well-meaning cult. The sagacious Actor at The End would probably do wise to steer clear of them for the most part, but may find some success with anti-oppressive cults as nodes in a survivors’ network. Be careful, though.
- “The sudden stop at the end”. As in “it’s not the fall that gets you…” — the Collapse will be a time of rapid change, and people will learn to thrive in the transition because humans are absurdly adaptable. But eventually, society will reach the end of the ride, and things will level off. This may actually be more difficult, not easier, as we make new lives in the flux. The leveling end of Collapse may well be a second shockwave. Much like with Dream Death, the space for non-oppressive people opposed to the resurrection or continuation of Capital here is to do meta-support: support people as they learn to find meaning in supporting people.
Things To Make And Do In The Period Just Before The End of The World
This is on some level the hardest part to write: most of us have some idea of what we want to see in the world and are, on some level, working or trying to work toward that vision. Anti-capitalist decolonizers are going to experience the “dream death” mentioned above as grim reality slams the doors to those utopiae. It is my opinion, for what it’s worth, that the ends of colony and capital are on the way, but we will experience societal collapse before then. We will need to build before, through, and after this Collapse.
EXTREMELY FUCKING IMPORTANT NOTE: I will admit that the tone of this piece has at times lent it the air of praise of the apocalypse, as if The End is Coming and then a millenium of leftist and post-leftist saints singing hymns of the proletariat forever and ever amen. This is zero percent what will happen. Instead, we will have Collapse, a post-Collapse building and recovery period, and then the rest of the story of humanity, whatever it may be. There is no historical inevitability to that “rest of the story” period being anti-capitalist or decolonial, or non-oppressive. There’s not even any historical inevitability to the nature of the Collapse, just the extreme unlikelihood that the existing order can avoid what is a scientific inevitability of major climate change. Historical inevitability is a dead end, and what Actors at The End do will change the kind of world this eventually becomes.
It is never wise to kill energy by telling people they are not doing what they should. Every attempt to create a comprehensive and global program for anticapitalist radicals has failed, and this seems very unlikely to change before The End — current trends of national, small, and variegated lefts don’t lend themselves to a belief that a single tendency, new or old, will dominate the field and lead the people to a victory. Quite a lot of the work already going on in all of these different places is useful, whether that is in single-tendency organizations, interest organizations, big tents, sub-formations of these, affinity groups, labor unions, tenant unions, neighborhood organizations, and groups, blobs, or pods that are only unofficially organized. I believe they should continue doing their thing.
Whatever group is organized might future-proof their formation, or at least ensure that the work that they do is carried forward to the future, by addressing people’s needs directly, organizing in ways that make redundant connections between people (i.e. people can get in touch in multiple ways), increasing the chances that people oriented toward anticapitalism and decolonization make at least loose connections with each other, and being aware of how legible their movement is to the state.
People taking action should not burn themselves out. People taking action should not burn themselves out. People, who are stuck in a global apocalypse’s bumper footage, who are sprinting on the warning track for the End of the World, should not fucking burn themselves out. You think you have to do everything today because you have to save the world, and you’re going to accidentally do your part to put the future of the world in jeopardy. You have to pace yourself. You cannot ignore yourself.
You also cannot ignore abuses or failures of non-oppressive structures in your formation. Whether it’s a labor party, a punk house or the National office of the DSA, you cannot allow abuse or other oppressions to stay. If they stay, they become part of the culture of the formation and your formation, at that very moment, becomes part of the problem rather than part of the solution. At this point, it exists to be overthrown with the rest of the garbage system that holds us down.
All of us will need to do a lot of internal work in order to continue to fight oppression through the Collapse. We need to start now. Many of us live in cultures where death is a taboo. Thinking about death is stigmatized in much the same way as mental illness, and aversion to considering death and our own mortality forces ideas about death into unproductive avenues. We all need to consider our own mortality — one day, you and I will die and there’s nothing we can do about it. Science will not beat it, religion will not avert it, political martyrdom will not take away its finality. We will probably become more familiar with it than we are right now, and we need to ensure that we do not Collapse with the rest of society when this happens. We can do a LOT of work in our communities if we are the pillars, able to offer strength and support in a time of terrifying change.
Please don’t get confused about what this means. You do not have to feel any kind of way about the end of the world. There is place at the table for the hopeful and the blackpilled. No matter where you sit, though, you will need to confront the fact that the most likely course for human history involves a) at least a partial destruction of the status quo, both in the ways that it enriches and in the ways that it degrades human life, and b) the continuation of relatively large populations of humans. And this means that you’ll have to get comfortable with the idea that you will confront death, and that you will confront the also terrifying “blank page” of what to do to build back human life.
The End of the End
Eventually, the human species will come out of this tunnel. This will be the time to become extremely militant about ending oppression forever, which means setting the stage for a continuous process that will root out new oppressions as they arise, by destroying all those that exist. The preparation you made before the Collapse Era, the mutual aid you performed during the Collapse, have made you part of a greater network of humans, have given all of you the skills you need, and now it is finally time to put these to work in defense of the dignity of every human soul.
There is no program. You will have to invent something together. Likely, you and your friends will have a different idea than people a few miles away. This is acceptable. Live and let live, as long as no oppression is done. Likely, you will find opportunists and would-be oppressors, warlords, and demagogues trying to lead your neighbors back into the dark hole that started the apocalypse. You will have to be skillful and strategic liberators.
There will be a need for all kinds of people and all kinds of skills, and demanding that each of you prepare to take up arms, or medicine, or technology against your own personal talents and predilections is just another kind of oppression. It will be hard to fight! It has always been hard to fight! But you can do it, I can do it, and I hope that I live to see the end of that tunnel, to fight and live and thrive and build with you.
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