When the economic Rapture comes, will collapsitarians be the chosen

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Damnthematrix's picture
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When the economic Rapture comes, will collapsitarians be the chosen


One spring afternoon on the patio of a comfort-food spot in Austin, Texas, a
jovial, elfin-looking Internet entrepreneur named Thor Muller declared, "I'm a

"Sorry?" I asked. We'd just met. I'd heard perfectly well. I just wanted to hear
him say it again.

The patio was jammed with exuberantly Twittering adults, crisp businesspeople,
and rumpled hacker types, in town for the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive
conference. Muller took his place at a round table, ordered iced tea, and waved
over Lane Becker, his rakish partner in a San Francisco customer-service firm.
Adrenaline rising, I geared up. The indulgence of an all-out cosmological
discussion is somehow permissible only during an out-of-town conference, like a
one-night stand or ranch dressing.

Becker, Muller explained, was also a collapsitarian. Becker announced he was
short on cash—he'd maxed two credit cards the night before with a $14,000 bar
tab. Wow. I didn't bother to conceal my admiration. "James Howard Kunstler and
Dmitry Orlov are also collapsitarians," Muller went on, citing gurus with a
fondness for apocalyptic scenarios. Collapsitarianism, I gathered, involves a
desire for complete economic meltdown.

As Becker passed the hat for lunch money, Muller filled me in. The term surfaced
in a January New Yorker piece that quoted Kunstler, author of the peak-oil
treatise The Long Emergency and a survivalist novel, World Made by Hand.
(Despite the gist of his work, Kunstler now claims he's "never been any kind of
'collapsitarian,' period.")

The idea nevertheless took flight among bloggers, notably Kevin Kelly of Wired.
Hardcore collapsitarians, these writers purport, agitate for total economic
downfall and universal joblessness; they scoff at mere predictions of
catastrophe and apotheosis, demanding their doom, ashes, and phoenix-rise right
away. They'd like to see the dilapidated systems of America's beleaguered
economy—finance, for one, but also retail—burn to the ground so that something
new, brighter, and more durable might appear. These old ways, they contend, will
self-destruct because of intrinsic design flaws, particularly the creaky
command-and-control structures of the pre-Internet era. At lunch, Becker
name-checked All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, Marshall Berman's modernist

To its adherents, collapsitarianism suggests a giddy liberation from hope, from
futile shoring up of ailing economies like Detroit's and the Sunbelt's, from
bailouts and stimulus plans and climate change and toxic-asset recovery. On
board are said to be Luddites, anarchists, survivalists, green types who see
collapse as our comeuppance, critics of American exceptionalism, and even
financial-sector employees who just want it all over already.

As Muller ticked off the four sectors he expected —no, hoped—would disintegrate,
I felt drunk. Finance, insurance, manufacturing, retail: R.I.P. (What? No
journalism? I took a deep breath.) Partly I was high on the mere mention of
collapse, that unspeakable notion—and the tantalizing prospect that it might be
advocated. I imagined Victorians felt this way hearing about psychoanalysis:
Sex, the feared thing, could finally be not only spoken of, but actually
embraced. "It's good news," Muller explained. "We're squeezing the industrial
era out of our system. Perceived value is collapsing, leaving only real value."

Like many, I do my fair share of fantasizing about sweeping away the phonies.
Yet the "real value" line also recalled the rhetoric of goldbugs at the close of
the 19th century; they wanted to purge the nation of postwar fiat cash and
eliminate fluctuations in the currency, along with America's profligate ways.
They were rich, mostly, and imagined big money-supply contractions that would
keep stacks of gold bars expensive and out of reach, so that only responsible,
dignified people—high-hatted men like themselves—could get at them. A moralizing
and ungenerous note sounded in the SXSWers' end-of-world talk. People with
devalued dollars and flimsy condos, after all, hardly deserve to perish for
their illusions. But I bit back my reservations to bask in the thrill of a new

Becker persuaded Muller to cover his lunch, and he tucked into a massive
chicken-fried steak. Collapsitarianism amused him, but he really wanted to talk
about their company, Get Satisfaction—how impressively capitalized it was, how
it let people swap info about companies and allowed companies to talk directly
to their customers.

Muller persisted. We have to let collapse come, he told me, and even nudge it
along. "If you see Humpty Dumpty sitting on a wall, go ahead and give him a good
shove," he elaborated later. Once all the rotten and fragile stuff falls to
pieces, hardier and healthier and more reasonable ways of organizing experience
will emerge, he promised. Collapse sounds scary, but Muller considers it a
desirable stage en route to a "more delightful, more sustainable world."

I wanted to know about this world that would appear when finance and other
totems lay in ruins. Was it millennialism 2.0? Was it different than the
off-grid hippies who frolic in Mendocino or the Randian Going Galt movement
favored by Fox News pundits? (See "And the Rand Played On.") Muller obliged.
Community gardens, wiki projects, DIY and repair and lending culture—all
antidotes to disposability—are hallmarks of what's to come, he told me. Muller
uses his iPhone apps for real-world tasks, making the device a level for hanging
pictures or a candle for birthday celebrations. This struck him as quite
postapocalyptic. He also counted customer communities and their stewards among
those who would last.

Wait. Customer communities? Where had I heard that before—just minutes before?

I shot a look at Becker. Get Satisfaction builds customer communities. Had I
been had? Sectors might crumble, Humpty Dumpties might shatter, but a Sand Hill
Road favorite that lets customers chat about Whole Foods—that would endure.
Everything clicked. It was all a sales pitch. And don't millennialists always
look to the end-times because they believe they're the chosen ones? This was
Rapture talk.

Muller told me he'd derived his account of the end of the old-economy sectors
from Umair Haque, a "prophet-economist," in Muller's words, who had outlined
what he called "the Great Compression" at BRITE, a branding and technology
conference held in New York City in March. I later read some of Haque's work,
lately done on behalf of a strategic advisory company called Havas Media Lab.
Its clients are entrepreneurs and investors, who no doubt pay good money for his
perversely inspirational talk about how to find gold in the rubble. But it was
sheer conference palaver—"outcomes, not income...connections, not
transactions"—hardly prophecy or even economics. BRITE, TED, Davos, SXSW,
Ignite: the immovable feasts of the great religio-business calendar, where
dapper gents with bubbles and sparkles on their business cards exchange
triumphalist ideas by day and then charge $14,000 in drinks by night. What are
these conferences, actually, but a relic of the boom days of branding and
tipping points and other nifty PowerPointisms? Maybe they even caused the
recession. And now collapse is a meme, and DIY a meme—just as the free market
was a meme—that raises the tide for some, even as it exists to drown others.

Nowhere in the course of this collapsitarian spiel did there seem to be more
than a cursory acknowledgment of the misery of mass unemployment and the vertigo
that would befall a nation deprived of the foundations of its economy and
cultural identity. I was further bugged by the realization that none of these
collapsitarians is a disinterested academic. They all come from the land of
business 2.0 bigthink. Even Dmitry Orlov, who lives on a boat with stockpiled
propane and espouses bourgeois survivalism, works in advertising.

You may like the idea of pushing eggs off walls, using Freecycle, and getting
the most out of your apps. But don't be fooled: This new collapsitarian scene
comes courtesy of the same people who evangelized for the Brand of You and
Irrational Rationalism and the bull market. Their proof of concept is only ever
that they themselves are rich. And while that's hard to refute—and really, you
look like a resentful nut if you don't acknowledge that people with capital are
onto something—that something is probably not our next great history-altering
idea. Isn't it more likely that they just know how to ask for money?

Muller and Becker ask beautifully, and you can't help but like them. I paid for
my share of the comfort food and got up from the table. I would stay in touch, I
believed. Muller was going to speak at Ignite, and I planned on studying his
speech, titled "We're All Collapsitarians Now!" I resolved never to tell the
pair that I doubted their reasoning, their philosophy, their motives. And why
was I being so circumspect? Well, because as much as I bridled, they were just
so damn convincing.

Maybe, after the collapse, they'd consider hiring me.

JAG's picture
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Posts: 2492
Re: When the economic Rapture comes, will collapsitarians ...

Great article DTM, thanks for sharing it.

mpelchat's picture
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Re: When the economic Rapture comes, will collapsitarians ...

This is such a hard question with many tales and if than's and such.  In my opinion, there are 4 main factors in this:

1) The area you live.  The reaction to system failure will be very different depending of population density, preparedness of local government, and general preparedness of the local people.  Example people in Detroit may riot more and be more aggressive than people in Miami due to Miami is more use to disruptions via Hurricanes and more prepared for system shutdown at least for a short time.

2) Length of system shutdown.  There is a huge difference between 2 weeks and 4 weeks with respect to food on hand (whether in the stores or in your pantry). After that is gone watch out.

3) Availability of utilities.  Electricity, water and heat are game changers big time.  You can not live without water for after 3 days and electricity keeps people content with there toys.  Heat can be negotiable in some parts of the world and it others not at all.

4) The speed of the system shutdown.  If things go slowly and people can adapt than you can be a leader and teacher.  If things go fast and people a desperate, you are the person with stuff and they do not have stuff, so they will come and take your stuff whether you like it or not.  The same people can be taught if there is time but they will also go to the lowest denominator if they do not have time.

That's my opinion on this subject.

scepticus's picture
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Re: When the economic Rapture comes, will collapsitarians ...

matrix, thanks for posting that - what a super read. It's amusing how the various collapse theories each with their own accolytes and high priests (and business models, lol) are startnig to compete with each other. Is this the new capitalism?

There's something rather iffy going on with the whole collapse industry.

ckessel's picture
Status: Martenson Brigade Member (Offline)
Joined: Nov 12 2008
Posts: 486
Re: When the economic Rapture comes, will collapsitarians ...
scepticus wrote:

matrix, thanks for posting that - what a super read. It's amusing how the various collapse theories each with their own accolytes and high priests (and business models, lol) are startnig to compete with each other. Is this the new capitalism?

There's something rather iffy going on with the whole collapse industry.


Once it has been created into a popularized movement it will become just another belief that is there only for its own gain. This will likely "make less of the whole concept" and serve to placate the general public further into a "no problem" mindset.

When the realization that we will definately have to live with less becomes mainstream we will be a long ways past the peak IMHO.

DTM, thanks for the post.... an interesting read.



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