‘Tis the season for making predictions about the events lurking in wait for us all in the upcoming year, and I see no reason to demur from that common if risky habit. Those of my readers who’ve been following my blog since the days of The Archdruid Report know that my method in making these predictions is at once simple, effective, and highly unpopular. Put briefly, I pay attention to what happened when the same conditions occurred in previous historical epochs, and predict that the same consequences are going to follow.
It’s simple because I’ve got five thousand years of history to work with, and since human beings are much less original than they like to think, it’s a safe bet that the events taking place now have occurred many times before, with predictable consequences. It’s effective because, again, human beings are much less original than they like to think, and the more of them get involved in any given event, the more of the Brownian motion brought into being by individual cussedness gets canceled out. Sure, we have lots of shiny new technogimmickry now, but the brains, hearts, and less mentionable organs guiding said technogimmickry haven’t changed noticeably since the end of the last ice age. That’s why the American special forces wasting their time and your money in the northern Euphrates valley right now are enacting a failed strategy that was already old when the legions of the Babylonian Empire were doing the same thing in the same place three thousand-odd years ago.
It’s highly unpopular, finally, because an astonishing number of people in today’s industrial societies labor under the bizarre delusion that when we make the same old mistakes and get the same overfamiliar consequences, we’re actually doing brand new, innovative, unparalleled things that will inevitably succeed in ways nothing has ever succeeded before, and how dare anyone suggest that we might learn something from the lessons of history! Now of course when somebody proposes a course of action, it’s simple common sense to ask “Well, what happened the last few times somebody tried that?” Try raising that obvious and necessary question in today’s collective conversation, though, and you can count on being shouted down with ringing cries of “But it’s different this time!”
What’s more, when you turn out to be right and they turn out to be wrong—and let’s be fair, that’s nearly always what happens in such cases—you can bet the farm that the next time the question comes up, they’ll be making the same claims. Whether it’s technofetishists insisting that some imaginary mechanical marvel that’s been just ten years in the future since before I was born really is going to happen this year, or purveyors of utopian daydreams insisting that this is the year when their fantasies will become reality, or people who’ve invested in the speculative bubble du jour insisting that said bubble really will keep on levitating forever, or apocalypse fans insisting that modern industrial civilization is going to crash into ruin in a matter of weeks sometime soon, just you watch—well, dear reader, if you’ve been following the collective chatter of our time, you know the words and the music of all these ditties well enough to sing them in your sleep.
When we look back on the steaming remains of 2018 a year from now, in other words, we won’t be thinking of it as the year when fusion power finally became viable, or the year that world peace broke out, or the year that Bitcoin made everyone a godzillionaire, or the year when industrial civilization rolled over, belched, and died. A year from now, what’s more, the dollar and the Euro will still have value, there will still be products on the shelves of your local grocery, petroleum-powered automobiles will still be lurching wastefully down the streets, petroleum-powered airliners will still be rumbling even more wastefully through the skies, and more Americans will be concerned with the outcome of the latest Super Bowl game than with the subjects this blog discusses.
Does this mean that nothing’s going to change? No, quite the contrary.
Some historical epochs are more dangerous than others, and the most dangerous of all are those in which a once-great empire is on the way toward history’s dustbin. Imagine yourself living in such a time. The world you live in—whether that world is a river valley or a planet—is dominated by a nation which could once pound the living bejesus out of anyone who challenged its dominion. Can it still do so? No one knows for sure. The leaders and publicists of the imperial power insist on its invincibility and snarl threats at its rivals; the rivals position themselves for the moment when the illusion of omnipotence cracks once and for all; minor powers push at the boundaries of international order and take risks that would have been unthinkable a few decades before. If this doesn’t sound familiar to you, dear reader, you really do need to get out more.
Several years ago I wrote that the accelerating decline and impending fall of America’s global empire is the single most important fact of contemporary world politics. That’s even more true now. As we move deeper into decline, the gap between what the United States used to be able to do and what it can still do today is widening—but no one knows just how wide it is, much less which possibilities have fallen into the gap and which remain on firm ground. Everyone in the world, from Donald Trump in his gold-plated bathtub to the poorest of the poor in their teeming Third World slums, is scrambling to deal with a situation that with each passing day has more resemblance to a crapshoot at long odds. In all probability, some of the most crucial events in the year ahead will be the product of desperate gambles set in motion at three in the morning in response to fragmentary data about a situation too complex for anybody to understand or control.
My first prediction for the new year, therefore, is that one of the biggest stories of the year will be an event that nobody has predicted. Do I know what it is? I’m not even going to guess. In Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s useful phrase, we can expect at least one Godzilla-sized “black swan” event to dominate headlines and shake what little faith the world still has in rational planning.
That said, even in a time of rising uncertainties, some things can be predicted by paying attention to what’s happening now and comparing it to what happened the last half dozen times the same set of conditions put in an appearance. Let’s start with domestic politics here in the US.
As I write this, the Trump administration has been in office for just under a year, and as usual at this point for an administration with a first-time president, it’s just beginning to hit its stride. The tax bill just passed is a harbinger of things to come. The giveaways to the rich that got nearly all the media attention are sideshows; the main event is the tax benefits it gave to Trump’s working class supporters, the elimination of deductions that benefit the largely Democratic middle and upper middle class, the incentives it gave to US-based multinationals to bring overseas dollars home and invest them here, and—above all else—the abolition of the most hated part of Obamacare, the individual mandate that forced people who can’t afford health insurance to buy it anyway at whatever price the insurance industry wanted to charge.
That is to say, Trump did what successful US administrations always do, and handed out pork to his supporters at the expense of his rivals. That’s going to help shore up his base when it comes time for the 2018 elections, and if he manages to hand out more pork to his voter base between now and this coming November, the Democratic dream of a sweeping midterm victory that will leave Trump paralyzed in 2019 and 2020 will almost certainly go whistling down the wind.
That’s all the more likely in that the Democrats have handled their defeat in the 2016 elections very badly. When you lose—especially when you had the advantage going into the contest, and blew it anyway—the first and most essential rule of survival is to figure out what you did wrong and stop doing it. Not only haven’t the Dems done this, many of them have responded with blind fury to the suggestion that they ought to learn anything from their failure, and insisted that their party has to keep doubling down on all the things that cost Hillary Clinton the White House.
Those aren’t the things Democrats like to blame for Clinton’s loss, by the way. What doomed Clinton’s campaign was her commitment to business as usual at a time when business as usual had become intolerable for a vast number of ordinary Americans. What catapulted Trump into the nomination, and then the White House, was the hope on the part of those same Americans that he might do something different. What happens now that Trump’s team and the Republican leadership in Congress have worked out their differences and started to get legislation passed will determine whether the voters who backed Trump in 2016 will stay with the GOP in 2018 and 2020. Unless the Democrats get a clue in a hurry, that’s likely to happen.
Overall, while there’s still plenty of room for uncertainty at this point, I’m going to call the 2018 Congressional elections as a tossup, with a few seats changing hands and maybe a very slight gain for one side or the other. This is one place to watch for black swans, though.
While you’re watching domestic US politics, by the way, keep an eye out for a massive sea change that’s under way this year, though it probably won’t have an impact for a few years yet: the absurdity of Christians in America supporting a political agenda that directly contradicts the teachings of Christ has begun to sink in, in a big way, among young American Protestants. The devil’s bargain by which the evangelical Protestant churches sold their souls to the Republican Party in exchange for political influence was never destined to have a long shelf life, and it’s starting to stink too strongly for a good many sensitive noses. Donald Trump, interestingly enough, seems to have been the bright orange straw that broke this particular camel’s back; a great many young evangelical Christians, watching their elders turn cheerleader for a man who’s a poster child for every one of the seven deadly sins, have had enough.
The Democratic Party as currently constituted is unlikely to benefit from the resulting defections, but then the Democratic Party as currently constituted is not long for this world. I expect the party to go through tectonic shifts as its current leadership either gets chucked out or ages out, and one of the current crop of outsiders does to it what Jeremy Corbyn’s doing to the Labour Party on the other side of the Atlantic—that is to say, turning it back into something like what it was before it became a pallid clone of its conservative rival. If that happens before 2020, and Trump fumbles badly enough, the new social evangelicals may become a massive force in US politics in the 2020 election; if not, and the Democrats go down to a humiliating defeat in 2020, the rise of the new social evangelicals will come immediately afterwards. One way or another, it’s going to stand a lot of the certainties of American politics on their heads.
Okay, let’s turn to foreign affairs. As already mentioned, the United States is a waning force, trying to maintain a fingernail grip on the levels of global power while backing away from foreign commitments it can no longer afford. That backpedaling is already moving much faster than I would have predicted a few years back. The Russian intervention in Syria was the critical event here. Having embarrassed the Pentagon with an efficient win, the Russians are now reaping the benefits of victory, building permanent bases in Syria from which they can project power throughout the eastern Mediterranean.
Egypt, formerly a US ally of sorts, has quietly changed sides and leased several air bases to the Russians. Turkey, a member of NATO, seems to be headed the same direction. A decade ago the United States would have moved heaven and earth to stop these things from happening; now it merely blusters. The unrest being fomented in Iran as I write this is a temporary gimmick; a similar US-funded attempt at regime change was crushed easily in 2009, and the Iranian authorities can squash this one readily enough. My working guess is that it’s being done this time to try to bluff Iran into bringing some of its Revolutionary Guards units back from Syria, at least for a while, so the US special forces teams who have been stage-managing the Pentagon’s end of the Syrian rebel scene have time to extract themselves and cover their tracks adequately.
Elsewhere in the world, it’s the same song. The US is trying to carry out that most difficult of military operations, a staged retreat through hostile territory. That could blow up without warning, of course. For what it’s worth, I don’t expect the blow-up to come from America’s principal rivals, Russia, China, and Iran; they’ve displayed admirable patience, and for good reason; they know that they simply have to wait, taking precisely measured actions to shore up weak spots or to press their claims in narrowly defined areas, and they’ll get what they want once the US finishes its trip down history’s greased chute.
No, it’s the minor powers with regional ambitions that might decide to gamble that the US can no longer back up its threats. Faced with a direct attack on US interests, Trump will have to respond with as much force as America still has; what happens next depends on how deep the rot has extended through the US military, and on whether the other side has figured out how to capitalize on the vulnerabilities of a military machine that’s still basically designed to refight World War II. If the US military suffers a serious defeat at the hands of some other nation, all bets are off. (That was the central theme of my one venture into political-military thriller fiction, my 2014 novel Twilight’s Last Gleaming.) Otherwise, expect the US to bluster and threaten in an attempt to win breathing room for its retreat from empire. Black swans? A constant possibility.
While we’re discussing foreign affairs, by the way, keep an eye on Saudi Arabia. One of the riskiest maneuvers in all of politics is the attempt by an absolute monarchy to modernize the economic system of its nation and still retain power. That’s what King Louis XVI of France tried to do in the decades before 1789, what Tsar Nicholas of Russia tried to do in the decades before 1917, and what the Shah of Iran tried to do in the decades before 1978; I trust my readers know what happened to the monarchs in question. The current crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, is trying to pull off the same trick right now. Will he and the House of Saud survive the experience? An interesting question, which could set the Middle East aflame.
Okay, on to economics. Right at the moment it’s impossible to tell whether the cryptocurrency bubble is going to go into permanent slump or reinflate and head for the Moon. One way or another, expect the rise and fall of speculative bubbles to be a constant feature of the business pages all year. Partly that’s because the real economy of nonfinancial goods and services by and large no longer provides the kind of profits investors expect, and so a hallucinatory economy of paper wealth has leapt into being to meet the demand. Partly, though, there’s another factor.
For the last three years, while the US stock market has hit record highs, more money has been withdrawn from US stocks than has been put into them. In theory, that’s impossible. In practice, it shows that the stock market has stopped functioning as a measure of economic health and turned into an instrument of economic propaganda. Back in the day, the US government funded its deficits by selling Treasury bills to other nations, counting on the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency to keep the market brisk; when that stopped working, the Treasury started buying its own debt through intermediaries and stashing the debt in off-book subsidiaries in various corners of the world—yes, that’s the same gimmick that got Enron in trouble. Now it’s pretty clear that the same gimmick, or something very much like it, is also being used to prop up the stock market.
The usual prognosticators are predicting a stock market crash this year, the same one they’ve predicted (inaccurately) for nearly a decade now. It might happen, but the chances are against it, since hallucinations don’t need to obey the laws of gravity. The trend to watch, rather, is the increasing disconnection of the official economy from the actual state of economic affairs in the real world. Many years ago Bertram Gross predicted that economic indicators would turn into “economic vindicators” that said whatever the government wanted them to say. I think he’d be impressed to see just how enthusiastically the federal government has fulfilled his predictions.
What we’re seeing, in other words, is the transformation of the US economy into a Potemkin Village capitalism in which government largesse backed by Ponzi financing props up a thin imitation of prosperity over the top of spreading impoverishment. It’s not accidental that Elon Musk, one of the most highly touted of the new generation of capitalist grandees, runs all his businesses on government subsidies. Meanwhile, outside the narrowing circle of the official economy, the United States is rapidly becoming a Third World nation in which off-book employment and subsistence economics are increasingly the norm. I don’t expect any significant change in that picture this year, just a continuation of vapid cheerleading from the media and increasingly grim conditions in the real world. Black swans? Always a possibility but not, I think, a likely one.
The environment? That’s the big issue, of course, but it’s going to get nothing but lip service. We’re going to see more big storms, more big floods, more big fires, and the streets of Miami Beach and a hundred other low-lying coastal communities will fill a little deeper with salt water every time they get a high tide and an onshore wind, but nothing’s going to be done about it. Oh, sure, the left will demand with a voice both loud and bold that somebody else, somewhere else, ought to use less carbon; the right will insist that the earth rests on the back of a giant turtle, if that’s what it takes to let them keep on claiming that anthropogenic climate change isn’t happening; and only a few of us out here on the fringes will do the one thing that can actually make a difference, and cut back sharply on our own carbon use in order to lead by example.
I expect to hear any number of predictions of impending environmental doom this year, and they’ll be wasted breath as usual; preachers, sacred and secular alike, have been trying to scare people into being good since long before Jonathan Edwards ranted about “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” and—ahem—it doesn’t work: never has, never will. There are plenty of other ways that people concerned about the environment could help build a movement for change that might actually have an impact, but all of those ways start with activists embracing the changes they expect everyone else to embrace. Since environmental activists by and large come from the privileged middle and upper middle classes of our society, and since most would sooner fry and eat their own fingers than accept a standard of living they associate with the despised poor, none of these promising options are going to be taken up. Instead, we’ll get more posturing, more loud pronouncements, more empty gestures, as the seas keep rising and the climate gets worse.
One way or another, we’re probably going to be facing a fair amount of rough sledding here in the USA over the year ahead, as our domestic politics remains frozen in gridlock, our foreign policy struggles to deal with the impacts of our accelerating decline, our economy devolves into nothing so straightforward as honest smoke and mirrors, and the environment that sustains us all tips further into sudden-reset territory. It’s going to be a dangerous year—and yes, that faint rhythmic noise you hear in the sky is either the wingbeats of a black swan or the sound of another flock of birds coming home to roost.
In not unrelated news, the fourth volume of the collected Archdruid Report essays, Green Wizardries, is now in print! All the posts from 2010, including several of the most influential posts my former blog featured, are there in all their curmudgeonly glory. Snap up a copy here.