Book notes: Reinventing Collapse, by Dmitri Orlov

I’ve tried to avoid writing about the the unfolding economic crisis because I’m sure what I wrote would be misunderstood. My fascination with current troubles and possible explanations for them could too easily be seen as cheering for disaster. But I’m not eager for the economy to head south, something that would cause my family roughly as much pain as any other. And I’m agnostic as to when such a thing will happen, or if it will happen at all. Many other crises, several in my lifetime, have been averted (or at least delayed) by events and trends I would never have predicted at the time. So I won’t be disappointed if this turns out to be one more rough patch on the way to calmer waters; I’ll be surprised, but pleasantly.

So why study this crisis so closely? Because it is severely testing our cherished assumptions about how to structure a society, some of which have never been tested before. For many years we’ve sown the wind by setting mechanisms into motion whose long-term effects were a mystery to us; and now as the whirlwind is reaped, we have a rare opportunity to discern which of those assumptions were prudent and wise, and which were just plain foolish, which many certainly were. It may be that God chooses to spare us the full brunt of our foolishness by stepping in to mitigate its effects—but even so our foolishness will remain just as foolish, and ought to be acknowledged and avoided in the future regardless of the extent of God’s mercy toward us this time.

Dmitri Orlov has much the same outlook in his own study of economic collapse. Here’s one of the blurbs for his book Reinventing Collapse:

Orlov’s Russian perspective on the American collapse is valuable not just for its predictions, but for its attitude: economic collapse is not an unthinkable horror, but a routine and fascinating part of history, and if you find yourself in one you should look around.

In his introduction, Orlov explains his project this way:

I am not an expert or a scholar or an activist. I am more of an eyewitness. I watched the Soviet Union collapse and this has given me the necessary insights to describe what the American collapse will look like. It has been a couple of years since I started writing on the subject of economic collapse as it occurred in the Soviet Union and as it is likely to occur here in the United States. Thus far, I remain reasonably content with my predictions: all the pieces of the collapse scenario I imagined are lining up, slowly but surely. […]

Let us imagine that collapsing a modern military-industrial superpower is like making soup: chop up some ingredients, apply heat and stir. The ingredients I like to put in my superpower collapse soup are: a severe and chronic shortfall in the production of crude oil (that magic addictive elixir of industrial economies), a severe and worsening foreign trade deficit, a runaway military budget and ballooning foreign debt. […] It took a couple of decades for the United States to catch up [to the Soviet Union], but now all the ingredients are in the pot and starting to simmer.

Let us not even try to imagine that this will all just blow over. Make no mistake about it: this soup will be served, and it will not be tasty! My soup-based method of predicting superpower collapse may not please a scholar or an expert or an activist (as I mentioned, I am none of these) but it is probably rigorous enough to adequately warn and equip an innocent bystander. I am not too interested in constructing rigorous scientific models and producing forecasts. Nor do I wish to set agendas, promote reforms or take part in protests. Try to form a picture in your mind: it is a superpower, it is huge, it is powerful, and it is going to come crashing down. You or me trying to do something about it would have the same effect as you or me wiggling our toes at a tsunami. Nor do I wish to force my opinions on you, so please form your own. But I do want to guide your imagination by providing a lot of real world detail about an actual economic collapse that has recently transpired, along with some honest, apples-to-apples, oranges-to-oranges comparisons between the United States and the Soviet Union, to serve as a foundation for setting some commonsense expectations and making your own plans, separately from the happy toe-wiggling masses.

People generally find it hard to act on knowledge that contradicts their everyday experience. The experience must come first, even if it is second-hand; hence all the support groups for people who want to change their lives or their habits. There are plenty of books on subjects similar to this one, complete with tables of figures, charts, graphs and diagrams, that argue for or against this or that thesis, initiative or proposal. This, I hope you will be happy to find, is not one of them. My goal is to take various important aspects of the Soviet post-collapse experience and to recast them in an American context, allowing you to imagine what will become of your surroundings, your situation, and your options. I hope to add a lot of detail to what, I would hazard to guess, is currently something of a white spot on your cognitive map.

And as the book unfolds Orlov provides many, many such helpful details. More important, though he approaches the matter with a rare objectivity, a lighthearted cynicism that helps the reader clear his head of conventional wisdom and take a fresh look at why events unfold as they do. For example, he points out repeatedly how the Soviet Union’s inability to provide its people with cheap, reliable consumer goods turned out to be a blessing because it forced the people to rely on their own resources to create and maintain tools, gardens, and such; Westerners, on the other hand, have been rendered relatively helpless by cheap, easily available goods that meet any and every need, and will be hard pressed to meet those needs when such goods evaporate.

Although this is a review of Orlov’s book, the first thing you’ll want to know is that the book is mostly a compilation of these internet writings:

Actually, my favorite of these pieces, Our Village, barely makes an appearance in the book. It describes post-collapse life in a Russian village, Soykino, where Orlov’s family owns property. Even if you have no interest in Orlov’s overall project, this essay is worth a look. It ends with a simple passage that will warm an agrarian heart:

Natasha and I are very happy that Soykino exists, and that our family owns a house there. Simple and humble as it is, it has much to offer: community, nature, shelter, and food.

As I mentioned, the collapse of the Soviet economy was barely detectable in Soykino. Reasoning by analogy, if some of the more pessimistic (or, as more and more of us think, realistic) predictions come true, and the developed portions of the United States become completely dysfunctional, much more so than they are presently, a village such as Soykino, if one existed, would remain similarly unaffected. And if you owned a house t
here, you could live there, and be unaffected as well.

Upon arriving, you would no doubt have to explain to the other residents what happened: “You see, the economy collapsed, and now there is nothing more for me to do out there.” And they would say: “No! Really? That’s a pretty big thing, isn’t it?” And you would say: “Huge! Could you please pass the pickled mushrooms?”

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2 thoughts on “Book notes: Reinventing Collapse, by Dmitri Orlov

  1. I have the very similar experience. I grew up in Czech Republic which was 20 yrs ago part of Soviet block. The same things were existing in my country. Eventhough we have been 20 yrs ‘capitalist’ – we still have a lot of understanding how it used to work. Everything from growing our own food in the garden, livestock and preparing wood for winter since there were wood/coal heating systems in my country. If collapse comes I know where to go. Countryside would offer it nearly all. And the most important thing is to survive first winter. Afterwords everything is easier.
    Jan

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