The Always-Imminent Collapse

My research on the history of debates about money in the US involved a lot of looking at libertarians and the gold standard. One of the things you quickly notice about libertarians is their fondness for the idea of imminent collapse. “Fiat money” is always about to crumble, and bring down civilization with it. Often this is invoked in a kind of taunting way: just wait and see what your paper money buys you when the  market disintegrates! And takes all your pretty suppositions with it! Ayn Rand’s thick and cartoonish Atlas Shrugged involves civilization collapsing when the “producers” retreat to a secret hideout, leaving the rest of us to flounder helplessly like ants without a queen. Libertarians like the idea of civilization’s collapse because that pesky government would finally be off our backs! And while the collapse of world civilization would have many disadvantages, you’d have have that stash of gold and more important, the priceless satisfaction of having been right.

The libertarian eagerness for collapse has some of the same quality of the Christian millenialist: the end of the world will prove conclusively that I told you so. [1. Having been raised a Catholic, I paid zero attention to the book of revelation, with its bizarre visions: paying attention to that stuff was what they paid priests to do.] The Millerites, famously, predicted the end of the world on October 22 1844; when Christ never appeared they termed it “the Great Disappointment:”

I waited all Tuesday [October 22] and dear Jesus did not come;– I waited all the forenoon of Wednesday, and was well in body as I ever was, but after 12 o’clock I began to feel faint, and before dark I needed someone to help me up to my chamber, as my natural strength was leaving me very fast, and I lay prostrate for 2 days without any pain– sick with disappointment.

Disappointing indeed. Is it too mean spirited of me to suggest that his sorrow is due less to the absence of Christ and more to the snickering of his neighbors? Many libertarians will be similarly disappointed if the economy doesn’t fall apart and reduce us to barter by September. The end of the world, or the next best thing, the collapse of civilization, will at least silence those critics.

It’s not just fundamentalists and Randians who long for collapse. A friend of mine used to joke “I’m a Marxist: I’ve predicted ten of the last three recessions.” In Marxist circles, capitalism was always just at the edge of a yearned-for collapse. [1. Of course libertarian claims to the contrary, there are few professed Marxist in the US today: most of the people calling themselves Marxists are the people who make your kid’s toys in China and Vietnam, and a heavily state controlled economy–China–leads the world in economic growth]

If the libertarian fondness for imminent collapse is like the fondness of evangelicals for the rapture, the libertarian habit of pedantry mimics Biblical fundamentalism. No preacher anywhere excels libertarians in their enthusiasm for long long wordy speeches citing Hayek as if he received the truth on stone tablets. Similarly, Ayn Randians can barely wait for the chance to attack each other for failing to fully grasp the oracle’s original intent. This post will get comments from people who say “Ayn Rand is not a libertarian, she’s an objectivist,” a distinction too hair-splitting even for academics. It’s ironic that people who profess to love individualism should be so strongly wedded to intellectual mommy/daddyism, but once again it’s not something confined to libertarians. Marxists also love to devour their own, and love to correct each other’s parsings of the canonical text.

The similarity between Christian literalism, libertarianism and Marxism is striking. All three depend on revelatory texts and all three are totalizing systems. That is, accept Jesus and the scales fall from your eyes; or once grasp the essential beauty of selfishness and the blinders fall away; grasp the majesty of dialectical materialism and all other beliefs fall to pieces. All three have the power to clear away cant and ambiguity and present stark and simplified “keys” to human existence.

This kind of totalizing love for imminent collapse isn’t new: paper money has been about to bring civilization to its knees since at least 1650. Christ’s bags have been packed since AD 50 or so. As Richard Hofstadter pointed out in his classic essay on the paranoid style, the paranoid conspiracy theorist is also generally someone with an enthusiasm for end times of one sort or another.

And there’s general enthusiasm for the collapse of civilization unrelated to totalizing philosophies. Remember the “millenium bug,” which was going to crash every computer in the world, causing a dramatic increase in the sale of canned goods, shotgun shells and backyard bunker supplies? Remember how excited everybody was about swine flu and then avian flu? Survivalists enjoy a kind of dread that looks a great deal like longing.

There are lots of flavors of libertarian, and not all are in love with disaster. Libertarians and progressives have a lot of common ground on certain issues. But politically, libertarians are in bed with fundamentalists, because they share a yearning for collapse and a love of literal minded pedantry. This is why libertarians tend to wind up in the GOP with evangelicals: they are both looking up waiting for the sky to fall.  Progressives, on the other hand, have many faults, but they rarely use threats of collapse to make their point. As far as totalizing philosophies go, I’d rather be dead wrong than simply dead.


Updated: Slate blogger Dave Weigel attended a South Carolina Tea Party Rally on May 5, 2011. At one table, he reports, a Ron Paul supporter was selling dehydrated food packages.

“When the dollar collapses, you’re going to want to have this,” he explained. “It’s survival food. It lasts for 25 years.”

I feel vindicated, and I didn’t even have to wait for global collapse!


  • […] The Aporetic talks about the similarities between Libertarians, Marxists and Fundamentalists. […]

  • Wayne Zandbergen wrote:

    Mike, Recently finished reading Kerwin Klein’s “From History to Theory”. I wonder if you have read it and, if so, how you would respond to his argument that the path that academic historians have taken has lent credence to and a language for folks with a love of end times?

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