Many people, including myself, like to imagine that some form of societal collapse may be coming, and to imagine what it might be like. While there is much talk of a zombie apocalypse, most people understand that this is only a euphemism for the event, an analogy, a fictional thought experiment. More scientifically valid possibilities include be an EMP attack, volcano, asteroid, war, disease, famine, economic collapse, supply chain disruption, or whathaveyou, but in any case the idea is that civilization as we know it will, on a large scale and in short order, cease to exist.
It is, frankly, a fantasy. An understandable one, mind you – society is becoming increasingly complicated and high-strung, governments corrupt and dangerous in ways that are entirely out of our control, frontiers for exploration and excitement all but gone, mistakes of the past piling up. Societal collapse would mean (for those who are ready for it) a return to self-sufficiency, simplicity, small and tight-knit communities, straightforward rules, renewed opportunity for adventure, a clean slate. But realistically? Any of the aforementioned catastrophic events – while technically possible – are either incredibly unlikely to happen at all, or unlikely to reset society in the way that many preppers envision.
It is almost certain that the United States economy, as it currently stands, cannot be sustained on its own terms, and is unlikely to be fixed. We are experiencing a positive feedback loop in which the weight of government expenditures is too great to be supported by its income, necessitating debt and taxes on top of the excessive regulation which cripples the economy; blame misdirected by rhetoric leads to calls for greater government expansion, raising taxes and regulation further, so on and so forth. Unless something changes, the time will come that the U.S. will start defaulting on debts, and confidence in the dollar will plummet worldwide. However, a collapse of the economy (or any of the other aforementioned disasters) does not mean that the government will cease to exist.
This is because governments don’t give up power easily. Along with economic decline will (continue to) rise an increasingly corrupt and productivity-crushing tyrannical government. As the economy fails, little-by-little, they will use patriotism, propaganda, scapegoats, political partisanship, religion, law, war, fear, or whatever it takes in an attempt to stay in control.
Thus, I predict there will be no sudden surge in violence or destitution (some sort of coup or martial law notwithstanding, but the resistance will be short-lived), little in the way of a WROL or golden horde situation (localized disasters notwithstanding). There will still be (at least, intermittent) electricity, still factories, still jobs, still government legal (or extra-legal) enforcement. People who didn’t prep beforehand won’t have much trouble finding a way to adapt to circumstances, because the situation will deteriorate gradually, perhaps over decades, rather than with a singular disaster, invasion, or cessation of government.
Another common prepper prediction is that, when faced with the prospect of tyranny, the people will rise up in unison to resist their oppressors. While it is true that there will be resistors, different types of people have different levels of tolerance and bravery, and will likely not rally at once. Thus, while possible, it is unlikely that any uprising will carry enough steam to slow the course of oppression. The media will paint them as terrorists and public threats; and the people, biased towards safety and the status quo, will accept it. Historically, the population as a whole usually must already be facing serious prospects of death – and much death must already have happened – before they are willing to risk a stand against tyranny in large enough numbers to make a difference1. Thus, a revolution likely will not happen until the regime has already taken, bit-by-bit, everything the people have.
Thus, the worst-case scenario, and the most likely, is not that there will be societal collapse, but that there won’t be. That the people will be trapped in a multi-generational depressed economy and oppressive government, a sort of purgatory that is not good enough in which to prosper nor bad enough to call for large-scale revolt.
I think the wise prepper will take this scenario into account, and plan for the possibility that his stockpikes, guns, and gold will be outlawed and possibly confiscated long before he can use them openly. That organized crime and black markets will fill the void left by legal free trade, and that a balance between being able to obtain the necessities of life and staying out of the crosshairs of the authorities will become a fact of everyday life. Imagine the war on drugs, but extended to everything else that will become regulated, rationed, or illegal.
But, this is just my idea of a likely worst-case scenario. A peaceful revolution is technically possible before monetary default. Something more mild like a Japanese lost decade may occur. If the economy does collapse and the worst of my predictions come true, we may yet climb out of it through peaceful (or, at least, not entirely chaotic) political reform.
1. There are exceptions, of course, such as some colonial revolutions in which the local people greatly outnumbered the resources that distant powers could afford to bring to the fight.