This morning, you opened your phone and started scrolling. Your screen presented you with the usual updates: the nth wave of plague, the growing supply chain crisis, and two nuclear powers exchanging confrontational threats. You yawned and went to start your day. Collapse gets old fast. Chances are the threat of imminent destruction didn’t stop you from hurrying to work.
But to some, collapse can be a thrilling possibility. Keep scrolling, and you’ll eventually come across its devotees: they include backwood fundamentalists, deep green radicals, apocalyptic cults, and pessimistic online doomers, to name just a few.
The collapse of society can seem to hold an opportunity. Imagine no longer having to clock into work or pay taxes. Imagine money losing its importance when beans and bullets hold all the value. Imagine scheming lawyers and bankers getting their due when their wealth belongs to those strong enough to take it. Imagine a blank slate for those who see no place for themselves in our corrupt civilization.
Collapse enthusiasts tend to share a basic implicit assumption: if society as we know it ceased to exist, they and their ingroup would be better off in some important way. Sometimes, social ills seem so entrenched that no other way out exists than for the system behind them to self-destruct. Others see the social order as fundamentally stacked against them, with any hope for advancement requiring its total reset.
These collapse scenarios and the restructuring of society that follows seem plausible. One might logically assume that the complex legal and economic structures that allow for property, debts, lending, and governments to redistribute resources are extremely fragile. It would certainly seem that a physical disaster sufficient to obliterate infrastructure and kill large swathes of the population would leave the survivors in an unrecognizable world of anarchy.
But collapse is not a theoretical construct. Human history has seen both natural and man-made disasters many times before: the historical record offers us examples of deadly plagues, trade collapse, total war, and the dropping of atomic bombs. And contrary to popular expectation, the record of such disasters suggests that the legal and economic systems that we live under have, in fact, displayed amazing durability.
It is very difficult to identify natural disasters or wars that lead to the sudden end of civilization as it existed before—or even to a full collapse of everyday life.
Pushing Paper Through the Plague
If you heard today that a plague was coming that would rapidly kill between 30 and 50 percent of the general population, you might reasonably expect this to lead to the collapse of society. It’s hard to see how obligations and social accounting could survive such a massive event. Some might even see it as a chance for a new beginning.
But this catastrophe actually happened in the historical record, and when it did, the direct ancestor of our own society continued a remarkable level of its day-to-day functioning. The bibliography of any book about the Black Death in England is laden with references to tax receipts, court cases, and parish death records. Much of what we know about the plague comes from records generated by the continuous operations of the very institutions that one might expect to completely fall apart in a super-mortality event.
The English law courts sat with only minimal interruptions even during the brutal first wave of the Black Death from 1348 to 1349. The Court of Common Pleas conducted its full end-of-year term in 1348, while the Court of King’s Bench sat uninterrupted at York. In 1349, the Court of Common Pleas continued regular operations at Westminster. The King’s Bench operated at Lincoln, remaining “surprisingly busy.” It appears that the courts were forced to adjourn only for May and June of 1349, the very peak of the epidemic.
Evidently, the courts had busy dockets even as litigants, judges, and attorneys succumbed to the plague left and right. In fact, the very pace of the death was likely driving much of the litigation: property changed hands at an accelerated rate, heirs sued each other over their shares of unexpected windfalls, debtors died, and creditors disputed over who would seize the silver and furniture.
Arguments, legal nitpicking, and the cross-examining of claimants to estates went on as usual, even as the wagons of the municipal corpse collectors creaked past the courthouse windows. At the end of the process, the only result was paper in the form of writs and orders, bearing the wax seal of the court. The successful litigant would have taken these papers away, and traveled home through a surreal scene of fresh graves, shuttered homes, and people wandering the roads proclaiming the end of days. In all likelihood, the winner of the case would himself die later that year or in the next spring, and the process would repeat.
What is missing from this grim picture is the expected widespread anarchy. If a manor house is still standing in 2022, the current occupant’s chain of title likely traces back to orderly inheritance proceedings conducted during the Black Death.
Law and governance did not just persist as usual during the Black Death. The power of both the state and the courts actively increased in response to the challenge, much as they have during modern disasters. The ancestors of today’s credit securement processes evolved rapidly during this time: “Penal bonds, punitive remedies under detinue of charters, and uses all came into vogue because their utilization encouraged more members of the upper orders to stand by their commercial obligations.” Records show that by 1352 “the use of penal bonds increased dramatically, and they were also used to enforce debts.”
The executive function of government also remained largely unimpaired by the Black Death. Between 1348 and 1349 it was recorded that many laborers, expecting the imminent end of the world, had absconded from their jobs into idleness, or were demanding greatly increased wages to do any work.
In response to this disaster-holiday mentality, the Council of Edward III issued the Ordinance of Laborers in the June of 1349, which decreed that everyone under age 60 must work, and workers may not receive wages higher than pre-plague levels. The ordinance also imposed price controls on food and prohibited alms for able-bodied beggars. By 1351, a strengthened version of this ordinance was being actively enforced through legal prosecutions against violators, and the English state was largely successful in imposing mandatory employment, along with wage and price controls, during the remainder of the economic crisis.
The Black Death did not bring on any great social reset—in fact, survivors experienced the very opposite. In the chaos of mass death, the state enforced obligations to work and fulfill debts with increasing stringency. Eventually, laborers did gain financially from their increased bargaining power. But this was a slower process that took a generation or two to fully make itself felt, with no immediate dramatic reordering of society.
There was only one road to escaping financial and social debts during the Black Death, and it was traveled by plague carts carrying bodies.
A Pension Named Apocalypse
Modern states have had no more trouble than premodern ones in keeping up business as usual under adverse conditions.
At the close of the Second World War, Berlin was in ruins. Its residents underwent food rationing and the complete loss of luxuries like coffee and chocolate. Apart from a period lasting a few months, many essential employees and low-level bureaucrats continued to wake up, clock in, work, go home, and do it all again the next day. By 1946, reconstruction had put many of Berlin’s essential services back to work.
For those who stayed in the city, many features of life went on with remarkable continuity even in the face of wartime violence and destruction. A conductor who started his job in 1935 would likely have operated the streetcar, received a paycheck, and paid rent normally up until about April of 1945, despite the bombing of Berlin and intermittent destruction of the tracks.
If he survived and emerged from the rubble, he was almost certainly back to work by 1946, transporting workers for the reconstruction efforts. He would deposit his paycheck into his account at the same bank and likely kept paying rent to the same landlord. It is likely that our conductor never missed more than one filing, at most, for any tax year. By the 1946 tax year, revenues were stable enough that the occupation forces could run balanced budgets for domestic costs.
Despite the military defeat and a change in regimes, a number of bureaucratic bodies and obligations continued functioning after the war just as before. Pension schemes in particular have shown a surreal persistence. In 2019, the German government was still paying Third Reich-era German state pensions to foreign citizens in a number of different nations. A decree signed by Hitler in 1941 had established payments for foreign volunteers of the Waffen SS. In an example of bureaucratic persistence, the post-war German government went on to pay them for decades.
Hitler died in his bunker as Berlin burned in April of 1945, and his country suffered unconditional defeat. Yet the paper rolls of foreign volunteers were somehow preserved, transferred to the appropriate offices of Allied-occupied Germany, and in 1949 came under the jurisdiction of the newly-formed Federal Republic of Germany. Public employees somehow located thousands of foreign veterans in scores of foreign countries and began mailing out checks drawn on the West German treasury. Our hypothetical conductor likely retired in the 1970s with the same pension plan he had signed up for in the Third Reich.
Bureaucracies and other large institutions sometimes survive because of sheer inertia. Most people do not actually have better options than showing up to work, even when the paychecks stop. Afghanistan’s civil servants continued showing up for months after the Taliban victory despite not getting paid.
But in many cases, they also survive because they are actually performing important functions. Someone has to keep the lights on.
Why Trade Never Ends
If bureaucracy is resilient, then trade is eternal. Far from being a recent development of modern technology, archeological evidence shows global trade predating the Iron Age. In the 3rd millennium BC, tin flowed from modern-day Cornwall through central Europe and the Mediterranean. The Arabian Gulf connected Mesopotamian societies with the Indus. Weights appear to have met similar standards from Britain to the Middle East, staying remarkably stable for over 2000 years. In the long run, there is no disaster in human history that has permanently ended trade between regions and continents.
What makes our society unique isn’t global trade per se, but the level to which the average person is tied into highly complex markets spanning the entire world. The collapse scenarios for this system range from a supply chain meltdown to the end of cheap energy.
These scenarios could undermine trade as we know it. But shipping containers and oil did not spark the modern era of global trade, and they are unlikely to end it. The historical shipping empires such as those of the Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese rose and fell without a drop of petroleum. They were powered by wood, canvas, and humans’ insatiable desire for global commodities like sugar, coffee, and spices. The seas were often lawless—merchantmen fitted cannons for a reason. But the insecurity of long mercantile journeys was a risk many found worth taking long before global sea powers like Britain and America could guarantee safety on the journey.
Pre-industrial technologies persisted until relatively late in the modern economy. Later, the last great sailing ships conducted profitable world trade in bulk commodities, notably Australian wheat and wool. The famous “Cutty Sark,” one of the last merchant sailing vessels, primarily shipped wool from Australia to the mills of Britain at the end of the nineteenth century. The “Grain Races,” informal contests between sailing vessels, continued into the late 1940s and involved shipping bulk wheat by sail into Britain. In the event of any civilization-threatening energy crisis, it wouldn’t take long for the age of sail to return. In some market niches like the wine industry, sailboats are used for shipment even today.
Particular trading partners rise and fall, but trade endures throughout history. Partially, this is because trade is good at absorbing local disasters. The destruction of one territory, like Roman Judea in the first century or Iraq in the twenty-first, sends out waves of refugees that offer their labor elsewhere. The event usually entails the rise of new markets for opportunists. Expansions like those of the Mongols, Islamic armies, and European colonialists were responsible for such destruction, but also created massive new territories within which trade could take place.
Even during active wars, trade goes on. The Russia-Ukraine conflict is one of the most recent examples. The amount of Russian natural gas flowing through Ukrainian pipelines actually increased in the weeks following the invasion, with Russia paying transit fees to Ukraine in full even as it rained missiles on the country. While conventional state-on-state warfare is reducing cities such as Mariupol to rubble, Ukrainian and Russian bureaucrats are evidently working together, and are clearing payments. These fee payments are presumably being used to purchase military equipment to use against the other.
Despite this overall continuity, serious disruptions in global trade can create downward spirals for huge swathes of society. At a minimum, basic goods become inaccessible as prices stay high. In worse scenarios, societies might have to reorient themselves in major ways to access new markets. But often, these scenarios only reinforce existing institutions.
Following the Soviet collapse, both Cuba and North Korea underwent major food shortages, with the latter seeing between 1 to 2 percent of its population succumb to starvation. In both cases, both power structures and daily life stayed remarkably continuous. Cubans continued to work in the fields in order to survive, despite no formal jobs existing. In North Korea, food became a political tool used to reinforce state loyalty. Instead of heralding a new economic order, the historical examples of trade collapse show that they usually enforce the existing one. Rather than liberating alienated workers from their jobs, its effects usually drive them down to subsistence-level life.
The most cataclysmic scenarios for trade are events on the scale of the Bronze Age Collapse, a period of several decades in which the collective trade networks of the entire eastern Mediterranean all melted down due to invasion, war, and new technologies. This collective disaster prevented the ability of regions to absorb shortfall or displace each other. It left entire regions of cities depopulated. The worst-hit areas, like Greece, entered nearly four centuries of stagnation, while empires like Egypt and Assyria were forced to retreat for survival.
Events like the Bronze Age Collapse are the closest we have to expansive civilizational resets. For those who survived the invasions, the disaster entailed a contraction of daily life, enduring a harsh existence as local rulers fought to maintain themselves, and migration to other cities where life as most had known it still endured. Later generations did not view the collapse as a liberatory moment, but as the end of a golden age.
Generations later, the Mediterranean was once again a network of cities, ships, and markets. Trade has survived the collapse of civilization before, and we can expect it to do so again.
The Nuclear Option
There is one collapse scenario without historical precedent: large-scale nuclear exchange, with the casual assumption being that such an event would be the end of the world.
Official models of a nuclear exchange, at least, suggest otherwise. U.S. government estimates predict a death toll of between 13 to 34 million people for a nuclear exchange involving 3,000 warheads, with substantial additional fatalities that would result from a lack of medical care, lack of utilities, and ensuing food shortage. But even at a final death toll of 10 to 20 percent of the total population, and infrastructure destruction similar to the situation in Germany after the Second World War, the total shock of nuclear war could likely fall within the range historically absorbed by modern economies and governments.
It is not so difficult to imagine a very “mundane” sequel to such a catastrophe. Despite the horrendous loss of life and subsequent hardship, there would likely be no post-apocalyptic release from the mundane.
Given that most of society would have survived the exchange, with perhaps entire regions untouched by direct strikes, many of the same patterns as in other historical disasters would likely emerge. The chaos unfolding as people tried to contact relatives, take control of property, or enter other regions as refugees would actually overwhelm institutions like courts and essential infrastructure rather than making them irrelevant.
The largest problem faced after the nuclear strike could well be job abandonment by surviving workers on disaster holiday, feeling that ordinary things don’t matter anymore. More likely than a collapse of normal economic life is a scenario similar to King Edward III’s Ordinance of Laborers: a mandatory work requirement for all able-bodied persons.
In this scenario, it’s even unlikely that the phones and laptops go off for the last time in a nuclear conflict. Modern communications might come back online with strange rapidity due to the dispersed and durable nature of cellular networks—today, even extremely unstable regions like Somalia have cell service. Such technologies are autonomous from lower levels in the hierarchy of needs. Residents in cities that were not directly affected might well be posting on Twitter, even as they survive on thin rations of gruel unloaded from a truck each week.
Given the enduring nature of tax and financial authorities, Americans would likely be filing 1040s and paying taxes within a year or two of the event. Just like the Berlin conductor—or the citizens of post-war Nagasaki and Hiroshima, both thriving cities once again—young survivors of the event may well retire years later under quite normal conditions in a rebuilt city, drawing on social security and 401K accounts established before the war.
What Will End it All?
It is very difficult to specify any death toll or infrastructure destruction that would, in itself, make fundamental or lasting changes to our systems of governance. Even nuclear war may not reach the threshold.
There are a number of counterexamples to the persistence of mundane economic life, property rights, trade, and governance. One might ask about the fates of East German landlords. Or pre-1949 debts in China. What about paper farm deeds in Cuba? What about French Ancien Regime estates after 1790?
These counter-examples quite neatly answer the question of what events are actually known to radically change society. The real force that reorders society is always human action, driven by political or ideological coordination. Disaster becomes a moment for organized political actors to upset the existing order in a given place, either by foreign conquest or by revolution.
Without some human force ready to make use of disaster, neither plague nor destruction are sufficient in themselves to rewrite how society functions. Where these things occur without a strong existing revolutionary ideology, the status quo recovers with amazing speed. On the other hand, revolutions have succeeded repeatedly without requiring major physical disruptions at all, such as those of Cuba and Iran.
In this sense, the apocalyptic cults and radical militias may actually be closer to the truth than the docile pessimist who fantasizes about getting to leave his office job. The former, at least, understand that collapse is only ever an opportunity for motivated actors whose power survives or even increases after a disaster. But such people are rarely found among society’s malcontents. As history shows, those who benefit from collapse are often already among its heights.