A moment of blessed peace at long last. This location seems secure, and I have enough food and water to last a couple of weeks. This old computer looks like it’ll last long enough to get this down, and there’s actually a working dot-matrix printer in here, so I’ll be able to make a hard copy for after the generator kicks the bucket. Small favors, I suppose.
My name is Sam Wilson, and I survived the financial crash of 2008.
As you might expect, “survived” is a generous way of putting it. I was just lucky enough to on the ground out of the blast zone and just agile enough to get to a stocked 50s-era fallout shelter to wait out the burning snow that fell for what seemed like months after. Since then, I’ve spent most of my time off-horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, fishing where I can and raiding abandoned coastal towns under the cover of darkness. It ain’t exactly glamourous living, but it’s living. At least it was till I cracked my keel last October and had to bumble to shore in a leaky emergency zodiac. Since then, I’ve been busy dodging bandit gangs and the local “governments.” I have to admit that if it weren’t for the blue serge and matching caps, I’d have a hard time telling the difference. So at least there’s a little consistency in the world, eh?
Don’t get me wrong. There are still good people out there. Fine people. If you’re reading this, you’re probably one of them, or one of their descendants. You probably work the little good soil that remains, or haul in the small fish not made poison by the radioactive sea. Maybe you got nabbed by a press gang and you’re biding your time till you can make a break for it. Whatever the case may be, you deserve the right to know why you live in the world as she is and not in some alternate universe where the fields are still green and the cows don’t bleed orange.
I recall that it was early October. The United States still existed, and George W. Bush was her final President. A minor blip in long-term interest rates exposed some pretty serious problems with the way big-time bankers had been trading debt. An otherwise-minor rash of home foreclosures exposed a staggering amount of junk debt held by some pretty immense institutions. AIG alone was worth more at its peak than the whole of the Republic of Arkansas at the time I write this.
You know what the funny thing was? The funny thing was that they could have done something at the time. I remember the news reports that the Senate had drafted up an emergency bill that would have lent the few hundred billion dollars the big banks needed to stay afloat just long enough for them to clean house and get back on their feet. Damn thing never even got out of committee. Hell of a time for American governance to have a crisis of conscience if you ask me.
Do you know how a bullet works? At the business end, there’s a little projectile made of lead and usually jacketed in copper. Behind that is a charge of gunpowder. Behind the gunpowder is a wee little primer charge that explodes when you hit it with percussive force. Holding it all in place is a brass casing. The financial crisis was the gunpowder detonating, the trigger-pull was the mild drop in 30-year yields, but the primer charge was… well, for lack of a better term, it was broken kayfabe.
Kayfabe, for those of you too young to remember pro wrestling, is the carny’s art of peddling pleasant lies to the punters. It’s a shared fantasy. “Heels” pretend to be villains they’re not, and “Faces” pretend to be heroes as they cynically bilk the audience with staged fights and campy antics. And the audiences ate it up! Of course, when it was a bunch of entertainers doing it, you can take it or leave it. No one ever forced you to watch Hulk Hogan grip The Iron Sheik in his sweaty thighs. If it wasn’t your thing, you could just as easily go watch General Hospital or bake a cake, or take a flying leap off a short catwalk if that’s your thing. But politics? That’s a different kettle of herring. If you don’t buy into the kayfabe of politics, if you turn your back on the show, the show won’t turn its back on you. The costs of not maintaining the shared illusion are, well, look around you. Those shattered cities you can’t walk into? That’s what happens when you break political kayfabe, when you reject the lies that make the system work.
And that’s what folks started to do. It wasn’t the same old, same old, “he broke his campaign promises” kind of deal. We get that every election cycle. It was more a matter of, “they cannot possibly keep their campaign promises.” And you know the damndest thing? It happened in-camp. Partisan footsoldiers on both sides dropped their guidons. No one went to the caucuses or the primaries. The Democratic and Republican National Conventions were held in a guest room at the Philadelphia Best Western and the Fresno Arby’s, respectively. The viewership for the debates was statistically indistinguishable from zero. The American public would brook no more lies.
And it was the big lies just as surely as the little lies. Everyone already kind of knew that the President had next to nothing to do with the price of gas or the unemployment rate. Everyone already had a hunch that all the “getting America back to work” jargon was just rhetoric for protecting moneyed interests. Everyone already suspected that appeals to patriotism were cynical power grabs. But never before in US history had the public just thrown in the towel wholesale and refused to, say, accept that the local police had any legitimate authority, or that school boards could rightfully enforce truancy statutes. At the time, people still acknowledged a duty to the standing ordinances of civilization (don’t kill without cause, don’t steal, &c), but they withdrew their faith from all those government institutions. Employers kept their premises safe because they wanted healthy, happy employees, not because OSHA threatened to fine them. IRS agents were chased away at gunpoint… everywhere.
So when the financial crisis hit, it sort of followed that folks withdrew their faith from the Federal Reserve Note. “This note is legal tender for all debts public and private” rang hollow once all those private debts began to hollow out the already-thin reserves dusting the vault shelves. When the 2009 bank run happened, it wasn’t a pell-mell tilt to withdraw deposits, it was a run on metal. Those who could, rewrote contracts against gold or silver. Those who couldn’t (those with international shipping contracts, for example) were stuck with piles of irredeemable green paper. A lot of people were out a lot of fruitful exchange opportunities, but foreign trading partners were out the worst. And wasn’t it just our rotten luck that one of our stiffed partner’s finger just happened to be near that big, red, shiny, candy-like button?
We perished in atomic fire. All because we forgot that the lies are the system.
We forgot that we needed to pretend that prices have some solid, objective meaning. We forgot to pretend that obedience to law, capricious and idiotic though it may be, is what makes enforcement agents’ jobs tractable. We forgot to kid ourselves into thinking that trust and trustworthiness are somehow linked. We forgot to believe that the rules of society, despite being arbitrary historical artifacts, kept alive though custom and selective, intentional ignorance, are completely indispensable for institutional and social continuity.
We forgot to lie. We forgot to lie to each other, and we forgot to lie to ourselves. And the world burned because of it. The truth set us free. It set us free to loot, to pillage, to grab whatever we could carry. We dropped the thin civilizing lie that we have a sacrosanct duty to each other, that there was a “we” at all. We torched our saints, made hamburger of our sacred cows, chucked everything into the shitter apart from a ruthless, monomaniacal dedication to ourselves and ourselves alone.
And now our cities lie in radioactive dust.
My advice to anyone who finds this? Rediscover myth. Rediscover glamour. Rediscover the joy of the shared lie. Trust even when you have nothing but the fleeting flicker of hope. Love the hardest when you are unloved. Tell stories. Believe against the evidence of your senses. The alternatives? Well, on the bright side, you have nowhere to go but up.
Good luck, and may whatever God rises from the ashes of our fallen civilization bless you.