I am forever amazed at the fragility of our society. How easily it can all come crumbling down (in many cases literally) if just a few people decided to act outside of the established norm. Not necessarily out of an underlying desire to destroy, in most cases the ubiquitous desire to focus on one’s self interest is enough to ignite the fire. With concentrated populations in cities dwarfing those scattered throughout the countryside for the first time in history, we now have the very real potential for structural and societal collapse with the loss of only a few key spaces housing the governmental, economic, and industrial cores of a nation. The prospect is as terrifying as it is likely.
My city houses three million people. When considering the connected surrounding area which is in essence a part of the whole divided only by an imaginary border noticed by few, that figure doubles. If a mere five percent of people decided to act rambunctiously we would find ourselves with three hundred thousand people rioting, looting, and destroying all in sight. There are not enough civil servants to contain such an orgy. There very likely aren’t enough arms in our armed forces to contain it before irreparable damage is done. This is all assuming that none of those tasked with our protection make up a part of that meager five percent. The city is mid-sized compared to most centers of commerce and industry across the globe.
It also assumes a strange and sudden psychosis that is not ideologically or politically motivated falls upon the populace. Something that is unlikely to spread and gain new ravenous followers. History has far more examples of destructive groups being manipulated by some type of ideology than a sudden outbreak of wanton destruction.
The example is an extreme insofar as one assumes there are no dissidents in this day and age or that they are too few in number or that their fury is insufficient to result in this type of damage. The example is an extreme insofar as one is not paying attention to the current political climate.
Here is a hypothetical that few could consider extreme. There are forty million people in this country with about twenty eight million taxpayers. Three percent believe themselves unfairly taxed to one degree or another. They conduct no violence, never close roads to protest, and do not so much as tweet about the issue. They simply refuse to pay. There are now eight hundred and forty thousand people who need to be individually caught, investigated, processed, and prosecuted all at once. Each and every one of them is entitled to defend themselves and their actions in open court prior to facing any form of reprisal. The sheer magnitude of this undertaking is difficult to describe. Courts, tax departments, and police divisions would be immediately drowned in the undertaking to say nothing of their existing workloads which already see them overburdened. Justice would be meted out at a snail’s pace with many carrying on untouched for years on end, increasing their likelihood to repeat their actions. Best case scenario is that none of the aforementioned legions of civil servants were a part of the three percent. Lack of funding quickly leads to a breakdown in basic institutions and rampant corruption as servants seek to make up the difference.
Again assuming that no others joined in the movement. And there are few things as naive as thinking that people will not act in their own best interests when proven by others that they can do so with impunity.
This country has some of the highest taxes in the Western world and no shortage of people in utter disgust at the lack of return for their hard earned money or its continually diminishing purchasing power.
Like most organizations of note, governments run on money. While they are in the unique position of being able to print to their heart’s content (an ability they have been grossly abusing for over a decade at this point), doing so can have catastrophic consequences. See today’s inflation and both your national and regional debt loads for nightmare-inducing figures. Borrowing is a common way to fill gaps in national budgets but one’s ability to do so can be restricted by a population that refuses to pay its taxes and replenish the national coffers. A final option would be a bailout by an international organization designed to help nations on the brink of financial failure which simultaneously paints the nation as the failure it has become and trades its sovereignty in exchange for an admittedly large cheque. Neither of which are desirable outcomes for any government so we can add leadership’s disincentivization to make use of these options and opting to allow things to slide further into chaos.
All that is required for this to take place is for three in every hundred to simply do nothing. It may seem far fetched but this very scenario has caused, whole or in large part, the complete disintegration of formerly prosperous nations.
This fragility can be seen on smaller scales as well. Massive highways snarled to a crawl by one careless driver. An entire group’s mandate derailed by the indiscretions of one of their members. A few truckers shutting down a city and the lifeblood of a province. A business closed because one customer is throwing a fit.
The issue is that we operate with a tacit agreement with one another to behave appropriately. The baseline definition of appropriateness can vary but by and large people understand what is and isn’t accepted by others. All that holds this together is the belief that one simply cannot do what is unacceptable in public, even if there are no consequences for doing so and nothing preventing the deviation. This is also the weakest link in what binds us together.
When things become difficult and people become frayed by their day to day struggles to survive, decorum takes a back seat to securing one’s next meal. This search for security goes beyond mere subsistence. It includes the demand for equitable treatment and fair living conditions, none of which are tempered by anything other than an individual’s opinion on what constitutes fair and equitable. Realistically, the agreement we all live by is based entirely on decorum. That has been slowly unraveling as the cost of living has risen, wages have stagnated, and both injustices and governmental abuses of power have become more visible in a digital world.
This all slowly chips away at our decorum and our unspoken understanding with one another to pay our taxes or refrain from stealing or refuse to give in to our rage on a daily basis. The last few years have seen riots and wide scale destruction motivated by perceived abuses or political movements. We have seen massive retreats from the workforce as people essentially resign themselves to a life of poverty and hopelessness. Years of lockdowns have taken an enormous toll on our mental health. Housing prices were at historic highs before they saw record increases year over year for several years on end. Homelessness and opiate abuse rates can only be accurately described as epidemics and have overseen the declines of some of North America’s largest cities. Random attacks on public transit and streets have seen a sharp increase. Trust in leading institutions is at an all time low.
As things worsen, people fight back. Sometimes in large scale protests and sometimes in small, quiet resistances. Sometimes they simply lash out at no one and everyone in particular in an expression of frustration and anger. To be clear, we are currently experiencing a breakdown in society at every level which is exacerbating the emotions driving the breakdown and spurring it onward. The good times are over. One could be forgiven for thinking that we are on a slow but inexorable downward spiral as the fragility of our modern world comes to light.