Why do we fantasize about the apocalypse?
What could possibly be so seductive about wanting to live through the apocalypse?
A simple explanation would be that a world reduced to rubble would have no bills to pay, no powerpoints to format, and no shareholder value to increase. We can escape from the monotony and impotence of everyday life into a thrilling world where every decision has life-or-death consequences.
But I think a deeper reason is that we crave power. You feel undervalued by your society’s increasing inequality and lack of social mobility.
In fiction, anyone can instantly become the protagonist just by picking up a gun and shoplifting for food.
After the destruction of civilization, when the old class structures have been dismantled, there is a chance for anyone, no matter who they were before, to rise from nothing and claim power over important decisions.
But a world that has been levelled does not have a level playing field.
The Black Death killed almost half of all Europeans—yet laws, court proceedings, and debt collection continued.
The Chinese Communist Revolution was one of the largest wealth redistributions in history—yet families that were rich before communism are still rich today.
Society is not just brick roads, steel bridges, or glass skyscrapers. It’s not even the constitutions, diplomas, or bank accounts. Society is the invisible networks of trust, favours, and power dynamics.
People who held power before the apocalypse still have the experience, connections, and skills to preserve their status afterwards, even if the skyscrapers and bank accounts have unravelled.
Planting potatoes and pump-action shotguns might help you survive, but the most powerful people of a post-apocalyptic society are not the farmers or soldiers, but politicians: socially adept influencers to persuade large groups of survivors to band together to rebuild society.1
Playing politics requires skills different from the ones you use merely to stay alive. The wanton violence in movies or videogames won’t get you to the top—even the most hardened warrior is defenseless while sleeping.
If you crave the ability to become a lynchpin member of the post-collapse society, you’ll need honour to win loyal friends and charisma to forge strategic alliances. You’ll need to finesse your skills at self-promotion, social awareness, and tactful sycophancy.
Who knows, if you start practicing these skills today, and get good enough, maybe you’ll gain so much power in our current society that you’ll do everything to ensure it doesn’t collapse anymore. 😉
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You might object that you don’t want to rebuild society, merely that you want to destroy it to revert back to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle where there were no resources to accumulate, and hence no power structures are necessary.
But without the vast economic surpluses generated by an industrialized society, it’s difficult to maintain a post-industrial standard of living.
I would rather live in a rich society with wheelchair ramps and 401(k)s than in a de-industrialized society without sufficient resources to support the elderly and disabled, as it is sadly common in many traditional societies to murder these people instead. Jared Diamond writes:
How are burdensome old people jettisoned? At the risk of my using language that may appear unfeeling or gruesome, there are five methods that can be arranged in a sequence of increasingly direct action. The most passive method is merely to neglect old people until they die: to ignore them, give them little food, let them starve, let them wander off, or let them die in their own filth. For example, this method has been reported among the Inuit of the Arctic, the Hopi of the North American deserts, the Witoto of tropical South America, and Aboriginal Australians.