When the System Crashes
Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University
of Wisconsin - Green Bay
Social, Political and Economic Systems Can Collapse for a Number of Reasons.
- Germany, 1618-1648, the Thirty Years' War
- Paraguay, 1865-1870, War of the Triple Alliance or Paraguayan War
- Natural Disaster
- Europe, 14th Century
- Ireland, potato famine, 1845-1849
- Mount Saint Helens, 1980. A local and short-lived event that demonstrated the
vulnerability of modern technology.
- Sub-Saharan Africa 1980's. Growth of deserts, famine.
- Institutional Paralysis
- Roman Empire
- Germany, 1923, Hyperinflation
- U.S.A. 1929-1940, Great Depression
- Ideological Extremism
- Chile, 1974, coup following economic decline
- Cambodia, 1975-1980, virtual destruction of society in effort to create a pure Marxist
- Complex or interacting reasons
- Mozambique, 1975-1985
- Uruguay, 1970's
Collapse due to War
--Central Europe was a mosaic of semi-independent states called the Holy Roman Empire.
Many of these states were ruled by the Austrian branch of the Hapsburg family. Another
branch of the Hapsburgs ruled Spain, the Low Countries, and parts of Italy.
Cause of the War
. King Ferdinand of Bohemia, a militant Catholic, tried to pack his royal council with
Catholics, and thereby angered his Protestant subjects. A Protestant mob cornered two of
the council members and threw them out of a high window (the Defenestration of Prague).
Both survived. Catholics claimed a miracle, Protestants claimed they landed on a manure
heap. Protestant rebels then went on to seize control of Prague, the capital of Bohemia.
Bohemian Phase, 1618-1625
. Ferdinand, with the aid of Bavaria and foreign mercenaries, reinvaded Bohemia and
Danish Phase, 1625-1629
Protestant German rulers enlist the aid of Denmark to protect the Protestants of
Bohemia. The sequence now becomes much like World War I, where a minor local conflict
escalates into a general European war.
Swedish Phase, 1630-1635
In 1627, Ferdinand, who had by now been elected Holy Roman Emperor, meddled in
Italian politics on half of his Spanish relatives and allies and against the French. The
French-Swedish power block was a counterpoise to the Hapsburg block. The French persuaded
their Swedish allies to attack. The Swedes, led by the brilliant King Gustavus Adolphus,
invaded and advanced to Munich and Prague. Only after Gustavus Adolphus was killed in
battle were the Swedes routed.
Franco-Swedish Phase, 1635-1648
A general war of attrition using Germany as the battleground.
Effects of the War
- 40% of German population destroyed
- Economy paralyzed
- Weakening of Middle Class
- Strengthening of autocracy
- Power of Holy Roman Emperor destroyed
- Germany fragmented into 300+ statelets. Not unified until 1871.
- Rise of reactionary, militaristic Prussia.
Paraguayan War or War of the Triple Alliance, 1865-1870
Isolation of Paraguay
- Jose Francia (El Supremo) 1816-1840
- Carlos Antonio Lopez, 1841-1862
- Francisco Solano Lopez, 1862-1870
- Positive effects
- Social revolution
- Graduate abolition of slavery, 1842--
- Negative effects
- Ignorance of outside world
- Cult of authority
- Chauvinism and megalomania
- Causes rooted in complex politics. Paraguay ends up at war with Argentina, Brazil and
- 1865-1869 Lengthy siege of southern Paraguayan forts and war of attrition.
- 1869-1870 Allies invade. Lopez flees capital and forces populace to go with him.
Effects of the war
- 60% of total population of Paraguay dead
- 90% of male population of Paraguay killed in war
- Paraguay occupied by Brazil
- Paraguay and Uruguay confirmed as independent buffer states
- Argentine-Brazilian tension moderated
- Expansion and modernization of Brazil
The Great Hunger; Ireland, 1845-1849
The moment the very name of Ireland is mentioned, the English seem to bid adieu to
common feeling, common prudence, and common sense, and to act with the barbarity of
tyrants and the fatuity of idiots.
British occupation of Ireland
Ireland could be and was used as a base for any enemy or rebel to attack England
itself. To rule in England, it was also necessary to rule in Ireland.
First invasion, 1169 Religious split, 1500's "England's difficulty is Ireland's
opportunity" With hostility in Ireland forming such a direct threat to the home soil
of England, the English lost their perspective and acted as backwardly in Ireland as they
were progressive in their other colonies. Repression and penal laws--Irish disenfranchised
in their own country Need for land reform--fragmentation--absentee landlords
Over-dependence on the potato
- Population explosion (about 9 million in 1840 vs. 3.5 million in 1985)
- Technological ignorance
- In a given year, 2.5 million went hungry at some time.
- 75% unemployment
- A disaster waiting for a chance to happen. Over 200 official English commissions studied
Ireland and came to this conclusion in the decades BEFORE the famine.
The potato blight
- 1842 Potato blight in U.S. and Canada
- 1845 July. Irish crop promising
- August. Blight enters England
- September. Blight enters Ireland
- October. Catastrophe
The response. Prime Minister Robert Peel began relief measures, including repeal of the
agricultural protection measures known as the Corn Laws (in Britain, "Corn"
means wheat). He also began importing Maize (American corn). But the prevailing doctrine
of Laissez Faire (French, let them be) economics prevented the government from taking the
strong measures that would really have been necessary to relieve the disaster.
- 1846 100% failure of the Irish potato crop
- 1847 Spring, Typhus breaks out in Ireland
- Mass flight beings
- Only 20% of the farmland planted
- Summer, No blight (but no harvest either)
- 1848 Crop fails again. 100% destruction
- Revolutions in Europe
- Abortive and ineffective Irish revolt plot
- 1849 Cholera breaks out in Ireland
- The famine never really ends. Bad times taper off gradually, with relief due as much to
exodus as to improved conditions.
The Great Exodus
- To the Irish, with their clan society and love of their land, one of the most dreaded
penalties was deportation. Only extreme hardship could drive them to leave Ireland
- The British preferred the Irish to go to Canada, which needed laborers for the lumber
industry and which was also British.
- The Irish preferred to go to the U.S., which symbolized successful revolt against the
British and where opportunities were better. Many Irish slipped across the border from
- Conditions on the transport ships were appalling. Many Irish arrived in Canada on the
verge of starvation. Thousands died in quarantine stations. Sanitary conditions in Irish
slums in the U.S. were also dreadful.
- By far the largest number of Irish went to Liverpool and Glasgow, setting the British
effort to close down slum areas back until the flood of immigrants could be absorbed.
Effects of the famine
- All prospects of peacefully unifying Ireland and England were destroyed.
- Ireland revolted in open civil war in 1918 and won its independence by 1921.
- One third of Ireland's population died or fled.
- Ireland's population today is less than half its population in 1840.
Collapse due to Institutional Paralysis
The setting. Germany, forced to pay billions of dollars in war reparations to the
Allies, decided on a strategy of passive resistance and slowdowns to protest. When the
French occupied some border areas, general strikes and stoppages broke out.
The basic problem with these tactics is they only disrupt the economy within
Germany. The Allies, all outside Germany, can simply wait and watch the interest
pile up on the debt.
Collapse of the Mark
With production at a standstill, inflation set in.
- January 1914 $1 = 4 marks
- January 1921 $1 = 45 marks
- January 1922 $1 = 162 marks
- September 1922 $1 = 1300 marks
- January 1923 $1 = 17000 marks
So far, the inflation is bad but not too different from what many other nations have
experienced. From here on, things get ridiculous.
- August 15, 1923: $1 = 2,950,000 marks
- August 31, 1923: $1 = 13,000,000 marks
- September 14, 1923: $1 = 97,500,000 marks
- October 1, 1923: $1 = 345,000,000 marks
- November 15, 1923: $1 = 2,500,000,000,000 marks
On November 16, the "Rentenmark" was introduced, supposedly backed by the
combined assets of all Germany. In effect, it mortgaged the country. The supply was
rigidly controlled and only a prescribed amount was issued.
- Destruction of the middle class
- Creation of middle class resentment and desire for strong leader fulfilled later by
U.S.A., 1929-1940, The Great Depression
- Post-War prosperity, 1918-1929 was flashy but lacked substance.
- Stock values overinflated.
- Stocks drop sharply, October 25, 1929
- Panic selling October 29, 1929
- Congress enacts trade barriers, 1930
- Franklin D. Roosevelt elected, 1932
- State of the Economy, 1933
- Unemployment 25%
- Gross National Product down 33% since 1929
- Stock values down from $80 billion in 1929 to $19 billion in 1933
- New Deal inaugurated, 1933
- Social Security initiated, 1934
- Minimum wage established, 1938
The U.S. National Debt
- 1910$1.1 billion
- 1920 $21 billion (World War I)
- 1930 $16 billion
- 1940 $43 billion (New Deal)
- 1950 $256 billion (World War II)
Collapse Due to Ideological Paralysis
A controversial topic. In 1970, the Marxist Salvador Allende was elected president of
Chile, though in the large field of candidates he received only 30% of the vote. Although
Allende was a humane president and maintained civil liberties, his economic program
resulted in near economic collapse. In 1973, a military coup deposed Allende, who was
killed in the fighting. The rightist regime of Augusto Pinochet came to power and was
accused of massive human rights violations.
Cambodia (Kampuchea) 1975-1980
Documented in the film The Killing Fields.
In 1975 the Communist Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia. In an attempt to create a
pure Marxist society, the leader Pol Pot ordered the cities evacuated and the population
driven into the countryside to work in the fields. For a time, even money was abolished.
Foreign contact even with the government was nearly nil. The Khmer Rouge were ousted by
the Vietnamese invasion, but not before an estimated 3,000,000 people had been killed by
starvation, disease, and mass execution.
Collapse due to Interacting Causes
Once called the "Switzerland of South America" for its liberal social
benefits, Uruguay for a time had one of the most repressive regimes in Latin America.
- 1800-1870 Uruguay is sparsely populated, backward, and ravaged by bandit warfare.
- 1870-1920 Large immigration from Western Europe provides liberalizing and moderating
influence. European immigrants rapidly ascend to power, inaugurate liberal social welfare
- 1945-1965 Declining balance of foreign trade causes deterioration of economy. Large
disparity in standard of living between cities and rural regions.
- 1965-1970 Tupamaro urban guerrillas harass government, which responds with progressively
harsher countermeasures. One aim of the Tupamaros had been to provoke just such repression
in the hope of arousing a general revolt. It would be hard to find a more senseless
example of political vandalism.
"Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong."
- Portuguese colony,
- Portuguese colonial policy was perhaps the most repressive of any colonial
- There was forced labor in rural areas and virtually no development.
guerrilla movement gradually takes control of countryside, 1965-1974.
- When Portuguese
dictator Antonio Salazar died in 1974, a revolution in Portugal installed a liberal
government and granted independence to former colonies.
- After gaining independence in
1975, the economy of Mozambique collapsed for a number of reasons.
- Colonial abuse
of Europeans, 1974-1975
- Loss of expertise
- Loss of facilities (everything not nailed down)
Physical decay of facilities
- Ideological mismanagement
- Drought, 1982
- Harassment by
- Destabilization by South Africa
- Slow recovery began in the 1980's but the
nation is still desperately poor.
"Bringing down the system," as radicals of the 1960's called it, is no
picnic. Generally the disruption of services and institutions puts the heaviest burden on
the poor and powerless.
Are we vulnerable?
- Power grids (1965, Northeast U.S.)
- Energy (1973 oil embargo, Persian Gulf War)
- Solid State Electronics (EMP effect)
- Close-tolerance machinery (Mount Saint Helens - high technology and volcanic ash do not
- Climatic changes
- Intellectual apathy: once we get comfortable enough, we may lose interest in innovation.
Probably the greatest threat.
Return to Outline Index
Return to Professor Dutch's Home Page
Created 20 May 1997, Last Update
14 December 2009
Not an official UW Green Bay site