Is America experiencing a failure cascade?

Summary: Dynamics of massively multiplayer online role-playing games recapitulate those of the societies of which they are a part. Here we look at “failure cascades”, and see how well they apply to America. This is the second in this series; see chapter one: Lessons from the New Eden galaxy about reforming America.

A cascading failure is a horrific mode of collapse. Engineers describe it as…

… a failure in a system of interconnected parts in which the failure of a part can trigger the failure of successive parts. Such a failure may happen in many types of systems, including power transmission, computer networking, finance and bridges. Cascading failures usually begin when one part of the system fails. When this happens, nearby nodes must then take up the slack for the failed component. This overloads these nodes, causing them to fail as well, prompting additional nodes to fail in a vicious cycle. {from Wikipedia}

Today we look at the sociology of cascading failure, as described in Secrets of a Solar Spymaster: Inside the Failure Cascade by Alex Gianturco, Ten Ton Hammer, 16 July 2009 — See an easier to read version at Gianturco’s website. It’s worth reading in full. He speaks of it in the multiplayer game EVE Online, but it applies just as well to political regimes like America’s Second Republic. Here is an excerpt.

A failure cascade is the disintegration of an alliance caused by collective helplessness in the face of sustained and unrationalizable adversity through a process of pilot attribution shifting from the alliance to the corporation or the individual. Failure cascades follow a predictable five-stage causal chain: Sustained Adversity -> Failure of Rationalization -> Collective Helplessness -> Change in Identification -> Collapse and Recovery

When we say that an alliance is in the ‘early stages’ of a cascade, this often means that they are reacting poorly to sustained adversity. “Late Stage” cascade frequently refers to the helplessness phase, because changes in identification are rapidly followed by collapse.

Here’s is a failure cascade at work:

As you read Gianturco’s description of the stages to a cascade failure, see how well it applies to the dying America-that-once-was, and the rise of New America.

Phase One: Sustained Adversity

Adversity can take many forms, all of which amount to “bad things happening”. … When thinking about adversity, commanders often assume that massive, crushing loss is the most effective way to send an alliance into a cascade. Taking out a capital fleet or a titan is the most commonly-cited method of sending an alliance down the tubes. It is also completely, utterly wrong.

Psychology has shown that humans have an incredible capacity to cope with great tragedy and personal adversity. … If the ability to mentally cope with great loss did not exist, the species would have certainly died out by now.

… Rather than relying on shocking incidents, adversity must be sustained and mundane to the point of being banal. … Unglamorous, everyday loss. … Adversity must also be inescapable.

Phase Two: Failure of Rationalization


This can't be good. By Patrick Smith Photography
Captain, this looks bad. (Patrick Smith Photography)

Rationalization is a critical psychological defense. …

It is in this stage of the cascade that the propaganda war takes a deeper significance to all parties. It is usually during this phase, in the face of mounting failures, that there is the most forum blustering from both sides. At the beginning of a conflict, the aggressor is often restrained in their bragging in case the attacks do not go as planned; the defender has not yet experienced sustained adversity, so it is here that we see the most “good fight” rhetoric with each side congratulating the other.

As soon as things turn bad for the victim, however, rationalizations are mustered with alarming vehemence. Accusations fly on the part of the victims as they try to explain their failures away. Similarly, the aggressor does his level best to force the victim to confront the cognitive dissonance between the facts and their defensive rationalizations. This is why there is almost never a ‘clean’ war, without accusations of impropriety – those accusations are part of a critical psychological defense mechanism that is ingrained in all of us. …

Yet regardless of propaganda, if sustained and inescapable adversity is applied to an alliance it becomes difficult for the victims to rationalize their losses as failures mount. … dramatic, painful losses are easily written off, but repeated more mundane failures are difficult to rationalize. … When rationalization fails, helplessness sets in.

Phase Three: Collective Helplessness

Helplessness is a state where a pilot comes to believe that his actions on behalf of the alliance are pointless, impotent, or irrelevant in the face of adversity.

  • This can be because he cannot ignore the failings of his alliance and must acknowledge them: “This alliance sucks, what’s the point.”
  • It can also be because he feels that no action he can take will make an impact on the situation: “I love my alliance, but I can’t do anything to keep us from getting rolled.”

Regardless of the reasoning, helplessness takes the pilot out of the war until the helpless state is overcome, which will depending on the pilot’s explanatory style.  For some, helplessness may be swiftly overcome. Some pilots never give up in the first place, others keep fighting with only short breaks until the bitter end. Others throw in the towel after the first loss.

Phase Four: Change in Pilot Identification

A change in pilot identification is the primary method people use to escape helplessness in a failure cascade. Identification is how a pilot views and describes himself in the context of the game. …

A shift in identification happens because it is one of the only easy escapes from a state of helplessness … In one moment of rationalization, he absolves himself of the helplessness and reassures himself of his superiority over everyone else not in his corporation.

As more pilots are knocked into a state of helplessness by sustained adversity, more shift their identification away from the alliance. … This is the phase where open infighting within the alliance becomes common, as corporations blame each other …

Phase Five: Collapse

… the collapse of an alliance at the terminus of a failure cascade resembles an avalanche. … The collapse has an incredible inertia … Regardless of the circumstances, a cascade is always the other guy’s fault.


By this schema America has slid into phase three, where a large fraction of citizens feel helpless — unable to influence the course of public policy or the evolution of American society.

Phase four begins when people find new sources of identity, and develop new loyalties. If this follows the predictions of Martin van Creveld in The Rise and Decline of the State (1999), these will be either supra-national (eg, religion, ethnic, ideological) or sub-national (eg, regional, local, or even communal groups).

If these are non-political loyalties, allowing our elites to reign undisturbed, this might produce the oligarchic New America. That’s the current trend. If these loyalties are strong and political, then we might enter a pre-revolutionary situation. Current trends suggest that the least likely outcomes are a reawakening of our alligance to the Constitution and a reformed Republic — or a struggle leading to a Third Republic (build on the lessons learned from the Second, as that was built on the lessons learned from the First).

A failure cascade is a maelstrom of fire

For More Information

See more of Patrick Smith’s photographs at Flickr.

Cascading failure of the Republic:

  1. Forecast: Death of the American Constitution, 4 July 2006
  2. See the last glimmers of the Constitution’s life…, 27 June 2008
  3. Remembering what we have lost… thoughts while looking at the embers of the Constitution, 29 June 2008
  4. A report card for the Republic: are we still capable of self-government?
  5. Another step away from our Constitutional system, with applause, 19 September 2008
  6. Are Americans still willing to bear the burden of self-government?, 27 March 2009
  7. RIP, Constitution. The Second Republic died this week. Of course, we don’t care (that’s why it died)., 5 December 2011
  8. More death throes of the Constitution. Nothing remains in the ruins but politics., 20 June 2012
  9. Slowly more people see the “quiet coup” now in progress, 25 June 2012
  10. Looking ahead to the next step of the quiet coup, and a new America, 3 July 2012

Looking ahead: this can’t be good

Graphic from Sacred Halls:



40 thoughts on “Is America experiencing a failure cascade?”

    1. “That’s a joke, ah say, that’s a joke, son.”
      — Foghorn Leghorn

      However, more seriously, and by way of amends, people might want to read the chess classic _My System_ by Aaron Nimsowitch. Nimsowitch realized that fixed positions, far from being solid and strong, are actually brittle. He developed a chess strategy intended to ossify one’s opponent’s position, which would then crack under pressure.

      1. I hate to think how few people know who Foghorn Leghorn is, or who remember that line from the cartoons.

        Also, thanks for the cite! That is, of course, one of the great insights of 3GW.

  1. Marc Cirigliano

    Great post. One of the developer’s of systems theory, Howard T. Odum, goes to great lengths in his book Energy, Power and Society for the 21st Century to discuss human global population system organization, its growth and possible collapse from a thermodynamic or energy perspective. Less energy can mean more expensive oil, which we have. It also means, then, less money, like we have in declining wages. Both of these can mean that at the top of the energy transformiity chain, we have less information, since info is a direct product of the other two. With less info, you have less brainpower to tackle the problems the system faces. I think I see that today.

    Moreover, Odum also talks about systems having a lifespan, one that ages like a person. As the system gets older, various parts that once did their job, simply wear out, like an older person.

    The US has not addressed the energy crunch it is in the beginning stage of. It has not addressed falling wages, which can be seen as a result of higher energy prices. Nor has it begun to understand, because it can no longer process information in a functional way, that parts of the failing system, most notably the financial sector, are cannibalizing the rest of the system, that is now dysfunctional.In addition, the “ideas system” we live by is based on a growing system. We have no ideas to help us think through a shrinking one.

    Odum’s book is a difficult read, but well worth it.

    Yeah, I agree. We are experiencing a systems collapse.

    1. Thanks for the reference!

      The physical problems are, IMO, the sort of challenges that life always offers. Our problems are in the mind — our ability to effectively work together to adapt to a changing environment. It is perhaps like a mental sclerosis.

      Massive social change allows societies to regenerate, like the Phoenix they can sometimes emerge young again from the fire.

  2. Helpful. I believe this is called “tight coupling” : modern systems are tightly coupled (Roberto Vacca predicted some of this a long time ago, though he was off on his timeline), which means that failure in one area dramatically and immediately impacts another area. This is so, because the system was “updated” and made more “efficient” in order to maximize profits at the top, at the cost of local resilience, should the system come under stress. Quantity over Quantity (see Rene Guenon). I am sure the elites will favor a neo-feudal system, except run through money and counters of exchange, in which actual feudal strengths would not exist, merely a sham or facade, since Money, and not military prowess or courage or faith, would be pre-eminent. This is necessary because no real Authority exists, and the bourgeois class is determined to hang on to the fruits of its prior Revolutions; however, the new slave classes are wanting in on the deal, now, as well…

    1. Matthew,

      Thank you for the additional color on this, and the references!

      There does seem to be a regression taking place in the evolution of the America-that-once-was into the New America. To cite just three:

      (1) The re-emergence of a strong class structure (e.g., wide differences, low mobility).

      (2) The change from striving from all equal before the law into explicit and accepted High, Middle, and Low Justice.

      (3) The rise of economic rents as the major source of unearned income.

  3. A bit too wordy and abstract. The essence of good writing is to say what you mean and mean what you say. This article appears to be a rather glib analogy from computer games to reality.

    1. Mike,

      Thank you for your analysis. Perhaps you could explain, as I don’t see the basis for your conclusions.

      By “too wordy”, do you the mean the article cited about Eve Online? If so, why do you call it “wordy” and “abstract”? The author tersely describes the actual tactics he has so successfully used.

      By “too wordy” and “abstract” do you mean the recommendation to compare the concept of “failure cascade” to the real world state of America today? It’s quite brief. It is somewhat abstract, as is almost all political and sociological analysis.

      My dictionary defines “glib” as insincere and shallow. That seems inapplicable to this in both senses.

    1. Most of these games are, if I understand correctly, zero-sum.

      So we’re not interested in finding those people who win, however briefly, at the game — but looking at them as a demographic group. As such, Joao, are they good potential recruits for the project of reforming America?

    2. That’s incorrect. The Mittani took over the reigns of Goonswarm after that event and is still the head of the not only the GSF but a massive coalition as well.

    3. I think they are. Clearly they know how to rally people for a greater cause, no matter how trivial it may seem. Perhaps they can be bought? Or design a game that somehow had real life consequences (something other than bitcoin mining)? I don’t know.

  4. Here’s classic example of this sort of collapse. At a time of continuing massive expenditure on current wars (including all the little’ ones going on and/or being supported), more and more bases all over the World, immense (and destined to fail by its own absurdity) increases in the national security state (ignoring locking up 8 year olds for Tweets, this includes bugging the whole World, the hubris is breathtaking), then we get this:
    “One of the most consequential effects of the sequester began today: Weekly unpaid furlough days for more than 650,000 civilian workers at the Defense Department, who will effectively see their pay cut by 20 percent for the final 11 weeks of this budget year.”

    “About $2 billion is being cut from the budget by this summer’s furloughs, which effect about three quarters of all civilian DOD workers worldwide. That level of personnel savings is not close to sufficient if the sequester cuts last through fiscal 2015; the budget then would require layoffs of as many as 100,000 — and those people would almost certainly have to come from a mix of civilian, active-duty military, National Guard and Reserve soldiers.”

    All these people calling for more and more ‘interventions’, everywhere, an attempt to record every email, facebook, telephone conversation web click (et al) in the World (note a simple calculation shows that the US will have to dedicate nearly all its electricity production to NSA, etc server farms within about 30 years), hundreds of billions spent (and a trillion budgeted) on a plane that cannot fly near a thunderstorm (F-35), attempts to create 2 trade blocs that exclude Russia and China (and save the US dollar) … and already the paycuts are happening.

    This is hubris, or advanced schizophrenia, on a massive scale. I mentioned in another post this collective cognitive dissonance (or Beer’s disconnected head) syndrome. And this is a prime example, ever pushing for more when what already is, cannot be afforded.

    At a time when the US (and others) have such real important issues to deal with, the totality of which will take huge amounts of intellectual, labour and physical resources to overcome (which could be done but never will be). That’s where I use the term ‘cognitive dissonance’ (or when I more cynical: advanced schizophrenia), wasting huge amount of finite (and dwindling) resources on imaginary issues while ignoring real ones.

    Eg: All those mathematicians wasted in the NSA…..all that talent that could be doing something useful.

    It comes down to this. What happens in a totalitarian state, when it cannot pay the officers of the security system? Well we’ve seen examples of that throughout history. Hint: nearly all bad outcomes, fortunately sometimes also for the old elites, which is about all the justice we can hope for these days.

    Old John Brunner (SF Author) got it so right, his book Shockwave Rider was prescient, sadly we don’t have a Nicky Halflinger to save us (read the book).

    1. Oldskeptic,

      I suggest a relax. Take a few deep breaths.

      The DoD cuts are trivial. Most organizations can take a 5% cut without blinking, and even more so after a decade of expansion.

      “note a simple calculation shows that the US will have to dedicate nearly all its electricity production to NSA, etc server farms within about 30 years)”

      That’s mad linear extrapolation. Like worrying about cities buried in horse dung by the year 2000. If that’s worst of your fears, I feel quite confident about the future.

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  7. Something is amiss. The very idea of looking for leaders of a reformist movement amongst successful MMORPG players clashes with the information that has been provided in FM posts and in the many subsequent comments.

    1) People play MMORPG because it is enjoyable and allows a lot of originality and freedom of action. It is much easier to achieve something there than in the tough, frustrating real-world.
    2) Everything in MMORPG is safe: one can fail, kill, die with no consequences.
    3) MMORPG are not innocent distractions: those exotic worlds embody in a caricatural form the values that are prevalent in the current society: the objectives are to conquer, squash opponents, amass riches, territories, and power, build networks of influence — through treachery if need be, deal blows with outlandish weapons. As Mikyo stated “/me (evil grin)… hmmm, which community to destroy first?”

    Does anybody really believe that the mentality of the players is not at all affected by this kind of representation, and that they are the best people to enroll when embarking on a reform of a militaristic, cynical, aggressive, oligarchic society — assuming that they are at all motivated to deal with real-world issues? I have serious doubts about it.

    1. Guest,

      Great observations!

      I attribute this post to desperation. We have to think outside the box, explore unusual paths to find solutions. Recruiting from the margins of polite society qualifies!

      Imagine the meeting (perhaps virtual, by letter) of a Committee of Correspondence in 1768. Someone suggests recruiting smugglers. Like John Hancock. the Brits had must seized his sloop, Liberty, for smuggling.

      Others laugh. What kind of people are these? What are the odds they’d help us?

      That’s not to say gamers are potential recruits. But this might be the sort of thinking we need to try.

    2. “Recruiting from the margins of polite society qualifies! .[…] Someone suggests recruiting smugglers. Like John Hancock.”

      Well then, there are people who have experience setting up effective groups against determined opposition, achieving concrete objectives, navigating the arduous territories of negotiation and imposition, and with very practical knowledge of dealing with law in its most brutal forms. Not in escapist on-line communities, but in the hard real-world.

      Inner cities gang members.


      I do not say it would be trivial or agreeable…

      1. guest,

        “Inner cities gang members.”

        Brilliant! Armies have successfully recruited from such sources for centuries. It’s a great place to find goats among the sheep — people with little to lose and a strong desire to climb.

  8. Terrific stuff this one, FM.
    Ponder it from a few macro perspectives and it sure seems accurate, doesn’t it?
    Cascading failures?
    I’m with Duncan on this one.
    The hubris and over reach are breathtaking; and eventually the political loyalties will strike back and quite strongly.
    Until then…..
    (this is no Foghorn joke, though.)

  9. MrColdWaterOfRealityMan

    We aren’t there yet, but we will be. The hard limit is that “critical path” energy source, oil. While we have a few, inadequate alternatives like natural gas and coal, there’s nothing else that provides cheap transportation fuel in sufficient quantity to maintain an interdependent web of “just-in-time” supply chains. Worse yet, feedback effects (i.e. high oil prices make everything more expensive, including the process of getting oil for fuel) eventually make petroleum fuels unaffordable, not slowly over time, but rapidly. When it happens, prices are likely to jump from normal to crazy in under a year.

    Paradoxically, a monetary collapse or two might stretch out oil supplies to the end of the century or even a little beyond.

    1. Mr Cold Water,

      IMO you are over-estimating the odds of a peak oil induced collapse, and even more so underestimating the time until peak oil. The fundamental “law” of geology is that resource quantity is inversely proportional to its quantity. In other words, we can tap increasingly large deposits of decreasing quality. That means higher prices, offset by technology reducing prices. It’s a mystery to me why so many people refused to see this for so long. The closing of The Oil Drum website shows that debate is over, at last.

      There are dozens of articles on the FM website about this. Here is the clearest: Recovering lost knowledge about exhaustion of the Earth’s resources (such as Peak Oil), January 2011. It gives excerpts from Sir Ronald Prain’s 1975 classic Copper: the anatomy of an Industry.

      Events since then, such as the tapping of tight oil and natural gas deposits (“fracking”) have proven this theory yet again.

      1. MrColdWaterOfRealityMan

        The closing of the Oil drum is not relevant to the realities of peak oil as much as it is to the difficulties of running a volunteer organization.

        The reality-based oil production problems you appear to be ignoring are price, net energy return and diminishing returns on technology. The remaining oil in the world is more expensive, and yields far less net energy. Moreover, technology is not the same thing as magic. Yes, fracking will increase yields. For a while. There is not, and never will be, a technology that makes a teacup of oil in a cubic yard of granite 5 miles beneath the earth either energetically or economically profitable, no matter how many teacups there may be.

      2. I am ignoring nothing.

        I suggest you read some actual experts on these matters to gain a better understanding of the factors involved. Such as the one I cited.

        As for the “teacup of oil” bit, that is just foolishness. Who claims such a thing?

        As for the oil drum, it has been a haven for proven false predictions and arrant nonsense since 2005. That’s what led to its well-deserved end. There are several posts here documenting that,and pointing to others who have done so elsewhere.

      3. MrColdWaterOfRealityMan

        Did you mean “errant” or “arrant.”

        Their moderation was fine. Peer review appeared quite effective. Regardless, you should feel free to point out the flaws in their calculations. Specifically.

        As for my own familiarity with the topic, the world still uses approximately 30 billion or so barrels of oil a year, or about 160 exajoules, or about 1/3 of the world’s total energy budget – all of which I know without having to look it up, however, you’ll find a numerate analysis here:

        I suggest you buy the book. It has numbers. Do your best.

        I suspect that SRI’s estimate may be optimistic. Even the EIA won’t commit beyond 25 years (

        Even without all those tedious facts and arithmetic, one might look at oil prices in 1997 (It was of $12 a barrel at one point) and oil prices today ($104.60 a barrel). Not quite a 10-fold increase in 16 years, but close. Unless the laws of economics have been suspended recently, the implications regarding scarcity and production price are pretty clear.

        Bottom line? We don’t have an oil supply problem. We most emphatically DO have an energy supply problem. All that oil in the hydrocarbon horizon (10 trillion barrels or more) won’t do us a damn bit of good if it costs more energy to get than it yields and costs more money than anyone could afford. It might as well be on the moons of Jupiter.


      4. Mr Cold Water,

        (1) “Did you mean “errant” or “arrant.””

        They are variant spellings of the same word.

        (2) As for oil, you do not appear to be paying attention to what I’m saying. Your facts are totally irrelevant to what I am saying. Which is typical for these discussions: peak oil, climate, economics. You’re giving rebuttals to a script in your mind.

        My guess is that such people are playing team sports. If you disagree with them about “A”, then you’re on the other team — and therefore believe X, Y, and Z. Pointing out that I’m not saying X gets spirited rebuttals to Y. After hundreds of these conversations, I realized it’s like arguing with a drunk.

        I have said only a few things here. I’ll repeat them one more time.

        (1) TOD was filled with false information and proven wrong forecasts. That has been well documented.

        (2) Oil, like all minerals, has an inverse relationship between resource quantity and quality. Hence production can be maintained as price increases (although not instantaneously), with this relationship offset by new tech — sometimes reducing price of production. Failure to understand this simple fact resulted in most of the false peak oil forecasts. As events since 2005 have shown to anyone paying attention.

        (3) The ability of tech to reduce production costs offsets much of the otherwise increasing EROI. There is a century of evidence for this.

        In reply to people pointing out these three things during the past 7 years, true PO believers shut their eyes to this and yelled YA YA YA. Not the best of analytical methods.

        I can point to the dozens of articles I’ve written on these matters, which in turn cite hundreds of expert sources. You can see them on the Energy Reference Page (right side menu bar). I suspect you will not read them.

      5. Mr. Cold Water,

        “Regardless, you should feel free to point out the flaws in their calculations.”

        My favorite: the heated forecasts of a natural gas “cliff event” coming real soon to North America, when production would collapse. A few years latter we had a cliff event: in prices, as production spike and costs collapsed.

        “Even the EIA won’t commit beyond 25 years.”

        Of course they don’t. 25 years is beyond the effective forecasting horizon for almost everything. Especially for energy, involving political, technological, and economic factors. Every expert I know believes that we need to start moving to alternative sources now. It’s unlikely that we can increase oil production sufficient fast to maintain even modest economic growth, and the environmental costs probably would be too severe.

        “Even without all those tedious facts and arithmetic, one might look at oil prices in 1997”

        If you read my reply (which I doubt), I said that rising prices were a major factor driving production.

        “We most emphatically DO have an energy supply problem”

        There is no evidence we have an energy supply problem today. Total average energy costs today are far lower than at the peak five years ago in 2008.

        “if it costs more energy to get than it yields and costs more money than anyone could afford.”

        That’s a big “if”. Possible but not certain — perhaps not even probable. Here are two recent examples, in addition to the countless from the past.

        (1) See the collapse in cost to produce oil and natural gas from tight rock formations (e.g., shale). Natural gas prices were often in the teens, now $3-4 per million btu (i.e., thousand cu ft).

        (2) Mining bitumen (aka oil sands). Conventional bitumen mining requires prices of $90-$100. Now they’re shifting to steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD), which can be done at oil prices of $45 – $60 (these prices are not operating costs; they are for profitable production including the cost of capital required to build the facilities).

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