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The Mandibles Is About Thirdworldization in the US

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By the author of Street Survivalism: A Practical Training Guide To Life In The City and The Ultimate Survival Gear Handbook

With all the commotion around the dollar losing world reserve currency (GRC) status and the looming battle on the debt ceiling, it’s time to review a book that fully embraces that prospect, envisioning how it might play out in contemporary America.

The Mandibles: A Family 2029-2047 is a fictional novel narrating the final stages of the US plunging from world’s leading superpower to international pariah after going bankrupt and officially declaring default on its sovereign debt. 

In her typical snarky prose, author Lionel Shriver describes that process and what comes after by chronicling the saga of four generations from a traditional American family, as they descend from affluence and prosperity into utter poverty and finally flat-out survival in less than two decades. 

(Have you read Daisy’s slightly futuristic story, Good Citizens? Check it out here.)

I’ve done my best to avoid spoils, but reality seems to be trampling fiction nowadays, so bear with me.

What is The Mandibles about?

The Mandibles portray a gripping, provocative, and harrowing description of full-blown Thirdworldization happening in the US and what comes after that.

Galloping inflation, control of capital, widespread bankruptcy and joblessness; moral decadence, hopelessness, xenophobia; the semi-collapse of government, rampant lawlessness and crime; reverse migration, ruinous diplomacy, deculturation, and degeneracy. Even TP shortages and a new gold confiscation make it into the story. 

There’s dystopia aplenty, too, from implanted chips to control the citizenry, to weaponized institutions at the service of an oppressive government. East Asia takes over American corporations and land. KFC becomes Korean Fried Chicken. It’s all there, and much more.

It is a tale of consequences, of failed ideas and policies debasing the currency and other structures supporting modern society, and, ultimately an empire.

The book describes what happens when power and privilege are abused, confidence and social contract erode irrevocably, and all the previously functional systems cease to work, leading to systemic dysfunction and societal decay. Not a full-blown SHTF, but close.

It’s also about family ties, relationships, tribulations, complex choices, and hard decisions, and how these things affect survival and adaptation in a turbulent world undergoing vast and profound changes. 

The story of the Mandible family reads a lot like a mix of Isabel Allende’s The House Of The Spirits, Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, and Fernando “FerFal” Aguirre’s Surviving the Economic Collapse. Anyone familiar with these reality-inspired classics will acknowledge I’m saying that as compliment.

The plot

The story starts in 2029, after the US has already recovered from an internet knock-down that caused widespread chaos in the country.

The standard of living had been dropping even before the 2024 pandemonium caused by the Stone Age (as the event is called – name choices are as peculiar as they get). Despite the rising stock market and continuous technological advancements, the US fiscal situation keeps deteriorating until bonds start crashing.

The government is then forced to declare “The Great Debt Renunciation” – a sovereign default – which promptly unleashes a cascade of momentous consequences. One being the exclusion of the US from the international trading community and financial system, a dramatic (and ironic) reversal of roles. 

The geopolitical order is upended, with America then losing the last vestiges of its global economic, financial, diplomatic, political, and cultural relevance. “Slowly, then suddenly.”

That’s when things start to unravel for the Mandible family and everyone else. Through the dialogues, interactions, and memories of the clan members, we embark on a “karmic clumping” journey of decadence and despair that feels bottomless up to the last few paragraphs.

Futuristic fiction or history in a future setting?

Categorized as fiction – some even call it “a futuristic dystopian fiction” – the story of the Mandible family is in no small part history.

Shriver takes what happened in Argentina in 2001 and transports it almost directly to the US. The meat of the book narrates the Mandibles dealing with the crisis as it unfolds, with the world as it crumbles, and with each other in search of support. The situation goes from bad to worse and expectations get frustrated. 

There’s even some preparedness thrown in, maybe something expected in any modern end-of-an-era novel: two characters present that acutely critical mindset and realistic, pragmatic life approach typical of independent thinkers. Not all characters are treated equally, though, which is in line with Shriver’s style but leaves some gaps and lose ends here and there.

Though harrowing, the story of the Mandible family is humane in showing how people accept or deny changes and how they deal differently with sacrifices and pain that are inevitable in some circumstances. It’s a rather somber reading at times, but Shriver’s trademark dark and dry humor (and a surprising end) confers some lightness. 

Towards the end, the narrative accelerates and leaps forward like a Hollywood movie, delving into fantasy. Or de facto fiction, depending on how one chooses to view twists and turns such as a bug-out trip from East Flatbush, NYC, or a road trip to evade the new, reformed America, to a state that departed from the Union. Neither get much elaboration, though, so don’t expect details or realistic lessons here.

It was published in 2016.

The Mandibles was first published in 2016 when the world was fresh out of the last great recession and still enjoying the tailwinds of Globalization

Back then, signs already pointed to a more severe economic disaster in the future than the one that had taken place less than a decade before. The dystopian elements presented in the story were already cooking, of course, bubbling under the surface, and clearly those haven’t escaped Shriver’s attention. 

Neither society nor the mainstream media could be bothered by things like soaring debt, currency debasement, and government overreach. Those topics and others were confined to conspiracy theory circles (turned out they weren’t, as now evident). 

In that sense, The Mandibles can be considered visionary, particularly about the financial and moral debauchery and top-down tyranny we see splashed all over today. The story forecasts the post-2020 zeitgeist with relative accuracy.

What’s missing?

Shriver has a good grip on the dynamics of a financial collapse and its effects on society as well.

However, some concessions were made to simplify the storyline and advance the narrative. For once, we learn about the failure of crypto and big tech early on. Amazon and others go kaput. Instead of Bitcoin, we have bancor, an international currency put forth by a group of nations, including some present US allies (hmmm… you don’t say it). 

Another aspect missing is the military. Not entirely missing, but having its role reduced in the plot and the outcome. Now, one might ask if the US would allow the unseating of the dollar peacefully – a fair question, given the weight of the military sector in the structure supporting the US economic and geopolitical hegemony. 

Whatever one’s opinion about that power (and its use throughout history), it’s hard to believe America wouldn’t put up a fight before letting that happen.

Leaving major wars out is understandable, however, considering how complex and speculative that debate can get. In the book, then, the US goes bankrupt and is thus wholly unable to finance yet another conflict, whether to support an ally or the American way of life. 

Shriver’s also a little vague about the effects of the US downfall in other countries. We get a clue here and another there about how things went in Canada, Europe, eastern Asia, and Mexico. But it isn’t clear what the actual state of things outside the US is. 

So The Mandibles is essentially an American story, going over existential issues critical to the American culture and identity, such as the reinterpretation of the 2nd Amendment, the attack on individual freedom and liberty, states seceding from the Union and others. 

She also doesn’t shy away from philosophical debates about what it means to be an American, or what America means anymore. These issues are on the top of people’s minds today but absent from the media and the broad public’s radar at the time of the book’s publishing. 

Interesting perspectives on First World problems

A couple of notes on the possible demise of the dollar and the collapse of the US. 

The storyline of The Mandibles is based on the hot topic of the moment and, therefore, worth a few considerations. Although bad, the conditions aren’t there for the collapse of the dollar (and consequentially of the US) to happen as envisioned in the book. At least not yet. We should not downplay the system’s resilience, it will keep fighting. 

The question then is how much the dollar, and therefore the power and influence of the US, can decline in the next couple of decades. 

Put differently, will America get to the point of becoming an ostracized shithole, as described in the book? Or, conversely, play a still relevant and influential yet more normal role in a new multi-polar world, like other former empires before it? 

I find the latter possibility more plausible and have argued countless times that becoming poorer is much different than becoming poor. 

That’s a concept many first-worlders struggle with, understandably so (and particularly at this junction). The dollar and the US are on a decline; that’s clear. Persistent and rising inflation and accelerated decadence are a reality. That American middle and lower classes are in for some pain and duress is unquestionable. 

However, it’s hard to bet on it turning into Amerizuela given the structures and systems currently in place: the reserves held in USD by practically every government, bank, and corporation in the world, the enormity of existing contracts settled in USD, and finally, the US military might. 

Those things won’t go away or get overshadowed overnight or easily. Also, others, such as the size, natural and human resources, institutions, population, etc., will keep existing and bearing weight. There’s no way to view (or treat) a default from a nation like Argentina the same way as one from the still-holder of the global reserve currency and printing press.

That may sound contentious to some, and I could be wrong. Venezuelization has happened many times in modern history. See Weimar and even Venezuela itself or Argentina, who, though never a superpower, much less an empire, enjoyed a first-world standard of living and not that long ago. 

Still, a full Thirdworldization has never happened to a nation with the power, wealth, and influence currently enjoyed by the US, so we’ll see what happens this time. Be that as it may, it’s an interesting era to be alive in for sure.

Is The Mandibles a future classic?

Some praise The Mandibles: A Family 2029-2047 as the modern 1984. I don’t go that far myself, Shriver does have a vision and her own style, but only time will tell if it will become a classic or not. 

Maybe it’s screenplay’d and turned into a movie, if TPTB and Hollywood don’t deem it too subversive, too realistic or too frightening for the masses. 

Either way, it’s an imaginative, provocative, and entertaining reading that gets increasingly relevant with everything happening today and, for those reasons alone, highly recommended.

Have you read this book? If so, what did you think of it? If not, does it sound like something you’d be interested in reading? Are there other books of this nature you’ve read?

Let’s discuss this dystopian fiction in the comments.

About Fabian

Fabian Ommar is a 50-year-old middle-class worker living in São Paulo, Brazil. Far from being the super-tactical or highly trained military survivor type, he is the average joe who since his youth has been involved with self-reliance and outdoor activities and the practical side of balancing life between a big city and rural/wilderness settings. Since the 2008 world economic crisis, he has been training and helping others in his area to become better prepared for the “constant, slow-burning SHTF” of living in a 3rd world country.

Fabian’s ebook, Street Survivalism: A Practical Training Guide To Life In The City , is a practical training method for common city dwellers based on the lifestyle of the homeless (real-life survivors) to be more psychologically, mentally, and physically prepared to deal with the harsh reality of the streets during normal or difficult times. He’s also the author of The Ultimate Survival Gear Handbook.

You can follow Fabian on Instagram @stoicsurvivor

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