The headlines crawl across a motley collection of extremist blogs, web forums, Facebook pages, and YouTube channels, like a Times Square ticker from hell. "Government Silently Positions for Martial Law as Financial Collapse Arrives in America." "Report: Soros Unloads All Investments in Major Financial Stocks; Invests Over $130 Million In Gold." "U.S Banks Told To Prepare For Total Collapse!" "Billions of $ to Israel as U.S. Government Flounders under Record Foreign Debt." "Banks Can Legally Steal Customer Funds From Private Checking Accounts."
As the U.S. economy has struggled back to life, its woes have emerged as a unifying theme among Americans on the fringe. The right-skewing Patriot movement may not share social values with left-leaning anarchists, but both groups point to and fixate on the same economic stories: bank insolvency, currency devaluation, derivatives fraud, total-collapse scenarios, the perniciousness of the Federal Reserve, and the need to return to a gold standard. Extremists in America -- from militias to the Black Bloc (the masked, militant subset of the Occupy movement), from sovereign citizens to homegrown jihadists -- are reading the same economic headlines and pondering the same potential tipping points. (Trustworthy data on how many extremists or extremist groups are active in the United States is hard to come by, but the extent of the phenomenon is undeniable. This article alone draws from upwards of 400 U.S.-based websites generating thousands of posts per day.)
Of course, the granddaddy of extremist financial scenarios -- The Protocols of the Elders of Zion -- long predates the Internet age. The infamous 1903 document was a hoax indicting Jewish bankers in a conspiracy to control the world, an idea that reached full, terrible maturity in Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf, which blamed Jews for Germany's economic collapse following World War I.
Today's extremonomics scenarios owe more to current realities than historical lunacy. The DNA of these anti-Semitic fantasies lingers, sometimes reinterpreted as elaborate plots run by the Bilderberg Group or the Council on Foreign Relations. More and more often, however, the enemies of financial security are simply Wall Street and Washington. In a sense, these are reality-based conspiracy theories, eschewing the most extreme claims in favor of worst-case readings of economic realities and near approximations thereof. They are terrifyingly mainstream -- and that's what makes them so dangerous.
The trend toward reality-based conspiracies extends well beyond economics, but since 2008, the financial crisis and ongoing recession have provided copious grist for the mill, reinforcing the crucial expectation shared by most domestic extremists: America's imminent downfall.
You don't have to be extreme to worry about economic collapse. Over the last two decades, the complexity of the global financial system has grown exponentially. Incomprehensible products like derivatives are only the tip of the iceberg. The stock market has become so complicated it is mathematically impossible to design a model that can predict its behavior, let alone the rest of the global economy.