Thursday, October 24, 2013

Green bankruptcy

There have been a lot of bad news for Eupropean Green parties lately and it must be said that those woes are not really undeserved. In Germany, the local Green Party had commissioned Franz Walter and Stephan Klecha, both of the Göttingen Institute for Democracy Research to search the party’s archives and clear it from accusations of having defended pedophilia during the eighties. Unfortunately – for the Greens – they proved the accusations were very founded and that the Greens’ position on the issue was then a close approximation of NAMBLA’s.

This may have had an impact on the – disastrous for the Greens – elections which followed.

In France, the Greens are a part of the government. A few weeks ago, their (not so a) leader Pascal Durand, "discovered" that said government did not intend to do anything about the energy transition and threatened a mass resignation if a few measures were not taken. The Green ministers had a quick look at their paycheck, decided they wanted another one, and convened that Pascal Durand should lead the way by resigning from his leadership.

Needless to say, this has slightly tarnished their already dubious reputation.

Of course, the Greens are not the only ones to have defended dubious causes back in the days. In 1977 a number of French pundits, Jean-Paul Sartre, Bernard Kouchner and Jack Lang among them, had signed a petition in support of three pedophiles, which hasn’t kept two of them from becoming ministers in very un-green governments later on. As for using one’s status as a minor ally of the dominant party to get jobs one will later be reluctant to relinquish even if that means sitting on one’s ideals... it is a national sport in France, and my own party is quite guilty of that.

Yet, the Greens, at least in France, embody those faults far better than the other parties and are frequently lambasted for this, even in the rather cynical political world.

This is partly due to their drawing much of their support from the urban upper middle class, who have no interest in changing a social structure they mightily benefit from, but still wants to enjoy the moral high ground. This is not the whole story, however.

As Franz Walter stated :

Nature conservation and sustainable development are not a fertile ground for pedophilia and child abuse. The Greens, however, have a second agenda which, curiously is not compatible with the first, a kind of radical liberalism combined with a strong individualistic hedonism. In this environment, emerged in the 1970s, before the foundation of the Greens, the claims for decriminalization of sex offenses and a tolerance of sex between adults and children. In the early 1980s, part of this radical liberalism made its way into the Greens.

Nature conservation was not, at the beginning, a progressive issue. The project of the Enlightenment was to use rationality, and only rationality, to deal with the world. That meant getting rid of the influence of the churches but also establishing the dominance of Man over Nature so as to create in this world the paradise the churches promised us for the next. Note that does not necessarily meant democracy. Freedom of speech and rationality could, and did, flourish in an undemocratic context, such as Frederick II’s Prussia of Joseph II’s Austria and most enlightened philosophers of the time denied any legitimacy to the opinion of the people, opposing, like D’Alembert, "truly enlightened public" with "the blind and noisy multitude".

Nature conservation did not come either from the first opponents of the Enlightenment, the Counter-Revolutionists such as Joseph de Maistre. Those rejected the rule of reason because it threatened the (traditional) social order and undermined the dominance of the Church. The other branch of counter-enlightenment, romanticism, was totally different. It was often very critical of the old social order and of established religion. Romanticists spearheaded the revolutions and the national revolts of the nineteenth century, opposing dynastic legitimacy in the name, not of rationality, but of the peoples.

Romanticism opposed not rationality itself but rationality’s claim to supremacy. Romanticists valued the emotional and the atavistic, and they certainly could not find that in the rarefied atmosphere of the salons of the enlightened elite. Hence came their love for nature, as well as for folk traditions and medieval tales.

This yielded ethnic nationalism – which, at the beginning was the idea that the common people,
not some enlightened elite, should rule – but also a deep reverence for nature. One can find this ideology among the Wandervögel, a German back-to-nature youth organization emphasizing freedom, self-responsibility, and the spirit of adventure, or in the agrarian conservatism of Tolkien, whose heroes, please remember, are not princes but pipe-smoking undersized farmers.

Needless to say this ideology was deeply illiberal and not very fond of the mythology of progress.

German romanticism, however, took a wrong turn during the nineteenth century when the dream of back-to-the-land self-sufficiency got mixed down with Austrian esoterism and racial mysticism. The end result was the ideological cancer of Nazism and an apocalyptic war which buried ecological concerns under the ruins and made sure that when they would resurface, it would be on the left.

The problem was that it happened during the late sixties, just as the left, until them dominated by socialism, reconfigured itself. As left radicalism was embraced by the growing middle classes, there was a focus away from the concerns of the working classes toward hedonism and individualism. It is not by chance that, in France, the events of may 1968 began with a protest over the right for boys to visit the girls’ dormitory.

These ideas came, not from socialism, which was very ambivalent toward individualism, but from classical liberalism, that is from the Enlightenment. They, of course, continue its Messianic ambitions and dellusions.

The revolt of the sixties against the rigid post-war order was salutary in many ways. Many injustices had to be redressed, notably in favor of women, gays and racial minorities. Considering them like people certainly was a great advance on the way toward a decent society. The lack of involvement with the labor movement and the prevalence of middle class individualistic values among activists ensured, however, that the political organizations born the New Left would be liberal, in the European meaning of the word.

The Greens are one such organization and here lies the problem. As Franz Walter said their two ideological engines are not compatible. You cannot at the same time defend individualism and community solutions, hedonism and sobriety, progress and sustainability. Sooner or later, as with the Social-democrat parties, one of the two agendas will be put to the back-burner or replaced by noisy tokenism. Since mitigating the effect of peak energy is likely to involve very unpopular measures we can safely bet that societal issues, on which an agreement can be easily reached with Social-democrat parties, will come to the forefront, along with those Paul Kingsnorth call neo-environmentalists. This is already the case to some extend. The French Greens have been far more vocal about the Leonarda Dibrani case than about the planned prolongation of the lifetime of the country’s nuclear plants.

For groups rooted in the upper “bobo” middle class, it is the path of least resistance, and it is why it is becoming more and more dominant, relegating the romantic vision and the notion of limits to the fringes – and sometimes, it must be said, forcing them into shady neighborhoods.

That means that the Green parties will become more and more irrelevant to our predicament and less and less likely to bring a constructive response to the ecological crisis. In fact, they will probably delay the emergence, at the political level, of a true political answer to peak energy, free from the mythology of progress, the liberal delusion, but also from the cancerous remnants of the völkish perversion.

Yet, this is what we must work on if we want to face the coming energy descent without falling into the same cancerous traps as German Romanticism

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

On socialism

As you probably don’t know, France is ruled by a Socialist Party. Of course, this party is no more socialist than the Institutional Revolutionary Party is revolutionary. It is a pro-statu-quo party defending the interests (and the self-righteousness) of the urban elites and, to a lesser extend, of civil servants. Like all socialist or social-democrat parties in Europe, it talks about social reforms and implements a few societal ones, mostly aimed at its upper-middle class clientele. Like all socialist or social-democrat parties in Europe it is also a tool to select candidates to political offices and distribute jobs and petty privileges to its members, a role it fulfills in ever more conformist a way. In that matter, as in the actual policies it implements when in charge, it is not different from its right wing rivals.

Its relationship with what is generally called socialism was rhetorical from the start and is becoming more and more historical with time. This, more than the Cuban or North-Korean carcinomas in situ highlights the failure of socialism both as an ideology and a political practice, even within the ephemeral framework of our civilization.

The word socialism was coined by Robert Owen, a Welsh entrepreneur with a humanitarian bent, in 1817 in a report to the House of Common titled "Plans for alleviating poverty through Socialism". The idea was to create communities of some 1,200 persons all living in one large building in the form of a square, with public kitchen and mess-rooms. Each family should have its own private apartments and the entire care of the children till the age of three, after which they should be brought up by the community. There should be perfect equality of wages. In times, those communities would cover the world because... because it was just so great, you know.

Needless to say, the House of Common was nonplussed, even if it was to create, some 17 years latter, special houses for paupers... in a very different spirit since they were explicitly designed to provide worse working condition than the worst job available outside them. Owen nevertheless persevered, creating various communities, all of which failed spectacularly. The best known of these was New Harmony, in Indiana, which lasted only two years and of which Josiah Warren wrote :

"It seemed that the difference of opinion, tastes and purposes increased just in proportion to the demand for conformity. Two years were worn out in this way; at the end of which, I believe that not more than three persons had the least hope of success. Most of the experimenters left in despair of all reforms, and conservatism felt itself confirmed. We had tried every conceivable form of organization and government. We had a world in miniature. --we had enacted the French revolution over again with despairing hearts instead of corpses as a result. ...It appeared that it was nature's own inherent law of diversity that had conquered us ...our 'united interests' were directly at war with the individualities of persons and circumstances and the instinct of self-preservation..."

The failure of Owen and of its many imitators, notably Fourrier and Cabet,, resulted in the marginalization of utopian socialism, even though the idea of intentional communities still survives and enjoys, from time to time, ephemeral renewals of interest. These experiments, which were numerous in America during the XIXth, century continued the religious communal experiments of the past centuries, but with a key difference. Unlike in Catholic monasteries or Anabaptist communities, the main goal was not to get the faithful away from the world so that they could reach salvation, but to set an example that the world should, eventually, follow.

In that, socialism, despite what some modern authors such as Michea say, was, from the start, a child of the mythology of progress. Its goal has always been to end misery and inequalities through the application of reason and the domination of Man over Nature. Its main difference with what was called the left during the XIXth century was its attitude toward individualism.

Neither Owen’s utopian socialism, nor the two factions which battled for the control of the first socialist organizations (Marxism and Bakounine’s anarchism), were particularly high on individualism. This should be obvious for Marx, and while Proudhon and Bakounine rejected anything which remotely looked like a law or a political authority, their vision of society looked nothing like Ayn Rand’s. To quote Proudhon :

Under the law of association, transmission of wealth does not apply to the instruments of labour, so cannot become a cause of inequality... We are socialists... under universal association, ownership of the land and of the instruments of labour is social ownership... We want the mines, canals, railways handed over to democratically organised workers' associations... We want these associations to be models for agriculture, industry and trade, the pioneering core of that vast federation of companies and societies, joined together in the common bond of the democratic and social Republic.

In fact, until the end the XIXth century, socialism considered itself as a third force, without any connection with the (then counter-revolutionary) right, but also with the left, which was the party of change, progress and freedom of trade. Even though socialism, in all its incarnations, is clearly a child of the Enlightenment since it aims to free humanity from its condition. Yet, it was ambivalent toward the cult of change and of "innovation" so characteristic of the left. To quote the Communist Manifesto :

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

Marx and Engels obviously did not consider this permanent disruption a pleasant process. They did, however, consider it a necessary stage on the road to socialism. To quote them again.

A similar movement is going on before our own eyes. Modern bourgeois society with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.

In short, it is because bourgeois rule is destructive that it creates the conditions for the advent of socialism and humanity’s escape out of history. It is, of course, pure premilenialist logic, but, at least, it assumes that the atomization and permanent disruption brought about by the Industrial Society is a bad thing – the work of the Devil.

We are light-years away from both classical liberalism and Socialist Party members like Donique Strauss Kahn, who claims that "socialism is hope, future and innovation".

Traditional socialism was a critic of modernity, even if a flawed one. It came, however, to ally with the liberal left at the end of the XIXth century to keep the reactionary right to get back into power, at least in Europe. In France it happened during the Dreyfus affair. At first, French Socialist viewed the whole thing as a "Bourgeois civil war" and refused to take side. Faced with the real possibility of a far right coup, however, they decided to ally with the liberal left (then called Republicans, in opposition to the royalist right).

The result has been a gradual ideological absorption of socialism by liberalism – and ironically the marginalization of the liberal parties in all European democracies. This was by no way a fast or smooth process. In France, where the Communist Party remained strong well into the eighties, it was completed only during the presidency of François Mitterand, even though the trend was visible as soon as the late sixties. Of course, this has been helped by the Russian Revolution, the victory of which pushed traditionally minded socialists onto the way to totalitarianism. Once it was associated with the soviet cancerous nightmare, traditional, working-class oriented socialism was bound to collapse with it, leaving the field to liberalism, with its celebration of permanent change, progress and its cult of the individual.

Of course, traditional socialism was bound to fail. As I have said, it was a child of the enlightenment and it aimed to get humanity out of history into some kind of secular heaven. This heaven is certainly more decent – to use Orwell’s word and concept – than its liberal counterpart, but that does not mean it was ever possible on a finite planet.

Had the Russian Revolution failed, a decent socialism, of the kind Orwell advocated might have established itself in Europe, with both democratic institutions and sharp limits to the mercantile logic. It would still have pursued growth, however, and would still have collided, with potentially disastrous consequences, with the limits of Earth’s resources.

Marx and Engels disliked Malthus, and not only because Malthus’ thesis was morally abhorrent – it was, by the way. Socialism, as befits a "modern" ideology as always sought to free humanity from its historical condition, and that is impossible as long as resources remain scarce. Marx, like many authors of his time, thought scientific and technological progress, would ultimately make scarcity a thing if the past. We know now that it was a delusion. The fossil resources, which gave our civilization, an unprecedented prosperity are being depleted at an alarming rate, and it is only a matter of time before the amount of energy available to our society begins to decrease in absolute terms – it is probably already the case for net energy.

Our ability to to keep our society working will decrease at the same pace and eventually, our civilization will fragment and collapse, leaving only ruins in the jungle Whether said society is socialist, liberal or anticapitalist is totally irrelevant to the process.

In that respect, the eco-socialist ideologies which are being developed here and there, are mostly attempts to salvage the messianic ambitions of socialism, that is the very element that doomed it to failure. Often, they amount to nothing more than saying that it’s all the big bad capitalists’ fault, since everybody knows that North Korea is a gigantic wildlife preserve as well as a workers’ paradise.

This does not mean, however, that socialism has nothing to offer the future. It needs, however, to get away from dogma and go back to its roots, that is the moral revolt against the destructive and dehumanizing effects of the industrial revolution, a revolt which was not that different from the romanticists’, even if it had a different focus. This is the approach of Orwell, Lasch and Michea, and this moral indignation will remain valid long after socialist dogmas will have be made irrelevant by the fall of the industrial economy. This moral indignation is not only an appeal to society being decent, albeit if it also that. It is the refusal to let mercantile logic invade the whole of society. It is no more a new idea than the romanticists’ call for a re-enchanted world but socialism is the first ideology to express it clearly.

Despite its failure, at least in that particular civilization, it leaves a heritage worth preserving and transmitting. The same way reason should not be allowed to invade the entirety of a civilization’s mental space, mercantile logic should remain strictly subordinate to this civilization’s core values, and notably what Orwell called common decency, that is the basic, unwritten but nearly universal rules our species evolved to make life in society livable. This does not mean, by the way, the elimination of private property – which is the surest way to tyranny – but its subordination to the interests and values of the community.

If we manage to transmit this heritage across the coming dark age to future civilizations, the efforts of generations of activists, no matter how flawed and misguided they might have been from time to time, will not have been vain.

But of course, don’t expect any "socialist party" to play any role in that, they are too busy drinking champagne and celebrating "future" and "innovation".

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Great Pruning

Collapses result in considerable cultural loss and there is no reason to think that the coming one will be an exception. In fact it is likely that the losses, in this domain like in many others, will be larger than most. To begin with, we have more to loose. Fossil fuels have enabled us to both feed and educate more people than at any other time in history. More than two millions books are published world-wide every single year. This is far beyond the capacity of a post-peak, presumably agrarian, society to conserve. This is still more true of movies or television films, which become useless once you have lost the capacity to rerun them. Besides, our storage media have a very limited lifespan and can only be accessed with energy-intensive devices we are very likely to lose during the coming energy descent.

Where medieval books are still readable after a century, our CDs, DVDs and hard drives won’t survive ours and even if they do, they will be as readable for our deindustrial descendants as an eight tracks cartridge or a betamax tape is for the average westerner. When we realize this, our first reaction is to follow the tracks of Saint-Leibowitz and try to preserve as much as we can of our civilization’s cultural heritage.

This is definitely a worthy goal and some parts of our culture need to be salvaged and transmitted if we want future civilizations to be more successful than our own. As the Archdruid stated, ours is the first technological civilization in history. Others will come and we must make sure they are in position to build upon the foundations we have laid.

Yet, this strategy of transmission can disastrously backfire. Our society is doomed to collapse because of its reliance on non-renewable resources but also because, despite being aware of the situation, it has chosen to ignore it. The Meadows Report was published in 1972, when we still had a chance to establish a sustainable technological civilization without paying too high a price. There are deep cultural reasons for that, among which our obsession with “progress” and the dominance of what we call liberalism in Europe, that is the neutrality of the states toward values.

As the French philosopher Jean-Claude Michéa convincingly argued, liberalism emerged from the XVIth and XVIIth century religious wars in Europe. Having lived through a period of highly disruptive religious wars. In a civilization where religion held so central a place, such wars demanded an intellectual response lest they tear apart the very fabric of the society.

This response was liberalism, that is the idea that the state was to be neutral not only toward religions but also toward values. Of course, disestablishing organized religions was a good thing, as was the creation of a private sphere, which allows people to pursue their own interests without interference from the state. The logic of liberalism, however, Michea argues, leads to the destruction of the very notion of common values. Since all values are private and that the community represented by the state shouldn’t favor any of them, the only thing which keeps the society together is the relentless pursuit of wealth and the merchant sphere ultimately invades all other social spheres. Besides, since there is no common conception of the common good, conflicts are decided through appeals to emotion, hence the “oppression Olympics” and the shameless exhibitionism which characterize today’s politics – the Femens are a case in point but they are hardly alone.

The availability of cheap and abundant fossil fuels definitely helped the development of the progress myth and the slow destruction of communities and of what Orwell called Common Decency. It made possible for the progress myth to fulfill its promises, at least for a time, which was quite an advantage over, say, traditional Christianity. The enlightenment, however, is older, by at least a century than the Industrial revolution and without it the mythology of progress would not have taken hold and the transition to a sustainable civilization far easier.

Collapses destroy the cultural capital of a civilization, relegating once dominant ideologies to the dustbins of history, erasing whole philosophical schools. This is sometimes unfortunate. What survived of classical Greek culture, for instance, was mostly the product of the aristocratic party. We know very little of the intellectual production of the democratic party and nothing of the anti-slavery Athenian movement postulated by Karl Popper. We know also very little of the competitors of Christianity during the 3rd century BC. The arguments of pagan opponents of Christianity are known only through (probably highly biased) quotations by Christian authors and we know still less of the many heretic opponents of early Catholicism.

This can also be fortunate. When at the end of Bronze Age, the Mycenian palaces were burnt by a bunch of unknown but manifestly very angry people, the ideology which supported the palatial system was also destroyed, not just discredited, utterly destroyed. The palatial economy was a kind of proto-communism in which the ruler collected the production of the areas under his control and redistributed it to his followers. Resources were managed by a bureaucracy of scribes and accountants who controlled also trade and craftsmanship in a semi-centralized manner. Such a system was not very conductive to democracy and personal freedom. It also tended to create a lot of outcasts – the kind of people mid-eastern texts call habiru.

When the system was destroyed, not only physically, but also as a concept, the autonomous village community which emerged from the wreckage, laid the foundations of the city-states of the classical age and with it of the market economy and democracy. Had the palatial system survived, nothing of the sort would have happened.

Of course, the present economical and political arrangements are unlikely to survive the energy descent and the current elites will definitely be replaced by something else – probably in a rather messy and brutal way. This does not mean, however, that the ideological apparatus they have built to justify their rule, will not resurface during some renaissance. That is, after all, what happened when the Italian scholars of the Quattrocento rediscovered Greek and Latin authors and rejected, admittedly only to some extend, the heritage of the Middle-Age.

As we slide down Hubbert’s curve, we’ll have to do some ideological triage, burying that part of our heritage which has put us into the mess we are in, and could very well put our descendants into deep troubles should they get seduced by them.

The very idea of ideological triage will probably sound shocking, if not downright offensive to the average American. Europeans tend to be less sanguine, however. We certainly value freedom of expression and consider the free confrontation of ideas as indispensable to the well-being of a decent society. We have also faced, eighty years ago, a cancerous ideology which very nearly plunged our continent into a new dark age. So we have a very limited tolerance toward those who try to revive it.

The French government has recently banned two small far right parties after the death of a far-left activist at the hands of a skinhead. In many European countries, denying the reality of the Holocaust will land you in jail and very few of us have a problem with that.

Indeed, John Stuart Mill, whose seminal book On Liberty, was instrumental in establishing the modern vision of freedom, stated that "the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others." That means that it is perfectly rightful to ban ideas when they cause harm to others. Please note, by the way, that there is a difference between harm and offense. Discrimination against homosexuals clearly harms people. Homosexuality may offense hardline Christians, it does not harm them in any meaningful way.

I think it is obvious to everyone that Nazism and its various fascist siblings are harmful. So are racism and homophobia, as well as ideologies which advocate infanticide and deny personhood to a part of humankind. It is uncertain, however, which part of our heritage is really harmful. While our culture is doubtlessly cancerous, it is far from being universally so. Our habit of treating women like human beings is certainly worth bequeathing to our successors (but not radical feminism), as is our abhorrence for slavery. So are the rule of law (but not the extension of law to the private sphere), government by consent (but not the trampling of common decency in the name of democracy) and the equal dignity of all men (but not the "ideology of the same"), even if those notions predate our civilization, or the concept of representative democracy, which despite its flaws, allows for democratic states larger than your average city-state.

If the mythology of progress, which is at the core of the Enlightenment, is bound to messily collapse, some of its derivatives may be very useful to a future civilization, and may even become a permanent part of human nature – which in a species as ours is as much cultural as it is natural. It is, after all, what happened with the then radical idea that all men are equal in dignity. It arose from Roman imperialism, was formulated for the first time by the Stoics and passed into Christianity then Islam. While its implementation is still, let’s say imperfect, it is accepted, at least in theory, by everybody outside the lunatic fringe.

This handing down of the best of our heritage is not incompatible with the burying of our worst in a great pruning. In fact, it requires it, if we want this best to become a part of future cultures which will have every reason to dislike us. Of course, burying ideas does not mean burying those who hold them. It means not saving them, not transmitting and copying them during the coming long night and the only fire we need for that is the one in our hearths. Lack of resources and the necessity of survival will work for us in that respect. By simply focusing our scarcer and scarcer resources on what absolutely needs saving, we will allow the harmful and the useless to gently slip in the dark. We must, however, be aware of what we do and of why we are doing it.

The cancerous memes in our culture will bring us down. There is little doubt about that, as there is little doubt that future societies will develop their own, probably very different, cancerous memes and succumb to them. That is how civilizations work. We must however make sure that we don’t poison them with our delusions.

The Necronomicon and The Ultimate Resource are probably best forgotten, and if that takes a little help...

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Remember Tewdrig

Mass migrations, or more specifically mass culture replacement, is one of the more troubling aspects of peak energy. Doubtlessly the perspective of witnessing one’s civilization slowly declining is nothing to be relished. It is not without its charms, however. Even though it has been largely dethroned by the instant apocalypse meme, the theme of decline was at the core of romanticism, the first modern revolt against the industrial world and its disenchanted conception of reality. It infuses, for instance, the work of Tolkien. Indeed, The Lord of the Rings can be read as a long elegy upon the passing of the old glories. It has always been a minority taste and I suspect the rise of apocalyptic thinking has made it more so, but it has always been present and it is likely that a significant part of those, who care about Peak Oil share it. I surely do.

Envisioning the complete erasure of one’s culture is another thing altogether. As social primates with a regrettable tendency to die before our hundredth birthday, we often take some kind of collective as a projection of our self toward eternity. The two most likely candidates for this role are of course culture / nation and family. We are aware that both can be changed beyond recognition by the advent of peak energy, but as long as they survive, even if nobody remembers us, the trace of our contribution to the history of humanity lingers on.

We know that culture replacement happens, and this knowledge has fed apocalyptic fears of the Camps des Saints variety, especially but not only in the far right. Most of the time, they are the consequence of a rise in societal complexity, whether it manifest through naked imperialism or through the growth of trade networks. Periods of decreasing societal complexity, however, often result in cultural fragmentation, with previously well integrated areas developing their own autonomous culture and identity, and the replacement of Roman political authority by Germanic warlords during the fifth century did not result in local versions of Latin dying out.

In fact, it was the invaders’ languages and cultures, which disappeared, sometimes very early. Gothic, Burgondian and Old Frankish are all dead languages, while the inhabitants of what used to be their kingdoms speak some form of (admittedly evolved) Latin. It is easy to see why. The invaders did not move into a vacuum. Even though the Empire was collapsing, at the provincial and local level, roman institutions, and notably the Church, retained a lot of strength. Even those barbarians which were not catholic (the Goths, Vandals and Sueves, who followed a different brand of Christianity) were forced to fit within post-roman society to control it (and harvesting its not inconsiderable wealth). This doomed their cultures and languages to extinction. Even the Franks, whose empire included Germanic speaking populations, ultimately merged with their Romance speaking subjects in what was to become France, probably during the ninth century.

The main exception, of course, was Britain. There, the invaders (who were not really invaders as they had been hired) found not a still functional post-roman society but a collection of tribal states ruled by warlords. Roman institutions, including the Church, were weak and the tribal conflicts frozen by the Roman occupation had flared up again, leading to endemic warfare.

Of those wars we know little but the ill-forts and the defensive dykes, which dot the West
Country testify of their violence. This was the perfect environment for upwardly mobile warlords and for foreign mercenaries, who, from the point of view of said warlords, had the not so negligible advantage of not caring about local politics – well, at least in theory.

A few mercenaries became warlord themselves, setting up petty kingdoms – Hengist, for instance. Others remained loyal to whatever polity they served - it seems it was the case of Aella, who according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle never assumed the title of king. Ethnicity appears to have been pretty irrelevant to the politics of the time, however. It was mostly a mater of tribal post-roman polities fighting each other on old grudges and of powerful individual using the chaos to become “kings by their own hands”.

Not all of them were immigrants, by the way, and the early history of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms is replete with Welsh Kings. This was the case of Wessex, the Kingdom which would later unify England (Cerdic, Cynric, Ceawlin, Ceadwalla) and of Mercia (Pybba, Penda, Peada). On the other hands, Irish and Germanic warlords ruled what would later become Celtic kingdoms. Stuart Laycock once suggested that the legendary Arthur was in fact a Germanic mercenary called Earðhere, son of another Germanic mercenary named Uthere Se non è vero è bene trovato, as they say in Italian.

More interesting is the case of Tewdrig ap Teithfallt. Twdrig, whose story is related in the Book of Llandaff, was king of Glywysing, a petty kingdom in South Wales during the sixth century. He had abdicated in favour of his son Meurig and retired to live a hermitical life, but came back to fight Saxon invaders. He was victorious but died a short while after from his wound.

Curiously for a Welsh saint, he had a fully Germanic name: Theodoric. So did his father, Theodebald. Some people suggested he was a Goth, the leader of a Visigoth fleet stranded in Britain after the fall of the Kingdom of Tolouse in 507. Nothing proves it, or disproves it for that matter. The only thing we can say for sure is that he was some kind of Germanic warlord, who had set himself up as the petty king of the Cardiff region.

Yet the area was not germanized – no more than the neighboring Dyfed and Brycheinog were gaelicized despite having been founded by Irish warlords. The kingdom of Glywysing endured until the Norman conquest.

The reason for that was probably that Wales had only superficially romanized and was still a closely knit tribal society in which any warlord had to fit if he wanted to last. In the more romanized East, however, the eroded tribal solidarity and the localized nature of the warlord’s power meant that a culture shift could happen in a mere couple of generation. There simply was no strong institution the native culture could anchor itself on. Besides, the Saxons were mercenaries, often of mixed tribal origins, which means they were quite welcoming to any native boy able and willing to wield a sword., provided he accepted the values of the band. That is probably what Cerdic and his likely numerous imitators did.

Immigrants, even armed, powerful immigrants, are not conquering armies. They are rather
destructured groups of families and individual trying to better their lot. In a healthy society, that means fitting in socially and culturally. Of course, some amount of culture loyalty has to be expected in the first or even the second generation, but on the long run, assimilation is the norm. Tewdrig ap Teithfallt is, of course, a case in point.

In a collapsing society, however, the best way to rise in ranks is to use one’s community of family relationship as a leverage. This is what the barbarian leaders of the fifth century, Ricimer for instance, did. They tried to use their position in tribal societies to get charges within the imperial power structure. Of course, in such a situation, playing down one’s ethnic or tribal ties is counterproductive.

What that means for us, fifteen century after the fall of the Western Empire, is that culture shift is less dependent upon the number of immigrants than upon the health of our society. Mass migrations are pretty much unavoidable during the long descent which will follow peak energy. As the USA and its vassals lose the power to prop them up, the African and middle-eastern government dependent on them will collapse, or at the very least lose the control of a great part of their territory. At the same time European countries are bound will be less and less able to stop the flow of refugees from the south.

The goal of those immigrants will not be to create some kind of Islamic Republic, but to better their lot. Of course, this will become more and more difficult as the economy contracts and the way to power and wealth becomes narrower and narrower for those not born in them. It will result in immigrants choosing unpopular careers (which, in France, includes the military) and in sharpened competition between natives and immigrants (and their children) for low-paying jobs.

Naturally, this will feed extremism on both sides, weakening the very fabric of the society. In fact it already does: we have had riots near Paris after the Police checked a veiled woman, probably in not so gentle a way. Needless to say, our elites’ behavior, combining contempt for the lower class’ concerns, self-righteous promotion of mostly irrelevant societal issues, and ambivalent attitude toward the immigrants’ religiosity, doesn’t help.

We may have islamic (if not downright islamist) warlords somewhere down the road. We may also have anti-muslim pogroms or quasi-apartheid policy. We may even have both, depending from the time or the area, and both would be equally disastrous from the point of view of cultural continuity.

Opening wide the gates of immigration in this age of decline is pretty stupid – it makes the upper-middle classes feel good and lowers wages, which explains why the idea is so popular among societal leftists and laissez-faire right-wingers are so fond of this idea. Now, if you want to preserve some kind of cultural continuity – and it certainly is a worthy goal – you should better make easier for immigrants and their descendants to fit within your community. Their chances of being ultimately absorbed will be greatly improved and the skills they’ll bring will certainly help. Tewdrig’s certainly did.

So next time you’ll see an immigrant of north-african descent in a European street, remember King Tewdrig... sorry, King Þeodoreiks Þeobaldsunus, in the hills of Glamorgan, defending, sword in hand, his welsh fellow countrymen against the Saxon hordes.

And while you are at it remember that the leader of those Saxon hordes may very well have been a native.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Corruption and privileges

Just before tearing itself apart about whether gay people should be allowed to marry, France has gone through another political financial scandal. This is not an uncommon occurrence. We tend not to care very much about our politicians cheating on their wife, or even, like one of our former president, having two families complete with a hidden daughter. We tend to be less tolerant with embezzlement and tax fraud, which does not keep them from happening with a troubling regularity

In this particular case it was Jerome Cahuzac a socialist minister, in charge of the budget, who discovered to have a secret account in a Swiss bank, for tax fraud purpose. Jerome Cahuzac being the political head of French IRS, it was, let’s say, embarrassing. Of course, Jerome Cahuzac was "advised" to resign, both as a minister and a Member of Parlement. After another round of "advices", he has finally decided not to run in the coming by-election in what used to be his constituency.

Politics being what it is, the affair prompted a round of half-hearted reforms, with ministers forced to disclose their fortune, then faded out of the headlines in the wake of the gay marriage controversy. This, however, only a matter of time before another scandal surfaces. As I have said, those scandals are relatively common in French history and Frenchmen somewhat expect their politicians to use their position to get, if not rich, at least wealthy.

When the regime is weak, however, or when the country goes trough a crisis, this can lead to drastic changes in government. I don’t think this will be the case, directly, for the Cahuzac affair, but the general climate it breeds certainly will pave the way for it. There are, indeed, certainly precedents for this in French history.

The first to come to my mind is, of course, the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, which prepared the French Revolution. In 1772, Louis XV had ordered for his mistress, Madame du Barry, a diamond necklace costing some 2,000,000 livres – a huge amount of money, even for a king. Louis XV, however, died before the necklace could be completed and Madame du Barry was banished from the court, so the jeweler found themselves with a hugely expansive jewel on their hand and nobody to sell it to, the new queen having refused to accept a necklace designed for a courtesan.

In the meantime, a con-artist, Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy, "Comtesse de la Motte”, manipulated her lover, Louis René Édouard de Rohan known as Cardinal de Rohan into believing the queen was in love with him and arranged a meeting between him and the said queen a prostitute passing off as a queen. She then “borrowed” a lot of money from the Cardinal, and bought her way into the high society.

She was then contacted by the jewelers who wanted to use her to sell their necklace. She accepted and told the Cardinal that Marie Antoinette wanted to buy the necklace; but, wanted him to act as a secret intermediary... this worked well, until the Cardinal failed to paid the agreed upon amount and the jewelers complained to the queen about him. Let’s say Marie Antoinette was not amused.

Jeanne de la Motte was condemned to be whipped and branded then sent to life imprisonment in the Salpêtrière. She escaped, however and fled to London where she ublished a book entitled Memoires Justificatifs de La Comtesse de Valois de La Motte, which attempted to justify her actions while casting blame upon the queen. the Cardinal de Rohan, for one, was acquitted.

A lot of people where convinced the Queen had indeed a hand into the whole affair and had used La Motte as an instrument to discredit the Cardinal de Rohan. Rohan’s acquittal, of course, did not help and the queen’s approval rating plummeted, with the consequences we all know.

Another, less known, example is the Stavisky affair in 1934. Alexandre Satvisky was a French con-artist who had managed to put himself at the head of the municipal pawnshop of Bayonne. He used his position to sell worthless bonds, with fake emeralds as a surety. He used his political connections to avoid trial and continued his scams until December, when, faced with exposure, he fled. The police finally found him, mortally wounded, in January in Chamonix. He apparently had committed suicide, albeit in a bizarre way since the bullet had traveled an inconvenient three meters before hitting his head.

He had an extra-long arm, you see.

The affair finally went public and grew into a full-blown scandal, leading to the resignation of premier Camille Chautemps from the Radical-Socialist Party (which was neither radical nor socialist, by the way). His successor Édouard Daladier, dismissed the prefect of the Paris police, more to the right than Atilla the Hun Jean Chiappe. The result was a violent demonstration which degenerated into a coup attempt by various far right organizations such as the Action Française, the Croix-de-Feu and the Mouvement Franciste. Fourteen people were killed in the night of 6–7 February 1934. The Republic survived, barely, but but Daladier had to resign and the left faced with an immediate threat from the far right united, which led to the 1936 victory of the Popular Front.

The Stavisky affair also triggered the founding of a far right terrorist organization La Cagoule an a general erosion of democratic values which would pave the way for the Vichy regime.

Of course, nobody has tried to storm the parliament in the wake of the Cahuzac affair. Its effects are more insidious but can be every bit as deleterious.

France is indeed facing a two-pronged long-term crisis which is slowly but surely destroying its social cohesiveness. Like all human societies, it suffers from the systemic effects of peak energy and peak complexity.

As the amount of net energy available to the society shrinks, it becomes less and less able to both maintain its infrastructure and actually do things. The result is that our infrastructures, both material and immaterial, decay, as does our ability to effect positive change. Besides, our usual ways of dealing with problems, that is increasing the complexity of the society, is becoming more and more counterproductive.

As always, in such a situation, the top tiers of the society, preserve their position by grabbing resources from those located lower in the hierarchy. In democracies, this mostly done in indirect ways, by dismantling institutions which benefit mostly the lower and middle strata of society: welfare, public education and services, collective transportation, subsidized medicine...

Moreover, we are slowly losing our privileged position as a first circle ally of the current world hegemon. Not only are the United States losing ground to China, but the center of world economic activities is drifting away from the Atlantic, making us more and more peripheral in world affairs. That means that our ability to profit from the imperial system set up by the USA (and from the remnants of our own Empire) is slowly dwindling.

In such a situation, elections become more and more about gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana and less and less about wages and taxes. Mainstream politics sound then more and more like empty noises to the working class and to a significant part of the middle class.

This creates a disconnect between the population and the political class which grows more and more parasitical as the resources of the society diminish. This disconnect is bound to increase as various elites are forced into resource grabbing by the shrinking economy and competition between the various strata of the society sharpens.

In normal times, scandals, even though they can end the career of the politicians involved in them, do not undermine the legitimacy of the regime. Neither the Panama Scandals nor the Oil Sniffers Hoax or the Urba Affair threatened the survival of the Republic because, outside far right circles, they were seen as bugs, not as features. Globally, the system worked, and even if you disagreed with the party in power, you could hope for things to get done your way once your pet team in the government.

The problem is that it does not longer work that way. Our economies cannot function without a solid growth, which is more and more becoming a thing of the past. As the governments lack the means to do anything but further the status quo, the policies of the left become indistinguishable from those of the right and their ideology focus away on societal issues to preserve the fake dichotomy so central in our political system.

Of course, people are not fooled and see more and more their political class not as the promoters of such or such policies but as professionals fighting to advance their career. It becomes, by the way, more and more true, as the younger generation of politicians internalize the constraints of the system and focus on secondary, bobo, issues such as feminism or voting right for foreigners.

In such a situation, careerism, greed, and ultimately corruption become features of a political system more and more cut off from the day-to-day realities. Outright fraud remains rare, but privileges abound. I certainly enjoy some of them despite my low status and my position as an outsider, even though the main one – I can’t be fired – come not from my being a politician but from being a civil servant.

The occasional scandal will then be considered by a large part of the population as the proof that the whole political class is corrupt and that only extremists are sincere. In 1780, that ultimately meant the Jacobins. In 1934, that meant the Communists or the various far right sects which would later founded the Vichy regime. Now, it meant caesarist parties such as the French National Front or Populist / leftist ones such as Mélenchon’s Parti de Gauche.

That makes corruption far more dangerous than in more prosperous times as it increase the already strong preference of our declining societies for authoritarianism. Fueled by an ever growing thirst for an effective political action, but similarly lacking in means, this authoritarianism won’t be less corrupt than its democratic rivals. In fact, it may be more, despite a few show-trials, because of a greater control of judicial institutions by the government – corruption-ridden China is a case in point. It will also be less efficient at mobilizing remaining resources since its legitimacy will be based not on its origin but on its supposed ability to solve the problems faced by the society, something it will be very unlikely to be be able to do.

What authoritarianism will do, however, is destroy what will be left of the democratic tradition and replace it with a mythology of charismatic leadership which will pave the way for warlords later in the game. This can be disastrous. Democracy as an idea is probably going to survive or at least to be revived at some point, unless we lose writing, which is quite unlikely. Democratic tradition at the local level, however, with the network of associations and local institutions it depends, would be shattered by a period of brutal authoritarianism.

This is why it is vital for the future to eliminate corruption as much as possible, and to reduce, as much as possible again, the privileges of the political class. It’s not because they are bad - they are, but it is inevitable that the political class grabs some privilege and that some of its members go over to the dark side : that’s what human do. It’s because they reinforce a trend already strong in all declining societies which leads to runaway resource grabbing by self-appointed elites which would make the present political class almost competent and responsible in comparison.

We need to go robespierrian on corruption, lest a new Robespierre shows up.