Thursday, May 14, 2009

Soccer, identity and the post-peak world

The big affair of the week in Brittany has been the final of the Coupe de France between Guingamp and Rennes. I an no soccer fan and I willingly avow I didn't follow the match and hardly cares for its result. I am not blind to its political significance, however.

It is hardly new for sport to play a role in politics. Since the end of World War II, soccer, and to a lesser extend, rugby, has become in Western Europe a kind of euphemistic war where citizens of otherwise civilized countries funnel their nationalistic feelings into a giant collective catharsis. This strategy may backfire, as in the Heysel Stadium Disaster or in the infamous 100 hours war, when soccer riots led to a shooting war between El Salvador and Honduras. It can also reveal underground current which, while still marginal, may become the shape of the things to come.

It was the first time the final of the Coupe de France opposed two Breton teams and this competition being relatively open it won't happen again any time soon. Had it happened a mere decade ago, it would have been a great soccer moment but nothing more. This time, however, regional authorities were able, and willing, to impose the playing of the Breton anthem before the match.

Of course it was not done inside protocol time but, as was to be expected, the media buzz, at least in Brittany, was such it amounted to the same.

I have played no role in this decision, of course. I am still pretty much in the junior leadership. My party did, however, and while the final push probably came from the President of the Regional Council, our spokesperson, Mona Bras was quite influential in it and obviously neither did it for the love of sport.

It would be an exaggeration to call the whole thing "birth of a nation", as did a nationalist portal. Once the match over – Guingamp won by the way – everybody went back home. There was no revolution and I am pretty sure it will have very little influence upon the results of the coming elections. Bretons will mostly vote for the left and hardly anybody will even notice the lone nationalist list – we don't even support it.

What is going on here is more complex and more subtle.

Breton identity is, like all identity, a complex and multi-layered thing. It was built around what Anthony D. Smith calls an "ethnic core", but it owes much more to such cultural influences as Romantism or the French incarnation of the Counterculture than to any Arthurian heritage or to any memory of the old ducal state. Under its present form it didn't emerge before the nineteenth century and only became popular during the 70s.

Not that it makes it illegitimate. Most if not all European national identities, whether they managed to embody themselves within a state or not, were born within the same general timeframe. Breton identity, for reasons linked to the nature of the French state and to various historical accident, failed so far to acquire a political dimension, but that is hardly an unique case.

It definitely was a weakness as it made more difficult for local initiative to aggregate within a collective effort to defend and promote our interest. This may prove a blessing in disguise, however, as we enter the twilight of our fossil fuels based civilization. Indeed, it enabled it to spread it far beyond regionalist circles and to pass in the political meanstream. There were, and there is still oppositions, of course, mostly in the far left even if the LaRouchies would probably join it once they notice, but it lost most of its audience once we became a part of the regional majority and is becoming more and more marginalized.

When Breton identity will become political, it will be as a rallying point, not as a divisive issue or some far right fantasy.

I am quite happy of it, of course. Promotion of Breton identity under its political form is the raison d'ĂȘtre of our party. That's not the only reason, however.

As our resource base grows scarcer and scarcer – and France has very few natural resources left – the French state will become less and less likely to even survive. It won't necessarily explode – it is unlikely to do so – but will become more and more maladapted and eventually collapse or wither away. In such a context, a strong regional identity is an asset because it will enable local institutions, whatever they might be, to rally the people around them, to face more successfully whatever crisis in ongoing.

One of the most surprising thing in the history of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire is that locals institutions did not fight the invaders. With the exception of the weak Syagrius, no warlord emerged, as did Postumus during the third century, to fight off the Franks and the Goths. It was not only because local forces were low quality militias – they were, but cities could have hired mercenaries to defend themselves. It would have been a risky bet, but not necessarily a losing one.

The fact is that they didn't or when they did, they did it half-heartedly. That local aristocracies were unwilling to pay, whether in gold or in blood, for the defence of a derelict and costly empire is understandable, but they did not do it either for their local civitas, preferring to compose with whatever self-styled Germanic king happened to claim it.

The only exception is, as it seems, Britain, where tribal loyalty had remained quite strong. When the Romans left in 410, the former British tribes recovered their independence and began to war among themselves. To do so they hired a lot of Germanic mercenaries, which in retrospect was a bad idea. It shows, however, that local elites, unlike their continental counterpart, were willing to pay for the defence of their homeland. In a way it succeeded, by the way, since current researches suggest that British polities were not replaced by Anglo-Saxon kingdoms but evolved into them as their elites adopted the culture of the newcomers.

Their strong local identity did not protect them from collapse and warlordism but it enabled them to retain at least some kind of institutional continuity up to the formation of the Kingdom of England and even beyond.

Regional identities are notoriously weak in France and given the nature of our society, they are unlikely to strengthen quickly enough to become a real cohesive force by the time the French states fails. Only Brittany, Corsica, and maybe Alsace may escape this fate... provided we make the right choices and don't allow ourselves to be misled by outdated mythologies.

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