Thursday, June 25, 2009

A tale of two festivals

Summer is festival time in France and Southern Brittany is no exception. We even happen to have two of them running at the same time – the Hellfest metal festival and the Estuaire concept art festival. I won’t attend any, of course. I simply don’t have any time for that, but I will have to deal with the political aspects of both of them. Most of them are quite petty – Christian right wingers complaining about metal musicians "insulting" their religion, for instance – but not all and the differences in the political treatment of both events provide us with quite an interesting hindsight upon the mindset of our ruling elites … and something of an explanation why they fail to address the peak energy problem, or even to see there is a problem.

The Estuaire festival is a contemporary art exhibition every two years between Nantes – the city where I work – and Saint-Nazaire – the city where I live. The main attraction, at least from the media point of view is La Meute by Stéphane Thidet. It is supposed to be a work of art. In fact it is just a bunch of wolves let loose in a large pen at the feet of the Ducal Castle. I personally fail to see the difference with the deer’s pen in the nearby botanic garden, or for that matter with the aquarium in my living room… but I know better than saying it to the mayor or one of its underlings.

The Estuaire festival has, indeed, be created by and for the township of Nantes, and its funding comes entirely from corporate or taxpayers’ money. This has two interesting side effects. The first, of course, is that popular success is totally irrelevant to its continued existence. What matters is the continued interest of politicians and senior corporate leadership. The second is that we have no really mean to measure popular interest, which is probably as well since most people who pass by the exhibited works probably wouldn’t have pay a single cent to see them in a museum.

The Hellfest, on the other hand, is a grassroots initiative which got successful – not an uncommon occurrence in Brittany. In 2002, a couple of people set up an extreme music festival in Rezé, near Nantes. The Furry Fest lasted until 2005, then died due to financial difficulties, only to be resurrected as the Hellfest the following year and has experienced a growing success since then.

The Hellfest receives some funding from local authorities, but most of its money comes from paying spectators. Should they stop coming, so would money, even public money, and the whole thing would close down. Success is also very easy to measure. You don’t happen to pass by a performance by Amon Amarth – quite a good band, by the way – you have to pay to listen it… and a lot of people did it.

Yet politicians pay little attention to the Hellfest, not even in private. Last time we had a lunch together the delegate for cultural action among new publics, who happens to be one of my bosses, and who is very big on cultural self-empowerment, didn’t even mention it. It was all about Estuaire.

One could see there a typical spenglerian rent between popular and elite culture in a declining society, and it would be at least partly accurate. There is more to it, however.

Nantes is firmly left wing, and most of its leadership is, as I am, of middle class origin, the sons and daughter of those who took advantage of post-war growth to lift themselves out of poverty. Most of my bosses, including the Mayor, are hardly elite and are often a mere generation away from fields or factories.

So what ?

One thing to know about the elites’ world is that it is intensively competitive. No matter how united a party or a town council look from the outside, its members are always jockeying for position, endlessly fighting for a better place within the giant pecking order that is political or corporate world. I am no exception, of course, even my belonging to a small party means my success or failure depends upon factors I cannot master.

Advancement can be seemingly random, but most of time, it is tied to one’s usefulness and loyalty for one’s patron and to one’s ability to forge alliances among one’s peers. The problem is that in modern democracy, ideology is central in the self-definition of political factions. Of course modern politicians can be every bit as cynical as a feudal baron – hell, I certainly can – but behind their actions there is always some dearly held ideal or belief.

The Mayor of Nantes has a very respectable political project : turning a somewhat sleepy provincial town into a cultural and economic metropolis. Estuaire serves this project because it enhance his and his city’s prestige among Parisian intellectuals. The Hellfest don’t. And of course that means to advance in rank within the municipal leadership you have to share his goals. This is of course less true of junior partners, such as my own party, but similar mechanisms are at work within them.

The end result is of course that our ruling elites, or to put it more accurately, the people in charge of the intricate web of rival power centers which define our societies’ policies, are at least partly ideology selected. Of course one can fake one’s beliefs to rise in the hierarchy, but such a strategy is generally untenable. Masks sticks to the skin when one wears them too long, as those Trotskyites who tried to infiltrate mainstream parties have quickly found out.

John Michael Greer once said that a party proposing to drastically cut down our income to avoid total collapse – as we should do – would be very unlikely to achieve power. That is true, but only partly. People can bear much hardship when they feel it is necessary and governments have ways to impose drastic measures when they really need to.

The problem is that politicians are even less receptive to the notion of peak energy and catabolic collapse than other people. Joe Average can be convinced of the reality of peak oil, even more so in France where pretty much everybody aggrees that the future will be worse than the present – whether he will act upon it is quite another matter, of course. Politicians and corporate leaders will resist with all the strength of their deeply entrenched ideology. That's what they have been selected for.

Of course, the situation is not hopeless. Elites can and do change, even if it is at their own rhythm. They can afford to ignore reality longer than laymen but even they must yield to it at some point, lest they be overthrown and replaced by more pragmatic people.

The question, of course, is can we afford to wait for them to do so ?

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