Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Aella's complex

Most of you probably haven't' heard about it but France has recently gone through another round of debate about the "Islamic veil". A bunch of members of parliament have petitioned for the creation of an inquiring committee about the burqa. Like all such proposals, this one tells more about its authors than about the handful of burqa wearing women living in France. It is no accident that one of the proposers is an unreconstructed communist openly supporting Castro's regime. This affair does more, however, than throwing an unforgiving light upon the reactionaries tendencies of some parts of the French society. It highlights some of the difficulties modern complex societies will experience as they slide down the slop of Hubbert's curve.

One of the most overlooked characteristics of modern industrial societies is how they have replaced external, geographic, diversity by internal, societal, diversity. Pre-industrial societies were as diverse as our own, but this diversity was made of a collection of very homogeneous local communities. There was, for instance a Breton culture, embedded within the mainframe of French culture, and divided in a a number of local cultures – Bigouden, Poher, Leon, Tregor – each one of them with its own dialect, dances, music and approach to religion, and so forth down to the village level. Within them, however, diversity was very low, social conformity, at least at the outside, very high, and adhesion to Christianity almost mandatory – even if following its precepts was not necessarily, as shows the high number of "virgin births" in my family line.

This diversity survives – the villages of the marsh area just outside of my home town were still held by the communist party not so long ago – but it is – or rather was – fading and has been replaced by a larger but more heterogeneous national – or sub-national – society. While local differences are less pronounced, there is a considerable number of sub-cultures of various origin, and far more allowance for individual dissent or eccentricity. This evolution has not been an easy one and it is not yet complete. A long struggle has been necessary to widen the boundaries of acceptable opinion and for gays, for instance, it has been won only recently – in France, I mean.

The problem is that this internal diversity is a consequence of the emergence of a society complex enough to accommodate literally thousands of social niches, and that this society is dependent upon a constant inflow of high grade energy. Only fossil fuel can provide it and as their name implies, they exist in limited quantity. As their supply declines, so will society's complexity, probably catastrophically so.

This decline, also called catabolic collapse, does not mean, however, that we will magically revert to the statu quo ante, no more than the fall of the Roman Empire mean that Druids would roam the forest again and that people would going back to speaking Gaulish again. What will happen is that the society will unravel into its constituent part and that local culture will coalesce back around left over from the pre-industrial period, imports from overseas or totally new creations.

This may mean that in some areas Islam may become the new local norm, and even spread further from there. It is perfectly possible that in one or two centuries from now will be Muslim and while this would make it differently Breton, it would not necessarily make it less so. This would not be the first time such a thing happens either. While collapses do not always translate into religion shift, they make them easier by destroying the web of interconnected institutions and beliefs around which the society is built. Taken off-balance, faced with the obvious failure of long-held beliefs to explain the situation, people are more prone to convert to foreign or new ideas.

With the collapse of the Roman Empire, the newly, and probably superficially Christianized British tribes recovered their independence and began to war among themselves. As was relatively common at the time they imported Germanic mercenaries they settled along their respective borders and to whom they apparently gave high positions in their armed forces. In Kent, the leader of a mercenary band seemingly seized power from the local cronies of the western British warlord Vortigern, probably with the locals' support. In neighbouring Sussex however, things went differently. The local Germanic leader Aella, never became a king and modern research suggests he remained faithful to the Regnenses tribe and integrated within the local aristocracy.

Yet, one century latter English was spoken in Sussex, not some cousin of Welsh or French, and the main religion was Anglo-Saxon paganism, not Celtic Christianity. There had been some immigration from the mainland, probably more than in neighbouring Wessex and Mercia where first "Saxon" kings had unmistakable British names. Even there, however, it was insufficient to swamp the native element. What happened is that native Bretons converted to Anglo-Saxon language, way of life... and religion.

It certainly was a complex phenomenon, and it was bitterly resisted by some, as one can see from Gildas' xenophobic rant De Excidio Britanniae, but probably not so much as latter interpretations would lead us to believe. VIth century warfare in Britain was about tribal politics and personal ambitions, not about ethnicity or religion.

A similar evolution can take place in part of today's industrial world, with Islam, but also Wicca or whatever religion you care to imagine. It is neither a desirable nor an undesirable process, even if one may have reservations about the particulars of such or such religion. It is just something which happens when civilizations collapses and societies reshape and rebuild themselves. What is important, however, is to make sure that the resistance of new Gildas won't trouble more what already promises to be a very troubled time and that if somebody manages to follow the steps of Aella, he does so in a rather smooth and orderly maneer. A solution could be to separate religion from identity and to found communities upon shared values rather than upon a shared faith. That is what secularism should be about.

The French deputies' initiative does not bode well in that matter, and whenever I see a scarfed woman in the street I think of Aella... and of Gildas... and of Badon Hill.


  1. Your post makes me think of the SM Stirling novel "Dies the Fire" (and those that come after). It's a post apocalyptic series, and the groups of survivors do indeed coalesce around common cultures that are quite different than what came before "The Change" - a group of pagans become one group, absorbing many others ... another group evolves into something out of Lord of the Rings ... others take parts of medieval social structure and make them work in the new world.

    One sentence did jump out at me: "The problem is that this internal diversity is a consequence of the emergence of a society complex enough to accommodate literally thousands of social niches, and that this society is dependent upon a constant inflow of high grade energy." Would you care to elaborate how energy (fossil fuels) powers our diverse culture? I can think of a few ways, mostly related to communication, but I'm very curious to see where you'd go with that idea.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  2. Fast communication plays a role, of course, as it makes easier to spread idea, but it works both ways. It makes also easier for local cultures or tradition to be eroded.

    More important, however, is the fact that the complexity of a society - or of any kind of ecosystem, for that matter - is directly linked to the surplus it can create and devote to the feeding of entertainers and intellectuals. The more productive is your economy, the more resources you can allote to people who will create a diversified culture... and fosil fuels enabled us to build a very productive economy, where a mere few people can feed and fuel a whole population and therefore enable them to fill a lot of social role and niches which simply could not exist in a pre-industrial culture.

    If there was no advertisment industry in pre-industrial France it was not because people had no need to advertise, but because the society could not afford it, and they won't eithre in post-industrial France.

  3. Let's hope it's Wicca and not Islam!

  4. Unfortunately, secularism tends to die quickly among frightened, desperate people in collapsing societies. I have no doubt that post-collapse societies will coalesce around religion.

    Let's just hope it's Wicca or B'hai instead of Islam.

  5. Ah yes, thank you for the explanation ... I see now! A resource-constrained household has little to spare for even a travelling bard ('news' and 'entertainment' in a low-tech world) ... much less keeping a troubadour on staff. :)

    Having just spent a good part of the day moving compost piles around (with the benefit of diesel powered heavy equipment), I am very aware of the kind of time (and physical strength) that would be involved to do that same work without the luxury of a bobcat. Wouldn't leave a lot of leisure time ... although, you can get a lot of thinking in while you pitch manure. :)

    Thanks again for the reply.

    And North Coast, I'm with you - I could cope with the Wiccans taking over, no problem. :)