Sunday, August 30, 2009

There won't be any separate peace

Last week the Oil Drum featured an article about the very wealthy making preparations for whatever catastrophe the post-peak future has in stock. Many commentators have pointed out that mercenaries understand very quickly there is more money to be done by cutting their rich but helpless employers' throat than by defending them. The very fact than some people – including a few billionaires, apparently – believe a doomsday gated community is a viable response to peak energy tells more about the preconceptions and fantasies which stand in the way of a successful adaptation to the changes peak oil heralds than about the realities of the future societies.

Mercenaries' dubious loyalty is, of course, the first obstacle to the building of reasonably enduring billionaires' lifeboats. Basing one's security on hired sword is one of history's most popular losing bet, even if on the short run it is not necessarily a stupid one. All rulers in history have faced the same conundrum : if you can't enforce your decisions, your power is basically worth nothing, on the other hand, if you give your enforcer too much power, he may well replace you. That's why rulers who didn't trust their own people, relied recruited their soldiers and advisers abroad or among despised minorities : because they won't have the connections to stage a coup.

Of course, on the long run it rarely works. Sooner or later, mercenaries entrench themselves within society, become a part of it and put themselves in position of kingmakers... at the very least. That's why I write this in English and not in some variant of Breton, because the Germanic mercenaries Vortigern and his peers hired to defend themselves from their rivals (and probably their own population) integrated within the sub-roman power structure before subverting it to their advantage.

More than a bad understanding of history, however, the billionaires' dream of buying themselves a “separate peace” in some high-walled private fortress shows a bad understanding of how society works.

A billionaire's enclave, whether it be in some forlorn island or in some rural backwater, is nothing more than a survivalist's cabin writ large. There probably will be more ammunition and of an heavier kind. There will also be more supplies, and a lot more people to use them up. Needless to say, the residents' lifestyle will be far less spartan. It is based upon the same isolationist fallacy, however.

And it is every bit as (un)likely to work.

Rich people do not draw their wealth from some innate genius, but from their ability to divert a part of society's energy flow into their own pocket, so they can enjoy a disproportionate amount of its surplus. It can be done in various ways, that's why there are in modern, complex, societies many competing elites. To do this successfully, however, you need a working society. If energy flows go down, so will you ability to divert some part of it. If society as a whole collapses, so will your power.

Of course, elites can, and do, pressure a declining society and keep their affluent lifestyle by impoverishing everybody else. One can even say that is what they are doing albeit unconsciously, today. It is just another case of depriving the periphery of resource to keep the center going. The burned down temples of Teotihuacan show it never works on the long run.

Now building a billionaires' enclave amount to stockpile a part of today's surplus so one can survive bad times without surrendering one's lifestyle could seem a good strategy to some people. The problem is that this is the product of a very complex society and is dependent upon a intricate worldwide economy. Cut of from it, an high-tech enclave will not only have to be self sufficient in energy and food, but also in raw materials, spare parts and expertise. Even a medium-sized country such as France or Britain couldn't, let alone a private island.

Our billionaires – or their security guards – may be quite successful, at first, and escape the worst of the decline, but only so long. Eventually they will run out of ammunition and spare parts. Their machines will break down and their skilled servants will die. They will then find out that backwater areas are backwater for a reason and that tropical islands are rarely resource rich. They will then devolve into a pirate nest or into another provincial community with delusions of grandeur.

When the descendants of those who will have accepted the decline and adapted to it will finally find them, they will be very unlikely to be impressed.

Those who, during pas collapses, managed to come out at the top, where not those who tried to isolate themselves from the troubles behind high walls, but those who rode them out and adapted to changed circumstances. Those were those who provided their fellow citizens with valuable services and guidance in difficult times, not those who hid out in the hope the storm will somehow forget them.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Alter Breton Plan

Politics is a frustrating job. Most of the time you battle windmills and spend an indecent amount of time discussing what you know to be non-issues because they happen to matter to some faction you need to stay in office. It has its rewards, however, especially for those who, as I do, specialize in spreading ideas rather than in fighting for lofty but ultimately empty positions. A few days ago, my party released an energy plan for Brittany – the Alter Breton Plan – which got some attention from the local press. The Alter Breton Plan is basically a green tech plan, to use Holmgren's terminology, but the most important thing is the way it came to fruition, for it tells a lot about the way we peak oiler can act in the world of politics.

As I said, the Alter Breton Plan is a Green Tech one. It plans to significantly reduce Brittany's energy consumption – to 9.8 millions toe a year – while converting it to a relocalized economy based upon renewable energies. It quotes the Meadows Report – which is as sulfurous down here as in America – and envisions a long descent due to both peak oil and global warming. As such it is quite different from official plans, which are all about “Green growth”... even if, as often, the journalist missed the point.

I didn't write this plan. Its author, Gwenael Henry, is far better at crunching numbers than I am, and he definitely works harder. He has also a better knowledge of history and was able to dig up an old alternative energy plan from the late seventies – just before the Plogoff nuclear plant was ditched under popular pressure.

What I brought was the idea.

A thing a discovered when entering the foggy world of politics is that political organizations – especially small ones – are hungry for new ideas. Of course, it is not true of all organizations. Marxist sects – and there are quite a lot of them around here – will gladly expel anybody who does not fit party line. Identity-based parties are generally more open and flexible – at least in western Europe. While they may favor a particular of societal organization - ours is some kind of very vaguely defined socialism – their core values are elsewhere : the defense of a particular culture and territory. It will far easier for them to reconsider their vision of the future than for, say, a hard-line marxist or libertarian, or even a mainline european green whose job depends upon the continuation of the present system... with just a little more solar panels.

Another thing I discovered was that inertia could be your ally. Most political organizations, those days have little in the way of ideology. They have values of course, but their vision of the future are very vague. Even the extremists most often repeat mantra-like speeches about how evil the “system” is and how happy the world will be after “the Revolution”. That means that anybody with an efficiently told story can push forward his ideas without much resistance. Not of course, that my fellow members of the political bureau believes in Greer's long descent or Kunstler's long emergency. I suspect a significant part of them view my predictions as the Trojans did Cassandras'. They are, however, willing to go along the somewhat mitigated version of it defended by the ecological faction because it fits the general intellectual climate... and because they feel they have no other option.

What this means for us, Peak Oiler, who are so desperate to attract the attention of the powers-that-be is that it is totally pointless to write to such or such public figure. If you are not inside the political game, you are basically a non-player and your proposal will be dismissed. The only way you can make a difference, no matter how slight, is by becoming an insider, if possible in a small party.
I don't say, of course, you should enter a regionalist party. Political opinions are intimate by nature. Any small organizations can do. What is important is entering the structure, becoming a player and spread ideas. Hopefully, someone will pick them up.

Of course the Alter Breton is very unlikely to be implemented. It would be even if we were in charge of the country. The time is too short, the inertia of the society to big. Even a beginning of implementation could help however, as would the realization by even a small part of the population that the glorious future they are still told to expect belong to the past.

And if to get that you have to spend hours debating about jail libraries or modern art festivals... it is the price you have to pay.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Peak energy and cultural fragmentation

Last week, I went to Paimpol with my girlfriend to attend the Sailor Songs Festival. An engineer by trade but from a working class background, she has no political experience to speak of, yet is more insightful than many seasoned politicians. As we were strolling along the wharves amidst a joyful crowd, she told me me “we're no longer in France”. The fact that the greater part of what makes the region so un-french is fairly recent does not make her remark less pertinent. In fact it makes it even more so as it highlights a particularly important factor in the coming energy descent : cultural differentiation

It is often believed that industrialization caused an unprecedented wave of culture death. It is true, but less so than most people think. Industrialization opened previously closed areas to western colonization , New Guinea for instance, but those people who suffered the most from European invasions were decimated by sword and musket  armies. Even in Europe, the greater part of the recently deceased minority languages were already extinct or on the verge of becoming so when industrialization started.

Cornish is a typical example of how things worked out. A Celtic language close to Breton and Welsh, Cornish became a separate language after Ceawlin defeated what was probably a successor state to the Dobunni tribe at Deorham in 571. Ceawlin was probably British in language and culture but the polity he headed – the future kingdom of Wessex – was becoming more and more Saxon. Cornwall remained independent, on a shrinking territory, for a few centuries before falling to an united England somewhere during the tenth century. The native nobility probably outlived the kingdom but was eventually dispossessed or assimilated into mainstream English Culture. As a result the Cornish tongue became more and more restricted to the peasantry and the lower clergy. Its domain slowly shrank, both socially and geographically as people shifted to higher prestige English. This process accelerated after the Reformation as an English language liturgy was substituted to the older Latin language one and by 1700 Cornish was no longer spoken but in a few villages around Penzance. The last known native speaker died in 1777.

All of this happened before industrialization, and without any disruption of traditional Cornish society. Of course, Industrialization, by destroying traditional agrarian society, destroyed the social networks which keep many minority languages alive but it could do so only because they were already dominated and spoken only by the lower classes. Had industrialization not taken place, the process of extinction would have taken longer, but the result would have been the same.

On the other hand, Industrialization, by creating the conditions for the emergence of a large middle class and by pushing the nobility out of the historical stage., triggered a renewed wave of interest for hitherto marginalized languages and cultures.  Both classes found in ethnic nationalism and revivalism a way to further their interests. It was not the same kind of ethnic nationalism, mind you. While the nobility viewed itself as the defender of the traditional society, and therefore of the traditional culture, the emerging middle class, especially when its social promotion was hindered by cultural discrimination, considered itself as the vanguard of local modernization.

It has to be said that ethnic nationalism met with varied successes. Brittany stands somewhat in the middle ground. While nationalist parties failed to establish themselves as major players, cultural revivalist have managed to build a modern Breton identity around a mixture of cultural leftovers from a disintegrating peasant society, foreign imports (the pipe bands which so much impressed my girlfriend) and modern reinterpretations.

The coming peak energy will change the situation however.

First, it will destroy, or at least severely weaken the middle class, since the society will be less and less able to create the surplus it needs to sustain itself. Second it will cause states to radically decentralize as they become less and less able to keep a complex bureaucracy. Eventually, the society will revert to a far more local and far less integrated organization.

This is likely to have complex consequences. To begin with, less established revivalist movements are likely to wither away as their social basis disappear. This will obviously be the case for such projects as Old Prussian revivalism which are basically intellectuals' hobbies, but movements with far more credentials are quite likely to go the same way. The Occitan movement comes to mind. It is particularly telling that my girlfriend, who came from an area where this language is spoken doesn't relate at all to it and associate “unfrenchness” not with her own most certainly Occitan speaking ancestors, but with the Basques. Having failed to create a strong local identity, the Occitan movement is probably doomed to become a footnote in history.

Things may go differently, however, in areas where this local identity has been established or maintained. As the nation-state become less and less adapted to a world of increasingly scarce resources, it will be replaced by more local forms of governance. These structures, whatever they may call themselves will need some kind of legitimacy, however. Americans look very fond of talking about secession despite being quite homogeneous culturally speaking. European, on the other hand, are very wary of it. A Free Vermont movement, for instance, would be unthinkable in France, and even in areas where independence could have some legitimacy, it is rarely claimed. The party I belong to, for instance, is adamantly against secession and demands only a large internal autonomy, similar to the one American states enjoy, within a federal Europe, and we are quite typical in that matter. Only extremists, or the very successful, fight for outright independence.

Yet some kind of independence is bound to come. The French state, as it exists today, simply cannot survive peak energy. At some point in the future local authority will take over even if they still pay lip service to a rump central authority. The problem is that without some kind of shared identity, those successor polities will be weak and likely to fight among themselves. This is probably what doomed, culturally speaking the lowlands sub-roman Britons : their tribal identity still living but weakened by romanization they were subverted by Germanic speaking who converted them to their language and culture.

Where some kind of ethnic identity has become mainstream – even in a non-nationalist way – as in Brittany, whoever inherits the power after the ultimate failure of the nation-state, is likely to emphasize it and to push forward the symbols and narratives developed by the revivalist movement. Contrary to the common opinion, this kind of polity is less likely to be authoritarian and warlike. As it will be able to rely upon a shared identity to mobilize its population and legitimate its rule, it won't have to use brute force. Besides, it will far less likely to engage in botched unification wars, even if , of course it will try and reconquer what it thinks to be its historical territory – which promises for interesting times around my own town.

It is that, the building of reasonably stable entity apt to take over from failing states, which is at stake in the defense of minority cultures and identity, not the defense of traditions, which, in many cases, are not so traditional. It is clear that in many places, viable local identities will have to be built anew the way they were in Dark Age Europe : around successful warlord states. It is worth fighting so that as many places as possible don't need it.

And it is as true in America as in Europe

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The demise of the middle class

It has been pointed out that collapses are hard on ruling classes. It is a fact that they are far more dependent upon the continued existence of a complex society than the average subsistence farmer and when the said complex society unravels, they tend to be brutally replaced by people more adapted to the new situation. That is why the Kingdom of Kent was ruled by Germanic warlords, not by sub-roman aristocrats. The burned down temples of Teotihuacan and the toppled statues of Easter Island show that when things go really bad, it is the patricians' heads which end up on a pike. This is why there is nothing more stupid than the conspiracy theories about some malevolent elite leading the world to its ruin. Why would anybody want to destroy the very system that feeds them. There is, however, another, less talked about, casualty of collapse : the middle class.

The large, affluent, middle class of modern western society is something of a novelty in world history. There certainly was a class of reasonably well-to-do craftsmen, merchants and bureaucrats in traditional societies, but it was tiny by today's standards. Even the richest empires could not afford more than an handful of them and the bulk of the population remained made up of peasants with a thin overlayer of priests and nobles.

This, by the way, had to be expected.

All human societies are based upon work specialization. The problem is that specialists, even though they don't produce any energy, need as much of it as your average peasant. This means that to keep a permanent body of specialists, whether they be clerks, blacksmiths, soldiers or ladies-in-waiting, whoever produces energy – that is food until very recently – in a particular society had to produce enough of it to feed them without starving himself – at least most of the time. In virtually all pre-modern societies, this put drastic limits to the development of the middle class.

Before the industrial revolution and the advent of chemical fertilizers, agriculture was very labor-intensive and produced barely enough to feed the nobility, a relatively small middle class of servants, craftsmen and clerks and the peasants themselves – in that order, by the way. The discovery of fertilizers – first guano then the Haber-Bosch process enabled us to greatly increase the productivity of agriculture and create enough surplus for a middle class of civil servants, small entrepreneurs a intermediate managers to emerge. This middle class became larger and larger as the number of people directly involved in energy extraction shrank and their productivity increased. Today, it does encompass the majority of the population of developed countries... as well as myself.

There is a catch, however.

This was made possible only by our using fossil fuels, an energy source more concentrated than anything available before. Without them, the productivity of agriculture would have remained what it was during the XVIIth century and most of our society's manpower would have been locked down in the fields. The supply of fossil fuels is finite, however, and bound to decline in the near future – it has already begun to do so for oil – and this will have tremendous consequences for the social structure of our civilization.

As the net energy available to society declines, so will of course the amount allotted to each social group. The poor will suffer, of course. The working class in European countries has already lost most of what it had won during the sixties and the seventies as employers turned to the mass use of interim workers and renewable fixed duration contracts. Even the administration is no longer the stronghold of workers' right it used to be. The bulk of civil servants are still protected by law in France, but many low rank jobs are now taken by temporary workers. This, of course, will become more and more common as the current generation retires, no matter who is in office in any particular township or minister. It is just a resource problem.

There is more, however. As we slide down the descending slope of the Hubbert's Curve, the complexity of our society will begin to go down. Many professional niches will disappear, simply because an impoverished civilization will no longer be able to afford them – the advertising and marketing sectors come to mind, as well as the entertainment industry. Even the administration will eventually cease to provide a shrinking middle class with a living as catabolic collapse forces us to revert to simpler and more local forms of government.

That is where we enter the foggy realm of politics, for even though politics are not entirely class-based, they still have a strong relationship with them. The fact is that, even in Europe, where they are far more powerful, the greens are still overwhelmingly upper middle class, that is the social category which will suffer the most from the coming crisis. This means that the social basis for that unlikely mixture of liberalism and environmentalism that are green politics is bound to dwindle as catabolic collapse progress.

This does not mean, of course, that environmentalism will cease to to be a concern – the resource crisis and global warming are too big problems to be shuffled back underground. The liberal part of the green agenda, is however, likely to be quickly forgotten. Both struggling working classes and failing middle classes tend, almost naturally, to turn to authoritarianism. Historically it hasn't be the same authoritarianism, mostly because not being a worker has always been a major element in middle class identity. Middle classes therefore supported fascism rather than communism when times became really hard during the early thirties, at least in Europe.

Fascism is dead as an ideology and even in France, hard line communism is down to a few fractious sects. The programmed death of the middle class, will however open the way to new radical ideologies, of which Jay Hanson's War Socialism is but a foretaste, an unholy combination of anti-capitalism, nationalism , pseudo-egalitarian authoritarianism and environmentalism. The BNP is undoubtedly moving in this direction, even though its white supremacist roots – and Nick Griffin's definite lack of charisma – will probably – and fortunately – keep it far away from any kind of power. The danger can also come from the left, however, and the adoption of the "degrowth" ideology by some sections of the French hard left – the so called "Left Front" for instance is definitely bad news in that matter.

Developed countries on the other side of Hubbert's peak might look like debt and shortage ridden early eighties Poland. If we don't manage well the demise of the middle class, it might also have the same kind of politics.