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


  1. FYI, it appears that the reports of Cornish's demise were at least premature, if not exaggerated. Here's an article from the Los Angeles Times: http://is.gd/2cysU. You're probably right, however, that it likely won't be around for much longer.

    Thanks for the view...

    Don Dwiggins

  2. I know about the Cornish revival. Of course, and that's the main problem, it is an open question whether modern Cornish is really the Cornish language of old or some new artificial language rebuilt on it. I won't open this can of worms here, but it is a fact that the linguistic continuity was broken in 1777 and that the modern language was revived from historical records. It is also a fact that those records were incomplete and that revivalist had to fill in by borrowing vocabulary and grammatical features from Breton and Welsh. Lot has been lost when old Dolly Pentreath died.

    This does not make modern Cornish illegitimate, however. In fact, I think it is probably more legitimate in Cornwall than Occitan in Bordeaux. People have adopted it as a badge of identity and in the long run, it is all that matters.

    And by the way, they may last quite a while, provided they manage to keep a strong local identity

  3. I live in a regional town in South Australia where, partly due to the influence of the Cornish miners in the 19th century, there is a significant identification with the Cornish culture and language. I take your point about the authenticity of the language, and the cultural continuity, however, as peak oil changes the way that we live, this local identity and cohesiveness of the community will be useful as a stabilising force.
    We live in interesting times.

  4. Good post!

    I'm from Val d'Aran, the only valley in Spain where Occitan is spoken, and the only place where it is a official, taught in all schools.
    It's a quite special place because geographicalluy is not well comunicated with Spain, just few months on summer. This detail is important because in the close future under the great crisis, we will lose most of the contact with the country, forcing a real local administration and we would really be like a "new country". Unfortunately, we don't have any important resources, so we have less risk to be invaded by France or either Spain.
    Also because of it, there will be quite a lot of emigration, specially foreigners who doesn't own lands here and surviving would be harder.

    The political independence and recovering the own culture as it was few centuries ago, means also to live as few decades ago. Two steps foward, one step back. Not so bad!