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.


  1. Very nicely said. All excess is toxic. Excessive dominance (wealth, power, prestige) is especially toxic to the mind. Essentially, the richer you are the crazier you become. I keep wondering about Sorros, but every new emanation of the elite strata tends to confirm my belief about this. Egalitarianism makes for a physically and mentally healthy society.


  2. I love your quote about rich people diverting a part of society's energy flow. Keep on writing -- it is appreciated.