Thursday, May 28, 2009

Red Cliffs and collapse

Not so long ago, I went with my girlfriend to watch "Red Cliffs". She was somewhat disturbed by the main characters' over the top fighting style – even though it was rather tame by Chinese standards – but what surprised her was that the film was based upon historical events. In 208 AD, the combined forces of the southern warlords Liu Bei and Sun Quan defeated the numerically superior army of Cao Cao, making sure that China would remain divided into three distinct polities for the next sixty years. It was an event of tremendous importance in the history of China, and therefore of the world, and it is only because of the ethnocentrism of the French educational system so few people know about it.

Yet, its European counterpart, the Battle of Chalons, is still less known. I am not talking, of course of the second Battle of Chalons, where Aetius and his hodgepodge romano-germanic army defeated Attila's no less hodgepodge germano-hunnic army, but of the first one, where Aurelian forced the surrender of the last Gallic emperor Tetricus the First, ensuring the Roman Empire will remain united... and collapse far more completely than China ever did.

That is where those ancient battles matter for us, men of the twenty-first century, at the eve of a collapse quite similar to the one which befell the Roman and the Han Empires.

Societal collapse nearly always translates into political disintegration. It is a normal consequence of the way complex society works. Whenever a polity increases in size, the percentage of its resource base it has to devote to its internal functioning increases as well. As long as the increase in productivity or gross resource base makes up for it, all goes well, but the law of decreasing returns means that at some point the polity is caught between rising costs and stagnating income. Its net resource base, the one it can mobilize to face an emergency shrinks and it slowly loses the control of its territory. It can then be taken over by foreign invaders, or disintegrate as warlords or local governments seize effective control of the territory. The net result is always the same : a large polity, endowed with large potential resource it can no longer mobilize is replaced by smaller polities, with a smaller resource base but a better mobilization capacity.

That is what happened in the third century AD in both China and Europe and the outcome of this crisis is quite edifying. It was what John Michael Greer calls a maintenance crisis, a temporary, self-limiting, overshoot and it remained so in China. Cao Cao, the northern warlord failed to reunify the Han Empire, and the one Chinese Empire was replaced by three, leaner and more efficient, kingdoms which laid the foundations for the Jin dynasty.

In Europa, however, the Palmyrene and Gallic breakaway states couldn't ally and were separately defeated by a resurgent Roman Empire, which then reorganized and proceeded to exploit more efficiently – that is more ruthlessly – its resources. The result was a longish period of relative stability, followed by a depletion crisis which tore away the very fabric of Western European society.

We are at the eve of a depletion crisis. Present day polities are so complex – and therefore costly – they cannot exist without a constant inflow of energy only fossil fuels can provide. With the advent of peak-oil, they will less and less able to pay for the cost of their existence and will disintegrate. The way they will do it, however, will matter quite a lot and if they cling to their unity too long and fail to decentralize, they will only exhaust resources their successor will need to firmly establish themselves. So instead of the warring but reasonably stable Three Kingdoms, we will end up with squabbling fiefdoms.

This is, I think, a vital task peak oil activists unfortunately tend to overlook : how to make sure that will curent polities will fail, they won't be replaced by a reincarnation of the petty kingdoms of England. That certainly does not mean encouraging every wild secessionist scheme – some are reasonable project, like in Scotland, Wales or Catalonya but most others are just recipes for disasters – but encouraging decentralization, growth of regional identities and empowerment of local authorities, so that, when the time will come, we won't need a Battle of the Red Cliffs to avoid fighting the one of Badon Hill.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The railway system and the limits of complexity

I work in Nantes but live i Saint-Nazaire, a medium-sized city located roughly 60 km from it. It is a professional necessity; Since I have a politically oriented job, I can't have a political activity in the same city as the one whose mayor I work for. Of course that means that I must commute by train every morning – I don't own a car and even if I did, I wouldn't go through the center of Nantes by car in the morning. The traffic is nightmarish.

Most of the time, things go pretty well. The train leaves the Nantes station at 17:21 and arrives at Saint-Nazaire at 18:00. It is often crowded, especially on friday, but aside from that, it is quite modern and comfortable.

This week, however, it was delayed twice in a row. Not by much, mind you, a mere fifteen minutes, but after a long and tedious day of work it was quite of an annoyance. It was also a sign of things to come.

The French railway system was once hailed as one of the best ones in the world. Delays happened, of course, as did mechanical break-down, but they were rare and had little consequences. Today, they seem to become more and more common. This is especially true of the vaunted high-speed train, the TGV.

The TGV is very rapid. It can go from Nantes to Paris in a mere two hours and this could be reduced to a mere 90 minutes in a no so distant future. The problem is that it is dependent upon a very specific and very high maintenance grid network and that they company running it – which by the way is no longer the same company as the one running the train itself - can no longer maintain it efficiently, or, to put it more accurately, can no longer maintain it while maintaining the rest of the network at the same time.

The result has been a string of very embarrassing grid failures, stranding TGVs full of businessmen and politicians in the middle of nowhere for hours, and since the whole French rail system is organized around TGV lines, this could, and did paralyze a significant part of the country's transportation system.

This no longer happens, but not because grid failures have been eliminated. The railway company (yes, singular) has just become better at dealing with them – being summoned in the Minister for Transportation's office is a very good motivator. Last time I went to Paris – a tv show about the French language where I was to be the Devil's advocate – I arrived back home nearly three hours late because of what seems to have been just another grid failure, more than doubling the duration of my journey.

Sci-fi amateurs will be reminded of the famous scene where Eto Demerzel points out the noise produced by Trantor's mass transit system as a sign of the decline of the Galactic Empire. Others will rather turn to Tainter's limits of complexity or Ibn Khaldun' infrastructure failure. The same phenomenon is at work here.

French railway workers are highly paid professionals, heavily unionized and with a strong work ethic. Their situation have been deteriorating for years, however. The SNCF – the still state-owned French company – has been under financial stress for decades and, partly out of ideology, partly because of local political pressure has focused upon the high figure TGV lines at the expense of local transportation. The maintenance – and ownership – of the network has been transferred to another state-owned company which relies heavily upon private contractors. Needless to say, the employees of said contractors are far less payed, and therefore far less motivated and skilled than those of the old SNCF were.

Even inside the SNCF itself, conditions are deteriorating. The strong union culture within it has enabled workers to significantly slow the ongoing slide down, but it is a losing battle. The problem is that SNCF workers are not fighting only against a pervading free-market ideology, they are fighting against a whole system reaching its limits.

The French society, like Asimov's Trantor, has most probably reached the point where further investments in complexity can no longer yield positive returns. To make things worse, it has reached it at the very time where natural resources grow scarcer and scarcer at the world level, triggering he onset of what John Michael Greer calls catabolic collapse.

The end result is unlikely to be pretty, even if one shouldn't expect an Hollywood-like massive system failure. As a pointed out, the SNCF has become quite good at dealing with grid failures, and the rest of the French society will doubtlessly adapt to its own version of catabolic collapse, as all societies did in the past in similar situations. For instance, local railroad transportation has been devolved to Regions, and while those lines are not perfect they run better than the rest of the network.

The main problem is of course, that this adaptation goes against the interests of many entrenched power groups inside the French society, and that their resistance is very likely to make the unraveling of the French state far messier than it needs to be.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Soccer, identity and the post-peak world

The big affair of the week in Brittany has been the final of the Coupe de France between Guingamp and Rennes. I an no soccer fan and I willingly avow I didn't follow the match and hardly cares for its result. I am not blind to its political significance, however.

It is hardly new for sport to play a role in politics. Since the end of World War II, soccer, and to a lesser extend, rugby, has become in Western Europe a kind of euphemistic war where citizens of otherwise civilized countries funnel their nationalistic feelings into a giant collective catharsis. This strategy may backfire, as in the Heysel Stadium Disaster or in the infamous 100 hours war, when soccer riots led to a shooting war between El Salvador and Honduras. It can also reveal underground current which, while still marginal, may become the shape of the things to come.

It was the first time the final of the Coupe de France opposed two Breton teams and this competition being relatively open it won't happen again any time soon. Had it happened a mere decade ago, it would have been a great soccer moment but nothing more. This time, however, regional authorities were able, and willing, to impose the playing of the Breton anthem before the match.

Of course it was not done inside protocol time but, as was to be expected, the media buzz, at least in Brittany, was such it amounted to the same.

I have played no role in this decision, of course. I am still pretty much in the junior leadership. My party did, however, and while the final push probably came from the President of the Regional Council, our spokesperson, Mona Bras was quite influential in it and obviously neither did it for the love of sport.

It would be an exaggeration to call the whole thing "birth of a nation", as did a nationalist portal. Once the match over – Guingamp won by the way – everybody went back home. There was no revolution and I am pretty sure it will have very little influence upon the results of the coming elections. Bretons will mostly vote for the left and hardly anybody will even notice the lone nationalist list – we don't even support it.

What is going on here is more complex and more subtle.

Breton identity is, like all identity, a complex and multi-layered thing. It was built around what Anthony D. Smith calls an "ethnic core", but it owes much more to such cultural influences as Romantism or the French incarnation of the Counterculture than to any Arthurian heritage or to any memory of the old ducal state. Under its present form it didn't emerge before the nineteenth century and only became popular during the 70s.

Not that it makes it illegitimate. Most if not all European national identities, whether they managed to embody themselves within a state or not, were born within the same general timeframe. Breton identity, for reasons linked to the nature of the French state and to various historical accident, failed so far to acquire a political dimension, but that is hardly an unique case.

It definitely was a weakness as it made more difficult for local initiative to aggregate within a collective effort to defend and promote our interest. This may prove a blessing in disguise, however, as we enter the twilight of our fossil fuels based civilization. Indeed, it enabled it to spread it far beyond regionalist circles and to pass in the political meanstream. There were, and there is still oppositions, of course, mostly in the far left even if the LaRouchies would probably join it once they notice, but it lost most of its audience once we became a part of the regional majority and is becoming more and more marginalized.

When Breton identity will become political, it will be as a rallying point, not as a divisive issue or some far right fantasy.

I am quite happy of it, of course. Promotion of Breton identity under its political form is the raison d'être of our party. That's not the only reason, however.

As our resource base grows scarcer and scarcer – and France has very few natural resources left – the French state will become less and less likely to even survive. It won't necessarily explode – it is unlikely to do so – but will become more and more maladapted and eventually collapse or wither away. In such a context, a strong regional identity is an asset because it will enable local institutions, whatever they might be, to rally the people around them, to face more successfully whatever crisis in ongoing.

One of the most surprising thing in the history of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire is that locals institutions did not fight the invaders. With the exception of the weak Syagrius, no warlord emerged, as did Postumus during the third century, to fight off the Franks and the Goths. It was not only because local forces were low quality militias – they were, but cities could have hired mercenaries to defend themselves. It would have been a risky bet, but not necessarily a losing one.

The fact is that they didn't or when they did, they did it half-heartedly. That local aristocracies were unwilling to pay, whether in gold or in blood, for the defence of a derelict and costly empire is understandable, but they did not do it either for their local civitas, preferring to compose with whatever self-styled Germanic king happened to claim it.

The only exception is, as it seems, Britain, where tribal loyalty had remained quite strong. When the Romans left in 410, the former British tribes recovered their independence and began to war among themselves. To do so they hired a lot of Germanic mercenaries, which in retrospect was a bad idea. It shows, however, that local elites, unlike their continental counterpart, were willing to pay for the defence of their homeland. In a way it succeeded, by the way, since current researches suggest that British polities were not replaced by Anglo-Saxon kingdoms but evolved into them as their elites adopted the culture of the newcomers.

Their strong local identity did not protect them from collapse and warlordism but it enabled them to retain at least some kind of institutional continuity up to the formation of the Kingdom of England and even beyond.

Regional identities are notoriously weak in France and given the nature of our society, they are unlikely to strengthen quickly enough to become a real cohesive force by the time the French states fails. Only Brittany, Corsica, and maybe Alsace may escape this fate... provided we make the right choices and don't allow ourselves to be misled by outdated mythologies.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Ty-Breizh and the “Republicans”

In the small party I am a member of, the swine flu non-crisis has been vastly overshadowed, last week, by a far more local, but, I think, far more culturally significant event : the Guerlesquin Ty-Breizh affair.

As I doubt many people outside Brittany, or even inside, have heard about it, I will develop a bit. Guerlesquin is a Breton village located in a rural area which, curiously enough, has long been a stronghold of the Communist Party and where we have been progressing rather nicely those last years.

Not so long ago, a group of young people have bought an old mill and set up a “house of Brittany”, proposing various activities – among which Breton language lessons – under the slogan “Identity, Ecology, Solidarity”.

This is a slogan we might have rallied behind. In fact many people within the political meanstream might have here. The problem is that it does not mean the same things for us and for them.

Upon closer examination it appeared, indeed, that those young people belonged to a far right movement called “Les Identitaires” - the Identitarians. They are something of a novelty in the French political landscape, having risen from the ashes of “Unité Radicale” a group banned by the government in 2002 after one of its members had tried, rather clumsily by the way, to shoot the then president Jacques Chirac.

The Identitarians develop a rather weird kind of radicalism, mixing anti-immigrants and anti-muslim diatribes with carefully worded slogans about the defense of local culture and of local workers' right. Of course, but they don't advertise it, the solidarity they promote is a solidarity among white people and if they defend the local identity, it is as a racially based one.

One can hardly imagine a project more removed from the one we, left-wing regionalists, fight for.

Of course the Identitarians were quickly exposed for what they are, by us among others, and we can rest assured they will be ostracized by locals, and most probably blacklisted by all the region's papers. Their chances of getting into power, even locally, are basically nihil and it's only a matter of time before they flounder into political irrelevance.

The very fact they have to masquerade to spread their ideas show how weak they really are. A conquering ideology does not need disguising itself and when wolves put on sheep's clothes, it is generally because they know they cannot win against the shepherd dog in anything approaching a fair fight.

If the Identitarian movement is bound to fail, however, the idea of mixing identity politics, nationals only solidarity and ecology is likely to have a bright future. As the crisis deepens and our society begins to slide down the other side of Hubbert's Peak, it will become more and more tempting for aspiring politicians to mix the rhetoric of nationalism with environmentalism and anti-system diatribes.

The beginning of such a discourse has begun to emerge, not so much in the Green movement which is libertarian in nature, but among the remnants of the Republicans – read left wing national-conservatives. It is particularly visible in the newly founded “Parti de Gauche”. Its leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has recently given an interview to the journal “La Décroissance”, where he pleaded for a state-managed and planned “degrowth”. Of course the state itself is certainly not planned to “degrow”, so we can be quite sure such a program, should it be applied, would end up in a soviet-like authoritarian disaster. More radically nationalists agendas can be found in various grouplets such as the online journal “Riposte Laïque” or the nefarious trotskist sect “Parti Ouvrier Indépendant”.

Melenchon's gambit appears to have been a failure so far and its new party seems fated to a slow slide into insignificance, but this is mostly because he is not the right man for the job, both too vulgar in his behavior and too intellectual in his ideology.

Another might succeed, however, and as we advance further into the process of catabolic collapse the chance of seeing of successful demagogue appear increase. While American political culture tend to veer toward individualism and to see the central state as an enemy of freedom, the French one see it as the guardian of national liberties and of social equality. This has protected us from the worse excesses of the free-market ideology, but as the limits to growths become more and more stringent and our social model less and less adapted to a contracting economy, it opens the door to the worst kind of political adventurism. Peak-Oil might very well put us a gifted orator away from a Chavez-like strongman regime.

This would be a tragedy, and not only because it would dramatically curtail our freedom and make democracy a farce. By centralizing power and by bloating the administration, such a regime would make the unraveling of the French state far more messy, and probably violent, than it needs to be. Instead of the gradual hand-over of state functions to local and locally elected authorities, which is clearly the best way to make sure somebody reasonably decent will be able to take over when the time comes, we would have a concentration of power into the hands of local representatives of the state, which, as history shows, the best way to engender warlords and petty tyrants.