Sunday, July 19, 2009
Sunday, July 12, 2009
Since it was taken away from townships after WWII, law enforcement, in France, is a central state function. Policemen are civil servants, recruited for life on a national basis. Since they, too, age and retire, failing to do so any particular year means that the numbers of policemen in French streets will drop, probably dramatically. Of course, there are other law enforcement agencies in France : the gendarmerie, a military police in charge of rural areas an the Internet, and various municipal polices but they are still of lesser importance and certainly cannot make up for the National Police's deficiencies.
The immediate reasons of Sarkozy' decision are quite obvious. Like everybody those days, he is desperate for cash and due to European regulations he cannot run too large a deficit or print. Budget cuts, especially those kinds of budget cuts, are hardly absurd. They can help create some maneuver room and liberate resources for more vital, or politically more important, domains.
The problem is that it works only for temporary crisis, something the one we face is definitely not. While its immediate cause has been the subprimes debacle, it is fundamentally a manifestation of our colliding with the Limits to Growth the Meadows Report highlighted thirty years ago. Our economies are dependent upon a steady inflow of high grade energy only fossil fuels can provide and the supply of those is stagnating and will soon enter terminal decline. This means that the resource available to support state apparatus – whether or not they are as bloated as the French one – will become scarcer and scarcer.
Of course, we should not imagine a state suddenly collapsing under its own weight. It never happened in the past, it won't happen this time. What will happen is that states will focus their remaining resources upon maintaining what they see as vital services, at the expenses of the others – the same way a human body immersed in cold water will concentrate whatever heath it is left around vital organs, even if that means letting one toe or two freeze. As I said, it is not an absurd strategy on the short term. There is, after all, little point in subsidizing , say, classical music when you are at risk of being overrun by a foreign invasion.
The problem is, of course, that budgets cuts which are relatively safe in the short term can land you in a sea of trouble if the crisis lasts. Underfunding road repair cans sound like a good idea for a resource-short government. After all, roads take time to deteriorate and even if they do, it won't stand in the way of your reelection. Besides there are always ways to put the blame on somebody else shoulders – for instance the company you sold the said road to. On the long run however, you will end up with a very bumpy, and nearly useless road network.
The same is true with administration in general and security in particular. As their resource based declined, past civilizations tended to scrap services they deemed unessential. Of course that rarely meant security. No matter how powerful kings and emperors were, there was always some neighbor more than ready to part them from their throne. That could mean, however, abandoning peripheral territories or trusting local authorities with the organization – and the funding – of their own defense. That is what the late Roman Empire did. It did abandon Dacia and Britain, and hired Germanic tribal warlords to defend its borders. Let's say it was not a resounding success.
Such a fate is unlikely to befall us. Abandoning territory is taboo in our political culture, unless said territory really wants to go away, as for settling foreign mercenaries under their own laws... no matter what conspiracy theorists say, it is as likely to happen as an invasion of flying pigs. It is just incompatible with the ruling paradigm of the nation-state.
What will probably happen, however, as we slide farther and farther on the road to catabolic collapse, is a slow but irremediable loss of control by the state. Even though it is not all powerful, modern states exert an unprecedented control upon their own society. It is not because they are particularly power-thirsty, of course. Ivan IV would have been as totalitarian as Stalin it he could have and some Chinese emperors were very fond of intrusive laws and secret polices. They just didn't have the means to fully control their territory.
Modern states have. Their economy creates enough surplus to fund huge administrations and police forces able to reach down to the remotest part of their territory. Those are very costly, however, and as states focus their dwindling resources on their core functions, they will grow thin on the ground. This may take various forms, of course. Administrative service, among which, security, may be sold out to private agencies which will only partially assume them. They may be devolved to local authorities, without the means to assume them. They may become so chronically underfunded they become both ineffective and corrupt.
The end result will always be the same. The state will lose the control of the peripheral parts of its society and territory. Of course, it will still be able to crush any open revolt, but it will no longer be able to provide any effective day to day administration. Local authorities will have to step in – arm their municipal police and use it as a real law enforcement agency, for instance – and in some places ganglords will become de facto rulers. Of course this will hinder the states' ability to efficiently mobilize its remaining resources, which will trigger another round of budget cuts and loss of control until the state itself become a mere fiction and is replaced by whatever really controls the territory.
Another consequence, is that we may see the rebirth of that rural banditry which plagued pre-industrial countries and is still very present in the Third World. We have forgotten how common highwaymen were in pre-industrial Europe, how they could defy the central power for years and even wage small wars against it. As public authorities become less and less able to police their territory they may very well be reborn and accelerate the post peak version of the withering of the state, whether it be by depriving it of much needed resources or by encouraging locals to step in.
During the seventies, the Breton singer Gilles Servat sung about what he thought would be the 2000s
Il y avait encore des grands chemins
que les bandits fréquentaient guère
Aujourd'hui on croirait la guerre
Les embuscades au petit matin
There were still highways
Bandits didn't roam
Today one would believe to be at war
Ambushes at dawn
He may have been wrong only about the timing
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
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.