Monday, May 31, 2010

Retirement and entitlement

Last tuesday I participated to a demonstration against the projected reform of the French retirement system. It was nearly mandatory for me to be seen there, on strike (but still paid, that is one of the advantages of being a politician) and holding a party banner. Yet, all moderates present felt the whole thing was an act, a mere baroud d'honneur before an unavoidable defeat. Even the very peak energy unaware Socialist Party recognizes, privately, that the current French retirement system cannot stand unchanged and anybody even vaguely peak oil aware will agree that retirement itself is going to become a thing of the past. Yet, here we were, clamoring in the street in defense of a system we knew is unsustainable. The truth was simply unspeakable even for those few who could think it. Any left-winger audacious, or stupid, enough to question this “to the last ditch” attitude, would quickly be ostracized as an ally of the right and lose whatever position he had acquired inside his organization. As absurd as it sounds, it is the reality anybody willing to bring out a constructive response to our predicament must face. The main obstacle is not some elite plot but a far more diffuse, and formidable, obstacle : this feeling of entitlement so pervasive in developed societies.

The French retirement system is a complex hodgepodge of individual retirement plans or institutions, so complex in fact that a same individual may have to deal with several of them as he reaches retirement age – this will (or rather would have been) probably be my case as I worked a few month in the private sector before becoming a civil servant. All, or nearly all, work the same way, however. Every month a significant part of your wages go to a retirement fund (in my case the CNRACL) which uses said money to pay the pensions of the retirees affiliated to it.

This system works fine as long as working people are significantly more numerous than the retirees they support, which is unfortunately less and less the case. As birth rate decreased during the seventies and high unemployment became a permanent feature of the economy (8% is an absolute minimum here), a growing number of retirees has to be supported by a stagnating or even decreasing number of workers. Moreover, those retirees began their careers during the years of rapid growth, when there still were still a lot of highly paid jobs up for the taking, so the standard of life of most of them is actually superior to the one of most of the workers supporting them.

This would not be an unsolvable problem, should the resources available to society continue to grow. We know, however, it won't be the case. Our civilization is reaching the limits pointed out by the Meadows Report thirty years ago where continued real growth is made more and more difficult due to the depletion of key resources. Add in the limits of social complexity as a problem-solving strategy pointed out by Tainter in his seminal work The Collapse of Complex Societies and it becomes obvious that there only two possible fates for the French retirement system, both equally unpleasant.

First we can choose to go the deflation way. As the economy contracts in real terms and less and less resource are available to society, unemployment will skyrocket and an increasing number of people will turn to the domestic or underground economy for survival. As a consequence, the amount of money retirement management agencies will be able to collect will decrease and it will be only a matter of time before one goes bankrupt. The most sensible solution would be to let it crash and burn, but the political cost would be staggering. What will happen instead is that the state will step in, assume the debts and impose lower benefits for higher payments. This is basically what happens today, except that the government does not seem too eager to assume any debt but its own (and even that...)

Since the available net energy is bound to decline to near pre-industrial levels, there are no reason for this process not to repeat itself again and again until the whole French retirement system is down to a purely symbolic level. Of course, by this point, something really nasty would surely have already happened, making the whole issue quite irrelevant anyway.

We could also choose the inflation way, create a lot of money to fuel a fake growth and pay our debt with it. Of course inflation will quickly rise its ugly head – not necessarily Zimbabwe level inflation, but high enough to make any rise in nominal pensions illusory. All we'll have to do then is let pensions – and wages – stagnate and inflation will quickly make retirement history. That is what happened in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when pensions kept their nominal value while the ruble plummeted.

Were I to say that in the speech I am commissioned to write for the forthcoming departmental rally of the left, I would probably have to find myself another job, and certainly not because I would have uncovered some sinister elite plot to deprive workers of their birthright. The problem is that pensions have been so thoroughly cut from work that most people – including politicians – have come to consider it not as the result of one's labor but as an inalienable right.

At the beginning, pensions were supposed to be socialized wages and a number of unions and political groups still cling to this idea and repeat it like a mantra. They may have been perceived as such during the early fifties, but now they are just subsidies raining down from distant bureaucracies. The result has been a contradictory feeling of helplessness and entitlement. Unless what might have happened within the local chapter of an old style fraternal order, the individual worker has no say in the pension policy. It is decided either directly by the government or by the unholy alliance of workers' and corporations' unions which manages most French retirement organisms. All citizens can do is accept or protest.

Even if the ideology of progress had not been so pervasive in our society, this disempowerment would have been sure to generate a deep sense of entitlement. Retirement is no longer something you work for but something you wait for and, as always, when your expectations are not met, the result is frustration and anger.

And it does not help that Frenchmen – like Americans – live in what would have seemed unimaginable luxury to a medieval baron.

Of course, it could be possible to imagine sustainable retirement solutions without reverting to pure family solidarity – which supposes you do have a family and it has the means to support you – or charity – which basically puts your survival in the hands of whatever church happens to rule the area. The Islamic zaqat system might be a way, provided it is organized at a community level and not taken over by the state or some large private organization, as it is too often the case in the Islamic world. The fraternal orders of the English and American nineteenth century might be another. Neither fits very well within the framework of today's French – or American for that matter – society and both would be stiffly resisted by Unions and political parties alike, as would be the suggestion that there are ideas to be found among the Amish, the Hutterites or the other groups born from the radical Reformation.

The necessary shift from bureaucracy and entitlement toward community empowerment, local resilience and personal responsibility will have to grow locally, through our own efforts, and that may mean accepting the hardships which come with it. That is exactly what most people – and the political elite represents them well in that matter – don't want to hear. That is exactly why they will cling to unsustainable structures until they collapse... while we'll grow alternatives in the cracks

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Barbarian invasions

World media did not talk about it, but France was recently shaken by another polemic about the Islamic veil. A woman was caught driving while wearing a veil almost completely hiding her face and fined – rightly so, in my opinion – for dangerous driving. The government, who had just lost the regional elections by the largest margin ever, escalated, threatened to revoke the woman's husband's citizenship because because he had several wives, then, discovering it was not legally possible announced it would vote a law to make it so, retroactively. The whole thing degenerated into political bickering out of which, we can be pretty sure, nothing will come out. This polemic may sound quite absurd, especially in a time when most governments in Europe are struggling to avoid bankruptcy. In many way it is. It highlights, however, an important aspect of the energy descent : migration, culture shift, and the reaction of locals to both.

Many authors have predicted the energy descent will result in mass migrations, leading to large scale population replacement. John Michael Greer has thus stated he considered an Arab conquest of Europe a distinct possibility, and his e-novel Star' Reach describes the Old World as the place “where the Arabs live now”. There is certainly an American bias here. America experienced a large scale population replacement in the last three centuries, with natives being progressively swamped out by immigrants from the other side of the sea. This hasn't happened in Europe for five millenniums.

Of course, there have been a lot of invasions and culture shifts, but the population has remained the same as it was during the neolithic. In the area I live, people first spoke some kind of pre-indoeuropean language, then shifted to Celtic, then to Latin, then to another brand of Celtic, then to a romance local dialect, then to standard French. They will probably shift to something else at some point of the future. Most of them, however, directly descend from the mesolithic hunter-gatherers who claimed this land after the end of the last ice age.

The invasions which marked the end of the Western Roman Empire have had a surprisingly small impact. Germanic warlords seized political power and set up often short-lived kingdoms but they and their men were too few in number to really influence the genetic make up of the population or do more than introduce a few specialized loanwords in their language. As a rule, immigrants, even high-status sword wielding immigrants, quickly assimilate, not because they have a moral obligation to do so but because it is the best way to advance in society. Of course, in the long run, it means forsaking the web of ethnic solidarity which helped them to survive when they first arrived, but most of the time it is a price worth paying.

There are exceptions, however. Transplanted peasant communities, settling en masse on a relatively virgin land can resist assimilation a very long time, even if they are completely surrounded by natives. This is what happened to the Arvanites of Greece or to the, now gone, German speaking populations of Russia or Romania. This has, of course, little relevance for the energy descent age.

The second exception – the English – is, however, far more interesting. Far right ideologues and anti-immigrations activists don't like to talk about it, but the English are the one example in reasonably recent history of an immigrant – not conqueror – group who managed to take over their host country. Indeed, when the Roman Empire left – or was expelled from – Britain in 410, the bulk of the population was Christian and spoke Latin or what would become Welsh, Cornish or Breton. Two centuries later Latin was gone as a spoken language, Celtic tongues and Christianity were restricted to the western highlands while the remainder of the country was held by pagan Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, a rather unusual fate, one must say, for a former Roman land.

The traditional interpretation of this rather troublesome turn of event, based upon the contemporary but biased account of Gildas, holds that the soft and decadent Britons were obliged to hire Saxon mercenaries to defend themselves. Those mercenaries revolted, slaughtered the natives and seized their lands. This is a very compelling story, one which fits very well the apocalyptic mindset so common in some sections of the Peak Oil movement. The only problem is that it doesn't fit the facts.

To begin with, many early “Anglo-Saxon” rulers wore unmistakably Celtic names. Most of the battles they fought took place, not on the shores, as would have been expected but on the old tribal borders. It was on these very same tribal borders or around major cities that their earliest settlement were first located. Moreover both British and old English borrowed very little from each other which suggests they had, at least at first, a reasonably equivalent status. Sub-Roman Britons doesn't not seem to have been weak and decadent either : the picture modern archeology reveals is one of powerful tribal militias, fortified hilltops and hundreds of kilometers long defense dikes.

This has led a new generation of searchers, such as Stuart Laycock, to suggest another scenario : after the Romans left, the old British tribes recovered their freedom and fought among themselves. Following late Roman practice they imported Germanic mercenaries they settled in strategic locations, not necessarily because they lacked trained manpower, but because hired swords, not being embroiled in local politics are generally more reliable in the short term.

The end result was that the culture and language of the newcomers prevailed, albeit not necessarily their dynasties. After all, the kings of Wessex, who ultimately unified England had an obvious, even if not very much publicized, Celtic ancestry.

What is particularly interesting for the fate of our own society during the energy descent is that the immigrants, despite being relatively few in numbers, assimilated the natives rather than the other way around. Outright military conquest certainly played a role in this process but certainly not everywhere and certainly not in the West Country. My own guess is that mercenaries Germanic war bands were more open that the British aristocracy. Ambitious but low status youths, such as perhaps Cerdic of Wessex, had therefore every reason to join them, learn their language and worship their gods – after all, if Paris has been worth a mass, Venta Belgarum and Old Sarum may very well have been worth a sacrifice to Woden.

The result was that when rubble stopped bouncing and warlordships coalesced into reasonably sized kingdoms, the ruling elite of what had been the core of Roman Britain had become pagan and Anglo-Saxon speaking, even though a significant part of it was probably of British ancestry.

Could such a thing happen in today's Europe ? If present conditions continue to prevail, certainly not. There is absolutely no way an immigrant culture, associated with poverty and marginality can win over the elite or even the middle class. In fact, immigrants have every incentive to abandon it, with the possible exception of religion, provided it is practiced the European way, that is privately.

Peak energy makes things more complex, however. As the net energy available to society decreases, so will its capacity to support complex hierarchies. We can count on the ruling elites to pressure everyone and his dog to stay at the top, but ultimately they will fall. In the meantime, however, it will be the lower and middle classes which will be hit the hardest. What that means for immigrants is that they will no longer be able, except for a few lucky individuals, to advance in society and will be permanently locked in underclass status. They will then have no reason to abandon the very real advantages of community solidarity for a more and more empty promise of integration.

Impoverished natives may and will then join immigrant culture – or rather what it will have become since it will quickly grow quite different of what it was at home – for protection and some form of advancement. This process is clearly at work in French society, even if it is marginal – racism and scapegoating is still the most common reaction.

As the crisis deepens and the middle class slips into permanent poverty, we may have a rather interesting “culture war” between whatever emerges from urban ghettos and a racism which in France may put on the mask of secularism – those who read French and will have look at this supposedly left wing blog will understand what I mean.

At some point in the process of decline, this is bound to generate a deep fracture in European societies, fracture which may take a territorial form, as it did in Britain, with an immigrant-based cultures prevailing in some areas and more native ones holding on in some others. Islamic polities may very well emerge in some French regions and large parts of Germany may very well become Turkish-speaking after the ultimate collapse of today's European states and of the elites which draw their power from them.

This is not necessarily a bad outcome. These futures societies and polities can become as rich and cultured as England did despite its rather troubled origin. The problem is that this process, probably inevitable at this point, will meet with a lot of resistance from natives, and more specifically from those authorities who will draw their legitimacy from today's polities. Racism and ethnic cleansing are bound to show their ugly head and make the unraveling of our civilization far messier and bloodier than it needs to be.

Ironically, it is the very refusal of the native majority to make place to immigrants and to integrate a part of their culture into their own which make this outcome all the more likely. This means, of course that ethnic regions – the Celtic Fringe for instance, but that is only an example – may be less vulnerable. Whatever polity emerge from them will likely draw its legitimacy from a supposed – even if often more fantasized than real – resistance to the state it is a part today. This may enable them to integrate large section of immigrant culture, as a part of a necessary culture change, without endangering themselves. An emirate of Britanny may exist in the future and, even if I'd prefer a Wiccan democracy, it would be as Breton as today's French region.

Even here, however, it is far from a forgone conclusion. In an atmosphere of nationalist ranting and stigmatization, it seems that the likes of Gildas will have a field day, paving the way for those of Cerdic and Creoda.