Monday, July 26, 2010

A vision of the future : The Knights of God

Hardly anybody today remembers The Knights of God. It was a children’s series produced by a now defunct British regional television channel in 1985. It was aired once, not so unfairly panned by critics, and quickly forgotten. It had a somewhat longer career in France where public television bought it and aired it at least twice, under the title Les Epées de Feu, before putting it in cold storage. Since nobody ever bothered to release it on DVD, it is now only available on peer-to-peer networks. Yet, despite its flaws, this piece of nearly lost lore tells us more about what post-peak politics could be than most doomer porn produced since.

The plot was quite complex, but its premises are quite simple. At some point in what was then the future, Britain had fallen into civil war, apparently due to some conflict between the South and the North. It seemed to have been a brutal, messy affair, and the winner had been the Knights of God, a military religious order headed by Prior Mordrin. The royal family had been slaughtered save for one baby miraculously sheltered away and brought up in secret in Wales. As the show begins, Mordrin , who rules from Winchester, has just brought back under his control the north of England. Wild bands of partisans are roaming the countryside, London is in ruins, and for some reason Canterbury is an independent enclave under its Archbishop.

Of course, at the end the long-lost heir to the throne is recognized, leads a general insurrection, and marries his girlfriend (and yes, he was big-eared and she was blond – it was the eighties, remember). Mordrin is defeated and killed, and the Kingdom is reunited behind its rightful king. The Arthurian overtones are obvious, as is the British nationalist subtext – it was the time of the first rise of Scottish and Welsh nationalism – and the show probably deserves a remake à la Battlestar Galactica, but that's beside the point.

The Knights of God are what John Michael Greer would call a revitalization movement; a particularly nasty one, I must say, as its sources of inspiration seem to have been the SS and the historical Teutonic Knights, and the problems it faces are those that such a movement would face post-peak, should it come into power.

Prior Mordrin's Anglia is very short of resources. Machines stand idle and crucial missions are canceled for lack of fuel. More important, even though the Order is able to rule the country, it cannot really control it. Time after time we see the heroes wander through ghost towns or partisan-ridden wildernesses; and despite the ever looming presence of Prior Mordrin's black helicopters, we feel that whole parts of the country escape his – or anybody else's for that matter – authority.

As the Soviets learned the hard way, controlling a society is costly, and controlling it totally is very costly. Historically, states and empires have managed the territory they controlled either directly, by setting up an administration and paying for civil servants; or indirectly, through local leaders. The first solution is the most efficient, of course. Civil servants have no independent power base, can be removed at will, and are unlikely to side with the locals should they become restive. The problems are that civil servants have to be paid for, and that even in a low-tech civilization you need a lot of them.

Local leaders are of course less costly, since they run things for you using their own resources. They are, however, less efficient, for a significant part of local resources go their way rather than yours – sometimes you may even have to subsidize them. Besides, they have an independent power base, which they can use against you. Most of the time they don't use it, both because they know you are stronger than they are and because they may need your protection to stay in office. Some of them may miscalculate, however, and force you to crush them militarily – always a costly operation.

More important, a few may rightly assess your real strength and act accordingly. That was what the King of Afghanistan did in 1919. Afghanistan was essentially a client state of the British Empire, with a crappy army; yet, feeling that Britain was somewhat war-weary and had other things to do with its lack of money than fighting a pointless war with rough tribesmen over a worthless piece of land, the King decided to invade British India. The British army duly repulsed him and bombed his cities. It was not a walkover, however, and as London indeed had other things to do with its lack of money than fighting a pointless war with rough tribesmen over a worthless piece of land, it did not follow suit. The Raj just told the King to please keep his army at home, and, by the way, he was now free to conduct his own foreign affairs, which was essentially what said King wanted.

The historical solution was usually to mix both systems by integrating local leaders into an imperial elite system, so that they somewhat lose their independent power base while still remaining useful.

There is, however, another option: a situation where the power base of local leaders has been destroyed by centralization, but where the central power no longer has the means to effectively run the country. That is what happens to the Knights of God. Their tanks, helicopters and armored cars can go whenever they want, but when they go away, so does the Knights' authority.

That is what will happen to any successful revitalization movement. You may be able to rally the people around a common goal and win a civil war with night marches and inflamed speeches, but you won't create the resources you need out of thin air. No matter which weird ideology seizes power in the aftermath of peak energy, it will still be faced with the same problem our democracies face: how we can run a complex society, and therefore pay for a complex administration, with a declining resource base.

There is no easy solution to this problem. Besides, the glut of energy and the essentially free resources our societies have exploited for two centuries have enabled them to create overly complex administrative systems – both private and public – which have utterly destroyed community leadership. It does not matter whether the Regional Council of Brittany or the City of Nantes have (or have not) such or such power, or have (or have not) such or such a degree of control over their resources; they are a part of an integrated state administrative system, and if it begins to lose control so will they.

A successful revitalization movement is likely even to worsen things, as the Party, the Movement or whatever it will be called will be highly unlikely to tolerate independent power centers – even if said party or movement is theoretically committed to relocalization. As it becomes more and more obvious that no amount of symbolic gestures is going to compensate for the continuous decline in net energy, the ideological glue which may, for a time, keep the society together will dissolve and whole parts of the society will slip out of control.

In the series, the Return of the King – a powerful symbolic act – does fix things, but only because there is still a prosperous outside world from which to draw resources. No such thing will be available to whoever will ultimately overthrow a successful revitalization movement, so the symbolic act of rallying the people – or a part of the people – around a common goal will meet only with transient success. This downward cycle will be broken only after truly sustainable political authorities have grown out of the chaos, probably at a very low level of social complexity. The Greek word for King meant originally village chieftain, because that was the only authority left after the collapse of the Mycenaean world. The same thing might happen to us after the inevitable fall of the future equivalents of the Knights of God, when the only vaguely legitimate authority left will be the mayor... or the now hereditary local policeman.

That is why it is so essential to build legitimacy at the local and regional level, and by that I mean legitimacy independent of the state apparatus and able to resist it. I am well aware that regionalism or local nationalism is itself a revitalization movement, and that it can become quite nasty at times; but it has the advantage of tying political legitimacy to the land and to the local culture. This may turn local institutions into rallying points when it comes time to fight off the local incarnation of Prior Mordrin; but, more important, it will make them more resilient to the inevitable global simplification that will come with the end of the age of cheap energy.

At the end of the series, rebels seize Caernarfon castle and raise the Red Dragon Flag on it – maybe they should have kept it there.

I want to thank David Parkinson, who has copy-edited this post and corrected my rather clumsy English. Without his efforts, it would have been far less readable.


  1. I agree with you view of socail degeneration leading to the resurgence of local communities.

    You actually have given me something to fear since I live in Southern Alabama where the majority of the population practices a very conservative form of Christianity and are well armed.

  2. pgrass101, conservative Christianity can certainly be the basis of a very nasty revitalization movement. Unfortunately, the more rural an area is, the more likely it is to be conservative and religious. Britanny is an exception, by the way. Our churches are empty and some of our more rural areas are even communist stronghold.

    Christianity is, however, only one option out of many. You can build a very nasty revitalization movement upon virtually any kind of ideology, even ecosocialism. In fact, a green fascism mixed with nationalism and some kind of socialism is the most likely option in Western Europe. The groups going that way are quite marginal today, but so were the nazis in 1919.

    Prior Mordrin can wear very strange clothes indeed

  3. Green fascism looks almost like default option to me.

    Three main "glues" are possible to hold a society together; financial, ideological /religious and nationalism. Financial might work for those in the elite being rewarded, but in a poorer world that might be quite a small minority. Again ideological/religious might work for the ideologically/ religiously inclined but this is usually likely to be small minority. However, everyone can be nationalistic, a tried and trusted solution through the centuries to hold a nation together at low cost.
    Green in a world of declining fossil fuels makes a virtue out of necessity.
    You didn't mention mercantilism, but this would fit in well as economic model.


  4. Your English may be clumsy Damien, but your thinking is incisive.

    I really enjoyed this essay and I am still ruminating on the implications. Suffice it to say, I have a much more concrete sense of what a revitalization movement could look like.

  5. Anonymous, Green fascism is definitely a possibility, at least in some areas. and it already has its theoreticians. Look, for instance, at Pentti Linkola's writings. It's petty nasty.

    Nationalism, remember, is a newcomer, a product of the Enlightment and of the French Revolution. What united people was loyalty to one's community, family, local lord, king and church - and of course, those loyalties could be quite conflicting at times. The idea of nation was developed in the eighteenth century to counter the divine right of kings and aristocrats. I doubt it survives the industrial civilization, but it can still be a powerful force in the meantime.

    As for religion, it was pretty good at uniting people (and dividing them) in the last 10.000 years. The problem is which religion. Here it certainly won't be the Catholic Church

    Bryant, you are welcome

  6. Not having seen the TV discussed it seems form your discussion the Knights don't have legitimacy so they need make up for said lack with force and coercion, which is always a more costly option than obtaining consent willingly. Hypothetically, had the Knights stayed in power longer, their legitimacy to rule would have increased as all competing power sources would see them as a force of stability in much the same way the provincial elites supported the Roman emperor while the empire was strong.

    As resources decline the capacity to rule will decline regardless of which strategy of force or legitimacy is used. The modern states ruling elite legitimacy is determined by economic efficiency which is measured by ability to generate jobs. That would be at the heart of the current crisis of democracy, all political parties promise efficiency, managerialism and generating employment but those levers are increasing not in their control.

    The localisation is absolutely the solution to declining resources. The key to the legitimacy of local institutions will be their capacity to support economic activity (although obviously on a much smaller scale). Sadly, I suspect whats left of local economies are more likely to be destroyed than created as cash strapped people and businesses buy even more goods from China than they do now and that trend will continue until actual shortages of energy manifest themselves to make continued outsourcing unfeasible.

    The idea of religion building up the legitimacy of political institutions has been tried many times in the past to mixed results. Unfortunately in the modern world where societies are no longer ethnically or religiously homogenous, it is a recipe for civil war. For the political leader to co-opt religion to boost their rule requires a religion which is deeply embedded in society with little religious competition ie medieval europe or modern day Saudi Arabia. For a western politican to actively embrace religion as a governance tool is doomed to fail, which sect or doctrine would they embrace that wouldn't necessarily alienate all the other religions.

    I am not too worried about fascism, what resources will the fascist leader be able to reward his/her supporters? Fascism was in large part a middle class reaction to the threat of Communism. That threat no longer exists. There no longer is any broad based political movement with an ideological program left. The real threat is lawlessness and erosion of existing institutions which are likely to stay in place even as they are driven into the ground.

    Hypothetically an authoritarian figure such as Huey Long or 'man on horseback' such as Pinochet holding things together with a plan of action would be a better alternative than societal collapse and the 'perpetual war of all against all' that happens when governments break down and aren't replaced ie Somalia.

  7. I love your just-discovered blog. It is right up my alley with long, thoughtful posts. I will read it from now on and also read it in "scrollback" (previously published texts).

    Thank you!

  8. ajmacey, in the show the knights have been in power for twenty years, so they must have had some support at the beginning or else they would never have come to the top to begin with. Generally speaking no power relies only on force - they must have some support basis to endure. Remember also that legitimacy can fade with time. That is what happened to the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, and to the communist parties elsewhere. They had some legitimacy from having defeated the Nazis but progressively lost it due to their inability to make good on their promises.

    I agree that using religion to unite people in the West would only lead to civil strife and chaos. In France, it would most likely lead to nothing and anybody trying to do it would be quickly marginalized. Now some people do try to unite a part of the people against a particular religion, which might work and lead to very nasty results. Needless to say, they are not my friends.

    Now, on the long run, religion is likely to make a come back and it may become an unifying factor in the post-peak world, as it was in the Middle Age. Remember that at the time Christianity was so dominant that even challenges to the Church's authority had to be formulated in christian terms.

    Of course this religion won't necessarily be Christianity. It might even not be one religion.

    Fascism, as an ideology, is pretty much dead, but authoritarianism is not and you can pretty much have the worst of both worlds : highwaymen AND secret police. By the way, it is only the southern part of Somalia which is a chaotic hellhole. The north is held by an unrecognized state and is quite stable. Maybe there is some lesson to draw from it.

    As for the ability of local economies to survive, it is clearly compromised, even in outlying areas. Now, the figure is sometimes more complex. Do you know, for instance, that here supermarkets sell a local brand of cola which is actually gaining market shares and clearly outsell some of its more global concurrent.

    Daniel, you are welcome