Sunday, August 29, 2010

A vision of the future: Simon du Fleuve

Claude Auclair is, I presume, quite unknown outside of the French speaking world; and even there, he is mostly remembered for his reinterpretation of the legend of Ys in Bran Ruz. Those who spent most of their youth in public libraries, as I did, will remember fondly his other masterwork: Simon du Fleuve (Simon of the River in English). Simon du Fleuve is a realistic comic book series in the Franco-Belgian tradition depicting a rather classic, if somewhat idealistic, post-apocalyptic world. It is not without its flaws, but it explores better than others some aspects of the more advanced stages of the coming energy descent.

Simon du Fleuve takes place several decades after the collapse of our society. The reasons for this collapse are not altogether clear, but it seems that peak oil was involved. Anyway, at some point the crisis became so severe that a world state was created. It quickly fractured, however, into a host of military factions based in the main cities. As a result, the world Simon – the main character – lives in is divided into two very distinct parts. The Masters of the Cities, who still have access to technology, hold a few urban centers which they rule with an iron fist, while in the countryside reconstituted tribes live in harmony with nature, or rather would do so but for the occasional raid from the cities or the violent gangs which roam their outskirts.

Of course this setting is Manichean to the point of caricature. We never know, for instance, who leads the Masters of the Cities and what their projects are. They are basically a blind, faceless force of nature, whose only function is to plunder and destroy. The tribes, on the other hand, whether they live off farming, herding or craftsmanship, are peaceful, egalitarian, and relatively prosperous. They never wage war on each other, never compete for land and never oppress their members. There are violent, armed groups, but they belong, like the military factions, to the world of the cities. Like them, they belong to the old order and like them will ultimately succumb to their own violence. This certainly weakens the series as a work of art or a story – nobody likes to be preached at – it, however, tells a lot about our own ideological bias.

The opposition between tyrannical, decadent and ultimately doomed cities and the virtuous countryside is an ancient one. It appears in the Bible with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, probably a memory of the time when the ancestors of the Hebrew herded their sheep in the shadow of the powerful late Bronze Age city-states. In its modern form, however, it dates back from the French Revolution. Before 1789 the city-dwelling aristocracy despised uncouth peasants while somewhat fearing them. Peasants were the revolutionary class then, or at least was thought to be. Their refusal of the old feudal order had fueled the large revolts which had regularly shaken Western Europe from the end of the Middle Ages to the beginning of the modern age.

The French revolution changed that. It was a very urban affair, led by a new aristocracy of lawyers and traders. The Jacobin government put feudal taxes and duties into the compost bin of history, while proceeding to destroy local institutions the peasantry relied upon for representation. It no longer had anything to gain from another revolution, and the horrors of Jacobin rule were still fresh in its memory. As a result, it became the conservative class, in which the very aristocracy which so much despised it before placed all its hope of ever regaining its former preeminence. All those who, for one reason or another, fought the French Enlightenment developed a mysticism of the countryside, peasants being described as the true people, virtuous, pious and true to their national tradition in opposition to the cosmopolitan and decadent urban crowds. This vision is pervasive, not only in the bitter rantings of the far right writers who gave fascism its intellectual foundation, but also in the works of the Romantics who were so influential in saving the marginalized cultures of Western Europe.

As often happens, this theme shifted from the right to the left during the late sixties, under the influence of both Maoism and Political Ecology – quite a newcomer in French radical politics, by the way. As in America, communes were set up by enthusiastic young people from the cities, and as in America most of them failed. A few localized successes, such as the successful opposition to the building of a military base on the Larzac Plateau helped to create links between the activist and peasant worlds.

Of course, this “back to the land” ideology has little to do with the reality of agrarian societies. Subsistence agriculture is a back-breaking job and the communities based upon it are often oppressive, united by a set of traditions one disregards only at one's own peril. They are not even particularly virtuous. Prostitution was a thriving business during the European Middle Ages and single mothers were not particularly uncommon in rural Brittany, especially at the bottom of the social ladder. Class relationships were often brutal, especially between land owners and landless hand-to-mouth workers.

Hardly the egalitarian utopia described by Simon du Fleuve.

It is true that in the final years of some civilizations, rural areas were politically separated from cities, but this was only temporary and due to the inability of some “barbarian invaders” to storm walled towns. Thus in some outlying parts of the Western Roman Empire, isolated urban centers held out, for a time, while the countryside was overrun by Germanic tribes. Interestingly, this happened mostly in areas where Roman culture did not survive. Having no access to cities, the invaders built their own tribal orders outside their walls. When finally both societies merged, it was on the tribesmen’s cultural terms. The same way, when the Nubian kingdom of Makuria, once a major African power, fell during the closing years of the 14th century, its king’s power barely extended beyond the walls of their capital Dongola, while the rest of the country was under the control of desert tribes.

This was, however, the result of a very particular kind of collapse, one where invading tribal groups play a major role. It won't be our fate. Except maybe in some remote parts of Sudan, there are no longer any powerful warrior tribes around, and those that remain, in Amazonia or in Papua New Guinea, are likely to be early causalities. What threatens us and might lead us to a much darker version of Simon du Fleuve's world is more insidious.

As the resources available shrink, our societies will tend to reserve them to what they consider “vital functions”, very much as a human body plunged into icy water will focus its remaining resources on keeping the vital organs warm, even if this means losing a toe... or a limb. In real life this will mean, and already means in some areas, the quiet abandonment of marginal regions. Roads fall into disrepair; railroad lines are closed; vital public services such as schools or post offices are withdrawn; courts are rationalized away to big urban centers; law enforcement withers due to budget cuts; and welfare, vital to the more marginal population, erodes away.

Slowly the administrative networks which held the national territory together fall apart.

The modern state basically exchanges services such as law and order, defense or welfare against the taxes and the legitimacy it needs to function. When it fails to provide those services or restricts them to an ever smaller minority, it becomes parasitic and no matter how much ideology it feeds its subjects, it will sooner or latter lose its legitimacy. Thus in 378 CE, when Athanaric's Visigoths ran amok in the Balkans (they were not invaders, by the way, but refugees), they were joined by local miners. Those were not barbarian sympathizers, they were just overtaxed by a government which did not really protect them. It was, by the way, for the same reason that so many people became monks or hermits in that time: there were no tax collectors in the desert.

Over time the state will become a foreigner, then an enemy, in the areas it has abandoned and other power centers will grow in the cracks. They certainly won't outgun the state, not until the process of decline is fairly advanced, but by putting themselves in the center of local networks of solidarity and survival they may take over its role in everyday life. In the western world this will happen mostly in urban ghettos, but as the states loses its ability to administrate its territory it will happen in the countryside as well. The result will be that some rural areas will be basically left to their own devices and their impoverished populations forced to self-organize to survive.

If nobody takes over the way the Germanic tribes did during the fifth century, we will end up with something relatively close to Chad or a Taliban-less Afghanistan. The central government will still control cities and economically important areas. It will still be able to project its force anywhere in its territory, but the countryside will be an administrative desert. This, of course, will be a temporary phenomenon. The “focus on the center” strategy works only during a transient crisis. Should the problem prove permanent – and we know it will – the state will slowly shrink away, not a necessarily peaceful process by the way. Elites, whether they be local or global, old or new, will fight to keep their status and as their resource basis dwindles, this fight will become increasingly savage and desperate.

Simon du Fleuve may therefore not be wrong in imagining military regimes entrenched in decaying cities preying on the countryside. Where Auclair is wrong is when he pictures a countryside essentially free from this phenomenon. There are no reasons why even neglected areas could not develop elites of their own, and no reason why those elites should be less oppressive than the city-based ones. Those elites may grow out of local administrators, wealthy landowners or gang leaders, but also former freedom fighters turned warlords or even sustainability activists taking over out of necessity, then growing into the role. No matter their origin, the circumstances and the necessities of post-peak life will push them along the same way followed by the originally relatively democratic, Anglo-Saxon local leaders after the collapse of Roman Britain.

Our problem is to build resilient local institutions, so that they can remain democratic even as the state apparatus erodes away. This is not an easy task, and in many places we will fail, but picturing the countryside as a place of redemption, a kingdom of virtue, opposed to morally bankrupt cities, certainly won't help.


  1. Not sure what will happen here but we are rather a long way from anywhere and the community is pretty close knit. It always has been that way. I reckon it may well stay democratic as it has for the last 150 years. Its what we are used to :)

    viv in nz

  2. Taking the long view I can't fault the overall trajectory outlined in the essay. The periphery gets abandoned to preserve the core but eventually systems collapse accelerates and complexity and urbanisation decline. Unlike the later roman empire or other collapses we dont have a 'hinterland' for the urban population to retreat to. Its all been paved over and urbanised and the inputs to keep things functioning all come from far away. In a systems collapse the predation of the state outweighs the benefits and eventually it all collapses in a heap.

    Unlike late antiquity where the ratio of miners/peasants to senators was very large the benefits of modern state predation are far more widespread via the welfare system which almost everyone in some way gets something. Almost all will want to keep the state going because they get something about it but they will look to shift liability onto others while avoiding it themselves through tax evasion and bribery.

    I can readily see in the short term how things will progress as budgets shrink, the government will cut infrastructure as you allude to and essential services die a death of a thousand cuts for example the navy is still in existence but the ships don't set off to sea, the airforce is increasingly grounded through lack of spare parts and pilots who lack experience because they dont get air time.

    My question is when the low hanging fruit of cuts are exhausted what will be the order of permanent cuts and how would it be achieved with the western style of government? The big ticket items on the budget are welfare and with an ageing population and economic decline with more jobless how can the government cut pensions?

    From my feel of the political system here the very last thing that will get cut is the pension and welfare system and direct subsidies to industry although the government will try and tighten eligibility. Everything else will go first. I am deathly afraid that governments will cut and denude almost invisible but expensive government services which are none the less essential to avoid mass starvation such as crop research, biosecurity which will stop being done altogether when the state stops doing it.

    For countries like France how quickly do you consider corporate welfare like farm subsidies will get thrown overboard and if and when it does how will that impact on the food supply in France?

  3. In Australia we're a different case. The countryside is actually very harsh, even in farming areas, and depends on the cities for most necessities. There are huge distances between cities as well. Already I have noticed while traveling around various parts of Australia that certain areas are being abandoned. I think what we will see here is the cities growing in population initially, as climate and economic refugees flood in over the next fifty or so years and then great conflicts within the cities themselves as the dominant classes fight off the desperate masses living on the urban periphery.

    The countryside in Australia will I think be mostly abandoned as climate change makes it uninhabitable in inland areas and the current very productive irrigation areas there dry up. The cities themselves are generally too far apart to fall into conflict with each other except in minor ways. We will go from being a major food exporter to struggling to feed ourselves.

    Within a century or so, to the rest of the world Australia will become once again a very remote, almost unknown place, with a small population living on the coastal fringe.

  4. knutty knitter, having a closely knit community - or a larger one with strong civic traditions will certainly help. Remember, however, that freedom must be defended if it is to last. The cities of post-roman Britain had strong identities and, for some of them democratic or quasi-democratic traditions. This availed them little when the warlords came.

    ajmacey, politicians always go for the easy way to "solve" problems. This means that budget cuts will mostly affect those who cannot defend themselves, or are assumed not to be able to defend themselves - they can sometimes miscalculate as Sarkozy did by targeting gypsies and migrants. So you are right that existing pensions will be the last item to be cut. What will be cut is future pensions. Today retired people will continue to enjoy their pensions but for young people it will be quite another matter.

    And of course, yes, invisible but crucial infrastructures slowly fall apart or are dismantled - it is called RGPP (Révision Générale des Politiques Publiques) - without much reaction.

    As for agriculture, it is complicated. French agriculture is heavily subsidized but it is not corporate. Farms are still held by farmers, most of them practicing an industrial agriculture but with a farmer's mentality. A significant minority of them is aware of our predicament and attempt to evolve, so the situation is not without hope.

    Lloyd Morcom, you are certainly right. Cities will grow, for a time, as for the near future it is where job will be and peak oil will cause commuting to become far more expensive.

    On the long term, however, things can become quite interesting. The main reason why Australia did not develop a relatively advanced civilization is because it lacked crops and livestock. Future Australian will have both.

    You can have thriving nomadic (horse or camel based) cultures in the interior and agrarian polities on the coast, interacting the usual way (trade, raiding and the occasional conquest). The population will be lower, but not necessarily drastically so - wheat, potatoes and sheep make a huge difference you know.

    Now a significant part of this future Australia may not be English speaking. My guess is that the great austronesian expansion will resume, but we may have surprises - a Pitjantjatjara speaking nomadic empire for instance.

  5. Interesting thoughts Damien! I think that Australia will break up into its constituent states, while what is now the Northern Territory with its capital Darwin will gradually moved closer to and merge with whatever maritime state comes to dominate the southern parts of what is now Indonesia. I can see the northern parts of Queensland and western Australia becoming buffer zones between this tropical polity and the respective state capitals, fought over in a desultory way with the raiders into these territories being bought off at times.

    The place of the Aboriginal inhabitants will be interesting. It may be as you propose: that an Aboriginal culture will re-form once the dead weight of European civilisation is removed from inland Australia.

    One fact that most people do not take into account though is how harsh the Australian climate can be, how dry most of the country is and how poor the soils are, especially in areas with much rainfall. We did not have the benefit of glaciers depositing a thick layer of ground rock over much of the continent. Australian soils are very ancient and many minerals have been washed out of them over the millennia. This makes it a tough place to survive in without a big energy subsidy.

  6. Lloyd Morcom, existing administrative divisions may morph into independent states after the collapse - that is what seems to have happened in Britain - but it is not a given. History loves wild cards and, for example, the Northern Territory (or at least the coastal areas) may well become the center of a state able to project its power northward. In Dark Ages Britain, the major players were Kent (an underdog before the Roman invasion, Mercia, Northumbria and Wessex, while Essex, successor state to the Catuvelauni, the former local hegemon, was a minor player, barely managing to stay independant)

    Most Aboriginal cultures will die out. There is little doubt about that. A few may however not survive but morph into something that will survive. If that happens, don't expect the return of the desert hunter-gatherers. Expect something like the Tuareg or the Mongols : nomadic herders, traders... and raiders.

    I understand that Australia is very dry and that its soils are poor. This is also true for Brazil, or at least some parts of it. Importation crops (potatoes, buckwheat...) will, IMHO enable it to feed far more people than in Aboriginal times. After all, the early colonists did survive and even thrive. Now, of course, the present population is probably well above the country's carrying capacity