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.