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.