Saturday, September 3, 2011

Zombies and aliens

Last week-end I watched, with some pleasure, the final episode of Falling Skies. Unlike so many in the Peak Oil movement, I don’t think modern fiction is decadent. It is, if anything, far better than what was produced in the seventies, and not only because of flashier special effects. That wasn’t what I mused about, however, as I watched, with a cup of pu-erh in may hand and a furry monster on my lap, the Second Massachusetts fighting a seemingly hopeless war against an enemy it barely understands – but about a red-jacketed book standing amidst a lot of others just behind me.

It was published in 1976 by a then-young French scholar, Emmanuel Todd, and was titled “La chute finale: Essais sur la décomposition de la sphère Soviétique” (The Final Fall: An Essay on the Decompositionof the Soviet Sphere). At this time the Soviet Union still looked strong, yet Todd predicted its impending collapse based upon such indicators as life expectancy and infant mortality. He wasn’t the only one to do so, and to tell the truth he wasn’t even the first one. Todd’s originality was his use of proxy indicators such as the depiction of aliens in popular culture.

During the first decades of communist rule, Todd argued, aliens were seen as friendly or, what amounted to the same thing, in need of some revolutionary help from Earth. “Andromeda”, published in 1957 by Ivan Yefremov, is the perfect example of this. It pictures an entirely communist Earth, member of a kind of interstellar radio network, the Great Circle. There is no faster-than-light travel, so the civilizations of the Great Circle almost never meet in person, but from time to time a utopian Earth sends spaceships in a kind of Grand Tour with the occasional fight against non-sentient monsters and the occasional ecological disaster on some distant planet.

As the Soviet Union sank deeper into depression, however, the tone changed. The aliens became hostile and space filled up with enemies. In 1968, the very same author of Andromeda wrote a sequel, “The Bull's Hour”, which depicted a totalitarian hell where the bulk of the population was condemned to live very short lives under the ruthless control of the ruling class of government bureaucrats and the police forces, which in turn were under the direct command of the Council of Four and its Chairman.

The Bull's Hour” was quickly banned but it was hardly the only example of this change of tone. “Hard to Be a God”, for instance, written in 1964 by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, pictures an agent of faraway Earth, impotent as the medieval kingdom he supervises falls into the hands of an insane tyrant. The main point of the novel was that even with godlike power, it is impossible to really change the world.

According to Todd, this change in tone, while it certainly made for better literature, reflected a change in the mindset of Soviet society. During its early years, the Soviet Union considered itself a missionary state which was to spread socialism through the whole world. This was no longer the case in the sixties. Even though it was still expanding, the Soviet Empire increasingly viewed itself as a besieged fortress. The Soviet ruling class, as it was becoming more and more aware that it was indeed a ruling class, felt increasingly threatened by the growing prosperity of the West. Its objective changed from imposing Communism on the world to preserving its own position at home. As the stagnation of Soviet society became more and more obvious, this fear of the outside turned into outright paranoia, to the point that in 1983 the Soviet Politburo nearly unleashed Armageddon after having mistaken a NATO exercise for war preparation.

The hostile aliens always threatening Earth were only a reflection of the very real forces which ultimately led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and to the end of Communism as a credible alternative.

The West has had its share of alien invaders, from Wells’ Martians to the body-snatchers, and they were numerous during the first decades of the Cold War, when its outcome was still very much in doubt and Communism still a credible ideological threat. After the end of WWII, however, those aliens sought to take over the Earth through subversion rather than brute military force – as any alien able to cross the interstellar space would have done – and most of the time, humanity emerged as the victor.

Things changed during the seventies and the early eighties, with movies such as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Cocoon, or the rise of such UFO religions as Raëlism. The aliens became benevolent Space Brothers who would help us leave behind our materialistic past and get to the next stage of Evolution – whatever that might mean. The French incarnation was a delicious animated series called “Il était une Fois l’Espace” in which faces destruction at the hands of a robotic civilization of its own making, only to be saved by more spiritually evolved aliens.

This change was not the result of a growing optimism in the collective Western psyche, however. In fact it was quite the contrary. If the Space Brothers were going to save us, it was because there was something for us to be saved from. The sister series of “Il était une Fois l’Espace” – “Il était une Fois l’Homme” – ended with humanity blowing itself up, leaving only a handful of survivors in space.

By then, concerns about resource depletion, rampant pollution, biodiversity loss, and the like had become quite mainstream, at least in France – more than today in a way. “Il était une Fois l’Homme” was, after all, aimed at kids and aired on national television at lunch time. Appealing to some savior from outer space was apparently the response our collective psyche brought to this growing awareness – a response which obviously had deep connections with our Judeo-Christian past.

It was also a kind of escapism – after all, if the Space Brothers are going to solve all our problems and bring us ready-made enlightenment tomorrow, then there is no point in changing our life now. From this point of view, the benevolent aliens were a part of the multi-pronged cultural complex which smothered the first efforts toward the building of a sustainable society during the Seventies and the Eighties – a symptom of our unwillingness to face the reality we have built for ourselves.

The opportunity to stabilize the course of industrial society is now long gone, and it seems that the aliens have undergone aturn about-face, becoming hostile again, but with a twist.

The invaders from outer space were once nearly always defeated by human ingenuity or courage. This is no longer the case. Today’s aliens are nearly unstoppable and while humanity can score local victories against them, it is always at a great cost. This becomes obvious if we compare the two incarnations of Battlestar Galactica. In the original series, the Cylons have defeated the Colonies because of the betrayal of one of their rulers – which means they would never have succeeded on their own – and they don’t seem to pose a serious threat to colonial fighters, on the run as those may be.

The new series is far darker. The Colonies have been destroyed after a successful infiltration operation and the few survivors are really on the run. They have lost nearly everything and are only one mistake away from losing the rest. They are outgunned and outnumbered and we are reminded in every episode how few they are. There is a general sense of loss and impending doom – people die, and not anonymous red-shirts but people you love.

We find the same theme – with some variations – in most recent representations of alien encounters, whether it be Falling Skies, the new incarnation of V, Monsters, Skyline… We also find it in modern zombie movies.

Zombies are no novelty – they became popular in 1968 with The Night of the Living Dead – but until recently they appealed only to a restricted audience. The popularity of the zombie apocalypse theme, both in print and onscreen is a relatively recent thing. Although Romero’s movies may have met with some success, it was still a genre or cult success; while 28 Days Later, Resident Evil or Dead Walking have been worldwide commercial successes – not a guarantee of quality, mind you, but a sure sign they are in sync with at least a part of our collective psyche.

The common theme to most modern alien or zombie stories is very simple: there is something out there, it is stronger than we are, and it wants to destroy us. This is by no way a recent theme – all of Lovecraft’s stories, for instance, are based upon it – however it was hardly dominant. Sure, there were a lot of stories about defeated heroes – the Alamo, for instance – but their defeats were presented as a sacrifice, paving the way for a later victory.

The interest of popular culture in real defeat, invincible foes, and doomed victories may reflect a more realistic view of the world – we know, after all, that most defeats are final. I feel there is more to it, however.

Industrial civilization is in an impossible situation. It has probably reached the point where increases in complexity yield negative returns, which means that continued growth will no longer translate into well-being. Moreover, the level of complexity we have attained is dependent upon a continuous inflow of cheap energy, an inflow which is quite likely to dry up in the near future and has probably already begun to do so. That means that we are likely to experience a rather dramatic, if progressive, decline in social complexity during the coming decades.

Concretely that means that there is no way we can make our lot better in any significant way. We can share the burden more equitably; we can mitigate the effects of the crisis and try to salvage enough of our culture for our descendants to be able to build something worthwhile upon it. We cannot, however, make the whole episode pleasant, even for those few who will come out of it on top. Politicians and the media will vehemently deny this, and will go to great lengths to rationalize their denial; yet in Europe, at least, most people feel that things have somehow taken a wrong turn, that the future will be worse than the present.

Many won’t put this into words because the mainstream discourse doesn’t give them the tools they need to do so, and because the prevailing political culture goes against it. All that does not keep this feeling from growing and spreading, however, but just forces it to express itself through stories and narratives – arguably an age-old solution and one quite apt to stir up emotional responses, but nevertheless one unlikely to have much impact in the cold world of politics where policies are chosen and implemented, at least in the short term. More important, perhaps, its not being expressed in rational ways, at least outside our small circle of radicals, fuels frustration and ultimately an anger which can have very damaging consequences.

We are about as likely to be conquered by Darth Vader as we are to be helped out by the Elohim. There are probably a lot of intelligent species out there, but they are so far away that for all practical purposes we are alone in the universe. The ones who populate our stories are only the shadows of our fears, a not-so-subtle way to silence them and remove them from our daily experience. The problem is that those fears are well founded and that the slow crisis which hides behind them won’t go away when we turn off the television.

Maybe we should face them instead, as the Soviets should have faced them.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The shadows of the bagaudae

Most people hardly noticed, but the recent Spanish elections have been troubled by a series of demonstrations. A relatively high number of demonstrators have gathered in major Spanish cities during the months of May and June, demanding radical but curiously unspecific changes in Spanish politics. There have been similar protests in Portugal and in Greece, all of them about the austerity measures taken in those countries in response to the debt crisis. Of course, the French far left has seen in these protests the premises of the revolution it has been waiting for throughout the last fifty years, but what strikes me most about those protests is their pointlessness and their conservative nature. In that, they may well be representative of the political climate of the early decades of energy descent.

The revolutions of the early industrial area aimed at changing the rules of the game. The change in question could be moderate, as in the American Revolution or the Indian or Irish independence struggle; or it could be radical. The result could be a resounding success or an abject disaster, but the rhetoric was always the same: there was something wrong with the world, and the revolutionists were going to fix it. This rhetoric was so pervasive that even counter-revolutionary movements adopted it, and when Adolf Hitler attempted to seize power in 1923, he yelled "Either the German revolution begins tonight and the morrow will find us in Germany a true nationalist government, or it will find us dead by dawn!" – unfortunately for us he did not find death at dawn, but that’s another story.

The European protests, however, are aimed at conserving the advantages of the welfare state. Protestors don’t even blame their country’s political class for allowing themselves to go so much into debt; they blame them for not having continued to do so, so that they could enjoy a little bit longer the privileges granted to them by the welfare state.

This is not an uncommon theme in Europe, and there is no shortage of politicians, and not only on the left, to try and capitalize on it. Some people want to repeal the 1973 law which prevents the State from printing its own money. Others want to put the European Central Bank under political control (theirs, of course), so that they may go on a money-printing spree. Others, last but not least, want to drop the Euro altogether, get back to national currencies and, well you guessed it, go on a money-printing spree.

The rationale common to all those proposals is always the same: the privileges we enjoy today are our birthright. We are entitled to their indefinite continuation and anybody pointing out that you cannot sustainably spend more than you earn must be an agent of some sinister elite group bent on world domination – in some variants he must also have a really big nose.

These narratives have historically emerged out of the far right, among the local Larouchites (yes, we have a few of them, and they don’t like me) or in national-revolutionary circles such as Alain Soral’s Egalité & Réconciliation, then have spread to the mainstream left through crossover groups we call “republican” – that is, left-wing social conservatives with a strong nationalist bent.

This is relatively rare in France. Here the far right are not a bunch of mostly harmless lunatics – that’s the far left’s position – it is the remnant of the dark hordes which nearly destroyed the continent seventy years ago. These people are loathed, and while it is acceptable to have been a member of some far-left group in your youth, having been in a far-right group is, well, shameful. The same goes for ideas. The very fact the far right loudly agitates for something – for instance immigration control – disqualifies it.

So the fact that themes originally from the far right have found their way into the reasonably mainstream left is very telling. It shows that our societies have become so entitled that they are ready to listen to anybody with a “solution”, no matter how shady his background, provided he gives them even a faint hope of retaining their privileges.

It also shows how desperate they are.

We face two convergent trends, both of which place our societies on a declining trajectory. The first one, well documented by Tainter, is the diminishing return of investments in social complexity. We have reached the point where any solution involving an increase in social complexity – new laws, new structure, new procedures – is likely to be counterproductive and to yield only marginal gains at a great cost. Only decreasing social complexity could provide our society with some room for maneuver, but that is unthinkable since it would mean curtailing a number of services we have come to consider our birthright.

The second one is, of course, peak energy, which will shrink the economic surplus available to fund said complexity. This means it will be harder and harder for European states to fund the services their citizens are accustomed – and feel entitled – to.

In an ideal world, we would acknowledge this and organize the retreat as best we can while making sure the rich bear most of the burden.

Unfortunately we are not in an ideal world. Partly this is a result of the power structure of modern democracy. Contrary to what one might think, the power does not belong to a small elite clique. It does not really belong to the government. It is shared by a number of interconnected and somewhat overlapping power centers. The MEDEF (the French organization representing business interests) is one of them, but it is hardly the only one and its demands are routinely ignored by the government. The unions, the farmers, and the teachers can have more pull, especially when fighting defensively.

The end result is that budget cuts will initially concern those without any political clout: the unemployed, of course, but also the youth, small businesses or crucial but unpopular or low-key branches of the government – the police or the military, for instance. It is not an evil scheme, by the way; only the result of the politicians’ natural reluctance to engage in unnecessary fights.

The walking disaster that European economies have become is one of the results of this reluctance. Rather than face the structural threats posed to the welfare state model by the limits of complexity, we as a society have decided to play the borrow-and-spend way out, hoping that “growth” would somehow bail us out. We now turn to scapegoating and invoke the revolutionists of old, so that we can retain our privileges a little longer.

This is not an unprecedented attitude. Late Roman historians make frequent reference to an obscure social movement call the bagaudae. The word is Celtic and probably meant “combat group” – it is relatively close to the one we use for pipe bands. We don’t know what they stood for, but they were apparently considered subversive, far more so in fact than the various usurpers who roamed the country at that time. Apparently they were able to control parts of the Empire during extended periods of time, notably Armorica. According to the British historian Ken Dark , they may even have taken power in Britain, which would explain Zosimus’ rather cryptic reference to a revolution in 409 and the sudden disappearance of the local, villa-dwelling and still pagan, aristocracy.

One hypothesis – the one I favor, obviously – is that the bagaudae were, at least in part, people who revolted against the Roman Empire because they wanted to keep the advantages of being Roman citizens. Paradoxically, this could mean seceding from the Empire and setting up one’s own local variant if the official one is not up to the task. This happened during the Third Century crisis with the so-called Gallic and Palmyrene Empire, and at the very end of the Empire with Syagrius’ enclave.

The bagaudae were probably less conventional than Zenobia and her followers, and did not have the same kind of elite support, but the basic rationale was the same: if the people back in Rome can’t do their job, let’s do it in their stead.

The results were, how to state it, disappointing. Nearly everywhere the bagaudae and their Roman dreams were stomped down by brutal tribal warlords; as for the places where they apparently triumphed, well, their leaders eventually turned into brutal tribal warlords who stomped down whatever ideals they had at the beginning – that or they hired bearded foreigners with a funny accent and a weird religion.

It wasn’t just another case of revolutions failing and of power corrupting. Trying to retain some civilized order in a small region in the middle of an imperial collapse is not, per se, an unattainable goal. Countless Chinese kinglets reached it at the end of the Han and Tang dynasties. They succeeded, however, mostly because they were facing a maintenance crisis, a slight imbalance between the maintenance costs of the society and its sustainable resource base.

What the Western Roman Empire faced was a catabolic collapse; that is, an imbalance between maintenance costs and the sustainable resource base so huge that some kind of stability can be attained again only after most of the society’s infrastructure has been destroyed. Any attempt to stabilize before the bottom is reached is doomed to fail because the destruction of infrastructure only temporarily frees resources but permanently harms your ability to exploit your environment.

The Roman Empire was essentially bankrupted by military and administrative costs, but when the army and the administration began to unravel, its ability to extract resources from its neighbors and citizens significantly decreased, which in turn made it quite difficult to fund a working army and administration.

And, of course, it made it virtually impossible to keep a Roman-like level of civilization, because Roman civilization itself was a part of the problem.

In case you haven’t noticed, we are in a similar situation.

European countries have been able to build their impressive welfare states because fossil fuels have enabled their economies to produce huge surpluses – and also because somebody else has been paying for their defense.

The problem is that fossil fuels will dwindle away, and so will the huge economic surplus built on them. There is no way we can keep the kind of public services we have now with ever-diminishing resources. We probably can’t even keep them with stagnating resources.

What this means is that there is no way the Spanish or Greek protestors can get what they demand so loudly: that is, a continuation of the welfare state. What they could get is an equal sharing of the price of decades of overspending, but that is very unlikely to happen. What we’ll probably get will be a lot of angry speech about how shadowy “elites” conspire to deprive the people of its birthright to bring about some kind of New World Order – and a lot of people on the far right as well as on the far left trying to take advantage of it.

Of course, the elites are hardly blameless, but their faults are the same as ours: shortsightedness, ideological blindness, faux radicalism, conformism…The protestors, and those who want to use them to get at the top, are every bit as guilty of these, often more. More important, by considering their opponents as the devil incarnate, they pave they way for authoritarianism.

We have seen a lot of that in Europe in the last two centuries, and it always ends the same way: with a very substantial body count and a self-appointed liberator who does his best to prove that no matter how bad things are, it is always possible to make them worse.

Moreover, in a time of decline, the kind of entitled populism which could emerge from the European protests is likely to make the descent far messier and steeper than it needs to be. In the same way as the bagaudae made it more difficult for the Empire to extract the few resources it had left, the protestors and the political regimes which might emerge from their actions will make it more difficult to free the resources necessary to adapt to energy descent. In the European tradition, they are likely to add new layers of complexity and control – a candidate to the French presidential election is even proposing a planned degrowth, complete with a French version of the Gosplan. Of course those would divert still more resources toward unproductive uses – mostly to the bureaucracy but the security apparatus is also a popular choice – and away from the maintenance of vital infrastructures. Under-maintained infrastructure tends to degrade fairly quickly, and in a technological society that means that our ability to extract resources from the environment  will be diminished - the Roman syndrome at its best.

Note that not all plebeian revolts are harmful. Those born in times of expansion may lead to reasonably progressive regimes – especially when they fight a foreign occupation, which diverts them from class war. Some of those born in times of decline did the right thing; that is, destroy the civilization itself and return to a simpler way of life. The people of Teotihuacan apparently burned down the temples and the palaces of whoever ruled them, then went back to the fields. Closer to home, the large Neolithic proto-state which dominated southern Brittany was apparently toppled by a similar revolt, since the victors took great care to destroy its ceremonial center of Gavrinis but did not build anything afterward.

This won’t happen in Europe because, whatever we think of ourselves, we are not plebeian. At the global level, we are the equivalent of the pampered pre-1789 French aristocracy: a disempowered upper class, whose main preoccupation is to defend our doomed privileges.

Maybe we should hire bearded foreigners with a funny accent and a weird religion instead.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Gender Issues

As you can guess, the French press has been abuzz with the … ahem... legal troubles of our former president-to-be. The … re-ahem... difficulties of Dominique Strauss-Kahn may turn out to have the same historical impact as the rape of Lucretia – that did not change the fact that some pan-Mediterranean Empire would eventually emerge, but it did make sure its language would not be Etruscan or Punic. DSK’s tribulations have, however, a more immediate interest, as they highlight what may be of particular importance as we slide down Hubbert’s curve: the troubled relationship between gender and power.

We, as a civilization, have decided that genetic differences were irrelevant to politics. It is a decision I support, both because it is the decent thing to do and because it is grounded in facts. As a species we are very homogeneous – dangerously so, in fact. There is less genetic diversity in the whole human race than in a single band of chimpanzees. Besides, the diversity that matters (the high prevalence of iron overload among Bretons, for instance) is generally invisible.

The problem is that our species is also sexually dimorphic. There are obvious biological differences, not as big as among sea elephants, mind you, not even as big as among robins, but still significant, and some of them are behavioral. Most men are physically stronger, more aggressive and technically-minded, more concerned by the big picture rather than by details, and tend to compete more fiercely for resources – basically, those traits which make one an efficient predator. Most women are physically hardier, less aggressive, more socially minded, more concerned by details rather than by the big picture, and tend to compete for attention – basically those traits which makes one a good steward. The key word, of course, is most. Human sexual dimorphism is a continuum and there definitely are strong, aggressive women competing for resources – think Margaret Thatcher – and weak, passive men competing for attention, such as, well, myself before I realized it was a bad idea. Besides, cultural expectations play a role too – the West has, for instance, a strong tradition of female empowerment, even if the actual status of women has varied with historical circumstances.

Those biological, hardwired differences point to an ancient division of labor, probably dating back to the beginning of our history as a species. Basically, men did the dangerous jobs such as hunting or spearing off predators, and competed for leadership; while women cared for children, gathered roots and fruit, and competed for the attention of the top hunters.

It probably was adaptive then. It is not necessarily so today, but we have to deal with the hard-wiring we have got.

After the discovery of agriculture, societies became more complex and hunters turned into warriors. Warfare was and is still a man’s job, because men are stronger physically but also because they are expendable. In a world where the ruler is first and foremost a war leader, politics and warfare were bound to become inextricably linked; women and the activities they had specialized for were removed from the sphere of power.

As with everything human, there have been many variations on this theme and many exceptions. There have been female warriors: Joan of Arc, for instance, or Hua Mulan. There have been all-female armies, generally expensive status symbols, but not always – the Dahomey amazons, for instance, did fight, with some success, the French colonial army. There were female rulers, mostly but not only in the West: Athaliah of Judah, Irene and Theodora of Byzantium, Seondeok of Silla, Zenobia of Palmyra, Wak Chanil Ajaw in the Maya kingdom of Naranio, Suiko of Japan, Wu Zetian of Tang China, and Maria Theresa of Austria, to list only a few.

These definitely have been a minority, however, even if their social background has been more diverse than that of their male counterparts. Catherine I of Russia, for instance, was an illiterate farmer’s daughter and Theodora of Byzantium a bear trainer’s.

Women’s suffrage was not unknown to medieval and early modern civilization either. In medieval Europe, voting for city and town assemblies and meetings was open to the heads of households, who could be women.

The advent of industrial civilization changed the rules of the game. First, it was detrimental to women. The replacement of the textile cottage industry which thrived in early-nineteenth-century England by huge cloth factories basically downgraded a whole class of professional woman to the rank of mere cogs. The displacement of the nobility, which began with the French Revolution, also lowered the status of women, or at least that of a significant subset of them. Even though they were socially subordinate, noble women had an important cultural role in XVIIth- and XVIIIth-century France. Many of them ran salons frequented by renowned philosophers and some became authors themselves, Madame de La Fayette for instance. One only has to compare, say, the world of La Princesse de Clèves and that of Balzac’s Human Comedy to see how fast the status of women plummeted after the French Revolution gutted the old aristocratic order.

Yet at the same time, the ideas of the French Revolution could be applied to the situation of women. In 1791, Olympe de Gouges published the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, which stated:

All citizens including women are equally admissible to all public dignities, offices and employments, according to their capacity, and with no other distinction than that of their virtues and talents.

De Gouges, who had written "Women have the right to mount the scaffold, they must also have the right to mount the speaker’s rostrum," was not very popular among the Jacobins and was beheaded in 1793. Her ideas had only a limited impact upon the French left – with the exception of the far left, which briefly imposed universal suffrage during the Commune of Paris. In fact, it was the moderate left which resisted women’s suffrage the longest, mostly because it feared the Church’s supposed influence upon them.

Her British counterpart Mary Wollstonecraft was sensible enough to flee the Jacobin madness in time and her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, albeit more conservative, had a central place in the English debate about the French Revolution. Mary Wollstonecraft was not a feminist in the modern sense of the word – she considered men to be superior to women – however, she believed that women had to be educated to fulfill their role in society.

She was at the origin of a long tradition of activism focused upon the political and civil equality of women. The members of this tradition were not necessarily what we would call left-wing today. While Margaret Fuller, whose seminal Woman in the Nineteenth Century is considered the first major American feminist work, was an abolitionist, Frances Willard, who was instrumental in the passage of the nineteenth amendment, came from conservative Christianity, and wrote in 1890: “… nor is it fair that a plantation Negro, who can neither read nor write, whose ideas are bounded by the fence of his own field and the price of his own mule, should be entrusted with the ballot.

Gradually, nearly all Western countries granted voting rights to women during the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century – France was, by the way, particularly late and waited until 1944. Full civil equality – especially in family matters – came later, but by the mid-seventies women had, legally speaking, reached full equality nearly everywhere in the West.

This was made greatly easier by the rise of the industrial society and the glut of essentially free energy which coal and then oil provided. This enabled our societies to generate considerable surpluses, which, in turn, enabled them to create a wealth of mid-level administrative or commercial jobs that earlier cultures simply could not afford. Besides, in an era of essentially free energy, manpower – especially skilled manpower – was a limiting factor and keeping half of one’s population out of the workforce was every bit as maladaptive as sending one’s womenfolk out onto the battlefield was in preindustrial societies.

This helped destroy the domestic economy and made women both more independent – they no longer need a husband to support them – and more vulnerable: as families became more prone to break up, the number of impoverished single moms exploded.

Feminism, which had essentially won all its battles, took an unexpected turn after the fifties. After Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, it began to claim there were no real differences between the two sexes and that those which were observed in the real world were due to social conditioning. To quote de Beauvoir, "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman". This led to the idea of patriarchy, which quickly became to feminism what capitalism is to the far left: an ill-defined but all-encompassing notion which basically includes everything a given author doesn’t like and which can become a convenient tool to disqualify the struggles he or she is not interested in.

This has had far-reaching political and social consequences, however. According to this logic, if both sexes are identical, then the fact that they tend to choose different career paths must be due to the influence of "patriarchy", an influence which must be overcome through the force of law if necessary. Thus in France, women must represent 50% of the candidates fielded in party-list elections, which of course hasn’t changed the fact that women, as a group, don’t go into politics, but makes life far easier for those few who do and far harder for small parties, who struggle to find the required women. By the same logic, campaigns are regularly run to encourage women to choose such or such a relatively high status career path where they are few in number, to enter politics or sport or to become more "visible" in executive functions. This results in faster career advancement for those few who do, but subtly brands the others as failures. At the same time, measures which would profit women, such as the maternal salary, are staunchly resisted because it would mean giving official recognition, and therefore some prestige, to traditionally feminine activities and would imply that the way of the mother and of the housewife is as valid a choice as the way of the CEO (or more probably the cashier).

By choosing to push women into traditionally masculine domains rather than promoting traditionally feminine activities and fighting for giving them a higher status, feminists made a mistake which will prevent women from ever reaching full equality. Indeed, by decreeing that a woman’s success should be measured by the same – masculine – criteria as a man’s, they turned women not into another kind of human, but into another kind of man. This, of course, amounts to submitting to the patriarchal values they claim to despise and leads many of them to focus on the career problems of the top ten percent of the population rather than on the livelihood problems of the bottom ninety – not an uncommon occurrence in today's left, by the way.

While this evolution does not bode well for working class women, it does not lead to a non-viable society. Evolution, after all, means change concept and while our Paleolithic hard-wiring is likely to get in the way for quite a long time, it could eventually be bypassed or even rewired through cultural conditioning: the West has, after all, been quite successful at imposing monogamy even though our species seems to be naturally polygynic.

The problem is that we don't have that kind of time.

As our civilization begins to slide down Hubbert's curve, a number of things are bound to happen, all of them detrimental to the status of women.

First, as I have already said, the middle class and a sizable fraction of the working class will disappear. There will be no place in the de-industrial future for a plethora of commercial or administrative jobs. While future societies will probably have teachers – in notably reduced numbers – they certainly won't have any human resource managers, marketing executives, or cashiers: the resources to support them simply won't be there anymore. A large part of the industrial or agricultural sector will be absorbed back into the domestic economy, a domestic economy which is very likely to become once again a woman's realm.

Second, war will become again central in politics. We may not like it, but in a world of dwindling resources organized violence may become the only way for a society to ensure its survival. As long as the economy is growing, it is more adaptive to compete economically than militarily – at least against somebody who could put up a decent fight. This will no longer be true in the post-peak world, where the advantage will go to those who can seize and keep scarce resources, through force if necessary. This is likely to induce a shift in the balance of power toward the military... until the military is all that remains of the government. And as we know, warfare, especially low-energy warfare, is a man's job.

Third, contraception and safe abortion will become things of the past. By enabling women to control their own fecundity, they gave them considerable freedom and enabled them to pursue careers which would otherwise have been considerably hindered by pregnancies. Of course, birth control will still be available to post-peak societies, but it will be done through far cruder means – unsafe abortions, infanticide, strictly enforced monogamy associated with the removal of excess population through war or exile into a monastery – and none of those methods are particularly empowering for women. Besides, in a world without retirement, the only way to be sure you won't starve in old age is to have a lot of children, most of whom will die in infancy. For women, the choice between having a family and having a career will become an existential one.

Finally, societies will become simpler, sometimes greatly so, and organic solidarities tied to family, clan, or neighborhood will progressively replace the welfare state. While this won't necessarily eliminate divorce – several past civilizations had it – it will make it far less appealing from a woman's point of view, as it would mean breaking up with a vital network of relatives and endangering equally vital inter-family solidarities. Unless some kind of mother-centered family structure evolves, always a possibility, the social pressure against divorce is likely to become stronger and stronger as industrial society unravels.

This need not necessarily result in a lower status for women, even if that outcome is a distinct possibility. One fifth of all Scythian warriors’ graves were women's – a minority, but hardly a freak occurrence – and we are likely to see their equivalent during the twilight years of our civilization, including a few warladies right out of a Miyazaki anime. We may also have high priestesses, and not only if some variation of Wicca becomes dominant – a few Islamic traditions have female imams.

This will concern only a small minority, however. Post-industrial societies won't have the resources to support a large upper or middle class of any gender. For a very long time most women will work in the domestic economy. Their status relative to their male counterparts will be heavily dependent upon the prestige their specific contribution to the domestic economy has. It will matter little to a farmer's daughter in Bocéliande country two centuries from now that the castle of Pontivy or Dinan is held by a woman if her daily work is looked down upon. What will matter is whether she is respected within her community and can make her own decisions under the strict constraints of her time. Unfortunately, late-twentieth-century feminism, with its constant valorizing of masculine traditional role and values, did not exactly pave the way for this outcome.

As for DSK... well. Support for his candidacy collapsed nearly overnight, with only a few public figures speaking for him – a leading feminist among them, by the way. The leading socialist candidate is now François “regular guy” Hollande, whose motto is “I am a normal candidate”. Everybody hopes he will indeed be one.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Wishful delusions

During the last political campaign I attended a conference by a representative of the French left-wing organization Attac. I was tired and, to tell the truth, it was boring. It was one of the things you have to do when you are into politics. The theme of the conference was "building a new world" and the speaker was particularly keen to convince us that the people from the Third World rejected our way of life and were ready to adopt, if not degrowth, at least some kind of voluntary frugality.

A few weeks later at work, I had a conversation with a cleaning lady from Congo-Kinshasa. She told me that she planned to get French citizenship, and that the main problem in France was that you could not make money in France because taxes were too high (she also told me she was a good housewife, but that's beside the point). At about the same time, the Tunisians, who had just got rid of their dictator, began to cross the Mediterranean in makeshift boats to have a taste of European prosperity.

They land on an Italian island, Lampedusa, then head to France, where they hope to settle. This has triggered a kind of diplomatic crisis, as France suspended the Schengen agreement and closed its border with Italy to non-Europeans, stranding a lot of Tunisians in the Torino region. Needless to say, this did not amuse the Italian government.

One could not imagine more striking a contrast between the delusions of the intellectual and the reality of the common people.

Even though the intelligentsia is fairly young as a class, the intellectual is a fairly old figure. Whether he was called shaman, high priest or philosopher, he provides society with meaning, cohesion and legitimacy. In times of change and danger, they provide it with choices and possibilities. The plural is important here, for when a culture is under stress, it turns to its intellectuals for a response, and even though those responses generally spring out of the culture's tradition, they can be dazzlingly varied in nature.

Thus, when the ancient Israelites, whose political ideal was theocratic, were faced with the hard reality of occupation by a pagan power, they developed a variety of answers. Some decided to cling to the traditional sacerdotal order and reach an agreement with the occupiers. Some decided to use force. Some retreated into the desert to wait for God to intervene and fix the situation. Some disconnected God and the people from Jerusalem and the temple and built a community in exile. Some disconnected God from the people and brought it to the pagans.

Most of theses movements were dead ends. Others were counterproductive, drawing the wrath of the Roman Empire upon the very people they were supposed to defend. A few were successful – what we call rabbinic Judaism, karaite Judaism and Christianity – and opened up a host of new perspectives and possibilities both for the Jewish people and the world.

As you probably have noticed, we are in a similar situation.

Since the triumph of Christianity, the Western World is based upon the idea that history has a meaning and a direction. Our world was considered transitional, a mere waiting stage before the second coming of Christ and the Advent of the eternal Kingdom of God. History was no longer a cycle or a haphazard succession of events, but a march forward during which the Church's role was to guide and prepare the people for the end times. Islam, by the way, is quite similar in that perspective.

The Enlightenment and the various ideologies born from it got rid of God but kept the Christian vision of history by repatriating the Kingdom of God and making the building of some utopia the ultimate goal of mankind. Of course, that meant we had to find a terrestrial substitute for Christ – not an easy task to say the least. Some, for instance the Saint-Simonians, chose the scientist and the engineer – this is the vision of the world which pervades Jules Verne's Promethean novels. Others chose the entrepreneur – that was Ayn Rand but also the laissez-faire crowd, which dominated world affairs in the eighties. The most popular choice among the intellectuals was, however, the proletariat.

Western intellectuals were indeed faced with a paradox. Although theoretically committed to equality and progress, they had, as Raymond Aron demonstrated in his seminal work L'Opium des Intellectuels, an essentially aristocratic way of life. Marxism offered an answer to this predicament.

Marxism, especially in its Leninist form, is essentially a repackaging of apocalyptic Christianity with the proletariat in place of Christ, the Revolution in place of his Second Coming, and a lot of pseudo-science to make it palatable. From the intellectuals' point of view, it had the advantage of providing them both with a cause worth fighting for and a leading role in the fight.

Indeed, while it was the proletariat which was supposed to make the Revolution, the Communist Party, and therefore the intelligentsia, had a crucial role in helping it to forge its “class consciousness” and elaborate “revolutionary theory”. For mid-twentieth century intellectuals it was very seductive and a lot of them jumped onto the communist bandwagon; Aragon, Sartre, Gide, and Bernard Shaw, for instance.

Marxism was already dangerously out of touch with reality by the time of the Russian Revolution and, even though its victory against Nazism gave it a new legitimacy, this could only increase with time. The contrast between the claims of Communist propaganda and the sordid reality of the Soviet Union became too big for even the intelligentsia's famed voluntary blindness to cope with. From the early fifties onward, intellectuals progressively left mainstream communism. First, they turned to various Marxist heresies: Maoism (very popular in France during the late sixties), Trotskyism, Eurocommunism...

This proved short-lived, however, and as the body count mounted, the intellectual support for Marxism collapsed. This did not stop the intelligentsia’s quest for a messiah apt to usher in the Better World which is still central to its vision of the world. While some former leftists went the neo-conservative way, on both sides of the Atlantic, most preferred to give their attention to other worthier groups.

By not bringing about the Communist utopia, the proletariat had failed the intelligentsia and deprived it of what it thought was its historical role. In the intellectuals' collective mind, the proletarian hero became the “beauf” — a French word which could be translated as “redneck” or “white trash” — forever guilty of not being progressive enough. Instead, the intelligentsia focused on various fringe groups, whose main advantage was being fringe... and who'd better remain so.

Of course, the fate of all minorities is to assimilate or integrate into the mainstream; or, for territorial minorities, to create their own separate mainstream. By doing so they betray the faith intellectuals put in them and are instantly relegated into the “beauf” category. Immigrants, marginal tribes or inhabitants of the Third World, preferably far away, are better targets for the intelligentsia's projections. Of course, they are just ordinary people trying to improve their lot and make the best of an admittedly bad situation, and most of them don't share the revolutionary delusions of the intelligentsia... when they don't actively reject them.

Third-worlders and immigrants don't want to bring down the affluent western democracies; they want to live in them, and are ready to risk their lives to do so. Immigrants, when they manage to settle in a rich country, aim to integrate and climb up the social ladder... and in the long run they succeed, or at least they have succeeded as long as essentially free energy has enabled Western societies to provide their citizens with a plethora of reasonably well-paid jobs.

The intelligentsia's delusions can, however, become frankly counterproductive as the beginning of the energy descent plunges industrialized economy into quasi-perpetual depression. Migrations to and within the industrial world won't stop anytime soon. In fact they will probably increase as political chaos spreads in the Third World. No matter what we do or want, we will have to deal with them.

Unfortunately, we are stuck between two equally unhealthy visions : that of the left intellectuals, who see immigrants both as victims of “capitalism” and as a kind of new proletariat ushering in the long promised “better world”; and that of the populist right, who see them as a barbarian horde right out of the Camps des Saints. Caught in the middle, governments, whether national or local, try to clean up the mess without infuriating the fanatics of their own side. Most of the time, this means publicly burning a few trees to hide the forest.

Needless to say, tokenism won't get us anywhere in a world of growing problems and dwindling resources, and the people – those whom the intelligentsia has come to consider an annoying irrelevance – are painfully, if obscurely, aware of it. They feel that the “better world” is a delusion but remain prisoners of a worldview based on it. This makes them only too vulnerable to the scapegoating tactics of the populist right.

The result is that instead of a peaceful integration within the general framework of French society, we have a growing polarization between natives and immigrants. This polarization is fueled both by the demonizing rhetoric of the populist right and the wishful thinking of the intellectual left. Both prevent the immigrants, and some of their most salient cultural features such as Islam, from integrating into the mainstream. Both force them into a ghetto.

In a world of dwindling resources, and therefore of increasing competition, this is a recipe for disaster. At some point, either the populist right will seize power by stigmatizing the immigrants and their descendants, or the government’s party will adopt their policies to stay in power. The immigrants – and their offspring, most of whom have never seen their supposed homeland – will then be forced to choose between being victims and becoming conquerors. This is not the first time this has happened, and we have only to read the words of the British priest Gildas to be reminded how deep and destructive the divide between natives and immigrants can become:

Then all the councillors, together with that proud tyrant Gurthrigern [Vortigern], the British king, were so blinded that, as a protection to their country, they sealed its doom by inviting in among them like wolves into the sheep-fold), the fierce and impious Saxons, a race hateful both to God and men, to repel the invasions of the Northern nations. […]

But in the meanwhile, an opportunity happening, when these most cruel robbers had returned home, the poor remnants of our nation (to whom flocked from divers places round about our miserable countrymen as fast as bees to their hives, for fear of an ensuing storm), being strengthened by God, calling upon him with all their hearts, as the poet says,—"With their unnumbered vows they burden heaven," that they might not be brought to utter destruction, took arms under the conduct of Ambrosius Aurelianus, a modest man, who of all the Roman nation was then alone in the confusion of this troubled period by chance left alive.

Gildas was quite biased and most probably oversimplified a complex situation – the first kings of Wessex were British, after all – but his and his fellow churchmen's rabid rhetoric certainly did not help. The delusions of his successors won’t be more productive.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The impotence of politics

I have just finished a round of elections which have kept me from writing for a while – that and a rather nasty breakup. Overall, it turned out the way I wanted – the election, not the breakup. I didn't get elected, but then that never was the point. The second round opposed the Greens to the old socialist party, which was quite an event in itself, and by openly supporting the former, I put myself in a good position for the 2014 municipal election. This required a lot of advance planning, but it has worked so far.

If this sounds cynical, it's normal, at least in part. That's only a part of the story, however.

Activists and radicals are prone to dismiss mainstream politicians as cynical and self-serving, but this comes from a distorted view of what politics are and can do. We may live in offices and eat processed food, our social behavior is still rooted in our evolutionary history as pack hunters and primates. Archaic human societies were ruled by coalitions, most of the time a strongman and his lieutenants, with a number of social devices designed to make sure he is dependent upon his followers for his continued dominance.

With the Neolithic revolution, our societies have grown far beyond what a single coalition could reasonably manage and have become fractal as a result. Modern societies are a hierarchy of nested coalitions all built upon the same model, from your average nuclear family to the G8. Inside those coalitions, everyone is jockeying for position and fighting for access to scarce resources. This the way all human groups work, even anarchies. In fact, it is far more brutal among anarchists – especially the Randite subtype – because by rejecting institutionalized power, they destroy the various social devices our species evolved to check the pack leader's dominance.

A consequence is that our leaders' power is utterly dependent upon the support of their allies and followers. The chieftain of a Cro-Magnon tribe could theoretically browbeat his fellow hunters into submission. A modern politician must give his supporters what they want – or at least tell them what they want to hear – lest they desert him. That means he must cater to the delusions and obsessions of his electorate if he does not want to become a very lone voice crying in a very empty desert.

That is why even the few politicians who know the truth about our situation cannot do anything meaningful about it. If they did they would soon find themselves out of a job, in the manner of Ben Ali.

The Greens, which I supported, are basically a revitalization movement. The closest historical example – at least from an American point of view – was Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa's confederacy. Quitting drinking and opposing a united front to the settlers was clearly a good idea, but even a total success on that front would not have been enough to keep the settlers at bay. Piling up symbolic acts – even if some of them are actually good ideas – won't prevent, or even significantly slow, the decline of industrial civilization, not this late in the game. The only thing which could have some effect, that is deliberately diminishing our consumption, is every bit as unthinkable among the Greens as it is in the other political parties – including mine, it has to be said.

I am, in fact, quite sure that at least some Greens (as well as some of us) are aware of this. The problem is that going so blatantly against the wish and expectations of their (and our) electors will make them run away in less time than one needs to say “Mubarak”.

Even those who officially support degrowth are forced to disguise it as progress, lest they lose whatever small support they have. There is no way to support extensive public services without an industrial economy, yet degrowthers feel obliged to claim the contrary because most of them come from the left and being on the left here means maintaining that state funding for your lifestyle is an inalienable right.

Should a left winger (or anybody else for that matter) state the truth — that is, that the years of affluence are nearing their end and that we, as a people, are going to have to live with far less — he would be immediately branded as a dangerous extremist and an accomplice of whatever conspiracy is fashionable at the moment.

In fact, politicians' options are far more limited than laymen's.

Acting openly to prepare for the future is impossible – we would be quickly out of a job. We can, of course, prepare covertly for the future. I am persuaded that a few leaders, and at least some services, do this. The problem is that the changes needed to adapt to the end of the industrial society are so drastic that one cannot implement them stealthily. Moreover, even a gradual implementation is likely to be met with fierce resistance... and there would be no shortage of would-be presidents to capitalize on that.

In France, the most likely winner would be Marine Le Pen – think Nick Griffin with a brain, and a skirt.

The role of intellectual exile is another option, and a tempting one. Walking out of the political scene and writing for the future enables you to keep your intellectual integrity. It may also give you a greater influence upon the future. After all, Augustine of Hippo's writings have had a far greater impact than the actions of the Western Emperor Honorius or the Vandal king Geiseric. The problem is that not everybody is Augustine of Hippo, and that whatever you write is far more likely to end up in a recycle bin than in a neo-monastic library.

Besides, politicians are often dependent on the power structure for their livelihood. They are as free to leave as your average middle manager – especially after a nasty and costly breakup. Incidentally, this is also true for radicals. Could a Marxist or the head of a women's studies department diverge from the party line without endangering his or her job? Hardly.

The end result is that those of us who are aware of the situation just muddle through, and try to quietly advance policies we know might help without jeopardizing the social order or our ability to pay our mortgages.

And sometimes, we think of Augustine of Hippo.