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.


  1. To take the late antiquity analogy further it is rather sad that, just like late antiquity, the groups that obtain the most benefit from the social structure; then the senatorial aristocracy and now the multinationals and the rich, contribute the least to the maintenance of the system by not paying their fair share of taxes or even not paying taxes at all.

    What I find particularly shocking is military spending still goes up, taxpayer funded bailouts for the banks get bigger and bigger and services get cut such that old people in Greece go hungry cause their pensions aren't enough to live on. Short termism at its best, given the rich are only so because of the capacity of their assets to generate wealth. If the economy collapses there wont be sufficient tax collected to pay bondholders and corporate profits will nosedive because nobody can afford to go buy the products the corporations sell anymore.

    I suspect at least some of the bagaudae would have been coloni who took the weakness of the Roman state as an opportunity to rebel against the oppressive and rapacious landlords described by the 5th century Christian polemicist Salvian. As the economy starts to offer less and less opportunity to the people with the corporations sending the remaining manufacturing and service jobs to the Third World and the banks suck the government dry to pay for the next round of bailouts the masses who otherwise just want a decent future really will have no choice but to rebel like their ancestors did back in the 5th century.

  2. 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.

    Keen insight.