Thursday, March 29, 2012

Disunited Kingdoms

In 2014, Scotland will decide whether it should leave the United Kingdom or not. At this point, the pro-independence opinion is still a minority, even though the unionist parties do their best to make it a majority by the time the referendum is held. Should Alex Salmond win his gambit, a new state would appear on maps of Europe, probably the first of a long series.

Of course, the maps of Europe have been anything but static in the last seventy years. The collapse of the Soviet Union has spawned a bevy of newly independent republics, not all of which survived infancy, and the banks of the Dniester is still controlled by what one may diplomatically call an unrecognized state : Transnistria A few core western states have shed territories during this time period. Denmark has had to let Iceland go in 1944 and France has left Algeria in 1962 – I know it sounds weird but at the time it was considered a part of France and a significant French population lived there.

Those were just cases of states in relative decline losing control of their periphery, however. Denmark had lost its colonies in India to Britain during the 19th century and sold its last American possessions to the United States in 1917. France had been militarily defeated in Indochina and even though it held the upper hand in Algeria, it could not politically sustain a decade long war.

The departure of Scotland, like the possible departure of Flanders or Catalonia, is of a different nature. The Scottish Highlands, like Wales or Ireland, were on the periphery of Britain – the so called "Celtic Fringe". The Lowlands, however, were not. It was to gain access to the English market that the Scottish elite agreed to the Treaty of Union in 1706 and their wishes were definitely granted. Until the American Revolution, Glasgow dominated tobacco trade and the Scottish elite eagerly joined the English aristocracy in its pursuit of imperial glory.

The losers, of course, were the highlanders, who had maintained a rugged semi-autonomy  in the north of the country. The army, which crushed the clans at Culloden included a significant Scottish contingent and the highland clearance, which depopulated the northern counties were done at the order and for the benefit of the Scottish aristocracy.

Even now, Edinburgh and Glasgow are large and prosperous cities and the real divide is with the now largely empty Highlands.

The break between Scotland and England, like the one between Catalonia and Spain or the one between Wallonia and Flanders, is a break within the core, and there shall be a lot of it while our civilization slides further down Hubbert's curve.

Civilizations work by concentrating wealth from the periphery to the core. That is how they gather enough resources to get things done which incidentally means that a little territorial inequality is not necessarily a bad thing if you want to produce some culture somewhere. A fact often overlooked, however, is that civilizations are fractal, that is their low-level structure mirrors their high-level structure. The city of Nantes, where I work may be a periphery to the Parisian region, it is definitely the core of Brittany and while Saint-Nazaire, where I live is a periphery to Nantes, it is the core of the coastal region, and Paris itself is a distant periphery of New-York or Shanghai.

The system holds because everybody, except those who are at the bottom, has an interest in its holding together, and because it is easier to jockey for position inside it than to try and overthrow it, at the risk of being crushed.

The various dominant cores dominate their periphery – and are dominated by the cores higher up – through a mix of sharing and dependency, with brute force a very rarely used ultima ratio. How the sharing works is easy to see : subordinate elites get the right to exploit their own periphery, and a small part of the resources funneled upward.

Dependency is more subtle. Basically, the core uses the resources of the periphery to build infrastructures, both material and immaterial, and organize the economy in a way which suits the core’s interests. That means that whatever funds are spent in the periphery  further the interests of the core, notably providing it with manpower, specialized services or raw material, or producing goods which will be sold by corporations whose seats are located at the core, and therefore taxed, at least in part, there.

The periphery is therefore under the (false) impression, it cannot get by without the help of the core. Of course, this argument will be used to scare the periphery away from autonomy. This has been done in Quebec, for instance, and will doubtlessly be done in Scotland as well.

The end of cheap energy and the global shortage of resources which will ensue, shall make things a little more complex, however. It is easy to share resources when they are plentiful. Sharing shortages, however, is far more difficult and we can expect every country, region or city, whatever its place in the national or global hierarchy, to squeeze its periphery, internal or external, to squeeze its periphery for the resources it needs.

What this means for Scotland (and Wales, and Northern England, and Wessex), is that its resources – namely dwindling but still sizable oil reserves and rather large investments in wind and wave power – are likely to be funneled southward to prop up an south-eastern English economy which has unwisely bet on globalization and high finance. In a way, it is already happening.

The Scottish elite – at least a part of it – is using the tools of nationalism and historical myths to get a better control over its resources (and its own periphery's, we are not in carebears' country) whether it be through full independence or what the SNP calls “devo-max”

The outcome, of course, will depend on the respective strengths and weaknesses of the two contending elites and on their ability to manipulate historical myths. Fortunately, nobody intends to use the Kings' last arguments, so the British army should remain in its barracks.

There is no shortage, in Europe, of elites, or would be elites, willing to imitate the Scots. Some of them, like the Basques, the Catalans or the Flemings, may succeed. Other won't be so lucky, either because the territories they claim are too dependent, or because they have no national myth to rely upon, or because they are just a bunch of clueless amateurs.

Having roamed a few international congresses, I can tell you that the latter category is in no danger of immediate extinction.

Of course, you don't need to have a distinctive culture or identity to be stripped of your resources. Wessex or Northern England are in the same position as Scotland. So are the Scottish Highlands or the Shetlands, relative to Scotland, by the way. It is, of course, possible for, say Cumberland to remember that a Celtic language was spoken in the area until the twelfth century, or for Northern England to discover it used to be a kingdom during the Dark Ages. Let's just say it's likely to remain restricted to a few fringe groups or even individuals.

It is, by the way, the situation of most French regions, for, while regionalism is reasonably common, the groups which defend it are too weak, electorally, ideologically, structurally, to make a difference.

The most likely outcome its that wherever it is possible, the core will squeeze its peripheries to further its existence, leaving only poverty and chaos in its wake. When the core will fail, the old periphery will probably be not only impoverished and depopulated, but also broken as a society and politically chaotic for centuries.

Ironically, it is a similar process, which enabled the old highland clans to rise after the devastation and the chaos brought by the wars of independence of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

I am not sure the result will be everywhere as colorful, however.

There is no easy way out of this conundrum, and in fact, the only way for a peripheral territory to win is to opt out of the game : embrace the decline, turn to the domestic economy and to local production and consumption. This, however, amounts to embracing poverty to avoid misery further down the road, and I frankly doubt the regionalist groups I know are prepared to that, even those which claim to be ecologist.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Speaking of France

France is an interesting case. It was long the most populous state in Europe and the main rival of England, then Britain for the title of world hegemon. Unlike Britain, however, it did not face the open sea but large and powerful kingdoms, whose alliance finally thwarted its ambitions, first at Blenheim in 1704, then at Waterloo in 1815; It then began to slowly decline, the way failed empires do. Unable to prevent German unification, it steadily lost ground and became an admittedly unruly American ally after World War II. If peak energy wasn't looming, it would become just another minor country dreaming of its glorious past  while history is written elsewhere.

That would not necessarily have been a bad thing. This is what happened to Athens after the Roman conquest. Deprived of what remained of its political independence, the city had become a prosperous cultural center, leading a quiet and protected life, far from the Empire's battlefields.

Such won't be our fate, however.

In premodern times, France was the prototypic agrarian empire. Born from a warlord state located between the Loire river and the Channel, it came to control some of the best lands in western Europe, which enabled it to feed a large peasant population – a whole quarter of the European population during the Middle-Ages – and field large, well armed and well trained armies.

In fact, we probably came very close to a French global empire during the 16th century, when Louis XIV's armies marched on Vienna, only to be crushed by the combined forces of England, Prussia, the Netherlands and Denmark at Blenheim.

It was, however, less well endowed in fossil fuels, which explains its relative decline during the 19th century. France's few coal resources are located along the north-eastern border, which proved quite inconvenient during World War I. It has virtually no oil and very little gas, mostly in Aquitaine.

As in other European countries, those resources are mostly depleted. The last coal mines have closed down during the nineties, around the same time, ironically, as the last uranium mines. Only 2% of our gas is extracted in France – mostly around Lacq in Aquitaine - and our oil production is negligible. There may be shale gas around Paris and in Provence, two densely populated regions, but it remains to be seen whether it will ever be exploited. Local populations are quite hostile, economics are dubious at best and the French Parliament has recently banned hydraulic fracturing.

To make things worse, the share of renewable energy, even though it is growing, is negligible, the result of decades of underinvestment and of the choice of the country to invest heavily in nuclear power during the seventies.

This, of course, is bound to cause problems as the age of cheap abundant energy comes to a end.

France has, like other developed countries, accumulated an embarrassing surplus of material and immaterial infrastructures : roads, administration, a health system far more efficient than the American one (granted, it's not very difficult), a reasonably efficient  education system... After the first oil shock, those infrastructures were increasingly funded by debt. In a growing economy, that was not necessarily a bad idea. After all, if the future is going to be more prosperous than the present, it may as well pay for it.

The problem, as we know, is that the future won't be more prosperous than the present, and at some point we are bound to find ourselves in the rather awkward situation of having to pay for the past without getting any subsidies from the future.

France is a close, if sometimes troublesome, ally of the USA, and even though it gets some benefits from the imperial system, its growth has been consistently inferior to America's and the state budget has been running at a deficit since 1974. Chronic unemployment has been a fact of life for more than forty years now, partly because of weak growth, partly because the French political system favors a protected middle class of civil servants an retirees over the working class.

This is only made worse by the structure of the French state itself. France formed by amalgamating small feudal principalities during the middle-ages and by conquering border lands afterward. As a result, all its infrastructures are centered on the capital region, which works as a wealth and manpower pump, extracting resource from the provinces to fund the lifestyle of the Parisian aristocracy and the infrastructures it needs. The railroad network, for instance, is organized around the six big Parisian stations and most big corporations have their seat in Paris, as close as possible to the political power.

Theoretically, most regions receive more from the state than they contribute, but it is an illusion. A great part of the money that flows out from Paris is made of pensions, wages and touristic spending, what we call the residential economy. They increase, not alleviate dependency.

Public spending, notably in education, is aimed at providing the core with the skilled manpower it needs, triggering a permanent brain drain from the periphery toward the Parisian region, and of course, the economy of the periphery is organized according to the need and the interests of the core. Under the guise of “national solidarity”, wealth movements are organized and controlled by the state, which makes the poorest regions yet more dependent on the core and prevents independent accumulation of capital, either human or material.

The result has been a pattern of regional specialization, with the superior functions, and most of the national wealth, concentrated in Paris.

When such a system is faced with a shortage of vital resources, it tends to sacrifice the periphery to preserve the core. This tendency is still stronger in France, for, unlike in America, Germany, China and to a lesser extend Britain, the core coincides with a specific region.
Faced with a growing dearth of resources, the state has organized the progressive dismantlement of public services in the periphery – mostly in the rural areas, but also in what we call the “suburbs”, urban ghettos where the poorest populations, often of foreign descent, live. This dismantlement take many forms. State run enterprises may be sold off  so that their new corporate or quasi-corporate management can restrict their activities and progressively terminate the protective status of their employees. Offices located in small – or even less small towns – can be closed down. Most importantly, charges may be “delegated” to local authorities, while fundings to those very same local authorities are withdrawn and their ability to levy taxes curtailed.

Those policies are met with resistance, of course, but not with effective resistance. There has been no general strike in France since 1995 and the state has become better and better at defeating mass protests. The last one, in 2010, opposing a very unpopular reform pushed by a highly unpopular government, mobilized several millions people, yet was a total failure. In fact, the staff of the main opposition party, hoped it to be a failure, so that they be spared the trouble of enacting the same kind of reform once back into power.

The effect of the retreat of the state toward the geographical core are less direct. The resistance is therefore more local, and can be defeated piecemeal. The few victorious struggles, because they only have a local importance, don't break the pattern, and their often hard-won success is bound to be temporary.

The Republican ideology, which stills permeates French politics considers indeed the state as the guardian of common good., which means that any locally based resistance to its action is always suspect of parochialism and has to prove, if it wants to be listened to, that it does not only defend the interest of a particular group, but some great principle, which only strengthens the role of the state as the ultimate allocator of resources.

Like the kings of yore, the state cannot willingly do wrong. It can only be ill advised.

Even the political movements which have glimpsed the nature of the Parisian wealth pump, namely the various autonomist, regionalist and separatist movements, which have sprung up in the French periphery, subscribe to this worldview. Those movements have their weakness, structural and ideological, which will probably prevent them from playing a major role, even in local politics, for the foreseeable future outside Corsica, but they could have formed an ideological core around which a real relocalization might have been possible. Nearly all of them, however, insist, that they want a real solidarity between poor and rich provinces. They only want it fairer, which, of course, amounts to acknowledge the legitimacy of the state as the ultimate allocator of resources.

The king cannot do wrong, it can only be ill advised.

The problem is of course deeper, and that is why France is likely to disastrously fail as its resource base shrinks. As long as economic growth was present, the core could pump the resources of the periphery and organize it according to its needs while allowing it to reap some benefit from the system. No matter how exploited, a peripheral region of a central state was still better off than a central region of a peripheral state.

This is still true, but as the balance of power at the world level shifts toward China, France will more and more lose its privileged access to resources. It will, therefore, be forced to organize the impoverishment of its own periphery. In most big countries, such a plolicy would be sure to trigger separatist movements, but as I have said, in France, the supremacy of the state is accepted by nearly everyone, including those who might engage in identity politics. Mainstream, and even not so mainstream parties might diverge about the policies the state should enact but its role as the embodiment of the nation is questioned only by the fringe of the fringe.

The most likely result will be a growing gap between a privileged but shrinking minority, close enough to the core, whether it be geographical or social, to benefit from the advantages it provides, and a majority which will lose all the riches it had accumulated  during the growth years and vent its anger by supporting a populist strongman or another. This is what has happened to the French working class, and it is obvious that the middle class, especially the unprotected middle class is next on the list.

Such an evolution would be deadly for democracy, as sooner or later the disenfranchised crowd would vote some populist into power, or come so close to doing it that force would have to be used “to preserve democracy”.

In both case, it would be a disaster. In both case, it would speed the decline and make it deeper and messier as the inevitable failure of such a regime would leave only ruins in its wake.

The only alternative would be for the state to relinquish its claim to supremacy and share evenly the cost of the descent among all citizens by encouraging a progressive return to domestic economy and organic forms of solidarity.

I don’t know why, but I don’t hold my breath.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

False Choices

It is election time in France. Five weeks from now, we will elect our president for the next five years and unless he does something really stupid, the socialist pretender, François Hollande, will win in a landslide – albeit not necessarily with the insane margin polls predict. The most striking feature of this election, however, is not the unpopularity of the incumbent president but the similarity of their worldview.

French Presidents are chosen in a two-round runoff election, with the candidates falling into four categories. First you have the two or three contenders, who have a realistic chance of being elected. Generally those are the candidate of the Socialist Party and whoever dominates the moderate right at that particular moment. This time it will be François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy.

Then you have the outsiders who most probably won’t make it to the second round, but might under the right circumstances. This time, it will be François Bayrou (center), Jean-Luc-Mélenchon (Left Front) and Marine Le Pen (National Front).

Behind them stand the marginal candidates : Eva Joly (Greens), Jacques Cheminade (the local Larouchie) Nathalie Arthaud (troskyist), Philippe Poutou (another brand of troskyism) and Dominique de Villepin (moderate right, with a serious grudge against Sarkozy).

Finally, there are those who will be denied ballot access because they don’t have at least 500 signed presentations from elected officials. They are too numerous to be listed and their programs are often masterworks of involuntary comedy.

All of them, however, want to restart growth.

Of course, there are differences, often significant ones. The Greens, for instance, want a Green Growth, fueled by renewable energy. The socialists want to lower nuclear share in our energy mix to a mere 50%. The National Front wants a French Growth in French Francs (muslim people need not apply). Nicolas Sarkozy … well, Nicolas Sarkozy badly needs some growth to be reelected, but that does not sound likely.

The idea that sustained growth might be a thing of the past, however, is not something responsible people mention in a polite conversation, even if those people happen to be green.

There are many reasons for that, but one of them is the way the Green movement developed in France. Political ecology first entered French politics during the early seventies, with the candidacy of René Dumont at the 1974 presidential elections, two mere years after the founding of the first ecological magazine La Gueule Ouverte. Nobody talked about the climate then – it was assumed that at some point in the future it would become colder, but that hardly mattered. The subjects du jour were resource depletion, runaway pollution, demographic explosion and of course nuclear warfare.

The Meadows report had just been published, and contrary to what is assumed today, it triggered a huge debate within French society. Ecological themes nearly became mainstream and in 1978 an educational animated TV series called Once Upon a Time... Man was broadcast on the third channel. A whole generation of children watched it, notably the last episode, which described the future of our civilization... and its demise because of pollution and resource wars.

Yet this concern faded during the eighties and when the Greens resurfaced as a cultural and political force, they had gone over to standard upper middle class environmentalism. Ironically, one of the main causes of this devolution was the 1973 oil shock. It convinced the French elites that dependence on foreign oil was a dangerous thing. They quickly found a solution : nuclear.

At the time, it was not as stupid as it sounds now. Chernobyl was still in the distant future and the only alternative was importing gas from the USSR or Algeria. We still produced uranium at that time, and there were in Africa a number of producer countries both friendly and able to control their territory.

Besides, everybody knows that accidents are unfrench and that our borders are radiation-proof.

The Greens, of course, opposed this move, as well as some other movements. It was a huge fight, but outside Brittany, they lost. Only the Breton nuclear plants were canceled when the Socialist Party won the elections in 1981 but the fight itself focused the Green movement on the nuclear industry and away from sustainability.

Meanwhile, France began to experience high unemployment during the late seventies, the result of the first oil crisis, but also of the more or less deliberate choice of favoring high wages and pensions over full employment. The Keynesian policies of the first years of the presidency of François Mitterand did not help either, and France was stuck with an unemployment rate permanently over 8%.

France was, and is still, a welfare state and unemployment benefits can be quite generous – they depend on how much you were paid before you lost your job. They don't last for ever, however, and when they do end, the fall can be quite brutal and people who wonder whether they will still have a home at the end of the year tend to put environment very low on their list of priority.

The Greens having failed to make the connection between resource depletion and economic decline, green politics became restricted to the left wing upper middle class – in French, we call them the “bobos”. Of course, the upper middle class has its own demands and concerns. It wants to keep its privileged position within the society, but wants also to be seen as the progressive good guys. This has resulted in a focus on societal issues and policies which look superficially left wing but actually reinforce the status-quo, such as free immigration (aka brain and manpower pump) or “fair trade”, which in fact locks poor countries in their role of provider of underpriced raw material.

The hedonistic world-view of the bobos, means that they will oppose any policy aiming at reinforcing communities – as the Archdruid has stated, healthy communities come to a price, a price the upper middle class is not in a hurry to pay.

The result has been an ideological disaster mixing tokenism and, since the bobos have a lot to lose from a true relocalization of economy or from a true simplification of the society, an insistence that all our problems can be solved if we invest heavily in the right green technologies and create a lot of green jobs for the self-appointed green elite.
I am afraid those delusions won't survive their, arguably unfortunate, collision with reality.

Curiously, a few parts of the traditional left may be more aware of the problems ahead.

Less than a month ago, Michel Rocard published a book titled “Mes points sur les i - Propos sur la présidentielle et la crise”, where he explains that growth won't returns and that the European Union is a non-entity in international politics. For those who don't know French politics, Michel Rocard is the closest thing to a an elder statesman we have. During the seventies, he was the main rival of François Mitterand within the Socialist Party and his prime minister from 1988 to 1991. He probably spared France a colonial war in New Caledonia, but he and his followers were progressively marginalized in the following years and he was finally exiled to the European Parliament.

Having become a non-entity in French politics, he can now speak his mind and say what other politicians cannot. That François Hollande prefaced his book shows he is listened to, if not necessarily heeded.

Of course, Michel Rocard speaks from within the ideology of progress. He sees the future as a time of difficulties, not as the long descent it will be. Unable, or unwilling, to acknowledge the limits of our uranium supply, he advocates keeping our nuclear plants “lest we enter degrowth”, and of course, his goal is not to accompany the coming descent, so as to make it less brutal, but to keep the status quo as long as possible.

This half-lucidity will certainly influence my vote next month, especially when I compare it to the Greens' delusions, but it makes the curtailed character of our political choices painfully obvious. It is not that we cannot see the coming crisis – Michel Rocard sees it clearly enough and the Greens, for all their delusions are somewhat aware of it. The problem is that the overwhelming majority of us shy away from its logical consequences, because they contradict our ideology.

In fact, we have, during the last decades, more or less consciously chosen to put our faith in progress before the survival of our civilization, and this choice has made all other political choices, if not irrelevant – a fascistic or communist regime in France would be an unmitigated disaster – at least without long term consequences.

The only horizon is now collapse. The only question is how our communities will adapt to it locally, far from the political rallies and the golden halls of the senate.