Monday, August 27, 2012

From Russia with narcissism

Summer months tend to be quite uneventful in France. We have earned the right to go on extended leaves in 1936 and consider it somewhat sacred, so everything is put on hold in July and August. The world feels no obligation, however, to follow French mores and two major events have happened during the last months, which triggered a number of quite revealing reactions, or non-reactions.

First you had this strike in a platinum mine in South-Africa, which got seriously out of hand and ended with the police shooting 34 miners dead. Then there was this trial in Russia, where three musicians from a rather obscure Riot Grrrl band got sentenced to two years in a prison colony for having staged an impromptu happening in the middle of the largest church in Moscow. Curiously, or perhaps not so curiously, Pussy Riot got a lot of support in Western countries with a lot of people demonstrating in front of Russian consulates and embassies – well, maybe not a lot, but they sure as hell got a lot of media time. Strangely, South-African consulates and embassies have remained stubbornly demonstrator-free.

The funny thing is what Pussy Riot did is also an offense in France. France is a adamantly secular state, yet, when in 2005 Act Up staged a fake gay marriage in the largest church of Paris, well, let’s say that the French courts were not amused.

The Tribunal of Grande Instance of Paris thus said it was a direct attack against freedom of religion as defined by the article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It also said that it was irrelevant that the stated aim of the action was not to attack religion as such but to protest against a particular policy.

Of course, the French sentence was symbolic, mostly because the Catholic Church did not push for more. Russia has been too harsh in my opinion, yet the logic behind the law against "hooliganism”, defined in Russian law as "a gross violation of public order which expresses patent contempt for society” is quite similar to the French Tribunal of Grande Instance’s. Indeed, last time I checked freedom of religion was one of the founding principles of liberal society, and that certainly includes the right to worship undisturbed. When you think about it, it is not that different either from the logic behind the recently passed Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act, which will send you in jail if you have the dubious idea of protesting the funerals of a veteran.

There is more in this affair than a few bobos showing off their usual double standard. It has real implications for the coming energy descent, notably for what concerns the defense and furthering of functional communities. Communities are crucial to our getting through the energy descent in any reasonable shape. Bureaucratic forms of solidarity such as the French Sécurité Sociale, are bound to fail in an environment where the net energy available to society, and therefore its ability to mobilize resources structurally dwindles.

The only way to preserve some kind of safety net for those in need is by relying on organic community solidarity. Community solidarity can greatly vary in form, from Anglo-saxon fraternal societies to Islamic Zaqat, It comes with a price, however, a human price. Unlike networks – the kind of socialization favored by the elites – which put together people similar to each other, communities, in a reasonably complex societies, are made up of people with divergent, and sometimes highly divergent, values, interests, characters and life-goals. To get along, we need a basic set of common values, according to which we not only can but also must judge people – what Georges Orwell called common decency, this feeling , common to all men that there are things which simply cannot be done to fellow humans.

We need also an understanding that there are things which are both important and private, such as the choice of your life-partner or the way you worship whatever you have chosen to worship – provided, of course, those choices stay within the bounds of common decency, what pedophilia and Aztec-like human sacrifices don't, by the way.

It was those two principles Pussy Riot trampled with their, rather lame by the way, church dancing, and this, as well as the support they got, tells a lot about the way our elites see community.

Political philosophers distinguish between two kinds of liberty, which Isaiah Berlin calls respectively positive and negative liberties. Positive liberty, which is derived from Aristotle's definition of citizenship, is basically self-mastery, the right to choose one's own government and to have a say its policies, which, of course, implies a full participation in the political life of the community. Negative liberty is the right to act without interference by other persons.

Being a liberal, Isaiah Berlin argued that positive liberty was quite vulnerable to abuse by would-be philosopher-kings who conflated positive liberty with rational action, based upon a rational knowledge to which, only a certain elite or social group had access. Even a cursory look at the history of the last two centuries shows he was quite right in doing so. What he failed to see was that positive liberty could be similarly abused to serve the interests of such or such social group.

This is what I call the sadian interpretation of liberty.

Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade was a French aristocrat philosopher and writer of the late XVIIIth century, and for those who wonder, yes, the similarity of his name with the word sadism is not entirely coincidental. Sade is best known as a novelist, his most important work being The 120 Days of Sodom, or the School of Libertinism. In it, he describes the “adventures” of four “libertines”who seal themselves in a castle with a harem of sex-slaves of both genders and then proceed to rape, torture and murder them.

Needless to say, Sade spent a lot of time in jail and died in an asylum.

Sade, an educated man, was also a philosopher and wrote a number of political texts, the most important of which being an insert in his novel Philosophy in the Bedroom titled "Yet Another Effort, Frenchmen, If You Would Become Republicans". His thesis in this short piece was that egoism, greed, violence and lust were part of human nature and should therefore be indulged without any interference by other persons. Sade even denies the community the right to regulate in any way the behavior of his members, saying “ Demanding that men unequal in character submit to equal laws is frightening : what goes for one, does not work for another” and : "Laws can be so soft, and so few, that all men, whatever their character, can submit to them”.

And if you open The 120 days, you'll quickly realize that whatever their character includes Jeffrey Dahmer's.

Of course, you can't base an healthy community on such premises, and no political thinker I know of have followed him in his serial-killer oriented theory of liberty. The assumption behind it, however, thrives in every social group which manages to insulate itself from the community as well as from the consequences of their own behavior. This was certainly the case of Sade's own social group : the French aristocracy. This is also the case of not only the various elites which lord over our civilization, but also of a significant part of the “bobo” upper middle class.

That doesn't mean that there is some elite conspiracy to replay the 120 days in a Carpathian castle, mind you, only that as they isolate themselves from the rest of us, those the current arrangements favor begin to consider themselves above the rules of common decency. This leads not only to Madoff running his scheme or Dominique Strauss-Kahn organizing orgies in a very select French hotel, but also to CEOs giving themselves totally indecent wages while the firm they run goes under, or Wall Street traders causing people to lose their jobs, or even to starve, to make a few dollars more... or a riot grrrl band trampling religious freedom just to make a political point.

And please note I am emphatically not a Christian.

The members of Pussy Riot are hardly proles. One is a computer programmer, the two others are students, and apparently not the starving kind. One of them is even a Canadian permanent resident and their activism revolves around the kind of societal issues which enable the bobos to feel good without endangering their privileges. They represent the Sadian tendencies within occidental upper middle classes who want to enjoy their hedonistic, community dissolving, lifestyle, without having to bother about such petty things as the rights of others.

The South-African miners, on the other hands are just ordinary, presumably decent, workers trying to feed their families the best they can and demanding a better salary for what is after all one of the most difficult and dangerous jobs in the world. They have no access to any cultural circle or any upper middle class network. Many speak only their (Bantu) native language and they don't understand modern art. Let's face it, they are quite boring. They represent common people, whith common hopes and common decency.

Personally, I would have sentenced Pussy Riot to long and harsh community service. That is not the problem, however. The problem is that as the net energy available to our societies shrinks, so will their ability to support large elites and middle classes. That means that a significant part of those shall lose their privileges and that the rest will secede ever more from the society they live off, becoming more and more ferocious in the defense of their interests while using various societal issues to convince themselves they are enlightened. They will be able to keep their affluent lifestyle in a shrinking economy only by pressuring ever more the working classes and pushing them ever further into poverty and precarity. To continue to feel good in such circumstances they will have to shift the definition of social progress until it includes only what betters the lot of their class.

The focus on Pussy Riot and away from the pile of corpses in South-Africa is a step more in this direction.

This is a self-defeating strategy, and one which can have drastic consequences. The populace, looking the intelligentsia using what amounts to navel-gazing to justify the defense of their privileges, will be more and more tempted to throw the baby with the bathwater and turn to authoritarian solutions to save them from liberalism. Genuine advances, such as considering gays as human beings or allowing anybody to speak one's mind in the street or in papers, will be jeopardized.

A lot may be lost because the intelligentsia prefers to clamor about the woes of a not so innocent punk band than about the murder of ordinary decent people.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Fascination for death

We are a peculiar culture. We are extremely reluctant to accept the possibility that our civilization might decline and fall, like all those which have preceded us, yet consider the idea of utterly trashing the biosphere with a fascination which would have made an early twentieth century symbolist uneasy. We have had another example of it with a paper published in the June issue of Nature.

The paper itself is quite serious. The authors' thesis is that our dumping loads of CO2 into the atmosphere will cause Earth to undergo a state-shift, that is, that the climate of the planet will, abruptly, become something totally different. It is quite possible. In fact, given our remarkable ability to do nothing to make our lifestyle more sustainable, it is quite likely.

The problem is the way it was relayed. Thus, in the (highly reputable) French paper Les Echos, we could read La fin du monde en 2100 ?, which translates as The End of the World in 2100 ?. The idea is that the change will be so dramatic and so brutal, that life will be unable to adapt and we will be left with with a warmer version of Mars.

At this point, it may be interesting to go back a bit in time, say 250 millions years. Then most
land masses were collected in a single super-continent, which, like most super-continents erred on the dry side. This did not keep, mostly reptilian, life from thriving, with such specimens as inostrancevia a bear-sized reptile with 12 cm long saber-teeth. The vegetation was not exactly lush but there were still vast expenses of forests, mostly in the south.

It was not a paradise, especially if you stumbled on a inostrancevia in a dark wood in the middle of the night, but it was a functional world, with functional ecosystems.

Then, everything which could possibly go wrong did.

A magma plume burst through what would become Siberia, burning through the largest coal seam of the time. The Siberian traps, as they are cold, covered 2 millions km² with lava and released an embarrassing surplus CO2 into the atmosphere – enough to raise global temperatures by 5°C. This was enough to destabilize oceanic methane clathrate, send a lot of methane into the atmosphere and turn an already hot and dry world into something reminiscent of Arakis.
  The oceans became severely deficient in oxygen, but unfortunately not quite dead. Its normal inhabitants were just replaced by hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria. The oxygen level in the atmosphere plummeted, making life quite difficult for those few animals which had not been baked to death.

Yet life could survive in a overheated desert bordered by a steaming ocean and surrounded by a poisoned atmosphere, and did.

Hard as we try, we can't even get close to the disaster that was the Great Dying, as the Late Permian extinction is called. The best – or rather the worst – we can expect is a speedy return to the hothouse conditions that were the norm during most of Earth's history.

It may comes as a surprise for most of you, but our planet is going through an ice age, an unusually cold and dry period, with a low biodiversity. The climate has been getting colder and colder for the last 30 million years and had the trend continued, we would have been headed toward a full-fledged glacial period, a few tens of thousands years from now. It seems we'll get a swamp and jungle world instead, with some deserts as well, and a lot of shallow seas. It will be teeming with life, probably more so than ours.

Of course, a lot of species will disappear during the transition, like at the end of the last glacial period or during the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum. Others will prosper, as did our ancestors at the beginning of the Eocene.

The problem, is that most crops we are dependent upon have evolved in a Mediterranean setting and won't fare well in the new environment, not to speak, naturally of the slow invasion of the lowlands by the sea.

We won”t be able to use our usual strategy of social complexification and investment into technology. We don't have the resources we need to face the situation this way, even today, just after what was probably the peak of our power and richness. With the beginning of the energy descent our capacity to make investments to face such or such emergency while keeping our infrastructures in working order will shrink. At some point, we will probably be obliged to dismantle vital infrastructures, or allow them to decay, to free the resources we desperately need to keep short term crisis from spiraling out of control.

One can even argue that it is what is happening right now with the slow unraveling of the welfare state and the shrinking of public services in Europe.

The only strategy which will work in the long run is the one our ancestors used before the European expansion : cultural diversification and local adaptation. Since local conditions will have changed nearly everywhere, that means hat all cultures will have to reshape themselves, probably beyond recognition.

And yes, that is also true for so-called traditional or tribal cultures. After all, you cannot stay seal hunting Inuits if your glaciers have turned into alpine meadows and pine forests. You can, however, become Kalaallisut speaking herders and fishers.

But Inuit culture will be essentially dead, as will be all other modern cultures.

It is probably because, as a civilization we somehow feel this, that we have such a fascination for death, a fascination which manifests itself through zombies and vampire movies as well as through Les Echos's apocalyptic vision of a lifeless Earth. We, as a civilization, feel that something, big, and dark, and terrible is coming. We don't know what it is, we don't know when it will strike, but strike it will and it will destroy everything in its wake, a destruction we both fear and relish.

It is not an unprecedented feeling. It was particularly widespread in the Russian intelligentsia before 1914. The country was rapidly industrializing and while the countryside was still backward, a modern middle class was growing in the cities, as well as a radicalizing working class which would latter swell the ranks of the Red Guards during the October putsch.

Yet the government was controlled by an aristocratic clique headed by a brutal – and incompetent – autocrat right from the XVIIth century. The contradiction was so glaring that it was obvious to everybody that something was to happen. Few if any people expected this something to take the form of Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky, but most felt that it would be destructive, and many welcomed this coming destruction, not as a renewal, but for itself.
Thus, the poet Alexander Blok exclaimed after hearing about the sinking of the Titanic : “the ocean is alive !”. In case you wonder, it was an expression of joy.

In one of his latter poems, The Twelve, written in January 1918, where he describes the bloody march of twelve red guards as a mystical event, the same Alexander Blok writes :

Crack ~ crack ~ crack!
Crack ~ crack ~ crack!
... So they march with sovereign tread ...
Behind them limps the hungry dog,
and wrapped in wild snow at their head
carrying a blood-red flag ~
soft-footed where the blizzard swirls,
invulnerable where bullets crossed ~
crowned with a crown of snowflake pearls,
a flowery diadem of frost,
ahead of them goes Jesus Christ.

The problem is that where Blok took a pen, others took a gun and acted out on these necrophiliac tendencies, leading to both the Bolshevik hell and the Nazi death cult. It is perfectly possible that the present fascination with death leads to similar results – similar, not identical, Nazism and Communism are spent forces but the impulses behind them are well alive.

It is easy to imagine a radical movement emerging from those apocalyptic fantasies and promising to exorcise them by bringing about the same kind of storm which engulfed early twentieth century Russia. It is also easy to see how such a movement could get into power when the present ruling class will have sufficiently undermined its own legitimacy.

This would be a massive disaster, on many levels. What we need is a pragmatic policy aimed at cushioning the descent and at making it as bearable as possible for the common people, without any delusion about what we can do and hope for. This may, and probably will, imply the removal of the present kleptocracy, but this is quite incompatible with the kind of ideological fantasies which generally emerge from apocalyptic feelings.

The first step in avoiding them is to recognize that our actions have only a limited influence upon the fate of the Earth and our delusions of power are just that, delusions. Then we might begin to lead meaningful lives, within the strict bounds set upon us by the laws of Nature.

As for the Earth, well, as Sara Teasdale said :

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pool singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself when she woke at dawn
Would scarcely know that we were gone.