Saturday, September 3, 2011
Thursday, July 28, 2011
Friday, June 10, 2011
Monday, May 2, 2011
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
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.