Monday, November 14, 2011

The Guns of August

It's been a while since I've posted anything here, mostly for the reason that every time I sat down to write something about the ongoing Euro crisis, which is probably the most significant event in world history since the fall of the Berlin Wall, things changed and I felt like it was impossible to really get a clear picture of where things were going.  However, after seeing the news percolate over the last couple of months, I think it's possible to figure out where we're going with this.  I'll skip the drum roll and the dramatic build-up and get straight to the point about it -- what we're seeing the Eurozone is the political class being unable to find a way out of the crisis because there is no way out of the crisis. 

It's a little like hanging from a tree branch on the side of a cliff, with a hundred foot drop below you and a rabid grizzly bear above you.  You can either climb up and get eaten, fall to your death below, or hope for some kind of miracle.  Or, in Europe's case, you can throw the PIIGS under the bus and destroy any lasting chance at recreating the sense of Pan-Europeanism that died with World War One, you can watch the currency get detroyed, or you can hang on and hope that some economic miracle happens between now and inevitability. 

I don't know if it's a lack of leadership, or a lack of will to simply get on with pulling the plug and figuring out what happens afterwards.  The rotation of national leaders is about as effective as changing the coach on a sports team where everything else in the franchise (and perhaps league) is horribly broken.  Do people think that ousting Berlosconi will magically make Italian debt turn into butterflies?  Do they think that new blood is going to prove any thicker than the old? 

Unfortunately, it's not all that hard to see where this is eventually going to lead.  While it probably wasn't mentioned much during the formation of the EU, one thing that has always been implicit in the idea of a united Euope is that it would effectively mean an end to the fratricidal wars which have wracked the continent for millenia.  After all, how can you go to war with someone who shares your currency, whose economy is tied to yours, and whose survival depends on your survival as well? 
Sadly, a stake the size of Transylvania is about to be plunged into the heart of this idea.  Pundits have made some light of the grumblings of Germans about Greeks and vice-versa.  People who have a poor grasp and sense of history don't really understand the size of the colliding mountains behind these small, initial sparks.  Southern Europe has always been in seen to be the ancient, cultured part, Northern Europe to be the hard-working economic giant.  What happens to the idea of European unity when bank runs ensue and it once again takes a wheelbarrow full of marks euros to buy a loaf of bread? 

The old scores to settle -- which were shelved first in the face of the Soviet Threat, then for the promise of United Europe, are bound to reassert themselves as people first look for someone to blame, then realize that the pie is shrinking and those who aren't willing use force to take their share aren't going to have any left at all.  Add to this the pressures brought on by Peak Oil, environmental damage, overpopulation, the clash of cultures, the clash of ideals, pick something, and it's not really crazy to talk to think that we'll hear the Guns of August once again in our lifetimes, maybe even this decade. 


  1. I am so glad to see that you wrote a new post. I have missed your insights. Carry on. I have just finished reading Joseph Tainter's, "The Collapse of Complex Societies", oh my, a very good read. Have a nice day and keep safe. Thanks for your post.

  2. A commentator on another blog wrote that the Eurozone crisis was like being crushed to death by a glacier. Its unfolding so slowly that its hard to get a handle on it.

    I disagree that getting Berlusconi out won't change things. It can only be to Italy's benefit to have a Prime Minister who is actually interested in governing the country, as opposed to being interested in the job solely to protect his various criminal activities from investigation and prosecution. Plus alot of the hole that the developed countries dug for themselves in the past several decades was do to political establishment throwing up a succession of shallow, cynical, and often corrupt silly-clever "leaders" in one country after another. Its no accident that the western countries that avoided this the most, Germany and Canada, are in the best shape. Getting rid of these people is not sufficient but is definitely necessary before any sort of recovery.

    The implication of peak oil is that the world is going to be poorer, but there is a huge difference in outcomes due to how this is managed. One one extreme is a fairly orderly retrenchment, with the least valuable and most corrupt parts of the hyper-material post-WW2 societies jettisoned first (this process could actually improve the quality of life for most people), and the more painful cuts distributed broadly and fairly. The other extreme is probably global nuclear war. Even looking at past collapses, there was a difference between the transition from the western Roman Empire to the dark ages, and the eastern Roman Empire to the Byzantines, and most of that was due to a run of bad leaders in the west and a series of fairly decent leaders in the east during the fifth century.

  3. Ed
    I don't think a new Italian PM will make much change. He has already proposed cutting 300K government workers off the payroll, and adding a new property tax. So in the midst of a recession to increase the tax intake you cut 300K workers. Robbing Peter to pay Paul. Italians will de-leverage just like Americans and consumer pocketbooks will stay closed.

    To solve the debt crisis the only answer the ECB can come up with is more debt. Yet they can't sell any more. And with Italian bond north of 6% that just is not sustainable. The hull is holed, and the water will soon reach the deck plates.

  4. Hard to see how a third Pan-Euro war doesn't draw in the Great Powers (new and old...)

  5. E.U. was never an idealistic reach-back to pre-1914; it was an effort, now (thankfully) failing, to subordinate everything and nearly everyone to rule by banksters and technocrats. And the real flashpoints for major war, including nuclear, remain south Asia and the Middle East. As for America, where the actual debt/GDP is around 130%, I expect Civil War by late 2012-early 2013.

  6. Anonymous -- Thanks. I'll have to pick that one up, soon. Is there any kind of quantitative analysis in Tainter's book? I've been spending some time on the side looking at complexity theory and seeing how it could apply to collapse.

    Ed -- I've always wondered why people haven't taken a harder look at materialism and rejected it soundly, but I guess it's a little like "available work will fill up available time." IIRC, people once viewed automation and mechanization as labor-saving vehicles that would let people have more leisure time. Instead, actual work that people do was devalued.

    Ross -- rationally, there wouldn't be a war over debt and failed currency. Rationally, it wouldn't involve half the world or more. Rationally, people and governments would live within their means. While a true ecnomic collapse doesn't necessarily mean war, it seems like one way the dominos could easily fall.

    CompassionateFascist -- I tend to think that a possible scenario is a collapse of the dollar, followed by "emergency measures" on the national level (which consist of forcing people to use the dollar still) and states or regions deciding to plot their own course before they cease to exist as functional political entities. I think the last thing which really is a true unifying factor in this country is itself the currency and the economy -- politically speaking, people either seem apathetic or have little to no use for what comes out of Washington, or they are tied in some way to the Fed economic model. Not real stable ground to build a national house on and the natural consequence of the "politics of division" as practiced by both parties over the last 30-40 years.

  7. Off topic, but responding to the comment on my comment, I'm becoming interested in how peak oil will interact with what seems to be the increasing trend to eliminate jobs through automation (the mainstream bloggers I know alert to the latter are Stuart Sandiford (sp?) at Early Warning and Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution, and I don't thing they have digested the implications).

    Labor saving devices at the beginning of the industrial revolution put craftsmen and agricultural smallholders out of work, but allowed households to improve their material quality of life through acquiring relatively cheap mass produced goods that they didn't have access to before. Current labor solving technology does not really increase the goods and services available to a household, you still get one washing machine even if it now can be produced with two thirds fewer workers. It makes these products cheaper, but there is no increase in production that will absorb the redundant workers.

    Essentially the end result is the same number of goods produced with cheaper inputs, instead of more goods produced with cheaper inputs. WIthout factoring in peak oil, in principle this should not be difficult for societies to adjust to, you just put most of the population on some form of welfare, which doesn't have to be that high because it now costs much less to have a middle class standard of living (but watch for population constraints). In practice this takes a huge cultural adjustment.

    Will rising resource costs halt or reverse the trend towards automation? Or will have it have no effect on automation, but put the world in a Malthusian crisis where "surplus" members of society have to be eliminated? I'm not sure, but again we are dealing with a wind down that will be difficult but tolerable as opposed to a nightmare.

  8. I surfed over here from my homey Jimmy Kunstler's site to check out the gloom and doom report and because my surname is spelled almost like the title of this site.

    Agree with your bleak assessment of a corrupt, sclerotic nation, but was wondering about your blog ads puffing ITT Technical Institute. Really now!

  9. Google populates ads based on a match of what content they find on the page, so anything that shows up in them is based on their algorithms, not any input on my end. So, if you see an ad for ITT, this isn't any reflection on what I personally think about it one way or the other. I've thought about removing the ads from the blog, but I'm sure that at least some people sometimes find some content useful, so I leave them up.

    Anything that I do specifically think that readers will find interesting or valuable goes in links to Amazon, but I try to limit how much of that I put up as well. There's enough people who are hawking every kind of survival product around to where it probably is counter-productive and distracting.

    I've been reading JHK for some five years now and have a lot of respect for his thinking. He has the same problems with predicting the short-term that everyone else does, but I think his longer-term predictions and observations are right. We're stuck in a death spiral we can't get out of, precisely because we are so mentally wedded to what has become a broken model.

    I tend to think of it as the "zombie shuffle," where people are still falling into the same trap in life (acquire massive debt, live beyond your means, do not actually find any meaning in your life beyond producing and consuming). JHK does a great job of articulating just how bankrupt that really is (both figuratively and literally).

    I chose the name of the blog from A Canticle for Leibowitz, as the theme has been preserving information through the coming dark age. The downside is that every time I post something, or check on it, I want a bagel. :)