Monday, May 7, 2012

Posterity Measures

The French elections will probably be commented on for a while, the victory of Francois Hollande, a socialist, raising the hackles of various commentators and likely prompting some discussion on the "inevitable linkage" between the new French president and Obama.  Fortunately, it's probably easier to make sense of this than it is of neo-Nazis picking up seats in Greek elections.

Taken at face value, the election appears to be a referendum on the austerity measures that Sarkozy favored, and a return to the notion of lowering retirement ages and funding more public sector workers, and all the other cornucopian ideas that come from good intentions and a winning smile. However, I think there are some crucial points being missed from the media analysis which give some insight into why the French voted the way they did, as well as insights into which way nations will choose to act as resources become scarcer and the money dries up.

France is a very, very old country. Assuming we date it from Francia, it is around 1800 years old, and has been a political, social, and economic powerhouse for much of its history. The caricatures along the lines of "French Army rifle for sale -- dropped once, never fired" are painfully ignorant and conveniently forget how France nearly brought Europe to its collective knees in the Napoleonic Wars. The image of the surly, xenophobic Frenchman is likewise belied by the cosmopolitan French culture.

And the French see Germany as calling the tune now. For centuries, Germany was nothing but a collection of bickering principalities and petty princedoms, numbering in the the thousands, once all political units were counted. The was followed by a remarkable coalescing, followed in turn by trouncing France in two World Wars and becoming the economic leader to the rest of the EU. It's a little like your kid brother, who cheated on all his college MBA exams while partying like Cheech and Chong, coming home to tell you how to run the family business.

Greece, likewise, with the reappearance of radical nationalism, is showing what lies in the hearts of most Greeks. Even older and more fabled than France, ancient Greece still captures the minds and imaginations of modern people, as shown in the architectural and naming influence across the Deep South, for example. The Romans, as powerful as they were, still imported Greek tutors and felt they owed much of their culture to Greece. Even Obama and other politicians make speeches in front of Greek columns. The reality of Greece in centuries past, though, has been a waystop for first Slavic, then Ottoman, armies marching back and forth across the continent. Younger than America, the modern Greek state is heir to the richest and most prestigious cultural tradition in the world.

Now, take both of these countries. Some people in them may be wanting to retire a few years earlier, not have to pay as much out of their own pockets for benefits, but I think the real issue goes deeper -- people living in these nations are aware of their heritage and conflate compomising with economic reality to be compromising their national identity. So, instead of simply saying "Okay, we have to make do with less," it's becoming an international game of trying to keep up with the Jones and save face as much as possible. Whatever it takes, the lifestyle will not be compromised.

Unfortunately, there's not room for this kind of thinking any longer. There are no colonial empires to build an economy on. There are no lands occupied by poorly-organized barbarians who can be clobbered with a disciplined phalanx or two. Even in America, politicians routinely trot out the notion that there can be no compromise on the "American way of life." What route are we going to take in America when we finally see that there's a choice between austerity -- in other words, living within our means -- or just trying to live one more generation in the family mansion before retiring to a tarpaper shack by the river? Or have we already made that decision, committing to maintaining our own empire and domestic benefits, while racking up the largest debt the world has ever seen?

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I'm going to slightly change how I post on this blog.  The original intent for the Leibowitz Society was to discuss knowledge preservation and lifestyle changes as we enter a new Dark Age.  Unfortunately, it's also pressing to understand why we're taking the course we are, and the primary mission has suffered because of this, so I'm going to start posting twice a week, probably on Thursday or Friday, discussing something related to personal preparedness, building lasting communities, academic topics, and so on.  I'd welcome suggestions for what to cover, but will also see what comes out of comments on the blog. 


  1. There is an emergent theme in politics in the United States and Europe that is, most simply, rear guard actions on Standards of Living.

    Everyone is looking down the ladder, prepared to boot stomp the fingers on the rung below them. That is driving, consciously or not, most of the political and economic decisions being made at the macro down to micro.

    Dialing down your Standard of Living and expectations would be an advantageous adaption to present circumstances even though it is mainstream social suicide.

    1. Giving up your personal vehicle, for example, could be social suicide if you live in an suburban area without public transportation or if you don't own a bike. If you're going to do that best to move as close to the center of town asap.

      Standard of Living is a relative thing of course.

    2. "Dialing down your standard of living..."

      I just lived a year in Lyon France and dialed down my standard of living by several notches. I had no car, lived on the 5th floor of an apartment building with a walk up staircase, hand carried groceries and liquids from stores and markets, and so on. LIFE WAS NEVER BETTER!

  2. Great stuff...

    ...looking forward to following your thread...

    a few years ago, it seems,it was easier for me to discuss the logic of peak oil/Industrial collapse.....where as today,im finding a stunning denial of anything but return to growth...what's that quote...

    If you can keep your head when all about you
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
    If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too:
    If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
    Or being hated don't give way to hating,
    And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;

    If you can dream -- and not make dreams your master;
    If you can think -- and not make thoughts your aim,
    If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same:
    If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
    Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools;

    If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
    And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
    And never breathe a word about your loss:
    If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,
    And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

    If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
    Or walk with Kings -- nor lose the common touch,
    If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much:
    If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
    Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
    And -- which is more -- you'll be a Man, my son!

    -- Rudyard Kipling

  3. I agree with the more practical focus of the blog and look forward to it.

    While I'm definitely a "great stagnation" (to use Tyler Cowen's turn)/ "slow crash" type, I'm pretty pessimistic about how the post-industrial situation is playing out. As far as I can tell, there is basically nothing the ordinary person can do about this, and somehow banding together to preserve what is left of industrial civilization is a pipe dream, or at least premature until we get the third generation religion and whatever it comes up for monasteries.

    One thing about the history, and I would say the same about the last few Archdruid posts, is that though historical knowledge is limited in the US, if you are going to do historical posts please try to get the facts straight. Though when "France" emerged is a matter of debate, probably the date closest to accuracy is the Treaty of Verdun (the first document we have in a language sort of like French) in the mid 8th century. The notion of a "Francia" emerging 1800 years ago threw me for a loop, as it would have the Romans and the Gauls living in the area at the time.

    1. I would agree with the overall sense of pessimism at this point. Two major issues are a lack of leadership and an inability to collectively engage in a dialogue on our current situation. People will "band together" in ways that make sense, I think, with people who can provide a safe haven in return for manual labor finding people coming to them.

      As for history, the Franks were first mentioned in the Panegyrici Latini, establishing their entry into the historical record in the 3rd century, with Clovis uniting them under his rule in the 5th century. The Romans had considerable interaction with these people, both in war and trade. I will grant the point that constituting a "nation" is different from constituting a tribal "identity," but in this case, the tribal identity seems to have been coherent enough over time to warrant the description. After all, we refer to American Indians with the term "nation," when they did not exactly adhere to what we would consider modern nationhood. Also telling, if I remember correctly, is that they generally spoke a single language (with different dialects).

      It does beg a larger question of identity, however. Americans are quick to point to the national history and draw on it as a reinforcement for modern notions of identity. However, the American of 250 years ago, or even a hundred years ago, would be radically different in thought from a modern American. However, the way people thought in the past (Manifest Destiny) still affects patterns of modern thought (neo-conservatism, for example), however much the ideas don't necessarily apply or translate.

  4. I'm a first-time visitor so my idea of what would be good may not count for much, but I was drawn here by the idea of people banding together to discuss knowledge preservation. Something that is much on my mind is how to do as much as we can to facilitate knowledge transmission to younger people now, not just when we're out of oil, living on squirrels, etc. I don't know whether I should be volunteering to help a homeschooling collective or trying to set up a small alternative tutoring collective or -- I don't know what. All around us we see evidence of younger people who are less and less able to read complex texts, who have smaller vocabularies than middle-aged and older people, etc. I haven't read enough of your blog to have much clue about what you've been advocating, so it's entirely premature for me to shoot my mouth off, but besides any plans to store books in barrels or basements or what have you, I think it's important to talk about what we can be doing right now to ensure some kind of transmission of language skills and critical thinking ability to younger people. (Maybe that's exactly what you have been talking about. After I get done voicing my premature opinions, I'll look in the archives for more of what's been going on here.) -- Karen

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