Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Perspectives about the energetic collapse of the techno-industrial society

Practically everything we do, from eating an ice to crossing the Atlantic,
and from baking a loaf to writing a novel, involves the use of coal,
directly or indirectly. For all the arts of peace coal is needed; if war
breaks out it is needed all the more. In time of revolution the miner must
go on working or the revolution must stop, for revolution as much as
reaction needs coal. Whatever may be happening on the surface, the hacking
and shovelling have got to continue without a pause, or at any rate without
pausing for more than a few weeks at the most. In order that Hitler may
march the goose-step, that the Pope may denounce Bolshevism, that the
cricket crowds may assemble at Lords, that the poets may scratch one
another's backs, coal has got to be forthcoming. But on the whole we are
not aware of it; we all know that we 'must have coal', but we seldom or
never remember what coal-getting involves.

From “Down the mine”, essay by George Orwell

Let start with a proven fact: every production system is sustained on the finite availability of material, human and energetic resources. A lack of one of the latter will see the collapse of one production system to give way to another. Entire Imperi (from the Maya to the Romans) fell because of the burnout of natural or human resources, more than external enemy attacks. Before industrial and global civilization arrived there was a solution for the population: many could escape to other lands not so devastated by human action or to rural areas but now the situation is different because there are almost no lands free of human intervention.

Another thing: the discovery of new power sources involves more complex, hierarchical and massive social models. Not to mention the military/police forces required to conquer the few deposits of these sources. It’s obvious that in a system where human, vegetable and animal energy prevail over the rest it will be easier to obtain a certain autonomy as a protocol of control and centralization over the production, transport and transformation is not necessary.. Just like petroleum or other fossil resources, massive construction of solar cells, nuclear plants and giant mills require high specialization levels and an enormous amount of investment (which only a State or a big Corporation can afford).

Until now, industrial society has been possible thanks to these fossil energy sources. They were cheap, very efficient, and thanks to petroleum, very easy to handle. As the economy grew it was necessary to increase production as well. But everything has a limit, infinite growth is impossible and this or maybe last year we reached that limit, the global oil peak according to the theories of the engineer Hubbert arrived. Without enough petroleum the economy doesn’t grow and in capitalism that means crisis, inflation, unemployment and so (and we are living the first stages, wars for control included). But it won’t be a typical one, as the ex-environment French minister Yves Cochet said: “When petroleum reaches100 $ it won’t be a normal crisis, it will be the end of the world as we know it” (The recent financial crisis proves it clearly).

We are not talking of travelling less by car, we are talking about food, water, health, everything, because in this age everything depends on petroleum. The other day we could see a curious news item hidden among the rest of the news: the USA is going to ration rice because producing countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia are closing their frontiers to exports. More hidden news is riots and protests that are spreading over the Third World countries because of the price of grain. In contrast, as hunger spreads, the European Union wants 10% of fuel to be “biofuel”, paying farmers to quit their traditional crops, while the USA also support the use of corn as fuel. If that’s not a cover for mass murder what is it?

Far away are the utopia of the Leninist “electricity and Koljosh” which led to the Soviet nightmare, or the anarchist self management one, or the new ecologist dream of green cities and electric cars. Lies that hide the most important thing: material and energetic abundance are based on:

The harvest of the natural resources and the continuous fight (war) for them.
The existence of a caste of technocrats and specialists who govern each specific part of people's lives where politicians are nothing but the mere spokesmen of the latter. (And in a supposed assemblear and self managed system it won’t be any different as nobody would be able to question them).
The necessity of a central power who rule (or seem to rule) in this constant fight for resources.
The exploitation and alienation of humankind.
- The extermination of cultures that don’t share the productive mentality as well as the destruction of their land.


So, this new crisis, in contradistinction to others, will not have a solution. Roman Pax times are over and war will be our daily bread. Iraq and Afghanistan are just an
interlude. Of course the system will need to justify a lot of sacrifice and restrictions. Now we can see their new discourses: because of ecology (Climate Change) they need to build more nuclear plants, because of security (self-made terrorism like 11S, 11M, 7J…) they need to control the population and make special laws (i.e. Patriot Act), as well as invade other countries, because China and India are growing so much we have higher prices… We’ll find a kind of “ecofascism” that will probably not abandon its democratic rhetoric but in fact will try to control us very closely under the flag of sustainable development and environmental protection.
Now we are seeing the first symptoms in society, with the financial crisis, the Wall Street Crash, unemployment, inflation, house evictions... the next step will be riots and they know very well what to do. Recently a new military unit with 4000 soldiers was transferred from Iraq to the USA, ready to act in case of emergencies and terrorist attacks, but also equipped with “non-lethal” weapons as the Taser guns in case of “civil riots” as the Commander Robert Cloutier said.
In the early XX century our comrades had clear ideas and revolutionary programs: in times of crisis the workers must take control of the factories and the peasants control of the land - while mass insurrections destroy the repressive institutions - and organize themselves in councils based upon mutual aid and solidarity. But, is that possible now? What kind of workers and peasants are we talking about? Someone that knows how to produce a potato or a chair or a car without hyper-technified machines, microcomputers, the hierarchical structure or super-specialized engineers? Do we have a tradition of solidarity and mutual aid in labour struggles?


What options do we have in this panorama? Well, I think the first thing is to leave all our ideological baggage for a moment and start to discuss what we understand by “revolution” at this time, putting aside utopian dreams in order to objectively analyse reality and ourselves. The good things and the bad, the opportunity of a crisis for social disgregation, but also to recognize our weak points such as individualism, egoism or comfort-dependency (and revolutionaries are far from be free of these social tendencies).
For example, to say that the conquest of “media production” by the proletariat is a liberating utopia when today that media need a huge specialization degree, when the energetic and environmental cost is brutal, when production is so complex that pieces made in China and Malaysia are assembled in Romania to sell a computer in the USA... will bring us to suicide, a self-managed suicide, not governed by the bourgeoisie but by machines.
Well, and why not confront reality directly? A real revolutionary change will reduce the production of goods and will finish with the comforts and the abundance we are accustomed to and that everyone (capitalists, leftists, good-minded ecologists...) promises to maintain at all costs. Also many anarchists won’t accept this kind of society in the first stages because it will be very hard work to recover old production methods and communitarian life. It’s normal to be afraid if you can’t answer securely the question “Will I eat tomorrow?”. In Spain there was recently a very hard transporters' wildcat strike because of the high cost of fuel. During the first days people “assaulted” the supermarkets taking lots of goods such as rice, chocolate or milk. For me (and I was aware it could happen someday) it was shocking to see the food shelves empty and car queues at the gas stations trying to get a little diesel. Finally the government used the police to break up the lorry blockades (sometimes shooting with their guns) while the media called the transporters “terrorists”. What would have happened if the strike had lasted two weeks instead of four days?
The central question is “Is it possible to articulate a mass movement based upon a critique of economic growth and the “improvement” of standards of living? I think the answer is clearly NO. It will be a movement condemned to be minoritarian (now, but it could be different if the depletion of the resources forces social change where material improvement is not the basis).
But to be a minority is no reason to avoid acting. When the system starts decomposing itself and citizens doubt or don’t want to defend it there is a possibility of hitting it. The hedonistic, incredulous and immoral society created by the technoindustrial capitalism can be its own tomb because without values such as religion, patriotism or the “common good”, who will risk his life to defend it? Each one will try to save himself as people start to fight each other, the capitalists the same as the workers (maybe with some minoritarian exceptions).
I think the recent clashes in the French ghettos can give us some idea of the future. There some anarchists and revolutionaries who could take part in the riots but many of them, from the middle classes, were seen as enemies (no different from the police forces or the politicians). Some “anarchists” surprised by the violence and lack of political goals of the protesters try to justify them by talking about racism, unemployment, poor services... Some others expressed solidarity with the riots with actions of anticapitalist political content (as the attacks on car showrooms in Greece). But as we know no one arose seriously to attack the weak points of the system. A general blackout for example or some little ones could have given the rebels time to to spread the radius of their action and distract the repressive forces... but revolts are not revolutions and even less in this kind of society.


So here we are, at the burial of the old theories that were our guidelines for decades, trying to find a light in a dark tunnel. What to do now? It’s not easy to answer that. Each individual, every group must discuss it analysing their social and natural environment. Two things are catalysts to bringing real social change: to recover community relationships and recover natural contact.

For example, selfmanaged social centres (if they go further than aesthetics, bars and labels) can be a place for selforganization, can have contact with the neighbourhood and social struggles, can organize self-defense, deliver information, do workshops to learn... and some of them, realizing that recyclying or approprating products (capitalist rubbish) is not enough start to grow their own food in squatted gardens.

But it’s not enough when you have to create a completely different kind of life and relationships, when your critique starts with the city and the industrial system itself. Can we imagine a different social system in a monster city like London? Everything is so big and artificial that a non-complex and non pyramidal way of living based on respect for nature is completely impossible. What will those 10 million people do when their bureaucratic and capitalist jobs become useless? They need to eat and they need housing but they don’t know how to do it, they need a legion of poor peasants and workers in the third world countries to produce it.

So, if we don’t want to have States or power centres, we must live without this kind of monster city, a rural change is necessary. There autonomy can be more than just a word and we can recover very important knowledge to produce on a small scale (food, housing, clothes...) with the necessary respect for the environment, facing with direct actions the attacks of urban/industrial capitalism to control the natural resources. It’s not only to criticize, it’s to find real solutions implementing non-specialized, non technified, non-hierarchical and low-energy lifestyles that can help to survive if the system collapses.

There isn’t a magical recipe to fight, in the cities it is difficult to get a great degree of autonomy but it’s easier to get in touch with social struggles and the contrary in the country. Communication between both is necessary, to support different struggles wherever they explode, to exchange knowledge and products, to defend ourselves, to have a deeper perspective of the situation and hit where it hurts.

There won’t be any revolution without autonomy and there won’t be any revolution in isolated rural comunes, so this text wants to start an imperative discussion to avoid being surprised in the critical moments we are going to live (and we don’t have much time).

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