Dark Age Politics

Energy Austerity A Return to Feudalism

Of all the fantasies that entrance neo-Malthusians, none is more dangerous than the idea that a low-energy, low-consumption, locavore world could be organized along egalitarian lines.

Theorists of a transition to a more decentralized, less-resource-intensive system have sometimes sought to work out the details. Examples can be found at the Archdruid Report, the blog of John Michael Greer, author of The Ecotechnic Future: Envisioning a Post-Peak World and The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age. A science fiction writer as well as an Archdruid, Greer has a sophisticated theory of future history in which today’s resource-intensive industrial civilization is replaced first by “scarcity industrialism” and then by an “age of salvage.”

It is my impression, though, that many if not most of those attracted to the back-to-the-land and small-is-beautiful countercultures have not sufficiently thought through the political implications of their post-industrial economic utopia. It is pleasant to imagine a decentralized, post-industrial world made up of small villages inhabited by self-sufficient peasants and the occasional blacksmith, with the odd bit of modern technology, a solar panel or a windmill or a bicycle, thrown in. Most people in the world lived in something like such an environment until a few generations ago. But they shared that environment with the rapacious landlords and warlords who enslaved or enserfed them and treated them as human livestock. In an energy-scarce world, figures like feudal aristocrats would surely reemerge in new forms, to claim tribute from the many by force and fraud.

Why should we imagine that energy scarcity or resource scarcity would be shared equally among all of the members of a population? All societies, including the United States, are hierarchies with significant hereditary elites, some more open and assimilative, others more nepotistic and exclusive. If energy and resources really became scarce and expensive, what is more likely — that deprivation would be shared equally, peacefully and consensually among nations and classes, or that powerful elites in powerful nations would try to maintain their standards of living at the expense of most of their fellow citizens and the populations of other countries?

In a perpetual crisis of resource scarcity, you would see few if any former First World societies reach agreement that everyone within the country’s borders would share equally in deprivation. Instead, the rich, the well armed, or an alliance of the two groups, would try to maintain their own First World living standards indefinitely — if necessary, by shoving the majority into Fourth World destitution. In place of rich, industrialized nations in a sea of developing-world humanity, you would see rich, industrialized enclaves embedded within the borders of deteriorating former First World countries. The majority might struggle to survive in neo-medieval conditions, while the local oligarchs monopolized rationed electricity, rationed computers and rationed air travel for themselves.

The side-by-side existence of First World affluence and appalling poverty and powerlessness is familiar in many developing countries. In a partly de-industrialized world, it would become the norm everywhere. The best fictional portrayal of such a semi-industrial world, anticipating Greer’s “scarcity industrialism,” is found in Alexander Korda’s 1936 Things to Come, based on a novel by H.G. Wells. In the ruins of an industrial Britain devastated by war, a local warlord, the Boss, played by Ralph Richardson, terrorizes his subjects while monopolizing fuel supplies for his deteriorating airplane fleet.

If you want even more scarcity, if you prefer that elites as well as majorities be forced to adopt a pre-modern lifestyle, you’re entitled to tweak scenarios as you please. But our hard-won knowledge of human nature forbids you to imagine that a neo-agrarian economy will be organized along the lines of the pleasant village socialism imagined by William Morris in his utopian novel News from Nowhere (1890). Sorry, but you can’t have Dark Age economics without Dark Age politics, including feuds, plunder, and rape by the post-industrial equivalents of Homeric warlords or Viking chieftains.

The ultimate dystopian nightmare would be the delusory utopia of many Greens – a world in which biomass once again became the major source of energy for heating, cooking, and industrial processes like smelting. Farms and forests once again would become the equivalent of oil and gas wells and objects of brutal competition within nations as well as among nations. Except where small societies of armed yeoman farmers could preserve their independence in mountains or on islands, brutal elites would control farmland and farmers alike.

In a neo-agrarian, photosynthesis-based economy, the modern idea of democratic national self-determination would go out the window and imperialism and colonialism would revive. In the post-industrial future, as in the pre-industrial past, it would pay to wage zero-sum wars to control rich farmland that could support large numbers of tribute-paying peasants, slaves, draft animals, and livestock.

Peaceful, consensual back-to-nature communes, along with small, labor-intensive countercultural farms, are luxuries that can be afforded by well-policed, urban industrial societies with mechanized agriculture and manufacturing powered by cheap and abundant energy. If we return to a Malthusian economy, its political corollary is less likely to resemble the Shire in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings than the anarchic, feudal Westeros of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones.

Photo Credit: MNE.com