There were elections in Brittany yesterday. The result was, let’s say, interesting for us, but that would be hard to understand for people not familiar with the French voting system and with the arcana of Breton politics. To make a long story short we ended up with a left wing opposition to the left wing president of the regional council. This local oddity is not, however, the main lesson of yesterday’s vote. The very low turnout is, and this tells us a lot about the way our political system does and will react to the ongoing energy descent.
Yesterday, barely more than half the registered voters actually voted, and that was nearly 6% more than during the first round. While this may seem reasonable by US standards, for France, it is very low. There are objective reasons for that. Right wing electors are deeply dissatisfied with the government’s policies as well as with local infighting, so they stayed home to show it. There is, nevertheless, a pattern of decreasing turnout over the last decades, which tells of a deeper problem.
Republics are based upon the idea that citizens must not only consent but participate in the government. Today, it is mostly done by voting, and by not doing so in increasing numbers they undermine the legitimacy of whoever rules the country. Of course, even an abysmally low turnout won’t bring about the collapse of a government, but it will make it more brittle, more vulnerable to the actions of those who do not care whether the people consent, or not, to their rule.
One of the problems, as my girlfriend insightfully stated, is that mainstream parties basically all say the same things while demonizing each other over small policy differences. Even the green alliance, of which we are a part, remains within the “business as usual” paradigm. They don’t question the unsustainable exuberance of industrial civilization. They just want to power it with renewable technology and, of course, preserve the equally unsustainable individualistic lifestyle of the urban upper middle class.
Needless to say, it is impossible. The coming peak energy means that the resources available to society to fulfill the need of the population are decreasing. Moreover, the fact that all governments on the planet are committed to growth means than none can willingly disengage from globalization. It would be tantamount to unilaterally disarming in the middle of a war : an economical and therefore political suicide. All the ruling elites can do is try to stay afloat in more and more troubled waters and delay the crisis while hoping that growth will somehow save them.
As for the sensible thing : planning for austerity and resilience… it is ideologically and politically impossible. Any politician putting forward such an agenda would immediately relegate himself into the fringe. Besides, politicians are not different, ideologically speaking, from the population they represent. It is only in the mind of conspiracy theorists that senators and councilmen conspire to hide the true state of the world from the people and enslave it into some nightmarish New World Order. In the real world they are every bit as mired in the business as usual ideology as anybody else.
The problem is that this quasi-systemic impotence becomes more and more obvious to the layman and that more and more people become convinced that no matter whom they vote into office, nothing will ever change, or only for the worse. This feeling is bound to become more and more widespread as the crisis deepens and the rift between the voluntarism of the speech and the impotence of action becomes more and more apparent.
This may fuel the growth of extremists groups, but also disillusionment and a slow retreat toward private life which will progressively reduce republics to empty shells. Of course, this can happen only because those institutions which once participated in the formation of public opinion have either disappeared or degenerated into lobbies controlled by their own internal bureaucracy. Even here, in Brittany, where collective life has been better preserved than elsewhere, we are more and more bowling alone.
The results for our political systems is likely to be devastating. Of course, soldiers, policemen and civil servant won’t cease obeying because the president has been elected by only 10% of the population, but it will be very easy for extremist or regional groups to contest the legitimacy of the state. Besides, as the effective support of the population becomes less and less obvious, the various factions vying for power within the framework of the institutions, will be more more tempted to resort to violence, and more and more likely to succeed, should they do so.
Today, in nearly all democratic states, if a top elected official attempted to stay in office despite being voted out, he would be immediately arrested by his own police. Should state institutions become a mere arena for factional interests with the real people a mere observer, things could become very different.
Such things have happened in the past. In France for instance, as every leftist who has read 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon should know, the then president Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte staged a coup in 1852 to stay in office beyond his term and met with little resistance in a country tired from revolutions and radicalism. In Haiti, it was legally elected president François Duvalier, who, in 1964, sought a second term in blatant violation of the constitution without anyone in the country to resist.
France recovered and became a republic, whose policies, sometimes questionable, were rooted into a network of local clubs and organizations, which gave her the strength to resist the political upheavals caused by the Great Depression. The same was true of Britain where the monarchy combined with unions and fraternal organizations doomed Mosley’s efforts from the very start.
What yesterday’s low turnout tells us, however, is that this network is failing or is increasingly disconnected from the political world. In a world of decreasing resources, this not only ensures that somebody will, at some point, play the Duvalier or Napoleon the Third game, but also, that there will be little left to rebuild a new republic on after his inevitable downfall.
This makes it all the more urgent to build, locally and regionally, alternative networks, where republican traditions could be reborn and adapted to an age of hard ecological limits.