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Cultural hegemony

2010 might very well be seen in retrospect as the year when Peak Oil became, if not exactly mainstream, at least something of a subject for the powers that be. There has been, of course, the Joint Operating Environment for 2010 report, highlighting the risk of a major oil shortage for 2010, the paper in The Guardian referring to it and to the French blog which put the whole thing into light. More important perhaps six major British companies, among which Virgin, have created a special task force to study the effect of the impending decline of oil production upon the economy of the United Kingdom. Yet very little of it transpired into mainstream press and we can be quite sure, as Matthieu Auzanneau himself acknowledges, that a lot of water will run under the bridges of Paris before any kind of policy is implemented to address the problem.

And there are unfortunately very good reasons for that.

Le Monde is the French equivalent of the Times, a high status paper anyone who wants to be somebody in the political world must at least claim to read. Unlike Libération – considered left wing – and Le Figaro – right wing – it is considered politically neutral and has a long tradition of editorial independence. It is not widely read in Brittany – people prefer local news papers – but it has a real influence upon decision makers. The problem is that Matthieu Auzanneau's article was not published in the paper itself but in an associated blog, which does not carry the same weight, and the sad fact is that French media did not print a single word about the JOE report. This is, by the way, quite revealing, for they did talk about the Global Trend 2025 report. A local expert in geopolitics even authored a book about it.

When they wanted to solve a riddle tribal people – and we all have tribal ancestors – called the manes for help. In this particular case, the most appropriate one is Antonio Gramsci (January 22, 1891 – April 27, 1937). Like most left wing intellectuals of his time, Antonio Gramcsi was faced with a problem : why hadn't the “inevitable” socialist revolution happened? Gramsci himself was a communist, which in the electric atmosphere of the early twenty century, when the supporters of democracy were an embattled minority among the intelligentsia, was understandable, if not totally acceptable. This does not make his views less interesting or less useful, however.

For Gramsci, the structure of society is not only defended through political or economic coercion but through an hegemonic culture in which the values of the bourgeoisie – or of any ruling class – becomes a kind of generalized “common sense”, the end result being that even those sections of the population which have a vested interest into changing the status quo actually actively help to maintain it.

To achieve any kind of change, you must first win the ideological war, slowly undermine the hegemonic culture – what Gramsci calls a “war of position” - then, and only then, seize the initiative.

Albeit Gramsci was a communist, his ideas were used by many other factions, from the far left to the far right. The most successful ones, to date, have been the neoliberals, mostly through the Chicago School and the Mont Pelerin Society, and, more recently the neoconservatives, even if the scope of their success has been rather limited. Some elements of the far right have also tried the same strategy – the evangelicals come to mind, of course, with their “culture war” as well Alain de Benoist's neopagan New Right with its metapolitique strategy.

Even a cursory look at recent history shows that the successes of the Gramcsian strategy were few and far between. The dominant ideology, born from the Enlightenment ideas, is so pervasive and has so many resources at its disposal, that any attempt to challenge the status quo has to be formulated within its framework, lest it be relegated to the fringe of the intellectual world. There, Gramsci's position war, becomes a guerrilla war, which can sometimes degenerate in a “siege without a besieger”, to paraphrase Jean Raspail, with small sects ranting uselessly at an enemy who doesn't even bother to fight them. That is, for instance, the situation of the French royalists or of the loyalists in the Republic of Ireland.

The problem of Peak Oil is that the narrative which underlies it runs contrary to everything Enlightenment and the ideology of progress stand for. Where progress is about conquest and mastery of nature, peak oil tells us of the absolute, unmovable limits this very nature assigns to our development and prosperity. There is no way to reconcile them, and those who attempt to do it – such as the “bright green” - choose a more convenient problem to solve, global warming for instance, or end up defending such oxymoronic cause as “green growth”.

To get out of our global predicament we must recognize that an unsustainable society simply cannot be sustained and reshape it for resilience and sobriety. This massive powerdown effort cannot be even begun, except at the local level, without first undermining, then overthrowing the culture of progress which rules our civilization since the end of the XVIIIth century.

Similar ideological wars have been won in the past, and against adversaries every bit as hegemonic as the ideology of progress. Christianity, initially, a small Jewish cult, progressively spread in the Roman underground during the heyday of the Empire before becoming its official faith and utterly replacing the once hegemonic pagan civic religions. The Reformation imposed itself in the northern half of Europe – and goaded the once all-powerful into extensive reforms – after more than a century of confused intellectual (or not so intellectual in the case of the Hussites, for instance) struggles. As for the Enlightenment itself, its victory was a slow and difficult one. The late Christopher Lasch pointed out that the ideology of progress met with considerable resistance in America, from the Knights of Labor to the Southern Agrarian. As late as the early twentieth century, the Roman Catholic Church condemned popular sovereignty and religious pluralism and until 1967 all priests and teachers had to take an anti-modernist oath.

It was not until after World War Two that those ideas fell into growing irrelevancy. The ultimate fate of the ideology of progress will ultimately mirror theirs, even if we still don't know which paradigm will replace it. History is full of aborted world religions and hegemonic cultures. The rise of Christianity and the Reformation witnessed the birth, and death, of not a few “heretic” sects which could have become the new norm, had things turned out otherwise – who remembers the Marcionites, for instance, or Arianism, at a time the official religion of most of Western Europe, or the original Anabaptists cults which raised such an alarm in Renaissance Germany before being stomped out by both Catholics and Protestants. Others, which could also have become hegemonic have survived by insulating themselves and becoming closed, self-sufficient, communities. The Jews or the Parsi come to mind, but the Waldenses or the Mennonites are also good examples.

Another problem is that paradigm change takes time. We tend to see major historical events as nearly instantaneous, but this is almost never the case. Founded around 60 A.D. during the fierce intellectual controversies which followed the death of Jesus – whoever he really was – Christianity became legal in the Empire only in 311 A.D. and it took nearly seventy more years to become its sole official religion. The Reformation took even longer, when you consider it as an historical phenomenon rather than as a series of events. The first group to break with Rome on terms reasonably close to what we call “Reformation” - the Waldenses - did so around 1177, as for the first precursor of the English Reformation, John Wycliff, founder of the Lollards, he died in 1384, nearly a century before the birth of Luther.

Of course, time is exactly what we lack presently. We might have been able to restructure our infrastructure during the crisis of the seventies had we heeded the Meadows report and we might have been able to advance on the way to a truly sustainable culture. The possibility that we manage to do either now on a sufficiently large scale is so slim as to be non-existent. Even if peak oil and resource constraints become mainstream, we can be sure that the responses will be within the framework of the ideology of progress and therefore ineffective. This does not mean, however, that our action will be, only that we should not expect too much of it. As Richard Heinberg insightfully stated, our job is not to prevent the collapse from happening for it is now impossible. It is to prepare the future and make sure that enough people adopt a sustainable vision of the world while preserving what is worth preserving of the heritage of the last two centuries, so that whatever emerges from the ruins is both viable and humane.

Editorial Notes: Rick Munroe also highlighted the JOE report on EB here before it was published in the Le Monde blog. -KS

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