Preserving our Societies in the Face of the Collapse

Seminar by Yves Cochet, April 22nd, 2016

Collective Trauma. Myriam Dib. Ink on canvas. 2013.

After the collapse, will people still form societies, in the absence of governments? And, if so, how will they contain the violence internal to the group they will have formed? A substantial majority of human beings live in States, meaning a territory and population under the rule of a single political power able to define the rules structuring human interaction, guarantee security by use of force, and levy taxes. Notwithstanding the historical and geographical diversity of States, this institution has thrived since the second half of the 20th century as the number of States increased from about fifty to almost two hundred worldwide. Paradoxically, this success as often gone hand in hand with the collapse of previous States which have been dissolved: the USSR, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia are only three examples of such cases on the European continent. Yet, the word ‘collapse’ is not appropriate to describe this phenomenon has new States have been born from the disintegration of the old ones. We thus have to specify what it is we mean exactly when we use the word “collapse”; we have to distinguish its meaning from that of “failed”, which has been trending during the last thirty years. By “failed States” we mean States that cannot pay back their debt or adequately finance the public services they have to make available to their population; or States that are paralyzed by internal conflicts, or survive only thanks to an external help. This last point clearly distinguishes “failure” from the type of “collapse” we are here referring to and to the notion of a “collapsed state”. From our perspective, the earth in its entirety, including States and institutions, is going to collapse. Therefore, no State can rely on its neighbors or friends for help, as the global circumstances and individual situation of each and everyone will have considerably worsened.


Good and bad government

Let us start by Lorenzetti’s mural on good and bad government, which Agnès Sinaï already mentioned during the last seminar. We will be talking about division and violence within societies, which is portrayed in the previously mentioned mural. Our main reference will be Patrick Boucheron’s book: Conjurer la peur – Sienne, 1338: essai sur la force politique des images, Le Seuil, 2015. A book which is hard to read but very relevant in regards to the situation we are currently in.

Capture d’écran 2016-06-04 à 16.05.57

There are four terms that we will be using repeatedly that first need to be defined: collapse, security, trauma and defection.

Today, “the collapse” is a trending subject in publishing: our friends Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens have written Comment tout peut s’effondrer which was published by Le Seuil in 2015; Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s L’effondrement de le civilisation occidentale was published by LLL in 2015; Carolyn Baker’s L’effondrement – Petit guide de resilience en temps de crise was published by Ecosociété in 2015; Paul Jorion’s Le dernier qui s’en va éteint la lumière – Essai sur l’extinction de l’humanité was published by Fayard in 2016.

So, what is it we call “the collapse”?  Three different perspectives may be distinguished:

An institutionalist perspective (similar to Max Weber): the world is collapsing when, on a given territory, no one is able to uphold the laws, levy taxes and exercises a monopoly over violence, during a continuous period of at least a year.

Another definition from the perspective of state providentialism: the collapse is a process that leads up to the non-provision by public services of basic goods and services (water, food, housing, clothing, energy, transports, and security). This approach is closer to that of Cochet, Servigne and Stevens. The focus is on the individuals rather than on the institutions.

A thermodynamic perspective: the global economy will collapse when the decrease in energy flows will be greater than the drop in GDP (David Korowicz, 2012).

We will here be using the institutionalist approach in order to deal with questions related to power and security.

Le Déluge. Antonio Caracci, 1616. Musée du Louvre.

The Flood, Antonio Caracci, 1616, Louvre Museum.

What do we mean by security? We will be speaking of internal public security in a given territory, thereby setting aside questions relative to access to food and energy as well as those relative to defense against an external enemy. How can low risk of aggressive behavior or assault between members of a local society be guaranteed? Let us recall that our scenario is one of fracture rather than transition. We have to project ourselves into the future i.e. five years after the collapse has taken place, when car, electricity and trains have disappeared. Those which will have survived the collapse will have undergone the most traumatic experience of their lives, the most traumatic experience in human story: the death of brothers and sisters in the hundreds of millions – which they will have known before the collapse thanks to media coverage (that will not exist after the collapse).

What do we mean by trauma? According to Günther Anders, trauma resulting from the collapse will be supraliminal, that is to say, it will exceed the ordinary human experience and our neuronal capacity. Because we are in denial, we will not have mentally and physically prepared ourselves for the collapse, thereby worsening its effect. The memories the survivors will keep of people they knew, either intimately or from afar, will have a long-term effect on their physical and mental health. Post-traumatic stress studies conducted by the OMS after the Vietnam War help us imagine what may happen to the survivors. The major difficulty they will have to face be: how can one continue on living after this?

Capture d’écran 2016-06-04 à 16.11.59

Lastly, what do we mean by defection? My perspective diverges from that of Servigne and Stevens, which have, for example, a more optimistic reading of the Katrina catastrophe in that they argue that solidarity emerges in the face of disaster. Based on the reports I have read, this is, unfortunately, not true. A lot of people have deserted during the catastrophe: 15% of the police force, either because they refused to go or because they could, a result of the hurricane. The situation was tense even though New Orleans had been offered external help, which will not be the case in the event of a global collapse.

La Nouvelle Orléans après Katrina, 30 août 2005.

New Orleans after Katrina, August 30th, 2005.

A more significant precedent may be the black plague in Europe (1347-1352): close to 50% of the European population died. In 1340 the population of France was of 17 million people, in 1440 it had decreased to 10 million (as the epidemic broke out again, although to a lesser degree, throughout the 15th century). In Boccace’s book, Le Décaméron, there are a lot of examples of people deserting their family as well as defection amongst professionals: caregivers, doctors, and clerics.


The State of Nature

How is a society or government born? Numerous authors have sought to provide an anti-historical, theoretical answer to this question. “Original position”, “state of nature”, “primal horde”, “ignorance veil”, etc, are some of the expressions used to initiate a reflection upon the origin of societies and sociability. When human beings gather to form groups (and why do they?) do mechanisms, rules, tendencies structure their behavior with one another?

Because he has been unjustly neglected and because his analysis is inventive we will start by considering René Thom’s – mathematician and philosopher – propositions: he calls “pregnancy” a type of energy received or emitted by an object, a form or an idea, which generates in the receiver a large scale response. We can perceive pregnancies because they are diffused out of the objects which emit them – in a similar way that we can feel heat radiated from heat sources. The receptor – the agent – can, therefore, localize the source emitting this pregnancy  to get to it and satisfy his/her desire in the case of attractive pregnancies (such as sexual attraction) or, by opposition, move away from it in the case of repulsive pregnancies (such as fear due to the presence of a predator). Grossly speaking there are three major types of pregnancies for animals: hunger, fear and libido. For humans there are many more: any concept can be a pregnancy!

A salient entity, “salience”, is a form separated from the ground. A discontinuity, its border, enable it to stand out against the ground. A salience can be the ring of a bell, the emission of pheromones, a handsome man…all perceptible forms. A salience is what springs, whereas a pregnancy is what is diffused.

Human pregnancies: numerous theoreticians argue that the reasons justifying the formation of groups are purely utilitarist, for example: hunting in group is easier. However, Aristotle and other theoreticians base themselves on pregnancy, humans beings get together because that is what makes them happy: they can and like exchanging emotions.

Picasso. "La Joie de vivre". Eté 1946.

Picasso, “The Joy of Life”, summer 1946.

The concept of pregnancy is similar to Mana (used by the Polynesian), the affect (Spinoza), the aura (Walter Benjamin), the mimetic desire (René Girard), les interactions spéculaires (Jean-Louis Vullierme).

What are the interactions spéculaires? According to René Girard and Jean-Louis Vullierme – although their approach differs in some respects – mimetic desire creates our world. Girard exclusively focused on the negative aspect of interaction: wars are the result of rivalries as part of mimetic desire. By opposition, Vullierme also wrote about the distinction spéculaire. Girard’s work needs to be supplemented with that of Bourdieu (Distinction).

Let us now use the concepts of pregnancies, saliences and interactions spéculaires to analyze a post-collapse situation. Michael Haneke’s movie, Time of the Wolf (2003) is an example of what such a situation may turn out to be like. Everyone is traumatized, fear is the primary pregnancy (maybe tainted with religiosity). Fear encourages humans to form groups to guarantee their mutual security and that of their belongings. Although violence and fear of violence remain, they are both moderated by a few institutions.

Isabelle Huppert, Patrice Chéreau, Béatrice Dalle. "Le temps du loup", Michael Haneke, 2003

Isabelle Huppert, Patrice Chéreau, Béatrice Dalle. « Time of the Wolf », Michael Haneke, 2003.

There are two types of fear that need to be distinguished: fearing violence wielded by other individuals and fearing violence wielded by the State. Interindividual violence is often rash, passionate, clumsy, whereas State violence is cold, rational, consistent. How is one to manage this two fears?


Security in a simple local State

We consider three different answers to the previous question:

First, care: kindness may favor healing, care is an effective means to provide collective security, political sophrology protects us against the risk of assault. In addition to being mindful of others we can also learn to be mindful of non-human saliences, learn to try to put ourselves in their stead (as is the case in permaculture).

Second, sharing and collective ‘feasting’: the absolute scarcity of commodities which disappeared with the collapse of industrialist societies (electricity, exotic goods, distant travels, etc.) and the relative scarcity of food and energy will compel us to share so as to lower inequalities within our societies and to gloriously spend our resources on joyful celebrations.

Third, the rotation of peacekeeping forces: as is the case in permaculture, each function should be supported by different element and each element should have multiples functions. In a post-collapse society each individual should have more than one function and each function be supported by more than one individual. This is key in order to limit State violence, i.e., violence wielded by professional police forces; to prevent the predatory violence characteristic of permanent police forces. We need to implement the conditions necessary to the interaction spéculaire, in order for anyone in the police force to know that he/she will subsequently be on the other side of the gun or baton. The turnover of people making up the police force(s) encourages individuals to put themselves in everyone else’s shoes by thinking about what will happen when the functions will be exchanged (violence is curbed by spécularité and speculation).


Terrorism today

Roy or Kepel? Which of those two theoreticians’ analysis of the origin of Islamic terrorism is the most accurate?

Olivier Roy argues the origin of Islamic terrorism is to be found in violence: there is an islamization of extremism. Due to the rise of social inequalities people have become more extremist and have found an outlet for their extremism in religion.

Gilles Kepel argues it is to be found in religion: Islam has radicalized. He argues Islam has not satisfactorily criticized sacrifice as something wrong, it has not worked on itself from a spéculaire perspective on the question of sacrifice, as recommended by René Girard.

I side with Olivier Roy, yet, where does this extremism stem from? I believe it stems from uncontrolled spécularité (René Girard), encouraged rather than contained by pregnancies based on competition.

What is to be done? We can reduce the dissemination of negative pregnancies (sad passions) through education and ethics. We can, for example, reduce the influence of liberal-productivism and its associated ideology based on competition. How can we believe, from the perspective of the collapse, that competition is good for societies? Here are some examples of negative pregnancies based on competition, which were components of Nazi ideology: racial supremacism, eugenics, nationalism, anti-Semitism, propagandism, militarism, bureaucratism, authoritarianism, political messianism, colonialism, State terrorism, populism, youthism, etc.

We can, at the same time, increase the dissemination of positive pregnancies (joyful passions): liberty; equality, fraternity, responsibility, autonomy, sharing, making efforts, solidarity, love, respect, friendship, justice, altruism, conviviality, democracy etc.