Sunday, March 7, 2010

Requiem for a dying city

A few days ago, I attended a demonstration for the defense of my hometown's shipyard. For me, as for any politician, it was as much business as activism, a part of the electoral campaign I am involved in and an occasion to show my leadership I know the place and am reasonably well known in it. All the unions were there, as well as all the local leaders of the Socialist Party – for those not familiar with French politics, it is the rough equivalent of Labour – but what stroke me was the glaring out-of-touchness of the whole exercise at the beginning of the Age of Decline.

Saint-Nazaire is located at the mouth of the Loire river. It is your typical industrial town, born during of the nineteenth century around its shipyard and its deep water harbor. The local economy is heavily dependent upon the port – which includes a major refinery – the shipyard and the network of more or less independent contractors surrounding it. Needless to say, the city is greatly suffering from the ongoing crisis. The shipyard – owned by a Korean corporation – is literally begging the government for order and has laid off most of its temporary workers. Small business are closing down in groves and the flow of money which had enabled the township to engage into a massive building program has suddenly dried up.

The chances of Saint-Nazaire recovering are slight, of course. The shipyard had specialized into ocean liners – the RMS Queen Mary 2 was built there – and there is little place for such monsters in a world of scarce resources. Moreover, as peak oil and peak energy force globalization into reverse, the demand for big ship is bound to decline. Most local businessmen are aware, if not of peak oil at least of the necessity to find another economic engine for the region. These days, they are betting on off-shore wind farm. It is doubtful, however, that the cash starved French economy will find the funds it necessary to build even the relatively modest amounts of investment needed for the – largely insufficient – existing project to go somewhere.

Add to this the fact that Saint-Nazaire is caught between the sea and a large coastal swamp, and it becomes obvious it is bound, on the long term, to become again the fishing village it was before the industrialization. In that perspective, the only decent policy is to cushion the decline by helping people to acquire new skills and by diversifying the economy to make it more resilient.

Of course, this is not a discourse locals are willing to hear. Most unions in their pre-demonstration speeches were clamoring for the nationalization of the shipyard. A few days before, a group of striking workers had prevented a just finished liner to leave the port, which jeopardized the signing of a vital contract. This kind of radicalization and scorched earth policy is becoming more and more common in France, and this bodes ill for the coming long descent.

The union men I demonstrated with were no radicals, and while there were a few leftist among us, they were far from being the majority. Most attending politicians belonged to the very tame Socialist Party or to the now quite fangless Communist Party. They had no intention to storm any Winter Palace.

The problem is that industrial workers were promised a future of continued betterment. During the growth years of the sixties and the seventies, when France changed from a predominantly rural nation to an industrial and urban one, they could expect their condition to get better and better with the years and their children to climb up the social ladder. This would not necessarily be easy – there were violent strikes in this time too – but at least, it was within the realm of the possible.

Unions, very much like the bulk of the population, are still trapped in this ideology of perpetual progress, yet cannot help noticing the continuous degradation of most people's living conditions. The result of this cognitive dissonance between the grandiose expectations of the ideology of progress and the bleak reality, is a curious combination of helplessness, despair and anger.

As the society more and more often fails to deliver the promises made during the growth years, the common people feels betrayed. Most often, this leads to cynicism and a steady retreat out of the public square toward family life – not necessarily a bad strategy, by the way. Among those involved in what one can call the “professional dissent” - and in a country where unions are chronically short of activists (only 8% of French workers are unionized) - radicalization is pretty much inevitable.

While this anger is understandable, the result of this radicalization is likely to be more and bitter and more and more violent labor conflict, which will hinder the transition toward some sustainability and make it far more costly than it ought to be.

At this point it is probably pretty much inevitable. There is no way to save large scale industries such as Saint-Nazaire's shipyard, and no way to prevent the loss of jobs. The only thing we can do is try to limit to consequences by developing self-reliance and increasing the domain of the domestic economy... without telling it, for it would mean admitting the inevitability of decline and the vacuity of the ideology of progress.

The fate of Saint-Nazaire will probably the same as the one of many east-german towns. As the shipyard and the surrounding industries fail, the city will empty. Only old people and those who are too poor to leave will remain. Whole districts will have to be abandoned and when the sea will finally rush into the Briere swamp and turn the city into a near island most of its territory would have become fields and wood again, with the shipyard, the refinery and the German submarine base sunken ruins shrouded with mystery and legend.

The only question is : when will locals will accept, and begin to constructively adapt to the inevitable, instead clinging to a failing model, and sinking with it ?

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