Wednesday, August 23, 2017

What fuels civil war? Energy and the rise of Fascism

Italian Blackshirts in the early 1920s. There is a Fascist song from those times that says (translated), "Fascists and Communists were playing cards. The Fascists won with the ace of clubs."  But the clubs used by the Fascists were only a marginal elements in a struggle that had as a fundamental factor the supply of energy to the Italian economy.

History, as we all know, may not repeat itself, but it surely rhymes. So, the theme of a civil war and of a return of Fascism is much discussed in the US nowadays. What kind of rhymes with past events can we perceive? On this point, I can propose to re-examine how Fascism took over in Italy, in the early 1920s, and in particular how it was related to energy supply factors. It is not, and it cannot be a complete analysis, but maybe it can help us understand what's going on.

In the 1920s, Italy was reeling from the tremendous effort of the First World War while the major allied powers, Britain, France, and the US, were carving the pie of the victory among themselves, leaving only crumbs for Italy. There were reasons for that; the main one was that the Allies saw Italy as more of a burden than a help during the war. In any case, there had been no "peace dividend" for Italy.

That was not the only problem for Italy, an even more important one was the dependency on British coal for its energy supply. In the aftermath of the war, the British coal production had peaked was headed for decline. You can see the data, below.

The two low points under the production peak correspond to the two major strikes of the coal miners of 1921 and 1926. But, even without strikes, the British economy was undergoing a major readjustment. Coal was not any more so abundant as before and that had effects on the British coal exports. In turn, that created an energy crisis in Italy. You can see in the data, below how coal imports from Britain had plummeted immediately after the war and how imports from Germany were initially insufficient to compensate the decline.

All this had political consequences. Most Italians couldn't understand why the victory in the Great War had brought to them only more poverty than before. Nor they could understand why the perfidious Britons were denying them the coal they justly deserved (you can read about this feeling in D.H. Lawrence's "Sea and Sardinia" of 1921). As a consequence, a delusionary attitude became widespread: it was widely believed that Italy was singled out as an enemy by the decadent Northern Plutocracies because they envied the strength and the power of the young Italian nation. In its extreme form, this illusion stated that Italy had won the war for the Great Powers with the offensive of Vittorio Veneto in 1918 and that the Great Powers didn't want to admit that because they loathed the power of the young Italian Nation. That was repeated so often that it became an obvious truth in Italy. Eventually, it led to to the overestimation of the country's military power, with disastrous consequences during the 2nd World War. Incidentally, a similar delusionary belief was common in Germany during these years: that the defeat of the country in WWI had been caused by the "stab in the back" received by the Socialists.

In those confused years, the lack of coal and the economic stress led to riots and disorders in Italy. This is a general result of the fact that in a situation of lack of resources, the best strategy may be to steal them from neighbors. This historical phase was described as the "two red years" (il biennio rosso) but it was not simply a confrontation between the Right and the Left (The Fascists and the Communists). There is an amazing animation that you can find in Wikipedia that illustrates the fragmentation of the Italian society into different political groups coming to blows with each other. (image created by Markuswikipedian)

Eventually, a local strongman, Benito Mussolini, emerged from the struggle as the winner and he and his Fascist party took power with the "March on Rome" of 1922. It was a bloodless coup, carried out with the support of the traditional elites, including the King of Italy. They were hoping that they could neutralize Mussolini and turn his movement into something that they could control. In the short run, they were right.

When the new Fascist government took over, in 1922, it benefited of two favorable circumstances; the main one being that the energy supply to the country improved. Coal imports from Britain had restarted, although not at the same level as before but, at the same time, the German coal industry had also recovered. Germany coal production would not peak until the late 1930s, and that meant that imports from Germany could now compensate the stagnating British production. In the long run, that would lead Italy's to a deadly embrace with Germany during the 2nd world war, but in the 1920s it was a vital flow of energy for the Italian economy.

The second favorable circumstance for Mussolini was that the previous governments had slashed down military expenses to 2% of the GDP from the more than 10% they had been during the war. Despite all of his warlike rhetoric, Mussolini was smart enough that he didn't increase the military budget, at least initially. Without the burden of large military expenses and with a good supply of coal, the Italian economy experienced a minor renaissance. Inflation disappeared and resources could be dedicated to rebuilding the civilian industrial infrastructure. Mussolini could even indulge in the attempt of creating a national coal industry by exploiting the coal deposits in Sardinia. It always remained a toy mine, but it had good propaganda value.

Finally, Italians seemed to believe that a dictatorship was preferable to civil war and that made things relatively easy for Mussolini, who didn't need to recur to extreme repression measures, at least at the beginning. Of course, as we all know, things changed. In the 1930s, a new coal crisis pushed the regime to a higher level of repressive control, the military budget was tripled and Mussolini became a victim of his own propaganda, pursuing his delusionary dream of rebuilding the Roman Empire. A series of senseless wars eventually led Italy to defeat and humiliation.

This is a simplified presentation of a series of complex events, but I think it may be useful for us to understand what are the main elements that can lead Fascism to take over anywhere in the world. After all, Fascism was an Italian invention, much admired by dictators everywhere. It was a combination of economic crisis linked to energy scarcity, of military victories turning out to be expensive defeats, and of a delusionary vision that blames foreign evil forces for all the ongoing troubles.

So, if the look at the situation in the United States nowadays, one obvious similarity with Italy in the 1920s is how a military victory can lead to no advantage for the winning country. In the 1990s, the US triumphed against the Soviet Union in the cold war and that was expected to bring a "peace dividend," but it never did. The US also successfully invaded Iraq in 2003 but, again, most Americans saw none of the advantages that had been prospected to them as the result of controlling the oil resources of Iraq.

In terms of collective delusions, we certainly have plenty in the US, nowadays. One is seeing the US as "the indispensable country," greatly overestimating the country's military power. Another is the idea of "energy dominance." It is unbelievable how many people in the US think that the fact that the country now produces more oil than it imports (which is correct) means that the country is not dependent on imports anymore (which is incorrect, of course). Even the Energy Secretary, Rick Perry, recently said that the US exports more than it imports, and this statement wasn't challenged in the mainstream media. In any case, much of what is said and done in the US and in the West is based on the even more fundamental delusion that technological progress will solve all problems.

Finally, we are starting to see plenty of sectarian violence in the US. People are openly talking of an ongoing "civil war" even though it seems that we are still far away from the level of violence reached in Italy after the 1st world war (but note also that the Italian violence of those times had no racial components). In any case, civil wars cannot last forever; eventually, one side must win and take over. So what can we expect for the future?

What happens to the economy of a country mostly depends on the energy supply needed to make it function. This is not commonly recognized, but we saw how Italy danced to the coal tune during the years between the two world wars. In our times, fossil fuels, oil gas, and coal are what makes the world's economy dance. And the availability of energy will determine the destiny of the United States.

As we all know, the mood in the US is bullish regarding fossil fuels and it is true that both liquid fuels and natural gas underwent a renaissance with the "fracking" extraction technologies. That stopped the decline that had started with the peaking of the oil production, reached in 1970, and led to a new cycle of increasing production rates. But the time of rapid growth seems to be over for the US oil and gas industry. "Fracking" is not forever and a new phase of production decline may be starting, Then, note also that the US military expenses are still large, even though declining. They stand now at about 3.3% of the GDP, higher in relative terms than they were in Italy in 1922.

So, the future of the US will depend on how much it will be possible to supply the industrial system with energy and keeping military expenses at a level compatible with the available energy. Even hoping that military expenses will not be raised again, it hard to think that the necessary energy to keep the system going could come from the exhausted American oil and gas fields. Could a new US government base a new economic renaissance on coal? That seems, indeed, to be Donald Trump's plan. Re-open the coal mines, lavishly subsidize coal production, and, perhaps, take the road of coal liquefaction to obtain synthetic fuels. Then use these fuels to boost the economy, create jobs, rebuild the country's military power and, probably, end the civil war before it becomes truly disastrous. After all, it is what Italy and Germany did, with some initial success, between the two world wars.

But is it possible to convert the US economy back to coal? Probably not for two reasons: the first is that the coal resources in the US, although still abundant, are not anymore what they were in the past. The second is that making the world's largest economy dependent on coal would give such a push to global warming that it would rapidly destroy the world's ecosystem as we know it.

But the fact that the task is hopeless doesn't mean that it can't be attempted. And a dictator who would attempt to do that has a good chance to do more damage to the country and to humankind than any dictator of the past ever managed.



  2. UK energy has entered an interesting phase. It is useful to see your graph for UK coal production.There is not a lot left.

    We in Uk need natural gas and lots of it, but we will need to share the supply with others. You can get a glimpse of European as well as British gas needs from this site

    George Kaplan very expertly describes UK oil situation here


  3. I agree with your analysis of prospects for the US. I can only hope that our economy collapses swiftly, before any desperate attempt to transition back to a coal-based revival of industry and manufacturing. The fact that the world's national economies are so inter-linked bodes well for a swift collapse of all of them together rather than leaving islands of prosperity in a sea of economic depression.

    Collapse may save the climate, but it may not be fast enough to prevent a lot of desperation warfare, including a third world war.

  4. Excellent and informative, thank you.

    In the case of the US, the looming 'dictator' is, of course, the banks and the MIC -currently attempting to discredit and unseat Donald Trump. He himself is doing a great deal to help them in that endeavour.....

    But what about getting an energy boost by breaking up the Russian Federation, and taking effective control of Russia's land and resources?

    1. Mmmmm.... maybe it is in the plans, but I am not sure it would work so well.

  5. Another - very valuable - aspect of this post is that it raises the highly important question of the rise of Irrationality in situations of energy scarcity and instability -absurd explanations for why things are going wrong, and how they might be miraculously improved.

    This irrationality can be found at every level of society, and can take the form of mass delusion.

    One form of irrationality at present is to attribute all economic and social ills to Neo-Liberalism, and Austerity, missing out the energy element altogether and giving exclusive priority to political factors.

    The energy aspect would explain so much, but suits neither politicians nor the wishful thinking of the mass of people, rich or 'poor' (there is no real poverty in Europe,if we remind ourselves of what real destitution and suffering are in Latin America, Asia and Africa, although living standards are certainly declining rapidly).

    What might be the popular delusions in Italy today, that you would be likely to hear at a dinner table or in a cafe?

    1. Well, the most diffuse delusion is that Italy is taking the largest burden of refugees from Africa in comparison to other European countries. That is very likely to be heard at a dinner table; "if we don't get rid of this human tsunami, we'll be destroyed and/or thoroughly islamized." You might answer that, in relative terms, Italy accepts about one third of the number that Germany accepts, but that would be forgetting that we live in a fact-free world and would not be appreciated.

      (for the actual numbers, if you are one of the few people still living in the real world, you can find them here:

    2. yes but... consider the economy of ITALY: 36K/capita, 2300Billion debt, debt to GDP 133%, official/fake unemployment rate 11% (real possibly more than 20%, and luckily 150-200.000 people per year move abroad), fiscal pressure 60%, administrative chaos, Mafia & co. controlling 3/4 of the country/economy... AND the economy of GERMANY: 50K/capita, unemployment 4%, debt to GDP 68%... and Mafia controlling only 1/4 of the country/economy :-)

      we are comparing a developing country (let's be honest about poor Italy, the next Greece), with a real developed country... quite a difference :-)

      by the way, very interesting reading/post! thanks about that.

      "The second is that making the world's largest economy dependent on coal would give such a push to global warming that it would rapidly destroy the world's ecosystem as we know it."

      I am not sure coal is not an option, better a climatic collapse on the long run than a civil war now, if you were a USA citizen, what you'd prefer?

      thanks again for the post!

    3. Of course! The immigrants are making a perfectly rational choice: they move to the richest countries of Europa, Germany in particular. The "delusion" I was referring to was how Italians think they are swamped by Muslim immigrants, when the total is only 2% (compared to more than 8% for Germany) and Muslims are a minority of that

    4. BTW, about collapse, what makes you think that a climatic collapse involves "the long run?" :-)

    5. And finally, another popular delusion in Italy is about "femicide"; the killing of women by their partners or relatives. For some reason, the media highlight every case of this kind, to the point of having convinced most Italians that some sort of mass extermination of women is in progress and becoming worse all the time.

      In reality, the number of women killed in Italy in all circumstances last year was 120; less than 20% of the number of men killed. And this in a country with more than 60 million inhabitants where we had almost 6,000 victims of accidents in the home, 3500 victims of road accidents last year.

      It is another manifestation of the fact-free universe in which we live.

    6. Concerning 'long term' and 'short term' and 'climate collapse'and the 'biggest economy' I have mentioned before that Science told Politics two or three decades ago that climate change was slow i.e. long term (100 + years?) and uncertain. This mattered for perception in the USA.
      The following gives a flavor of Science in USA in 2000

      "For the nation as a whole,direct economic impacts are likely to be modest, while in some places, economic losses or gains are likely to be large. For example, while crop yields are likely to
      increase at the national scale over the next few decades,large increases or decreases in yields of specific crops in
      particular places are likely."

      Perhaps present Italian discussion reflects a more general unease (and Italian cognitive dissonance) in a Mediteranean Basin where climate has had notable effects already, for example in Syria well before the country became a target for regime change and other geopolitical moves. BTW Ugo, thanks for the link to factual info about refugees, migrants et al. Google translated adequately.

    7. Ugo
      There are a huge amount of delusions of the type: "Some superhumanly clever secret cabals are plotting to do all sort of bad things to us out of the blackness and greed". Such things seem to appeal to a lot of people. My own take is that the people in "charge" dont seem very clever, in fact they seem utterly clueless about what is happening and are rationalizing all sort of bad actions that they do in order to convince themselves and other that they are are still in charge of things.

  6. It's always interesting to study history so that we may repeat its mistakes. (LOL)

    According to one of the classical definitions formulated by Mussolini the USA is already a Fascist state. "Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power”

    Or a more detailed explanation of the theory describes many features that are immediately recognizable in the One Exceptional Nation. htpp://

    re. energy and irrationality
    The idea that the USA can rebuild its economy around a 1970's industrial model whose energy source is the 1930's relic, coal, is simply infantile. As is the goal of enforcing a Global Empire to extract energy wealth from the rest of the world at a price sufficient to cover the cost of maintaining the Empire.

    Given that you wanted to maintain an advanced industrial country with a centralized state-controlled energy system the rational choice would be to place coal in the dustbin of history and build a safe nuclear-based energy system. But certainly not the bizarre Light Water Reactor, the bastard stepchild of the nuclear bomb. The alternative technology known as LFTR is many times safer, produces a fraction of radioactive waste, and could potentially be mass produced on an assembly line at a perhaps 1/10 of the cost of conventional nuclear power plants. But it was never developed because of its lower potential to fund multiple layers of graft.

    While it is very nice to talk about rational engineering, human decisions about things as fundamental as the energy base of society are always made in a social and ideological context. And I'm far from convinced that maintaining an advanced industrial civilization based upon a 10x superior energy technology that allows us to multiply and go forth to conquer the remaining biosphere of the planet and suck up every last drop of water is desirable!

  7. meanwhile, sorry for being off topic, a true tragedy is happening in southern Texas. The full extent of the catastrophy will take a few days to play out fully.
    An hurricane hit the coast, strengthening at a rate that surprised authorities and population. It will stay stuck inland for about a week (unprecedented!) droppin 1 meter or more of rain, bringing in a big storm surge and powerful waves and flooding everything.
    The South Texas Nuclear Plant is in the flooding area and could be affected. I am not sure they had time to shut it down and cool down the fission products. I bet they did not.

  8. Also

  9. Regarding the disproportionate attention being paid to women murdered by their partners, this is also happening in Spain -its part of the feminist agenda to make a lot of noise about it.

    Now, what they never mention (being anti-racist Leftists) is that 1/ most such crimes occur within the Latino working-class community, Bolivians, Uraguayans, etc; and 2/ that the men very often go on to kill themselves afterwards!

    Clearly, we are dealing with mental problems and excessive drug and alcohol consumption, as well as the rather brutal Latino culture, and not with 'sexist patriarchal violence' per se.

    And, as in Italy, the numbers are tiny. More people die or are injured tripping up on their cat.....

  10. This doesn't help the current political situation in USA at all:



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" to be published by Springer in mid 2017