Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Decline of the West: Left or Right, It Doesn't Matter

The auditorium of Fiesole, near Florence, Italy. A monster of glass and concrete, it was announced almost 15 years ago but it was never completed and probably never will be. It can be seen as a metaphor of the decline of the West: if there are no more resources to produce or to distribute goods, the whole economy grinds to a halt. 

In a previous post, Miguel Martinez examined the retreat from Moscow of Napoleon's army as a metaphor for the decline of the Left in the West. Martinez notes how the Left has normally emphasized the redistribution of the goods produced by the economy but that, nowadays, the resource crisis makes it impossible to produce enough goods to distribute. It is just like when the soldiers of Napoleon's army found little or nothing to plunder after that they had conquered Moscow.

In practice, the plight of the Right is not different from that of the Left. Traditionally, the Right emphasized production rather than redistribution. But these are two sides of the same coin: the gradual depletion of resources and the increasing ecosystem disruption make it impossible to produce goods at the same low costs as it was easy to do decades ago. The attempt of Donald Trump to restart coal production in the US is similar to the plight of Napoleon's soldiers marching in the snow during their retreat from Moscow. The only choices available to them were either to plunder cities that they had no capability to conquer or to redistribute spoils that they had not been able to plunder. Right or Left, they were are going nowhere. It is the same for us.

I think these concepts can be illustrated by the story of a building in the city where I live, Fiesole, on a hill near Florence, in Italy. In 2003, the mayor  announced the plan of building a large auditorium which he described as an "absolute necessity for the town." There followed a debate where many local residents (including myself) noted that the city may have needed an auditorium but that the proposed one was way too large. 

As you may imagine, our protests were swamped in howls of disdain. We were accused of a "nimby" attitude and told that the new auditorium would bring jobs for the inhabitants of Fiesole, money for shop owners, and turn Fiesole into an internationally known cultural center. In any case, it would mean economic growth and how could anyone be against that? 

So, the auditorium was built. It was even enlarged with the progress of the construction until it was supposed to be able to seat 312 people.  The only problem: it was never completed. Today, only the outer walls and the roof stand (and they say that the roof leaks). The reason is said to be that the city ran out of money, which is probably true, but I also think that the builders themselves, at some point, looked at what they were doing and they gasped in awe. I can imagine them asking each other something like. "'what the hell are we doing here? This thing is too damn big." I can imagine the same moment of awe for the soldiers and the commanders of Napoleon's army in Moscow, "What the hell are we doing here? It is getting damn cold."

Just as Russia was too big for Napoleon to conquer, the auditorium of Fiesole is too big for the size of the city. Imagine building New York's Metropolitan Opera House in Mount Carroll, Illinois, and you get the right feeling. Fiesole is a small town on top of a hill and it doesn't have enough hotel rooms to host the kind of events that would need a hall with 300+ seats. Bringing people there from other locations is not a solution, either. There are wholly insufficient parking facilities nearby; using buses would be slow and expensive and, anyway, full size buses couldn't negotiate the sharp turns in the roads around the Auditorium. Given these conditions, who would ever need this auditorium when there are literally dozens more convenient ones in nearby Florence? If the auditorium of Fiesole were ever to be completed, what could be done with it? Maybe we could paint it in white and have people come to look at the elephant of the city zoo. 

Doesn't this story really feel like Napoleon's invasion of Russia? Yes, Napoleon was caught in a bubble scheme of his own making where he had to keep fighting and winning bigger and bigger battles in order to have more spoils to redistribute. Eventually, the bubble had to burst. The Western economic system has been caught in the same kind of bubble, although not based on military actions (not completely, at least). Rather, it is a bubble of construction and redistribution that's bursting right now. 

So, today, walking in front of the concrete and glass giant in a square of the small town of Fiesole, one is nearly overwhelmed by a thought: how could people make such an absurd error? Surely there was money involved but, for what I can say, it was mostly done in good faith by people who really believed that the city needed such a thing  (1) (and, if you care to know, the mayor who started the whole thing was a former member of the Communist party). But it didn't matter: the Right would have done exactly the same. It was just like for Napoleon's soldiers who took the road to Moscow, convinced that they were going toward glory and riches. Looking at the errors of the past we can always learn one thing: that we never learn from the errors of the past (2). 

1. There was a certain method in this madness. A parking lot was built downhill and it might have provided a sufficient number of parking spaces for the auditorium, even though it still remained off-limits to full size buses. But to get to the auditorium from that parking lot one needs to walk up a long flight of steep stairs. So, the idea was to build an escalator to take people uphill but, as you may imagine, it was a grand plan that turned out to be too expensive. Even grander and more expensive was the idea to build a cableway that would have taken people to Fiesole from the valley below, where new hotels would be built. That would have been coupled with a special train service from Florence's central train station. These ideas were more or less equivalent to think that Napoleon's armies could advance into Siberia after having taken Moscow, until they would conquer Vladivostok, on the other side of Eurasia.

2. Evidence that people haven't learned anything from past mistakes comes from the plans for a new airport in Florence. A new oversized project that aims at increasing the number of tourists coming to Florence, all in the name of Growth. Apparently, nine million tourists per year are not enough for Florence. Do we think this number will keep growing forever? 


  1. @Ugo

    I am fascinated by how people in institutions tend to "think big" and forget real needs.

    A tiny example, fortunately much smaller (and cheaper) than the Fiesole Colosseum, I am sure every reader of this blog will immediately think of others...

    Here in our district of Florence, there is a room with a little area outdoors, which belongs to the Municipality, and has an incredibly complicated history, so I'll simplify the story.

    Some time ago, the Municipality decided to see who had the best idea of what to do with it. A group of people who do amateur theatre at the other end of Florence came up with an elegant sounding project ("interactive" "experiential workshop" "challenge" "multicultural"), so they got to use it for six months.

    Being at the other end of Florence, they never turned up, because it was too far.

    Meanwhile, countless families started pestering us, asking us whether they could use the same space to hold birthday parties for their children, and we had to tell them, no you can't.

    As long as a politician has to decide, an "experiential workshop" wins immediately against "my kid wants to blow out a candle".

    So one response is, let's see what the people who live in a place (not just the businessmen) really want to do with a public space. It would save the world a LOT of money.

  2. A very pertinent example on a local level Ugo. The notion of the left being redistrbutional focused and the right productively focused is worth expanding upon. It is an argument that ignores the fundemental underlying character of any civilisation. Historically all large civilisations grew within their means and the surpluses they could produce either for wealth or to support growth at a certain point, limits were reached and the time honoured means of fixing this problem was war and conquest so you could then steal and confiscate the materials and surpluses of others and use the defeated tribes as labour or just exterminate them. Some civilisation become so good at this they dominate for long periods, the Persians, the Romans, the British and lately the Americans it is all based on plunder or the expropriation of the resources of others and for long periods this gives the winners the impression that it works wonderfully particularly if there is technological prowess or advance amongst this, for the Romans it was engineering and military tactics, for the British it was maritime technology and industrialisation and for the Americans and the West, a new energy source oil, the technological advances that built on the past experiences of the British and their technology always supported by an effective means of coercion and compliance (adminstrative and organisational capacity). So now it is game over for everybody, there are no new lands to conquer, their are no new resources to plunder and the plundered and the conquered have sunk into poverty and deprivation. Nobody understand this fundamental historical and human response to limits is over for all time, now we have to live with the limits and it is going to be very unpleasant indeed as societies employ the thing they are best at violence and coercion to keep the game going. The final critical nail in the human conquest, we have plundered the planet and there was only ever one and what it can do and provide is now rapidly diminishing as we destroy the biosphere and the fabric of life that made it possible.

  3. Left and right don't mean much anymore. All the Nazis and oligarchs have moved to the "center" . And from that neoliberal and neocon "center" they control the narrative since they also own most of the media. Related to this, and as far as Napoleon and Russia are concerned, it it looks like NATO is now caught in a similar "bubble scheme" of its own making.

  4. Dear Prof. Bardi

    here is a pertinent example of industrial overreaching in Italy. It seems that we have built too many road bridges and now we don't have any money to mantain them.

  5. Dear Ugo

    Thanks for another very interesting article. My mother was born in Naples so I'm always interested in anything about that fascinating city. There was a recent television programme about the Roman aqueduct in Naples - now those boys could build. As an aside they showed a stretch of metro tunnel with bored out stations that had just been abandoned - lack of money apparently.

    I would be interested to know how the repair work following the recent terrible earthquakes is proceeding-very hard to find any new information although my internet search skills are not of the best.

  6. If you have read previous comments of mine, You will not be surprised if I consider myself to be "left". That being said I think that there are as much left positions as there are "lefts", You know, just as in Life of Brian, the left is never more itself, then when fighting other lefts.

    So what is "Left"? I think, that in left social theorie, left concerns itself with the role of the "subject". Neoliberal, right wing and "capitalist" theory sees the subject as the center of culpability. If you are poor, its your very own fault, there is nobody else to blame but you. If you are rich on the other hand, you earned that.

    Left theorie places society, class and ideologie in the center of its philosophy. The subject is formed by society, class and ideology. Being part of a certain collective or social class is a matter of birth and upbringing much more than your own achievements.

    Positions on redistribution just follow this fundamental view of society. If the subject is culpable for being poor, society has no business supporting it. If social class, and thus poverty or wealth, are a product of society itself, we have to do what we can to get rid of this inherent inequality of society.

    Both views share certain beliefs of how society works and more importantly, where it is headed. In the vision for a future left and right, technological progress and domination of earth have been similar, because it was outside the scope of either theory. The believe in a techno paradise that we would head to by progress and human ingenuity was so imbedded in the "modern age" society, that it was never even discussed. The difference between left and right was in the way we get there.

    Today we need a new vision for the future, one that takes into account the finite ressources of our planet, the vulnarability of our ecosphere and our responsibility towards preserving earth for future generations.

    This new vision for a future, where we do not dominate our planet, but see ourself as part of its ecosphere, is yet to be formed.

    There is no way that capitalism and neoliberal ideology will ever be able to embrace such a vision, but it can and it has become a part of a left vision for many.

  7. At the very least you have the beauty of Italy - the most beautiful country on this planet.

  8. What most people in the West (and in particular in the USA) don't understand is that Capitalism and Socialism are basically the same thing. Both are based on Industrialism and Myth of Progress. It's the same dish but with different spices: in Socialism there is more redistribution and in Capitalism there is more consumerism. I know that because I lived in both political systems here in Serbia.

    Every form of Industrialism is the express train to self-destruction: the more you produce the sooner your train will wreck against the wall of natural limits.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)