Sunday, November 25, 2012

Beware of What You Wish For

Catastrophism – the Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse & Rebirth,” Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen, James Davis, Forward by Doug Henwood – 2012

The recent wave of catastrophic environmental and economic films, fiction books, political theories and cultural events – Zombie Bar Crawl, I’m looking at you – has finally been addressed by these authors from a Marxist perspective.  While it suffers from a certain thin evidential reed, and a large amount of repetition, the authors make the point that leftists who wait for ‘catastrophe’ only play into the hands of the right and the State. 

The authors take aim at various versions of apocalyptic politics.  Faulty neo-Hobbesian theories; modern Malthusianism; the flaws in the ‘peak oil’ hypothesis; the bourgeois preference for the ‘gated lifeboat;’ the use of disasters by the capitalists; the adoption of apocalyptic scenarios by the Christian and fascist right; and quietist “Kautskyian” approaches among leftists, waiting for an automatic capitalist collapse - all come in for a dunking.  Most interesting of all is an essay on the modern reappearance of the zombie meme, and its connection to capitalist decay.  Of course, we have only to look at the 'zombie' banks still in our midst to see this reality.

Take the issue of environmental destruction via global warming.  There are basically 5 ways to respond to this crisis.  1., do nothing and go on as usual; 2, green capitalism; 3, deep ecology; 4, life-boat preparations and 5, eco-socialism.  The authors insist that because ‘surveys show’ that the more people learn about the collapsing environment, the more quiescent they become, 'apocalyptic' talk must be counterproductive.  Yet ‘surveys’ also show that most people right now do not even believe human activity is causing global warming – at least in the U.S.  So which of these is actually causing the quiescence?  Another thing that can cause quiescence is that people do not know what they can do, as there is no effective party or mass movement to effectuate actual change.  So, really, which is causing the passivity?

In the U.S., most people presently, other than small changes in lifestyle, are doing nothing.  Buying a Prius or buying or growing more organic food, becoming vegetarian, bicycling more, etc. are the most common responses of a minority of the population.  Green capitalism is being promoted by the Democratic Party, mostly based on a market point of view.   Very few government subsidies have been granted to wind, wave, solar and biomass and so green capitalism has essentially gone nowhere.  ‘Deep ecologists’ like Derrick Jensen predict the collapse of industrial civilization due to the effects of peak oil, starting in 2015.  Well, ‘peak oil’ has passed worldwide, but on the backside of that bell curve is the ‘improved’ rape of the land – see the increase in oil and gas fracking, tar-sand oil extraction and deep water drilling.  All of these methods have been embraced by both Parties, and no doubt the Keystone Pipeline will also be approved.  It was recently announced that the U.S. would overcome Saudia Arabia in oil production in a few years due to these new technologies of the ‘old’ fossil fuel industry. Of course, this is based on falling rates of Saudi and Russian production.  Nevertheless, more evidence of capitalist maneuverability.

Preparing a lifeboat?  As the ridiculous Mayan disaster film “2012” has shown, preparing a safe bastion against rising seas and food scarcity is a prerogative of the rich.  The wealthy will always be able to retreat to gated communities, which is why personal appeals to the rich over global warming fall on deaf ears.  And for ordinary workers to prepare?  Well, it makes sense, even in the short term – see Hurricane Sandy or any government recommendation on ‘emergency preparedness.’  But social ties and a social movements are your best guarantee of survival, especially in a ‘long emergency.’  You have to add to your storehouse of grub, generators and guns the most important ingredient - real people.

The authors come out for an eco-socialist approach, which involves patient ‘pre-organizing. Much as a labor party will not spring out of society at the snap of a leftist’s finger, nor will a resilient mass movement be able to handle social upheaval without a prior linkage of human beings.  What we do right now will enable us to actually help each other when a conjuncture arrives.  Really pretty simple.

One main theme the authors cover is the disabling use of ‘fear’ as a motivator.  Liberals do it when they obsessively maintain that if the Democrats are not elected, fascism will draw nigh.  You know, those people who think the Republicans are already ‘fascists.’  The people that babble on and on about Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck as if there were no other issues.  The State uses it – 9/11 being a prime example – to induce a police state and imperialist war.  Conservatives use it to build up border walls and consolidate their hold over some white people.  And the Left tries to use it – but has not had much success.  Fear as an emotion usually makes people withdraw, not go forward.  Take fear of losing your job.  Want to organize a union at your workplace then?  Good luck.  The fact that some U.S. Wal-Mart workers actually protested on Black Friday shows a lack of fear.  The most fearful are the most useless in any situation.

The authors discuss in some depth prior Marxist approaches that predict a final collapse of the capitalist economy, thus leaving the working class to merely wait patiently for it.  This has been the root of social democratic reformism for generations – See review of “All Power to the Councils,” below.  They also take on the opposite tack - adventurist, mostly anarchist approaches of immediate action, as capitalism is supposedly so rotten that an active push can bring it down.  Neither approach recognizes the versatility of the capitalist economy and its reserves, or an understanding of specific historical conjunctures, or even tactical reality. They also get some jabs in against the 'stagnation theory' of Monthly Review, which they accuse of being similarly 'catastrophist.'

The authors support the theses of Naomi Klein’s book, “The Shock Doctrine,” (reviewed below) which carefully pointed out that capitalists love a crisis so that they can dictatorially institute their policies.  In the factory, we called this ‘the bums rush.’  What else can you call the hysterical events around the 2008 bailout of the U.S. banking sector?  Or the fear of the 'fiscal cliff?'  Crises cut both ways.  Oppression oppresses.

Others have started to notice the trend:  
           "Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson has suggested, dystopia might be best described as an anti-political genre an attempt to oppose the frightening force of change itself, to squelch Utopian hopes and longings. Though its ostensible purpose is to take trends in the present day and forecast them into the future, to offer timely warnings of looming disaster, in practice it can shade into a sort of aestheticized quietism."  --- on Salon.com, by Lee Konstantinou, LA Review of Books

 David McNally ends this volume with a wonderful historical-materialist answer to the question of ‘why zombies now?’  It involves riots around hangings in early London, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Haitian sugar cane slaves, American horror movies and responses to southern African neo-liberalism.  You will have to read it to find out.

 (Books on environmental, economic or political apocalypse reviewed below – (“Gaia,” “Handmaid’s Tale,” “The Road,” “Reinventing Collapse,” “The Coming Insurrection,” “Tropic of Chaos,” “The Race for What’s Left,” “The Party’s Over,”  “The Shock Doctrine.” “Collapse,” “The Hunger Games,” “Living in the End Times.”)

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
November 25, 2012

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