November 6, 2013 § 7 Comments
If there is anything left to hope for, hope for calamity. Absolute and total industrial collapse is the only hope left for life on Earth should extinction of most, if not all life forms, not already be a certainty.
They say a writer should know their audience, so I feel that the above statement needs little background evidence to support it. For the uninitiated, who may have stumbled across this piece unwittingly, I will state that I am coming from a place where I acknowledge that climate change induced by human industrial activity is rapidly entering runaway territory, where even a complete shut down of global industrial activity may not be enough to undo the damage that has already been levied upon the planet and it’s life giving systems. Further, I am coming from a place where I acknowledge that political and economic architectures are not built with the capacity to undo themselves. Further still, I am coming from a place where I have come to accept that even the cultural programming prerequisite to civilizing the human animal is a psychosis.
Of course, the initiated may remind me of the danger posed by hundreds of nuclear power reactors world wide being left stranded of human maintenance should industry catastrophically shut down.
That’s why I said “If there is anything left to hope for…”
I have been active in so-called, “radical circles,” for years now. I have participated in many acts of civil disobedience, most of which went far beyond the tame and near pointless office sit-ins and political theater that is commonly mistaken for “direct action.” However, I also realize that most western people are suffering a combination of insulation and disempowerment which has rendered them doubtful of their autonomy and their right to act, as well as rendering them timid beyond any ability to do so. In realizing this, I have supported those who have slowly tip-toed out of their comfort zones into sheepish acts of sign waving and politician haranguing. Of course, I realize the futility of most of these acts, at least in achieving what the participants overtly intend to achieve. The personal empowerment and growth in self confidence that results from marching down the middle of street is valuable in itself, so I have and do encourage those who decide to do so.
However, a paradigm shift that has gone mostly unnoticed invalidates even small successes by those who have risen to action. The infinite growth model of civilization and the financial models that serve it, has ended. There has already been a peak in global petroleum production, and the world is quickly moving into a time of ever more expensive energy, both in financial and environmental costs. Without taking this into account, social movements will fail consistently. Unfortunately, the vast majority of social movements in the modern west are stunted by this lack of understanding fundamentals, as well as by their insistence on modeling themselves and their movements on past movements they perceive as having been successful which occurred in times of growth. Too often for instance, modern western social movements, be they fighting for environmental or social justice, claim the American civil rights struggles as their founding conceptual model.
This flaw was well analyzed by Henia Belalia who rightly suggests that if anything, those fighting to preserve the Earth’s ability to harbor life should look to the abolitionists movement to end slavery. Belalia writes:
“We are not fighting for access to an existing status quo. We are demanding a fundamental restructuring of society in order to have the possibility of a livable future. So let’s look at social movement history that might be more analogous.”
This is absolutely right on. Belalia goes on to note:
“Wide-spread direct action campaigns, organizing boycotts of sugar and cotton and other slave produced goods. Free people of African descent who fought slavery and the slave trade by any means necessary. African captives who led revolts on slave ships—men and women who refused to be cargo. Recent studies show slave revolts on one in ten voyages, and this caused a sharp increase in the carrying costs of the trade, helping to undermine its economic viability. And Africans on the coast that attacked slave ships before they sailed, cutting them off and freeing captives.”
What Belalia successfully demonstrates is that business models which are destructive to life must be actively attacked, via whatever methods necessary. The predominant view of the so-called “climate justice movement” however, is that industrial civilization can continue in a fashion that allows modern western people to live essentially as they do now, with only a handful of tweaks. (They even suggest that this life style can be extended to the global population.) Coal fired power plants replaced with windmills and solar arrays, gasoline powered vehicles replaced with electric vehicles (which I guess are powered by these windmills?) etc. This future of a fair trade, “green” capitalism powered by sunshine where we all still live in suburbs and drink mocha lattes before heading to work is a liberal fantasy. The industrial economy consumes vast amounts of energy, and the energy return ratios of technologies such as wind turbines and solar panels will never be favorable enough to fuel the global economy as it exists now, let alone as it grows to support higher consumption levels of a larger and larger human population. It’s not as if conservatives have a more intelligent analysis of this issue, but those of us who live in rural areas and who witness the massive diesel powered equipment used by modern farmers see very clearly that if the population is going to continue to eat, it will be because fossil fuels continue to be exploited. Seeing the necessity of the energy density of hydrocarbons, the right understands the weakness of so called “alternative energies” and instead, pretends that there are no consequences to the processes of acquiring and burning fossil fuels.
Hence the need for social movements that are fighting drivers of climate change to accept a view of a low energy future. Low energy future means low consumption future. It means not just a no growth future, but a future of decline. It means going beyond local to tribal. It means ending modernity as we know it, and breaking apart the homogeneity of globalization and massive state systems in favor of the small, and the many. In plain English, it means embracing the idea that your kids won’t go to college, but will instead grow turnips As I said above, no existing political or financial structure could achieve this, let alone advance the suggestion.
Some smaller more radical movements such as Earth First! and Deep Green Resistance get this point, and further, they celebrate it. However, these movements are small yet, and their philosophies don’t garner the attention that more “pragmatic” thinkers attract.
As for the pragmatic “fringe,” Chris Hedges recently wrote a piece titled, “Our Invisible Revolution” in which he argues that the decent into total and overt corruption on the part of business and government leaders is not going unnoticed, and that beneath the visible surface, an as of yet nameless fire grows in public consciousness. Perhaps he is correct in believing this, but his insulated western view comes to the fore in his writing in two glaring ways.
First, Hedges writes of ideas as being a keystone in revolution; dislodging old ideas first and presenting new workable alternatives ends regimes is his claim. Hedges:
“Once ideas shift for a large portion of a population, once the vision of a new society grips the popular imagination, the old regime is finished….An uprising that is devoid of ideas and vision is never a threat to ruling elites. Social upheaval without clear definition and direction, without ideas behind it, descends into nihilism, random violence and chaos. It consumes itself. This, at its core, is why I disagree with some elements of the Black Bloc anarchists. I believe in strategy.””
It should be noted that throughout his essay, Hedges seems to be trying to regain credibility he lost with anarchists after being hotly critical of Occupy activists utilizing black bloc tactics. I assume he is trying to regain this credibility primarily because he is aware of the energy amongst anarchists which drives them to actually be active, and to take to the physical realm beyond Facebook, you know – the real world – and to put their ideas into practice. But I digress.
Hedges’ emphasis on ideas is a very “civilized” approach to the topic of revolution. It is “logical” and “rational,” in all of the ways civil society demands. This is why Hedges doesn’t understand anarchist support for black bloc tactics, or at its heart, why he misunderstands revolution. It is because he negates feeling.
Feelings are just as if not more important than ideas when it comes to not only social upheaval, but also when it comes to decolonizing our minds of the inculcation of civilization, and shedding the culture that has been branded upon our very synapses. The hierarchy of ideas (which let’s be clear, are white, male, educated, upper class, “practical” ideas) over feelings (which are considered female, primitive, and weak by the dominant culture) is a large factor in how divisions amongst the masses are created. On this, I will turn to twenty-one year old blogger, Jacklyn Gil, who writes :
“I’d say white supremacy is a type of fundamentalism that is deeply, deeply, rooted and manifests in harmful ways, which the benefactors are mostly blind to. Fundamentalists are those most afraid of change. I would argue that many White, middle class people, however unknowingly, were raised with an (implicit) fundamental understanding of the world in which colonial characteristics, such as suppression of intense expression and/or an authoritarian/obedient reaction to the world in front of you, was seen as ‘successful’, or ‘respectable’.”
Hedges falls into this trap precisely because he negates his own cultural and personal baggage. It may seem ridiculous to the “rational” and to the “civil” but when you are not an academic, and you cannot articulate exactly how the society in which you are trapped exploits you, what you then have to guide you is your clear inner feelings of being exploited and of being oppressed. Feelings which are absolutely valid, and which form the impetus of articulation to begin with. Further, when you take to the streets and see others throwing bricks through the windows of banks, for many, it feels good. The justice is clear, if not pragmatic or rational. It is obvious to those who haven’t shut out their feelings. This is how riots happen. And riots are not necessarily ignorant, pointless violence. Riotous activity is the last vestige of power held by the underclasses, they are the primal howl from that wild place that still burns if ever so dimly within the human soul. Do they necessarily achieve strategic goals? Not always. But do they empower? Do they instill in the participants a personally granted permission to ignore the imaginary lines drawn up by the rich and defended by the police? Absolutely. How people get drawn into such behavior through the seduction of action is a topic well analyzed in a CrimeThinc Pamphlet, which opens with the question:
“We who fight to create a freer world face a fundamental contradiction. On one hand, we don’t want to become a vanguard, “leading” or imposing our will on others, as that would run counter to our anti-authoritarian values. On the other hand, we believe with good justification that our political goals—including the destruction of capitalism, the state, and hierarchy—can’t be accomplished without strategies that are currently unpalatable to most of our fellow citizens. The impoverishment of millions and the destruction of our ecosystems demand that we act decisively. What criteria will equip us to challenge these systems without resorting to the authoritarian means we condemn?”
Too often, fighting back against the forces that destroy the globe while shackling the masses into meaningless existences is dubbed, “Bad for the movement,” by pragmatic liberals. Their view is that people will be driven away from a social movement that does not condemn smashing windows or setting bulldozers on fire. Of course, they mean is will turn away people like them; other middle or upper class, predominantly white “pragmatists.” Large swaths of the population take no part in activism or social struggles for the same reason they don’t vote in elections; they see it as pointless. Lining up to demand incremental reform only after receiving permission to do so, behind a line of police in the free speech zone seems not only pointless, but pathetic. It’s admitting your defeated, puny, position before even stepping into the ring. And this is what Hedges and other “rational” thinkers are hoping to see.
It should also be noted that strategy and mass movements are two extremely hard partners to marry. Mass movements by definition contain massive numbers of people, that is massive numbers of egos, and massive numbers of education levels, goals, experience levels, etc. Finding consensus on what exactly lies at the root of society’s ills, let alone cataloging and prioritizing these ills, let alone coming to an agreement on how to strategically go about achieving a solution that leaves all participants happy, would be an effort beyond Sisyphean. Even if such unity of thought and action were possible, the powerful remain in a permanent state of counter-insurgency. I personally have encountered infiltrators across several movements, some of who have been successful at bringing felony charges against the most benign of activists. Looking at the green scare, which continues to this day, as well as the grand jury investigations into anarchists in the United States, definitively makes clear that organizing masses to behave strategically will face insurmountable hurdles, as organizers have their phones tapped, their emails read, their meetings infiltrated, etc.
It’s easy to demand “strategy,” and to decry movements that seem to lack it, but strategy is akin to handling on a vehicle. If you want maneuverability, you don’t jump in a city bus and start hugging turns. Mass movements are lumbering city buses, which are frankly more useful for smashing through barricades than gluing to the twists and turns of a formula one race.
“I do not say this because I am a supporter of revolution. I am not. I prefer the piecemeal and incremental reforms of a functioning democracy. I prefer a system in which our social institutions permit the citizenry to nonviolently dismiss those in authority. I prefer a system in which institutions are independent and not captive to corporate power. But we do not live in such a system. Revolt is the only option left. Ruling elites, once the ideas that justify their existence are dead, resort to force. It is their final clutch at power. If a nonviolent popular movement is able to ideologically disarm the bureaucrats, civil servants and police—to get them, in essence, to defect—nonviolent revolution is possible. But if the state can organize effective and prolonged violence against dissent, it spawns reactive revolutionary violence, or what the state calls terrorism. Violent revolutions usually give rise to revolutionaries as ruthless as their adversaries. “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster,” Friedrich Nietzsche wrote. “And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” Violent revolutions are always tragic.”
Hedges is essentially betraying the liberal utopian inside himself, first exposing his belief that democratic systems have ever or could ever “work,” and then following that with a suggestion that a non-violent movement could even hope to have politicians, let alone the police, defect. I know Hedges has a history of reporting on revolutions in many countries, and he would claim to have seen such defections elsewhere, but could he really say that a real revolution has followed? Or has what’s come after such defections been merely a transfer of power to the neo-liberal system of global capitalism? Has he ever seen politicians and police defect, to not be replaced by different (or even the same) politicians and police afterwards?
He then goes on like almost all white, upper or middle class people do and decries violence as unnecessary (The exception being the gun nuts on the right, whose sense of patriarchal and race superiority make them believe order comes from force, not consent.) This is because Hedges and pretty much all modern western middle and upper class white people live lives completely insulated from violence. Violence for them is conceptual. It is something on TV after nine p.m. Most people of this milieu have never even killed an animal for food, as the machinations of capitalism have always done it for them, far away behind closed doors, so appetites don’t get spoiled. This leaves violence mysterious, dangerous, and best handled by professionals, in slaughterhouses and in the streets.
Not meaning to pick on Hedges, as I do like much of what he writes, I just have to point out that he seemingly wants to have his cake and to eat it to. Fair trade cake though. Cruelty free. It’s as Frederick Douglass famously said:
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
When violence is a reality from which you are not shielded by corporate and state entities, it is easy to believe that violence is a thing of the past with no place in modern living, even during revolution. Violence s very real and very present in the modern world however. In fact, the very foundations of modern industrial civilization are violence. Again, I don’t want to have to descend into a long list of examples, as I expect the reader to be initiated, but as this point is one that requires understanding, I feel compelled.
The modern “first” world extracts the majority of the resources it uses for production of goods from the “third” world, leaving destroyed ecosystems, destroyed ways of life, corrupt and bought off governments, and massive pollution in its wake. Resistors in these nations are often killed, as has been the case with peoples from South America to Africa to Asia — and yes, even North America, as locals and indigenous populations have fought invaders who seek their lands for everything from coffee and banana farming to the production and bottling of Coca-Cola to gold mining and fossil fuel extraction. Pushed off their lands, people — including children — across the globe have been forced into the slums of mega cities to work in dangerous factories for low wages, if not worse. Though white middle class westerners don’t see it, there is blood in their latte, in their sneakers, in their gas tank, and in their bank accounts.
Even within the confines of western society, the autonomy of the individual is robbed by the state who claims all acts of self and community defense, when possible, should be outsourced to police departments. Under the guise of eliminating social violence, disagreements, confrontations of abusive people, fights — all are to be avoided and instead proper authorities (people higher than you on the social hierarchy) are to be notified, who will come strapped with an arsenal of weaponry, from electrocution devices to chemical agents and firearms, and they will dole out the proper level of violence. Even the maintenance of the financial order is achieved through violence, as police (with weapons on their hips) evict families too poor to pay rent, lock up people who possess “outlawed” chemical substances, fine or jail people who opt to take food from trash dumpsters, and even line up in riot gear to separate passively protesting crowds from bank facilities and staff.
Living under such circumstances, it becomes easy for writers like Hedge’s to believe that violence is for people lesser than ourselves who have not yet out-evolved its use like we have. This leaves violence as a tool that only the state and capitalists will use, and they will, and do use it.
The real tragedy of the doctrine of pacifism is that so many people will fall so easily before the very real and very heavy handed violence that the arc of time has in store for them. Leaving behind the pointy-headed critique of western social movements, let’s go back to the beginning, and recall that apocalyptic climate change may very well already be baked into the cake. Forgetting to hash out the details of just how bad it will be in the end, let’s acknowledge for a moment what this looks like for average people on the ground as it comes to pass. In time, it will mean crop failures as droughts, floods, wildfires, early blizzards, etc. wreak havoc on the food supply. These are already current conditions, which are unfolding to occur more and more frequently. Spikes in temperature can cause grid failure in the southwestern US, leaving millions without air condition and potentially without water. Freak superstorms like Sandy and those that caused this year’s flooding in Colorado will continually destroy infrastructure while also creating classes of refugees.
All of this is coming at a time when the financial system undergoing collapse due primarily to its growth requirement becoming anemic in light of ongoing fossil fuel supply stagnation, meaning the money to repair damage done by climate catastrophes will go untended more and more frequently. It also means there is less and less money available to upkeep existing infrastructure like bridges, power substations, roads, water pipelines, etc. On top of that, there is less and less money available for the growing underclass, who are kept passive in large part by state subsidies.
As this cascading collapse becomes reality, social action is inevitable, from the very messy to the tightly organized. What to demand in times of decline will likely escape most, as they continually ask for access to more, or at least, for access to what they once had. My two cents is that the sensible demand in times of decline should be for autonomy, for the state to get the hell out of the way as people dismantle corrupt and broken systems, while simultaneously building hundreds of thousands of autonomous zones and collectives. To be sure, many of these newly created regions and groups will fail, as the climate fails, and as modern people realize how helpless they are in the face of creating dignified survival out of raw nature. But even failure in this regard is more dignified than further subjugation to a bloated, dysfunctional, and violent hierarchy.
To see this from a macro perspective, industrial civilization has outgrown its ability to be an efficient organism. Dimitri Orlov has written about this phenomenon very well, basically stating that societies, like living organisms, can pass a point of diminishing returns, where they more they grow to take care of themselves, the more there is to upkeep, rendering the growth meaningless. We face this, as civilization has gone global and has destroyed the planet in its wake, leaving itself a double bind. Continue unabated and quickly smother itself in catastrophe via climate change and resource scarcity, likely leading to war, or push the big red button and shut it all down, near immediately killing the majority of humans who are now dependent upon industrial systems in one way or another.
This is why only absolute and total catastrophe is all that remains to hope for. It takes the choice out of clumsy and cowardly human hands. If the defining characteristic of civilization is control, catastrophe is letting go. The chips will fall where they may, and nature’s law — which is and has always been the only real law — will return to the fore, wiping out humanity’s egotistic view of themselves. So let’s not fear calamity, let’s welcome it, let’s assist in ushering it in where possible. Understanding that it won’t be fun but at least it will be honest, making all things equal once again, we can know that it alone provides salvation from the meaninglessness of state-capitalism’s full spectrum dominance, while offering a glimmer of a possibility that life may just be able to pass through the bottleneck, and thrive again in a time after time.