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Catastrophe and Crisis

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At a gathering last night we agreed to tackle the difficult subject of "catastrophe" for our discussion next week. If, as many agree, things must get worse before deep societal change becomes possible, it becomes necessary to try to define what "worse" could look like. Would it be an event or just an accelerated trending? Would it usher in a reactionary, violent regime and even more atomization or provide opportunity for collectivism and a new sociability?  What guides do we have, in terms of historical, sociological, or philosophical work that might help us untangle these questions?

One relatively new circumstance that prompts such apocalyptic thinking is what many now refer to as a climate crisis. There is little consensus on how deep or broad this crisis is, or what time frames we are looking at, but the warnings about "Limits to Growth" (Club of Rome) and ecological collapse (Jared Diamond) are accelerating in the scientific realm while diminishing in Spectacular "political" discourse or popular consciousness. In other words, the chance that current "democratic" institutions (government, civil society, international bodies) can solve the crisis seem slim.

On one end of the spectrum is my own view that we should "heighten the contradictions", to use the old Marxist terminology, to hasten the collapse of the current social/economic/ political order while there is still enough atmosphere to start a new one. In practical terms, this means voting for Mitt Romney, supporting the most radical austerity and laissez faire agenda. I'm no economist, but I can't imagine it would take the Ayn Randian "wrecking crew"(using Thomas Franks term)very long to bring it all down in a heap of social unrest, even uprising. We barely backed off the precipice of global depression in 08 and this time around the system is far shakier.  

in his book Living in the End Times, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek quotes Mao in this very context: "There is great disorder under heaven, the situation is excellent." But we all know the reality might be violent in the extreme. Here we are forced to confront the everyday violence which is the ambient background of our daily existence. Following Walter Benjamin, Zizek distinguishes between emancipatory "divine violence" and the repressive "mythic violence" that occurs on a vast scale in todays world. This is a precipice of another kind, an existential leap that should be frightening to all people of consciousness and I admit is to me as well. I even understand how it might appear similar to Christian millenialist thinking, with their Armegeddon followed by glorious rapture and heaven on earth. I, however, have no illusions about an essentialist/determinist trajectory in the here and now.

And then there is the alternative, again using Frank's term, of supporting what he calls the "maintenence crew" ie.. voting for Obama (to put it in stark terms). Yes, we will watch the oceans rise, the wars sputter on, finance capital leverage greater sums, inequality grow, but perhaps we avoid the "event" or catastrophe...for now. In other words, the water around the frog continues to heat towards boiling but perhaps we find time to organize more, develop networks, build a countervailing power somehow?

In the end, we are back to that unknowable question of time. When do we reach those climatic "tipping points" where feedback loops take over and we totally lose control of our collective destiny? When will the crisis of capitalist over-accumulation force us into another war, perhaps using nuclear weapons? When will the science of genetic modification overwhelm us or new viruses or (insert your own )?

And perhaps most important, what is our resposibility to future generations? What risks are we willing to take, in terms of our own security, comfort and convenience, in order to keep their possibilities open?

Discussion 6 Comments

  • Jay Bostrom 23rd Sep 2012


    This is a huge question/polemic. And when I proposed it, I did not ask what would be best for our organizing potential. I simply wanted to know if any of us thought it was possible to organize/motivate/provoke/awaken American society without a catastrophe. I don't want things to get worse! I don't want another day to go by without the slimmest hope that we can stave off major destruction. I am hoping to have a child this year, and I want to bring them into a world with some possibilities and hope...not an apocalyptic future.

    BUT, I'm not convinced that "people" (at least not enough of them) will awaken to the imperatives of our times before the clock runs out. I just don't think people can give up their conveniences...even if that means ending the world. Convenience needs to be stripped away like candy from a diabetic child...or meth from an addict. How many people quit their addictions? Statistically, they die before they quit. What are the number of quitters compared to the number of people who are killed by their addictions (smoking, drugs, alcohol, butter, etc.)?

    Even with all the pleading and campaigns, is drug addiction diminishing? It sure doesn't feel like it in the schools I work in.

    In revolutionary terms, are we (humans) in this historical moment in time the same as those who lived back in the revolutionary days? Can we (I mean enough of us) be sparked anymore?

    My old Sandinista buddy called me and told me about how he has built a house for his mom back in Nicaragua with all the money he has earned here. He owns a big, beautiful 2011 Ford pickup. He travels to and from Nicaragua when it fancies him. His revolutionary spirit is a distant memory. Today's "man" is different, no?

    So, again, can we get folks (enough of them...IOPS is 2600 people out of 7 billion) ready and willing to revolt against the system and want to replace it by shear agitation, education, and organizing? Or do people have to be stripped of everything, reduced to nothing, face death, denied basic dignity in order to want system change?

  • Dave Jones 24th Sep 2012

    I agree Jay. I think it will take a "shock", the question for me is- what will it look like? For some reason we watched Inside Job again last night. It shows the look on the faces of the global financial elite on Set.15 2008, conveying their knowledge of how close to a precipice we were at that moment.

    By preventing us from going over that edge and instead initiating a long L shaped recession, leaders forestalled catastrophe but we still live in deepening crisis. And yet seemingly, few were motivated by the Near Event to demand deep structural change.

    And any exercise in imagining scenario #2, going over the edge, would require some serious, lengthy analysis of the forces in play, still leaving us with a best guess about an unknowable/totally contingent flux. Financial collapse> economic depression> social/institutional breakdown> power vacuum>?

    What the movie doesn't do is examine why. It maintains a bunch of greedy, blind people took over which is a totally inadequate analysis, a progressive point of view with familiar progressive remedies. When I suggest voting for Romney and allowing those same Free Market forces to play out and take us over that edge it is because I think it is advantageous to do it now rather than later. That ecosystems have a better chance now rather than later, that those suffering on the periphery have a better chance now rather than later, that the kind slave master IS actually crueler. By purposefully facilitating a shock, there may be opportunity to influence the narrative whereas gradual disintegration leaves us outside the discourse.

    It may not mean being "stripped of everything" or facing death but I believe we will all have to face the end of reality as we know it now. And IOPS will be a model of an alternative reality, 10,000 people (the near-term goal) worldwide can re-invigorate a Left which I believe exists but lies dormant.

  • Bill Smith 23rd Jan 2013

    Hi Dave. It’s late to join in this conversation, but I feel compelled to make a few comments on the ideas you have raised. First, just a note that the phrase “lack of consensus” easily conveys the incorrect notion that there are fundamental arguments among climate scientists about the likelihood or seriousness of human-caused global warming. Therefore it is a favorite phrase of global warming deniers; I suggest that those of us who are not deniers would do better to avoid it. As you probably know, practicing climate scientists have reached virtually unanimous consensus that human-produced CO2 in the atmosphere is causing temperature rises that will have dire ecological effects. There is broad and deep agreement on the type of effects that will be seen and on the minimum consequences for particular atmospheric concentrations of CO2.

    Moving on to the other points you raise: I believe you are right that current institutions won’t be able to solve this crisis and that time is not on our side. You wonder what kind of "worse" circumstances could lead to a more revolutionary situation and suggest we support the “wrecking crew,” voting for Romney and advocating brutal austerity measures in order to "heighten the contradictions." In your comment you further state that “When I suggest voting for Romney and allowing those same Free Market forces to play out and take us over that edge it is because I think it is advantageous to do it now rather than later. “ While I understand your sense of urgency, I see several problems with this plan. First, it can’t succeed in “heightening the contradictions.” US radicals don't have the numbers or unity to make things worse for the people by voting Republican or advocating austerity. Second, even if the plan succeeded in increasing oppression and misery, that alone wouldn’t jump-start a revolution to overthrow capitalism. It could even make it more difficult for people to successfully resist or increase their acceptance of fascist ideology. This brings up a third problem: an inner circle of radical social engineers implementing such a plan would lose all credibility with others and therefore could not “influence the narrative” as you say. People outside of the inner circle would doubtless see this plan (and you could not hope to keep it a secret) and it’s implementers as cynical, manipulative, elitist, and dishonest. Fourth, we cannot wait until after a revolution before we act on global warming, or we are utterly lost. Therefore we cannot afford to indulge ourselves by spending time on a social experiment that is unlikely to succeed and may delay action.

    This leads to another point you made in the blog, that the alternative to the “wrecking crew” is the “maintenance crew,” or voting for Obama, so that “perhaps we find time to organize more, develop networks, build a countervailing power somehow?” But the REAL alternative is not the voting for Obama (although one may decide to do that as a tactic) but precisely in the “organizing and building a countervailing power”—somehow. It is this “somehow” that we need to figure out. No successful shortcut to revolution exists, certainly not one that can be carried out by a small group disconnected from the larger population and acting as self-appointed social engineers. We must fight the best we can to reduce CO2 emissions and effect other changes, even while hamstrung by this system. The point is that during these battles revolutionaries must work to expand our collective understanding of capitalism, advocate a participatory, democratic society, and participate in building revolutionary awareness and efforts that go beyond reforms.

    Just for completeness, I’d like to point out that the “wrecking crew” plan is not in accord with the IOPS interim vision and mission. One of the core values of IOPS is self-management, defined as decision-making influence in proportion to the degree one is affected by a decision. I can’t see the working class agreeing to this strategy. Another is winning changes in society that better the situations of suffering constituencies while laying the ground work for more changes and construction to come. This strategy does the opposite. Another is solidarity, the fostering of mutual aid and empathy. This strategy would instead sabotage the lives of our purported friends. IOPS is anti-authoritarian, while this strategy is elitist and authoritarian.

    Finally, it seems to me that many leftist fail to catch the significance of the phrase “heighten/accelerate the contradictions.” It was not meant primarily to suggest the bringing on of revolution by actions that encourage its opposite. Generally, the heightening (or lowering) of contradictions happens in the course of history. Revolutionaries must learn to understand what the contradictions are in their society, how they change with time and events, and how to respond effectively. Sometimes revolutionaries may be able to exert an influence that affects the balance of some contradiction, but this is generally done to help the people. For example, Japan’s attack on China in WWII “heightened the contradiction” between Japan and China, making this the primary contradiction for the Chinese people. The contradiction between the Chinese proletariat-peasantry and the bourgeoisie was thereby lowered (temporarily) to secondary status. For this reason communists changed course and formed an alliance with the Kuomintang to fight the Japanese.

    If we want to see a democratic, egalitarian, and participatory society rise from the ashes of the old, that’s the way we have to fight for it.

  • Dave Jones 24th Jan 2013

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Sally. Nice to know I provoked someone! My reference to "broad consensus" was more about popular rather than scientific opinion, which points to another disturbing trend.I should have made that clear.
    As for a Romney win, it was a long shot and only time will tell whether my analysis of "desperate measures" was valid. One philosophical way to look at it is encapsulated in this question: Which is kinder, the slave master who treats his slaves well or the one who treats them badly?

    Or, If you had a chance to trigger a stock market crash and "heighten the contradiction" between market ideology and a just economy built on use-value, would you do it? On the chance that short-term pain might lead to long term gain and that the rate of greenhouse gas emissions is rising every day you wait? ( the temporal factor which weighs on all our decisions)

    I do think all your concerns are valid and your arguments good ones and I'm glad we're on the same team.

  • Bill Smith 5th Feb 2013

    The one who treats his slaves well. Re: your second question, I generally don't enjoy playing "what if" games when neither choice is real. The effort to make a serious answer simply doesn't pay off with greater insight. I'll let my original comments serve for an more complete explanation of why this is true. On a related subject, that is one reason I don't take Zizek seriously, nor spend any more time reading him that I need to assess his value to the movement (low). As Rebecca Mead remarked in the New Yorker, "As Zizek might put it, he may appear to be a serious leftist intellectual, but is it not the case that he is in fact a comedian?"

  • Dave Jones 6th Feb 2013

    Interesting you should use the word "real" in this context, Zizek being a Lacanian and all! Since I don't take Rebecca Mead ( "He doesn't own a suit or tie..") at all seriously, or expect any sympathy for anything radical out of the New Yorker, we may just have to agree to disagree here. I would recommend the Zizek essay in the book Democracy in What State, with contributions by Agamben, Badiou, Wendy Brown, Kristin Ross, Ranciere and Nancy. Or Contingency ,Hegemony and Universality, a conversation between Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau and Zizek. There my be a few laughs but they are welcome indeed.

    As I'm sure you are aware, the task of philosophy and it's value to our movement, is to explode our assumptions or make us see things from new angles. So to go back to my original point: What if Obama puts together a bullshit task force on climate change with Max Baucus and Jim DeMint? Would Romney have been the way to go?