Originally published in Irish Anarchist Review #9
Extermination or communism is the choice – but this communism must be more than just the sharing of wealth (who wants all this shit?) – it must inaugurate a whole new way of working together. — Felix Guattari & Toni Negrii
As I sat down to begin writing this piece, an article appeared in the Guardian titled ‘Nasa-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for ‘irreversible collapse’?’ii, whose central claim was that “global industrial civilisation could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution”. What was striking, to me, about this article was that it contained absolutely nothing new. Prophesies of impending disaster – not just climatic, but ecological, economic and social too – are common currency in contemporary society, and for most practical purposes vary only in the rhetorical intensity with which they restate the same basic truth. Everyone knows, at least in impressionistic terms, what is happening, and what is at stake: things simply can’t continue as they are if human civilisation is to survive, and what’s more this is no longer a question of securing a future for our grandchildren – it’s us, my generation, human beings that currently live on this planet, who are imminently faced with the disappearance of the necessary conditions for our existence.
Within 30 seconds, I had already clicked to another tab, and was scrolling through a Buzzfeed list of funny cat pictures. This is the absurdity of our condition: never in history has a civilisation been aware, in such detail and with such certainty, of the imminence of its own demise, and yet the dominant cultural concern of our society, around which our intellectual and technological capabilities are organised, seems to be the production, transmission and refinement of banal clickbait, the perfection of the meme as the ideal unit of contentless communication in a political economy of commodified mass distraction. Increasingly, the political and cultural forms that might allow us to grapple collectively with such crucial questions simply don’t exist. Never before have human beings had such a capacity to communicate collectively on the major questions that face us, and yet it seems we have nothing to say to one another on what is surely the central problem of our time: how to ensure not just the survival but the flourishing of the human species; how to transform a form of social organisation that is bent on self-destruction to make the Earth livable and life on Earth worth living.
What would it mean, collectively and politically, to face up to these questions? How do we come to terms with the traumatic knowledge of our own contingency, and transform this knowledge into a basis for empowerment? How do we confront the terror of ecological catastrophe, comprehending fully its implications, and yet meet it with defiance and hope? What are the conditions of possibility for such a collective encounter, and what can we do to bring them about? These are, clearly, enormous questions, to which I can only offer the flimsiest sketch of an answer. My more modest ambition for this piece is simply to pose the right set of questions, to argue for an understanding of what is at stake that refocuses the classic anarchist question “how do we create together a world that we would want to live in?” with a new emphasis and urgency. I will begin by interrogating some of the dominant mainstream and leftist political responses to the ecological crisis, against which I will then attempt to sketch a positive and radical (in the sense of grasping the root) political understanding of the issue.
Theosophies of catastrophe
The failure of culture to adequately deal with the problem of ecological catastrophe is hardly surprising, for a number of reasons. Perhaps most obviously, all of the main social, economic and political powers are directly dependent on the destructive processes of capitalist production to sustain their position, and are therefore highly invested in the promotion of all sorts of mystifications and non-solutions, which preserve the structure in the immediate term, even at the expense of human survival. The traumatic nature of the knowledge we are now confronted with also inevitably leads to displacements and sublimations as a means of self-defence: the problem is warded off by reformulating it in a more comfortable mode, thereby reducing anxiety. Moreover, ecological catastrophe is what Timothy Morton refers to as a “hyperobject”, that is, something so “massively distributed in time and space relative to humans” that it confounds our regular ways of knowing and thinking about objects,iii forcing us to construct new and uncertain ways of thinking the world we now inhabit. It is due to the interplay of these factors, I suggest, that most individual and collective political responses to the ecological crisis have tended to revert to essentially religious modes of thought:iv
Faith – Numerous faith-based responses to the prospect of ecological catastrophe proliferate in contemporary culture. New Atheist scientism, transhumanism, green capitalism, the neoliberal cult of entrepreneurialism, and the like, all essentially produce the same response: scientific and technological innovation, coupled with the appropriate tweaks to market incentive structures, will somehow manage to save us just in the nick of time. The problem is thus effectively displaced onto the big Other, and our role is simply to trust in the institutions of capitalist society to deliver us from danger, or, perhaps, to mobilise to put pressure on these institutions to produce the correct set of reforms and innovations, without challenging the underlying social relations. In this understanding, technological development is intrinsically liberatory, the issue is simply that of reaching the appropriate level of technological development and of deriving the appropriate policy programme to utilise it. Of course, the fatal flaw of this way of thinking is that there is no intrinsic link between technological development and liberation. Technology is a social product: new technologies do not exist in an as-yet-unrealised form waiting to be discovered, they must be produced by a creative activity that is embedded in a set of social relations that determine its form and purpose. Moreover, technologies do not by themselves determine their use: that too depends on the kind of society that utilises them (in our case, a capitalist society whose orienting principle is the accumulation of capital). For example, the development of renewable energy technologies has not determined a shift away from the burning of fossil fuels: by all accounts, capitalist society seems determined to exploit fossil fuel sources to the point of exhaustion (with well-known consequences) as the current global push for the use of fracking technology surely demonstrates – renewables instead function alongside fossil fuels, allowing for greater expansion of economic activity. In other words, technological development cannot offer hope so long as society is organised according to a logic that ensures the willful destruction of nature: the subordination all life on Earth to the profit motive.
Anti-capitalist versions of this technological utopianism exist too, however, and are equally faith-based in their insistence on posing the problem of ecology as essentially a scientific/technological rather than a political problem. Perhaps the most lucid and exciting elaboration of this point of view in recent times is the #ACCELERATE Manifesto,v whose hypothesis, as summed up by Toni Negri, is that “liberation must occur within the evolution of capital; that labour power must move against the blockage caused by capitalism; that a complete reversal of the class relation must be accomplished by the pursuit of constant economic growth and technological evolution”vi in order to produce “an alternative modernity that neoliberalism is inherently unable to generate”.vii The most telling aspect of the manifesto is that the authors raise at the very beginning the problem of climactic breakdown, only to immediately push it aside in order to talk about technology, without even the most meagre attempt to hint at a solution. Clearly we are meant to conclude that this problem can be safely subsumed into that of liberating the technological potential blocked by capitalism, that the resolution of all existential threats to civilisation is simply the inevitable side effect of doggedly pursuing the technological promise that capitalism is incapable of delivering on. But is this the case? It would seem that the manifesto’s argument is underpinned by the same old teleological fallacy that Marx inherited from Hegel: that of the progressive movement of history towards ever greater liberation through the development of the productive forces – a relic of a time when the endless development of material production could be stated unproblematically as a goal because the Earth was still for all practical purposes infinite. The society we live in today, on the other hand, is one threatened with annihilation by the determinate limits of humanity’s domination of nature – a society that has a future only if it can find a way to break with the tendency towards the endless expansion of the world of things, and to subordinate the productive forces to a qualitatively different conception of the good. In the end, accelerationism is simply the mirror image of capitalist ideology’s veneration of technological innovation as good in itself.
Sacrifice – One of the major projects of neoliberal capitalism has been the progressive weakening of social ties, to produce increasingly isolated and atomised individuals, and with it, the demise of collective political agency. How does such an isolated individual respond to an existential threat that is so much larger than her? One of the oldest forms of religious practice arises out of precisely this problem: how does one gain control over that against which one is utterly powerless? The answer is: one performs gestures of sacrifice, ostensibly aimed at controlling the uncontrollable forces, but which in fact operate only to relieve one’s anxiety. Recycling, organic food, ethical consumerism, dietary veganism, reducing one’s carbon footprint, and, at the extreme, dropping out of society to live in closer harmony with nature: surely these are our modern day sacrificial tokens, our futile attempts to live wrong life rightly. We know, deep down at least, that these are utterly insufficient, that capitalism simply marches on regardless – indeed incorporates our gestures into the logic of accumulation by extracting extra profit from supposedly ethical consumption – that there is no plausible causal relationship between the acts we perform and the ends we imagine them to be producing, and yet we convince ourselves that by the sheer force of our will and our ethical rightness that we are achieving something, or, at least, that when civilisation finally tips over the brink that we are not the ones to blame (some comfort). The truth is that there are no individual solutions: we either find a way to intervene collectively and decisively to break with the present social order, or we are reduced to mere tokenism.
Oneness with nature, the non-hippy version
“Man [sic] lives from nature, i.e. nature is his body, and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.” — Karl Marxviii
“[W]e make no distinction between man [sic] and nature: the human essence of nature and the natural essence of man become one within nature in the form of production or industry, just as they do within the life of man as a species. Industry is then no longer considered from the extrinsic point of view of utility, but rather from the point of view of its fundamental identity with nature as production of man and by man. Not man as the king of creation , but rather as the being who is in intimate contact with the profound life of all forms or all types of beings… the eternal custodian of the machines of the universe.” — Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattariix
Environmentalism: the question is posed wrong from the beginning. There is no external object called “the environment” to which another object called “society” must relate. The question of the environmental crisis cannot be posed separately from that of society, as if it were some alien entity attacking us from the outside. At every point in history, human society is that which we have forged from the transformation of nature, and nature is that on which we depend for our continued existence; nature is part of human society and human society is part of nature. We exist in a state of profound interdependence with all forms of life – a condition we are unable to transcend, but merely develop in one direction or another. Our relations to one-another are predicated on particular relations to nature. The waged labour relation that is fundamental to capitalism required our estrangement from nature: the violent dispossession and expulsion of peasants from the land, and the enclosure of nature, its constitution as an object to be dominated and exploited was the founding event of capitalist society, a process intimately linked with the suppression and enclosure of women.x
Traditionally, environmentalists have tended to pose the question of how to prevent catastrophe as separate from questions of how humans are to relate to each other. This has tended to mean that environmentalism has confronted us as a rather bleak, desperate and negative discourse:
“‘We must act today to save tomorrow’ is the cry of the global greens. Great sacrifices must be made immediately for a reward launched far into the distant future. But such a reward it is! Yes, it may be far away now, but one day, dear friend, you may not be flooded! You may not starve! You might not even suffer more than you do already! Such is the dismal promise of environmentalism.”xi
Indeed, this framing, due to its artificial restriction of the problem to be considered, has often tended to produce a push towards economism and away from the consideration of the intersecting forms of exploitation and domination that produce our social reality, towards compromise with authoritarian forms of organisation, and towards a joyless and debilitating seriousness in the name of urgency. Viewed this way, it seems obvious that all sorts of compromises must be made with systems of domination in order that decisive action be taken to “save the planet”.
The problem is, the question is posed entirely backwards. We cannot think of taking decisive action against the destruction of nature separately from the transformation of the social relations that both arise from and reproduce the domination of nature by humans. The question rather is: what form of society is consistent with the desire to live not merely from nature, but in and with nature? What kinds of subjectivities and forms of social organisation allow us to live not as exploiters of the natural world, nor under the exploitation of others? What desires and potentials exist in our current world that could form the beginnings of such a world? Clearly, we must have done with the negative environmentalisms that operate on guilt and fear, and that offer nothing but the postponement of death. We must have done also with all the false consolations of magical thinking that keep us invested in a political system that can only fail us. Clearly, what we need is an anti-capitalism, but it cannot be one that simply takes over production and runs it more democratically. (In any case what system could outmatch modern capitalism in the production of endless junk?) What we need, instead, is an environmentalism that can begin to articulate the creation of a world that is actively desirable, a world where we are freed from pointless toil by the reorientation of the values and purpose driving production and by the judicious use of technology, a world vastly enriched in its cultural life and its possibilities for pleasure because we no longer spend all our time at work or recovering from work, a world in which difference is not longer transformed into antagonism by apparatuses of violence and domination, a world in which nature is neither to be feared nor dominated but experienced. In short: a world in which humanity will finally become possible.
i Félix Guattari & Toni Negri, Communists Like Us, p.13
ii Nafeez Ahmed, “Nasa-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for ‘irreversible collapse’?”, The Guardian, 14 March 2014. The study itself seems to be based on somewhat dubious Malthusian reasoning, but my interest in it is primarily as a cultural element rather than as a scientific work. See Ian Angus, ‘What did that ‘NASA-funded collapse study’ really say?’ http://climateandcapitalism.com/2014/03/31/nasa-collapse-study/
iii Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World.
iv I have ignored climate change deniers and the like here, as everyone should.
v Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, #ACCELERATE: Manifesto for an accelerationist politics, http://accelerationism.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/williams-and-srnicek.pdf
vi Antonio Negri, Some Reflections on the #ACCELERATE MANIFESTO, http://criticallegalthinking.com/2014/02/26/reflections-accelerate-manifesto/
vii Williams & Srnicek, op. cit.
viii Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts.
ix Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, pp.4-5
x See Silvia Fedirici, Caliban and the Witch.