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Catastrophism Format Kindle
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First, some of the hits. The authors, despite their revolutionary inclinations, are critical of leftist "catastrophism", by which they mean a kind of secular apocalypticism. The idea that capitalism will collapse all by itself, in near-deterministic fashion, is one species of catastrophism. Another is the seemingly opposite notion that a small and dedicated group of revolutionary fighters can take down the system by sheer will power (and, presumably, a lot of bombs) at any given time. The authors point out, correctly, that this kind of voluntarism is really the flip side of determinism, since both perspectives are based on the idea that radicals don't have to bother convincing the broad majority of the people. Both perspectives are therefore grounded in anti-political despair. (At least one author reviewed by me elsewhere fits this description almost to a tee: Derrick Jensen. And yes, he's mentioned in the book, although mostly in passing.)
The authors further criticize the idea that crises, poverty or oppression automatically make people more radical and leftist. In reality, the number of strikes in the United States have historically increased during economic booms, and plummeted during economic downturns. The only exception to the rule are the 1930's, and even then, the resistance didn't come until almost five years into the depression, and was fuelled by hope for reform rather than desperation (in other words, FDR's New Deal, although the authors doesn't mention it explicitly). Something similar can be seen in Europe. While the revolutions and attempted revolutions after World War I were obviously caused by the war and the subsequent hardships of peace, the major struggles of 1968 took place during the post-war boom. Today, in the aftermath of the finance crisis, we can see the same phenomenon again: surprisingly little resistance (outside Greece), with some right-wing governments actually being re-elected in the midst of the crisis (Sweden would be one example). Thus, while crises *can* trigger radical resistance, there is no guarantee that they will do so. Indeed, the authors believe that crises are more likely to breed fascism or heavy-handed government repression! Nor is there any guarantee that increased state repression will cause widespread resistance. Yet, many terrorist groups base their strategy on this illusion: by attacking the system and *forcing* the state to clamp down on civil liberties, its "fascist" character will be "exposed" and revolution follow. In reality, the population usually remains passive, or actually supports the state.
While there is obviously a large amount of truth in the above, "Catastrophism" nevertheless also contains some pretty serious misses. First, it's somewhat difficult to take the authors seriously. They are super-radical, but their criticism of catastrophism points in a "liberal" or "reformist" direction. If crises usually lead to fascism, if capitalism can create relative prosperity, and if the system can go on forever without collapsing (see further below), it's difficult to see why we should support an anarchist-Marxist revolution. Why not simply call for another New Deal? It might be a more radical New Deal than the last time (a kind of Wallace-Browder kind of thing), but it would still fall far short of the wet dreams of the Midnight Notes collective (or whoever is behind this book). The contributors to "Catastrophism" accuse their leftist colleagues of despair, but surely their own perspective - one of capitalism potentially existing forever - is just as despairing, at least for an anti-capitalist leftist?
Second, the authors are quite simply *wrong* when they suggest that the present system can potentially last forever. They constantly heckle the peak oil activists, putting "peak oil" within quotation marks, and ironically wonder whether people who don't grow organic food are somewhat less "authentic" than the next guy. Yeah, comrades, very funny. If "catastrophism" means apocalypse on Monday morning, I don't believe in it either. However, what about a long decline? Why is that ruled out? Is there any *other* civilization in world history that hasn't declined and disappeared? Why should "capitalism" be any different? One of the writers believes that there is enough gas, uranium and oil to go around for centuries. Another writer actually believes that the environmental and energy crises have truly apocalyptic dimensions, but mentions this only in the footnotes! The authors' unfortunate denialism is most cogently expressed in these lines: "The worst aspect of Malthusian scenarios however, is not that they are usually wrong but that they `tilt right'. In fact, the predictable outcome of the Y2K and peak oil scenarios (were they accurate) is a Hobbesian `war of each against all' and the legitimation of a militarized lifeboat ethics." In other words, the authors main argument against peak oil is that it simply *can't* be true, since it's politically reactionary! They are confusing reality with their ideological road map. I wonder how far they are willing to take this line of reasoning? Perhaps the Roman siege of Carthage didn't really happen either, since it was such a "reactionary" idea (at least for the Carthaginians)...
Had the contributors to "Catastophism" been more constructive, they would have either proposed scenarios on how to peacefully transition from an oil-dependent economy to a post-oil economy, or proposed how local communities can save themselves without resorting to militarized lifeboat ethics. Denying the coming, long twilight of modern civilization in the name of an ideological fight against reactionary catastrophism is just another sure road to being mugged by reality...
Doug Henwood reminds us in the Foreword that historically, the working class has made most of its gains during times of economic growth, not contraction; and should therefore talk about utopia, not dystopia. In the Introduction, Sasha Lilley reiterates that catastrophe does not open opportunities for progressive social reengineering but is in fact often used by reactionary forces to roll back social gains and consolidate elite power.
There are four essays featured in the book. "The Politics of Failure Have Failed" by Eddie Yuen criticizes the doom-ridden rhetorical strategies of the environmental movement. Mr. Yuen asserts that the environmental crisis is properly understood as a crisis of capitalism but the unfocused message of impending environmental catastrophe has only bred apathy and inaction. Mr. Yuen believes that environmentalists who focus their struggles on the material abundance for the many will result in a movement that can resist the eco-Fascist politics of the few.
"Catastrophism and the Left" by Sasha Lilley laments how the Left has often misread Marx and missed the crucial point of class struggle and collective action. The idea that revolution could be instigated through mayhem backfired against the rise of Fascism in the 1930s and neoliberalism in the 1970s. Ms. Lilley's analysis suggests that Leftists do best when they inspire the masses through a message of hope, not despair.
"Catastrophism and the Right" by James Davis discusses how gains made by minorities, women and the working class has been perceived by the Right as a plot to undo elite privilege. Historically, the Right has partnered with Christian fundamentalists to fight Communism, multiculturalism and Islamism. Mr. Davis shows how paranoia and fear is used to empower the police state and the military-industrial complex, reinforce the social hierarchy, and blunt attempts to redistribute income more equitably.
"Capitalism and Catastrophes of Everyday Life" by David McNally finds the prevalence of zombies and vampires in popular culture to be symbolic of the life-stealing character of late capitalism. Mr. McNally's brief but illuminating survey of the genre helps us understand how the working class has been variously personified through literature and film. From Mary Shelley's `Frankenstein' to `Night of the Living Dead' and other works, Mr. McNally proposes how art can help us challenge the powers that seek to control us.
I highly recommend this excellent book to everyone.
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