Catastrophiliacs

For some, the end of the world can’t come too soon.

Sasha LilleyDecember 20, 2012

Before we can have real change, must everything go up in flames?

When the finan­cial cri­sis unfold­ed in the ear­ly years of the new mil­len­ni­um, many rad­i­cals hoped the end was nigh. The cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem had final­ly arrived at its ter­mi­nus — the last stop on the line. Where the Left had failed, the inex­orable lim­its to cap­i­tal­ism would deliv­er. Need­less to say, it has not turned out so well. Expect­ing pre­des­tined forces to trans­form soci­ety for the bet­ter forms one half of the cou­plet of Left cat­a­strophism. The oth­er con­sists of the idea that the worse things get, the more aus­pi­cious they become for rad­i­cal prospects — that if con­di­tions become dire, the scales with fall from the eyes of the mis­led masses.

The world according to Green Anarchy: ‘We will be throwing the stinking dead bodies of our families into pits and kneeling in garbage coughing up blood.’

The out­er edges of Left cat­a­strophism are inhab­it­ed by those who see the col­lapse of soci­ety — not sim­ply cap­i­tal­ism, but civ­i­liza­tion — as a route to a bet­ter world. Both poles of cat­a­strophism can be found here. For some, the col­lapse is pre­or­dained, the result of peak oil,” the scarci­ty of oth­er nat­ur­al resources, or the implo­sion of indus­tri­al soci­ety. For oth­ers, it needs hastening.

The most promi­nent pro­po­nents of this broad out­look label them­selves anti-civ­i­liza­tion” and often, but not exclu­sive­ly, iden­ti­fy as anar­chists. Adver­saries of civ­i­liza­tion believe that the orig­i­nal cat­a­stro­phe, beget­ting the cat­a­stro­phe of the present, was the emer­gence of set­tled agri­cul­ture in the Neolith­ic peri­od cir­ca 8,000 B.C., when humans pur­port­ed­ly stopped liv­ing in har­mo­ny with the land and start­ed orga­niz­ing com­plex economies. A return to a hunter-gath­er­er soci­ety, they argue, is the only con­ceiv­able future that is sus­tain­able. Such a trans­for­ma­tion would nec­es­sar­i­ly require the dra­mat­ic reduc­tion of the major­i­ty of the human pop­u­la­tion, since for­ag­ing would not pro­vide a frac­tion of the food that the world’s inhab­i­tants need. How­ev­er — and aus­pi­cious­ly, as they see it — the col­lapse may deliv­er such a reduc­tion. As the now-defunct pub­li­ca­tion Green Anar­chy put it:

Some time when you’re on a busy street, in line at the post office, on the bus, look around. Get used to the idea that most of these peo­ple will not live a lot longer. Who among them would sur­vive if the food stopped com­ing into the city for a month? … We will be throw­ing the stink­ing dead bod­ies of our fam­i­lies into pits and kneel­ing in garbage cough­ing up blood. … With­in that range of imag­ined futures, even the bad extreme is not so bad, and at the good extreme we see the Earth quick­ly heal­ing to its for­mer fecun­di­ty, and peo­ple liv­ing peace­ful­ly with oth­er life, and nev­er slid­ing out of bal­ance again.

Oppo­nents of civ­i­liza­tion tend to take a dim view of oth­er humans. They eschew mass col­lec­tive rev­o­lu­tion­ary action in favor of sub­ver­sion by the cho­sen few who have lit­tle inter­est in whether oth­ers per­ish. Der­rick Jensen, Lierre Kei­th, and Aric McBay’s tome Deep Green Resis­tance lays out a series of sce­nar­ios for tak­ing down indus­tri­al civ­i­liza­tion, includ­ing through the strat­e­gy of deci­sive eco­log­i­cal war­fare.” (One crit­ic described the book as an encounter between evan­gel­i­cal Protes­tant Noah Web­ster and the Red Army Fac­tion.) It pre­dicts that the deple­tion of acces­si­ble oil reserves, or peak oil, will cause the glob­al cap­i­tal­ist econ­o­my to fall apart around 2015. Rad­i­cals will have a choice either to sit back and watch, or to has­ten the col­lapse, while orga­niz­ing mutu­al aid through small autonomous com­mu­ni­ties. Deci­sive eco­log­i­cal war­fare, the most mil­i­tant of pos­si­ble strate­gies, would aim to reduce fos­sil fuel con­sump­tion imme­di­ate­ly by 90 per­cent through an esca­lat­ing above and below ground strat­e­gy tar­get­ing indus­tri­al, and espe­cial­ly ener­gy, infrastructure.

A drop in the human pop­u­la­tion is inevitable, and few­er peo­ple will die if col­lapse hap­pens soon­er. … We’ll all have to deal with the social con­se­quences as best we can. Besides, rapid col­lapse is ulti­mate­ly good for humans — even if there is a par­tial die-off — because at least some peo­ple survive.

It must get worse to get better

What binds togeth­er this cat­a­stroph­ic dyad of deter­min­ism and vol­un­tarism is a deep-seat­ed pes­simism about mass col­lec­tive action and rad­i­cal social trans­for­ma­tion. The notion that cap­i­tal­ism would inevitably col­lapse under its own weight makes up the deter­min­ist half.

The idea that the worse things get, the bet­ter they will be for rev­o­lu­tion­ary prospects dom­i­nates the oth­er pole of cat­a­strophist think­ing on the Left. Pri­va­tions and hard­ship, the argu­ment goes, push peo­ple to their break­ing point — and from there, left­ward. If wors­en­ing con­di­tions are more pro­pi­tious for rad­i­cal change, then rad­i­cals should do what they can to make things worse.

This notion is beset with sim­i­lar defects. Peri­ods of rad­i­cal social upheaval have fol­lowed eco­nom­ic crises and — espe­cial­ly — war. But there is noth­ing pre­or­dained about this rela­tion­ship. Immis­er­a­tion and erod­ing liv­ing stan­dards do not auto­mat­i­cal­ly prompt work­ers to rad­i­cal col­lec­tive action. Work­ers find dif­fer­ent ways to cope, some which would not win the approval of the Left. His­tor­i­cal­ly, work­ers often take actions, even col­lec­tive ones, to shut oth­er work­ers out of bet­ter jobs based on race, eth­nic­i­ty, or gen­der — such as hate strikes” by white work­ers against the hir­ing or pro­mo­tion of work­ers of col­or. Innu­mer­able acts of sol­i­dar­i­ty and resis­tance, of course, mark the his­to­ry of cap­i­tal­ism. But they are not the only recourse to which mem­bers of the work­ing class resort in hard times.

There are many prob­lems with rad­i­cals pin­ing for cat­a­stro­phe, not the least of which is bring­ing repres­sion down on oth­ers for their own good. As a strat­e­gy, it lends itself to var­i­ous forms of author­i­tar­i­an­ism. It is a strat­e­gy, fur­ther­more, that rarely goes accord­ing to plan.

After almost four decades of rad­i­cal retreat, it is no sur­prise that left­wing cat­a­strophism is so per­va­sive in our era. The lib­er­a­to­ry hopes of the past, and the con­fi­dence in the col­lec­tive pow­er of oth­ers has giv­en way to the uncer­tain hope and fear of col­lapse, befit­ting our anti-utopi­an and cri­sis-fraught times. Even in the dark­est of hours, how­ev­er, it behooves ant­i­cap­i­tal­ists to con­struct a pol­i­tics that cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly rejects cat­a­strophism. No amount of fire and brim­stone can sub­sti­tute for the often-pro­tract­ed, dif­fi­cult, and fre­quent­ly unre­ward­ing work of build­ing rad­i­cal mass move­ments, even under sit­u­a­tions of the utmost urgency. Theodor Adorno, no stranger to pes­simism, warned of the undi­alec­ti­cal nature of see­ing the world in such grim terms that only an exte­ri­or force could change it. That is a sen­ti­ment we should heed.

This essay was adapt­ed from Cat­a­strophism: The Apoc­a­lyp­tic Pol­i­tics of Col­lapse and Rebirth(2012) with per­mis­sion of PM Press.

Sasha Lil­ley is a writer and radio broad­cast­er. She’s the co-founder and host of the crit­i­cal­ly acclaimed pro­gram of rad­i­cal ideas, Against the Grain, as well as the author of Cap­i­tal and Its Dis­con­tents (PM Press, 2011) and the co-author of Cat­a­strophism: The Apoc­a­lyp­tic Pol­i­tics of Col­lapse and Rebirth (PM Press, 2012).
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