Archive for August, 2010

Toward radical interruption: a review of Bill McKibben’s Eaarth

August 19, 2010

Fires in central Russia, summer 2010 (@ The Guardian)

NB: published in slightly altered form on Climate & Capitalism

 

According to North-American environmental activist Bill McKibben, planet Earth has died. That which has come to replace does not, constitute dialectical progress toward a higher or better state; the new-born planet, named Eaarth by McKibben in his book of the same name (New York: Times Books, 2010), follows instead from the brutality and thoughtlessness engaged in by much of humanity since its historical emergence. In McKibben’s estimation, the Holocene geological epoch—one that, characterized by a narrow range of fluctuation in average global temperatures, has allowed for humanity’s rise and development on Earth over the past 12,000 years—can no longer be said to exist, due to anthropogenic interference with planetary climate systems as well as human-induced environmental destruction writ large; Eaarth, referred to elsewhere as the Anthropocene, jeopardizes the survival of much of humanity and the continuation of a great deal of life itself. Such-world historical regression is “pretty outrageous,” as a climatologist McKibben quotes in the work has it; for McKibben, indeed, it represents “the deepest of human failures.” In light of such negations, though, McKibben suggests that “we must keep fighting, in the hope that we can limit [the] damage” visited by constituted power on humanity and the planet; like Noam Chomsky, he sees no legitimate alternative to present struggle.

As an academic concerned with environmental studies, McKibben is cognizant of the dire nature of the present state of affairs. On the new Eaarth, he mentions that billion-people famines could be regular events by the middle of the present century, that the flow of the Euphrates and Nile rivers could well decline significantly in the near future, and that glacier retreat in the Himalayas and Andes could cause the water supplies of billions to dwindle within decades. In light of the various horrors climate catastrophe could visit upon history, McKibben suggests that humanity recognize limits to what Max Horkheimer terms its seemingly “boundless imperialism”1—as Meadows et al. have emphasized since the publication of their Limits to Growth in 1972—and jettison “the consumer lifestyle” altogether, instead adopting a “Plan B” characterized by the sharing of resources between Northern and Southern societies within the context of a joint effort to thoroughly re-arrange global society on rational-ecological grounds. McKibben here re-affirms the goal of attaining an atmospheric carbon-concentration of 350 parts per million (ppm), noting that carbon-concentrations higher than 350 ppm jeopardize the capabilities of human society to function. Toward this end he endorses what he calls a “clean-tech Apollo mission” and an “ecological New Deal,” arguing that such thoroughgoing changes be accompanied by a return to small-scale organic agriculture on the part of humanity generally conceived. This final recommendation, it should be said, is not terribly different from those made by Via Campesina.

Despite the critical and important perspectives advanced in the contributions made by McKibben in Eaarth as summarized above, it must be said that much of the rest of the book is little more than mystificatory platitudes that serve present power-arrangements. For one, McKibben places responsibility for the regression to Eaarth and the various possible future negations that could be introduced by climate catastrophe at the feet of “modernity,” which he defines as “the sudden availability” of “cheap fossil fuel” in the eighteenth century CE. There is no recognition here, or at any point in the work, of the processes which resulted in the onset of the capitalist mode of production during this period of human history; similarly, there is no explicit critique of the highly destructive nature of capitalism in general. It should not be surprising, then, that his present recommendations do not include a call for the abolition of capitalist social relations. Furthermore, he rather bizarrely seems to hold the current U.S. president as some sort of messianic figure worthy of devotion, claiming Obama to be “a president using centralized power to good ends” who is working “aggressively” toward the creation of a global climate-change accord—against all evidence. Such highly irrational views, of course, are typical of liberal environmentalists: in presenting the accession of Ronald Reagan to the U.S. presidency in 1981 as the onset of a markedly irresponsible socio-environmental regime—one he would have us believe as being dramatically different from that overseen by his predecessor, Jimmy Carter—McKibben once again betrays his ties to hegemonic politics. Unsurprisingly, he also endorses the imperial scheme presently being considered to erect vast solar plants in North Africa for use among European consumers and seems to support the maintenance of existing dams and the building of new ones for the development of “clean” hydropower.

McKibben presents these reactionary perspectives while engaging in a maddening tendency to attribute responsibility for the current socio-environmental predicament to an amorphous ‘we’—as though the impoverished, the young, and other excluded groups have had any sort of choice on climate policy, let alone the course of history. This obfuscatory tendency contrasts significantly with views advanced by Chomsky, who in June 2009 suggested a thought-experiment by which North-Americans 50 years ago were to have been given the choice of directing resources either toward the development of “iPods and the internet” or instead the creation of “a livable and sustainable socioeconomic order”—a false choice, as Chomsky points out, for no such offer has ever been made.2 Indeed, McKibben’s attribution of a vague sense of collective responsibility reflects comments made in March 2010 by world-renown Earth scientist James Lovelock, who then alarmingly claimed humanity not yet to have “evolved” to the point at which it is “clever enough” to deal with climate change.3 That McKibben claims at one point in Eaarth that “[w]e don’t pay much attention to poor people” should need little comment.

Given his recognition of the dire state of the present, it is perhaps strange that he does not come to conclusions more substantive than his call for a return to small-scale agriculture coupled with a “green Manhattan project” (!). Eaarth, for example, includes little reflection on the terrifyingly repressive actions that capitalists and their defenders may well take to attempt to maintain their privileges within the context of a climate-destabilized world, as examined briefly in Gwynne Dyer’s Climate Wars (2008), as elsewhere. Remarkably, indeed, McKibben fails to systematically examine the alarming possible impacts climate change could have on future agricultural production—considerations that may well prove important for the viability of his ‘back to the land’ project!

In sum, then, Bill McKibben is surely not Walter Benjamin, the revolutionary German historian who died fleeing the Nazis 70 years ago. Hope for the present predicament may lie in the possibility, though, that parts of McKibben’s Eaarth can help move humanity toward adopting Benjamin’s concept of revolution—the “attempt by the passengers” on a metaphorical train “to activate the emergency brake” before being barrelled on into the abyss.4

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1The End of Reason (New York: Oxford University Press, 1947), p. 108

3Javier Sethness, “Is Humanity Too Stupid to Deal with Climate Change?” MRZine, 7 April 2010

4Selected Writings. Volume 4: 1938-1940, trans. Edmund Jephcott et al. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2003), p. 402

For an escape from totalitarianism: on THX 1138

August 12, 2010

Robot-police close in on the position of fugitive THX 1138

The 1971 film THX 1138—incidentally, George Lucas’ first feature film—is a challenging and important work. It portrays a highly repressive future-society in which humans are largely made dependent upon drugs that suppress sexuality and human passion generally conceived, thus ensuring that extant totalitarian-capitalist social relations continue with little challenge from either erotic or rational critique. It is a film with themes that might well have interested Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse, among others; it shares many concerns with Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1921), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), and Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) and seems undoubtedly to have influenced later science-fiction films such as the Star Wars and Matrix trilogies.The allegorical nature of Lucas’ work—THX 1138 essentially examines the tentative beginnings of the title-character’s rebellion against imposed repressiveness and barbarism through to his successful physical escape from such—remains highly relevant to the contemporary predicament; reflection on such, then, could perhaps be of use.

The world in which Thex (as THX 1138 is referred to by his lover LUH 3417, or Luh) exists is one characterized by near-total alienation. The occupation to which he seems to be bound is that of working on an assembly line constructing robots that are meant to serve as society’s police; Luh works as an operator who monitors the intake by the general population of emotion-suppression drugs. Everyone in the society depicted in THX 1138 other than for the robot-police and the African bodies that are shown dancing erotically for entertainment on television programs is Caucasian, shaved, and dressed entirely in white. People in THX 1138 are remarkably estranged from each other: inter-human relations marked by “normality” and “conformity”—entirely asexual—are also largely if not entirely meaningless. Thex expresses his turmoil over Luh—the stirrings of eros and, indeed, ofautonomy—to a machine in a confessional booth of sorts associated with the supposedly divine OMM, a Christ-like deity worshipped in THX 1138; due to hegemonic repressiveness that conceives of inter-human sexuality as criminal, Thex surely cannot express such concerns to a companion or friend, if he has any (the film suggests that he does not), and so must resort to religious confession (“the sigh of the oppressed creature”1). Significantly, it is rather likely that the emphatic “Nothing” with which Thex responds to his self-imposed question of “What am I to her [Luh] or she to to me?” represents an expression of inculcated hegemony—a hegemony with which Thex breaks radically through his symbolic exodus from heteronomous social values, however established such heteronomy and hegemony is among the residents of the world of THX 1138, most of whom “no longer exist in dialectical opposition to society but rather are identical with it in their substance,” as Theodor W. Adorno puts it in his reflections on Brave New World.2 The first time Thex and Luh come to embrace erotically, indeed—an eventuality made possible only because Luh surreptitiously switches out Thex’s sex-inhibition drugs with others—Luh tells Thex that she had been “so afraid” and “so alone” prior to communing sexually with him. The tenderness and love shown by the lovers to each other, indeed, contrasts dramatically with the normal functioning of hegemonic social relations—for “normality is death,” as Adorno puts it.3 In this sense Thex and Luh’s love for each other represents the possibility of an autonomous development beyond that which is given—the sublation of the existent. It is precisely because of this, then, that emotions are consciously repressed, sex forbidden, and the outlaws (‘erotics,’ as the prosecutor at Thex’s trial refers to them) relegated to the “edge of society,” as one of Thex’s co-inmates has it.

Like countless other films, especially science-fiction ones, THX 1138 provides speculative insight into plausible futures that humanity may at some point face; Lucas in THX 1138 “projects observations of the present state of civilization along the lines of its own teleology to the point where its monstrous nature becomes immediately evident”4—evident, that is, at least to critical viewers of the film, far more privileged in this sense than the effectively lobotomized denizens of the State. Much of the monstrousness seen in the film’s world—at least, that which has thus far gone unmentioned—should be noted. For one, workers in THX 1138 are treated in entirely instrumental fashion by their overlords: a scene in the film discloses that an industrial-explosion which kills 63 workers brings the death-total recently experienced on that work-team to 242, against the 195 killed from the work-team of which Thex is a part; the announcement of such is followed by a congratulation to Thex’s team for ‘winning’ in this simulated competition. Besides amounting to little more than the captive lions that, in perishing in circus fires, constitute nothing more than “capital losses to their owners,”5 then, who, in producing robot-police, participate in their own suppression—as the EZLN puts it on a mural in one of their caracoles, dignify the “power that humiliates”—society’s producers are subjected to mystificatory in-group/out-group ideological conditioning reminiscent of the contemporary problem of nationalism and similar irrationalities. Furthermore, religion in THX 1138 serves many of the reactionary social purposes it has basically always advanced: during Thex’s sessions in the confessional-booth dedicated to OMM we hear the supposed deity demand that the devout “be thankful [that] we have an occupation to fill” and that “we have commerce”; he also implores that confessors “[w]ork hard, increase production, prevent accidents, and be happy.” That OMM should be heard to echo advertisements calling on people to “Buy—buy more now!” should not then be surprising. Beyond work-alienation and religion, television comes in for critique in THX 1138 as well: one program shown during the course of the film has African bodies dancing erotically for the audience in terms suggestive of Orientalism and racism, while another features robot-police continuously beating a man lying on the floor with a baton. The culture industry propagated via television, then, serves to distract its consumers by providing safe objects of sexual desire (exotic virtual ones that are essentially nowhere to be found in the actual world) as well as to tie viewers into society’s ruling maxim—one not terribly far from Orwell’s image in 1984 of a “boot stamping on a human face—forever.”

In general terms, THX 1138 is impressive for its anti-authoritarianism, also present in varying degrees in Lucas’ other films. In one scene from THX 1138, Lucas has a handful of robot-police sadistically abuse the imprisoned Thex with shock-batons, employing attacks against Thex with such names as “the 5-5-5-2,” “the 4-1-0-5,” or “the 1-2-2”; in another scene, scientists test various shock treatments on the prisoner. Society’s controllers, moreover, nearly cause Thex’s death on the assembly-line after engaging him in a “mind-lock”—a ‘freezing’ of his mind—that prevents him from being able to safely operate the machinery to which he is tied; the almost-laughable impunity that these controllers enjoy for having nearly killed Thex by means of the mind-lock surely has parallels in existing reality. THX 1138‘s robot-police, for their part, are particularly interesting. The manner in which they communicate with their human victims expresses the absolute lies that govern the society depicted in the film; among the most repeated of the few things the robot-police say are the following: ‘I am here to protect you.’ ‘Everything will be all right.’ ‘We are only trying to help you.’ As they close in on Thex as he approaches the escape from the underground city to the surface above, they tell him that he has “nowhere to go,” and they insist that Thex cannot survive on the surface—that is to say, survive without them, and the system they work to protect.

Thankfully, the police are recalled just as Thex is reaching the exit to the surface by ladder—for the sole reason that the credits expended in the operation to ‘recover’ Thex had by that point gone past the credit-budget allocated for such. He is left free, then, to reach the surface and there to witness the setting sun, in an archetype reminiscent of Plato’s “ascent of the soul”6 from the darkness of the underground cave to the light. It is to be hoped, however, that Thex’s escape is not to be taken as solely his, but rather that humanity as a whole be afforded the chance Thex has to successfully liberate himself. It should nonetheless be said that it is doubtful whether actually-existing capitalism would so readily allow the metaphorical Thex to escape; contemporary totalitarianism, indeed, is destroying humanity and, it must be said, life itself.7

From the aforementioned, it should be clear that THX 1138 is an important film, if film can be taken to be important. For one, it depicts the possibility of inter-human love—eros, life—as a means by which to displace hegemonic social relations characterized by radical estrangement and promote alienation “from the alienated society.”8 Its treatment of the negation of this possibility—the murder of Luh by the state together with the harvesting of her organs (she is ‘consumed’)—is brutal, for so is the act and the totality of social relations that underpin such. Its highly disturbing portrayal of the machinations of constituted power can surely be said to be relevant to the contemporary state of affairs, as is the re-appropriation by Thex of a police-car he employs toward his escape—for the present importance of the project of expropriating and re-directing the technologies and material base provided by capitalism should not be underestimated. Interestingly enough, that the police in THX 1138 are in fact robots opens the possibility that they are non-sentient, and hence that reservations about using violent means to resist and overthrow them might for this reason be less pervasive—not that such aids much in the actual situation we face.

Perhaps the most important gap THX 1138 leaves open is that of explaining precisely who it is that directs hegemonic social relations as they are seen to exist in the film’s world. The answer would likely be private owners of the means of production, the organizers of the OMM religion, and the terrifyingly invasive thought-control bureaucracy, together with the complicity of the populace as a whole.

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1Karl Marx, “Introduction,” A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1844)

2Theodor W. Adorno, “Aldous Huxley and Utopia,” in Prisms (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1981 [1967]), p. 100

3Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, trans. E.F.N. Jephcott(London: Verso, 2005 [1951])

4Op. cit. (1967), p. 99

5Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2002 [1947]), p. 208-9

6Six Great Dialogues, trans. Benjamin Jowett (Mineola, New York: Dover, 2007), p. 362

7Steve Connor and Michael McCarthy, “World on course for catastrophic 6° rise, reveal scientists,” The Independent, 18 November 2009; David Adam, “Carbon emissions creating acidic oceans not seen since dinosaurs,”The Guardian, 10 March 2009; Suzanne Goldenberg, “Greenland ice sheet faces ‘tipping point in 10 years,’”The Guardian, 10 August 2010

8Herbert Marcuse, Counterrevolution and Revolt, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972), p. 72

Anders on Hiroshima, and survival

August 10, 2010

An excerpt from German critical theorist Günther Anders’ “One World or No World,” written in 1970 as a contribution to Hiroshima In Memoriam and Today: A testament of peace for the world.1

“When we speak of the new epoch in which we live since the catastrophe of Hiroshima, we do not pronounce only a historical statement, but a moral statement as well.  As of August 6, 1945, mankind [sic] has shown that it is able to destroy itself, and an entirely new moral situation has arisen.  It is a situation in which each and every people in the world bears responsibility for the continuous existence of itself and of the other peoples.  Through the common danger something has been attained which, unfortunately, love has never succeeded in attaining:  for the first time the world has actually become one world.  The feeling that we are living in one world and that everybody is responsible for the lives of the others, this feeling must prevail today.  If it does not prevail every day, then weand I mean by ‘we’ mankind as a wholethen we can abandon all hope.  Then the new epoch will be the last epoch.  For after it there will be no new epoch but sheer nothingness, a rotating globe without any life on it.”

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1Ed. Hitoshi Takayama (Asheville, North Carolina: Biltmore Press, 1971).

Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Fallujah: against uranium-induced mutilation—against barbarism

August 10, 2010

6 August marks the day nuclear weapons were first employed on a mass scale against human populations—this against the city-center of Hiroshima on the Honshu island of the country of Japan in 1945. The explosion of “Little Boy”—the weapon dropped from the U.S. bomber Enola Gay shortly after 8am on 6 August—in the atmosphere just above Hiroshima was immediately responsible for the murder of some 200,000 people, while the longer-term radiation-related deaths (also murders) amount to some 70,000. Upon hearing of the news that the nuclear attack on Hiroshima had been successful, U.S. president Harry Truman reportedly declared the following: “This is the greatest thing in history.” Three days after this world-historical event—an event directed against the residents of Hiroshima, and against humanity—Truman decided to go forward with the atomic-bombing of yet another populated city center—that of Nagasaki, where approximately 80,000 were killed instantaneously, with another 40,000 succumbing to conditions induced by radiation in subsequent years. No one has ever been held responsible for these monstrous crimes; the racism that legitimates such action surely lived on after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as can be seen by reflecting on the assaults visited since August 1945 on Vietnam, Afghanistan, Kurdistan, Chechnya, Gaza, and Iraq, among other sites subject to fascist destruction.

Fortunately enough, not all of these targeted societies have been subjected to the use of nuclear weapons, however horrifying have been the mass-chemical attacks against the Vietnamese and the Kurds and the employment of ‘high-tech’ experimental weapons against Gazan Palestinians—D.I.M.E., fletchette shells, etc. The people of Iraq, however, have been victimized by nuclear attack; nuclear weapons have in fact been employed against them. It should of course be clear precisely who it is that has carried out such this monstrous affront: the U.S. military, the same actor that first employed nuclear weapons against humans 65 years ago. The present nuclear attack against Iraqis has not been prosecuted exactly by the weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the exponentially more destructive thermonuclear arms: instead, Iraq has been subjected to the mass-employment of the nuclear waste known as depleted uranium (DU) in munitions expended by the U.S. military in Iraq. Apparently, rounds containing DU pierce armor more readily than do rounds made from alternative materials; Barry Sanders writes1 that, since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, restrictions limiting the use of DU rounds in and near populated centers have been lifted, in contradistinction to practice during the 1990-1991 First Gulf War (as terrible as the ‘strategic air campaign’ turned out for Iraqis). Sanders cites reports that estimate that between 100 and 200 tons of DU were used in 2003 alone, and he claims “a good portion” of Iraq’s surface area to be directly “covered” with a “fine film” of DU following its mass-usage by the Coalition of the Willing since 2003.2 In situ exposure to DU is merely one aspect of the problem, given that it seems to be able to be distributed over farther distances via dust particles.

Given the nature of physics and chemistry, it should be unsurprising that significant adverse human-health impacts have been associated with exposure to DU (for DU is a product of uranium-enrichment processes). A 2004 report headed by Dr. Ahmad Hardan predicted that DU-exposure among Iraqis would result in significantly higher rates of infertility, miscarriages, fetal deformation, and such congenital conditions as hydrocephaly and anacephaly.3 Sadly enough, such predictions seem to have been accurate: a letter written jointly by Iraqi and British doctors in October 2009 regarding the situation in Fallujah—a Sunni-majority city that was subject to attack by the U.S. military in April and November 2004 found by Edward S. Herman and David Peterson to have been far graver than the Nazi bombing of Guérnica in 19374—warned that young women there “are terrified of having children because of the increasing number of babies born grotesquely deformed, with no heads, two heads, a single eye in their foreheads, scaly bodies or missing limbs. In addition, young children in Fallujah are now experiencing hideous cancers and leukemias […].”5 A report released by physicians Chris Busby, Malak Hamdan, and Entesar Ariabi in July 2010“Cancer, Infant Mortality and Birth Sex-Ratio in Fallujah, Iraq 2005–2009”explores these epidemiological problems in systematic fashion.  The study, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health,6 examines the alarmingly high cancer and infant-mortality rates seen among the city’s populace since the 2004 U.S. assault. Infant mortality rates in Fallujah (2006-2010) amount to 80 per 1,000 births (for comparative purposes, this rate is about 20 per 1,000 in Egypt, 17 per 1,000 in Jordan, and 10 per 1,000 in Kuwait), and soar to 136 per 1,000 during the year 2009-2010. Observed cancer rates (‘reported’) in Fallujah are significantly higher than those seen in Egypt and neighboring Jordan (‘expected’): cancer rates among young Fallujah residents aged 0-14 is over 12 times higher than comparable rates in these two countries, while leukemia rates among those aged 0-35 is nearly 40 times the expected rate. Brain tumors for all ages are found to be over 7 times the expected rate; breast cancer among females aged 0-44 is nearly 10 times the expected; lymphoma among those aged 0-35 are over 9 times expected rates; all malignancies for all age-groups are found to be 4 times higher than expected rates. As entirely horrifying as such results are, they are perhaps dwarfed by what may well be the report’s most disturbing revelation: among those Fallujah residents aged 0-4—that is, among those born between 2006 and 2010—only 860 males were born to 1000 females, an 18 percent reduction from the expected value of 1,055 males so born. The study’s authors find this “[p]erturbation of the sex ratio” to be “a well known consequence of exposure of mutagenic stress”; it results “from the sensitivity of the male sex chromosome complement to damage,” damage that is advanced by “ionising radiation at low doses and specifically exposure to Uranium.”

It should be remembered that DU, being radioactive, has a half-life of between 4.5 and 4.7 billion years.

It should also be noted that the U.S. Military denies that DU exposure is linked to the various significantly adverse health consequences experienced by those subject to the use of these nuclear weapons. That it then allocates no resources to attempting to ‘clean up’ expended DU—however it is that such a project could be carried out, if in fact it is the case that it could—or to compensating its victims is unsurprising, the limitless horror of such notwithstanding.7 Such utter disregard for human life—Iraqi life in particular—would of course be nothing extraordinary for the U.S., which established and enforced a brutal sanctions regime that killed millions and were rightly described by successive UN administrators as genocidal.8 Such absurd behavior of course has its parallels in the 1984 Bhopal catastrophe, as in dominant treatment of the specter of catastrophic climate change.

Given the highly negative health consequences associated with DU usage, it can be said that its mass-use by the U.S. military in Iraq amounts to what Sanders terms the “willful eradication of the future of a civilization”9; in Mark Gaffney’s estimation, it represents “the ultimate atrocity,”10 for the effects detailed in “Cancer, Infant Mortality and Birth Sex-Ratio in Fallujah, Iraq 2005–2009” will for all intents and purposes likely persist for the entire remainder of human history—and far beyond that, if present threats to human survival are not soon resolved.

The findings shared in Busby et al’s study surely necessitates the prosecution and punishment of those responsible for the suffering experienced by Iraqis, whether they be held to account by means of an official international tribunal or through extra-legal processes—thoughi it must also be recognized that such is of little benefit to those born with life-threatening cancers brought about by the U.S. military. The acute deprivations visited on the people of Fallujah, as on Iraqis generally, calls for such mass-debasement never again to be be permitted or reiterated—the age-old ‘never again.’ Given extant global power relations, however—in addition to the marked absence of a “global self-conscious subject”11 that could effectively oppose such—it is likely that such crimes will in fact be repeated in the future, perhaps in even more brutal fashion than to date practiced by the U.S.

The monstrous barbarism visited on Iraqis moreover shows up the utter depravity of the current U.S. administration—if any further evidence for such were needed—given its refusal to prosecute the members and supporters of the preceding administration; this barbarism also indicts the enterprise of the U.S. military, in addition to the totality of social relations which lend their support to such absolute horrors by ignoring and rationalizing them. No justification exists for the fascism visited by the United States upon Fallujah in particular or Iraq in general; none can. That these historical negations were carried out largely to effect control over hydrocarbon resources12—the very same materials whose contemporary mass-combustion threatens to provoke catastrophic changes in the Earth’s climate system that would render-impossible the continuation of life on much of planet Earth—points up the depth of the present predicament, and of the seemingly limitless horror of its fundament.

Knowledge of the barbarism to which the U.S. has subjected the people of Iraq, and those of Fallujah in particular, should surely be taken as a call for humanity to arise, to awaken, as “The Internationale” declares: to work to overthrow barbarism, negation, and domination. Reflection on the fate of Fallujah’s residents should represent a reminder of the imperative of working to prevent similar assaults by imperialist forces on Iraq’s eastern neighbor, however it may be that such could be effected. Herbert Marcuse will be allowed the final word:

“the revolutionary struggle demands the halting of what is happening and what has happened. Before it can give itself some sort of positive goal, this negation is the first positive act. What the human being has done to other humans and to nature must stop and stop radically—only afterwards can freedom and justice prevail.”13

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1The Green Zone: The Environmental Costs of Militarism (Oakland, California: AK Press, 2009)

2Ibid: cf. “Depleted Uranium,” p. 83-92

3Brita May Rose, “America’s Radioactive War,” Counterpunch, 4 November 2004

4The Politics of Genocide (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010), p. 37

6A copy can be read here

7“Weapons dust worries Iraqis. US Concerned,” The Hartford Courant, 6 November 2004

8Noam Chomsky, Hopes and Prospects (Chicago: Haymarket, 2010), p. 128-9

9Op. cit., p. 91

10“U.S. Use of Radiological Weapons Calls for an International Tribunal,” 23 August 2007

11Theodor W. Adorno, “Progress,” in Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History, ed. Gary Smith, trans. Eric Krakauer (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1989)

12Research Unit for Political Economy, Behind the Invasion of Iraq (New York: Monthly Review, 2003); Noam Chomsky, “It’s the Oil, stupid!” 8 July 2008

13(Source unknown)

Against blood and horror: some thoughts on Peter Hyams’s 2010

August 7, 2010

Life on the moon of Europa

If the reader cannot surmise from the above title, the following contains spoilers regarding the happenings depicted in the film 2010.

2010: The Year We Make Contact is the sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, though directed, produced, and written by Peter Hyams. Like 2001, it is based on a science-fiction novel written by Arthur C. Clarke. It features an exploration-mission carried out by the crew of the Leonov, a spacecraft designed by the Stalinist regime ruling over what was once rather erroneously called the Soviet Union, or the U.S.S.R. (United Soviet Socialist Republic),1 who are assigned to investigate the fate of the U.S.S. Discovery—lost, as depicted in 2001, under mysterious circumstances as it approached Io and Europa, two of Jupiter’s various moons. In hibernation on the Russian spaceship are three U.S. scientists familiar with the Discovery and its on-board computer system, the infamous HAL-9000 (a machine that in 2001 ‘malfunctioned’ and caused the death of all the scientists on board except David Bowman, whose present status is unknown). The film has the Russian and U.S. scientists working together to reach the Discovery, learn of its fate together with that of its crew, and escape the explosion that transforms Jupiter into a new-born star. This last event, seemingly instigated by what was once David Bowman, leads the actors referred to by Noam Chomsky as the “principal architects of policy” of the U.S. and Soviet Union2 to abort the war-preparations in which they had been engaging within the context of sharply detiorating relations, provoked by U.S. threats of aggression against the state of Honduras. It also brings with it a communiqué in which ‘Bowman’ pleads for the life-process that has emerged on the moon of Europa to be allowed to evolve free from humanity’s influence.

Before examining the value of 2010, it is worth noting some of the various reactionary aspects of the film. To begin with, 2010 may in fact ultimately represent something of an endorsement of the ruling class, as reason is shown in the end to prevail in both the White House and the Kremlin when both decide to halt the war-preparations they had been engaging in during much of the film’s course and thus avoid the nuclear annihilation that would likely result from war between the two. This legitimational resolution to the film’s plot is surely far removed from the direly desperate and radically activist perspectives advanced by Ronald Aronson, Jonathan Schell, and Günther Anders in their treatments of the question of war and the specter of nuclear annihilation in the late twentieth century.3 Moreover, Dr. Heywood Floyd, the film’s main character, expresses fairly patriarchal attitudes toward his wife and son throughout the film; from the few scenes in which the audience sees him interacting with his family-members, it seems clear that the dynamic in his family is traditional in its male-dominance. Furthermore, Floyd may in fact be advancing bourgeois-dominative ideology when he, at film’s end, explains that humans are to be considered “tenants” of the Earth, and that there exists some “landlord” who has, in warning its tenants of the dangers that follow from the extant political system, given them “a new lease.” These perspectives notwithstanding, it is nonetheless surely important that Floyd’s closing comments show him as recognizing the necessity for humanity to have a “second chace,” amidst the threats to its survival as prosecuted by existing hegemons—that it exercise natality, in Hannah Arendt’s conception.4

Indeed, many of the perspectives advanced in 2010 are surely valuable and of import. Amidst the tensions on board the Leonov that stem from the deterioration in relations between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. on Earth, Floyd quite reasonably observes that “just because our governments are behaving like asses doesn’t mean we have to.” In addition, the film explicitly refers to the occupant of the film’s White House as a “reactionary,” a moniker that would clearly also fit Reagan, the U.S. president at the time of the film’s production; the U.S. executive’s thoughtless, destructive approach to the state of Honduras in 2010 is surely a reference to the support provided by Reagan to murderous authoritarian groups in Central America during the 1980′s. It is precisely the president’s policy on Honduras—the threat to blockade the country using the U.S. Navy, as was practiced by the U.S. following the installation in 1962 of missiles in Cuba and against Nicaragua’s ports under Reagan’s direction—that provokes a sharp deterioration in relations between the world’s two superpowers, a deterioration that in fact threatens the outbreak of war and the concomitant collective suicide that would probably result.

Against such negations the film holds out the prospect of international cooperation, as for example practiced between Russian and U.S. scientists on board the Leonov—especially as they embrace each other in celebration as they learn that war between their respective governments on Earth has been avoided. Moreover, the communiqué that the being formerly known as Dave Bowman orders HAL-9000 to send to Earth before the Discovery’s incineration in the explosion that transforms Jupiter into a new star—a message that in the estimation of ‘Bowman’ is the “most important” message HAL-9000 “has ever sent”—is important; its first part reads as follows:

ALL THESE WORLDS

ARE YOURS EXCEPT

EUROPA

ATTEMPT NO

LANDING THERE

With reference to the now two stars found in the solar system of which Earth is a part, the communiqué ends with the following imperative:

USE THEM TOGETHER

USE THEM IN PEACE

Such declarations are both regressive and progressive in meaning. In demanding that Europa be a sanctuary free from interference from humanity, the message explicitly repudiates the seemingly “boundless imperialism” practiced by humanity,5 or at least advanced by its dominant groups. Its plea that humans abolish war and behave cooperately among themselves is surely a critical one. However good it may be, though, the message’s challenge to humanity is nonetheless a limited one: while it requests that humans promote a transition to a global society marked by cooperative and peaceful social relations in observation of the gift of a new star, it also endorses humanity’s domination of nature: “all these worlds” belong to humanity, on this account, and they are to be “use[d]” by their owners (rather like the dolphins kept by Floyd’s character in a small indoor pool). In this sense, the existence of the bodies other than Europa comes to be instrumentalized for human ends, as such extra-terrestrial space is not to be left to itself but instead be subjected to treatment not dissimilar from that visited on the non-human world since the emergence of humanity. Naturally, such claims are rather removed from the perspectives of Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Murray Bookchin, and Herbert Marcuse, all of whom demand that humanity cease its domination of nature altogether.6

In sum, then, while rebellious, reasonable perspectives are advanced at points in 2010, the film does not deal centrally with the necessity of a rebellion-emergency, as faced by contemporary humanity. Star Wars (1976-1983), The Matrix (1999, 2003, and 2005) and Sunshine (2007) seem to examine such questions more directly. Nonetheless, 2010 stresses the critical need for a radical transformation of existing society, however imperfect the resolution presented by the God-like ex-Bowman at the film’s close may be—that is, that humanity work “together” and “in peace,” but that it “use” nature. Furthermore, 2010 does not help in imagining how a transition to a global society characterized by cooperative, non-violent social relations might be realized, as the visionary appendix of David Harvey’s Spaces of Hope (“Edilia, or make of it what you will”) could be said to. The film’s concluding message importance and relevance to the lived-experience of the contemporary world should be clearly acknowledged, however, for it presents a demand that history as overseen by extant power-groups be radically interrupted toward the establishment of what Walter Benjamin calls a “civilization that has abandoned blood and horror.”7 If the prospect for realizing this end is in actual fact to be taken as a conceivable possibility within the world of 2010 CE and beyond, it is likely the case that any prescriptive political program for the present, be it product of human or extra-terrestrial origin, at least include the following concise demands8:

ABOLISH CLASS SOCIETY

ABOLISH ALIENATION

Any such program should also surely promote perspectives congruent with the political project of an ‘Earth democracy’ (democracia de la tierrra).9

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1Erroneous, I say, because in nearly none of the time between 1917 and 1989 were soviets allowed any decision-making power.

2Noam Chomsky, Hopes and Prospects (Chicago: Haymarket, 2010)

3For Aronson, cf. The Dialectics of Disaster: A Preface to Hope (London: Verso, 1983); for Schell, cf. The Fate of the Earth (Knopf, 1982) and The Abolition (Knopf, 1984), for Anders, cf. inter alia Hiroshima ist uberall (Hiroshima ist überall (Munich: Verlag C.H. Beck, 1982)

4Cf. The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957)

5Max Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason (New York: Oxford University Press, 1947), p. 108

6Cf. Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2002 [1947]); Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom (Oakland, California: AK Press, 2005 [1982]), Toward an Ecological Society (Montreal: Black Rose, 1980), Remaking Society (Montreal: Black Rose, 1989); Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), Counter-revolution and Revolt (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972)

7Illuminations (New York: Harcourt, 1968), p. 38

8Slogans promoted by French Situationists in 1968, as elsewhere

9Red Italiana para la Justicia Ambiental y Social, “Towards Cancún: change the system, not the climate,” 2 July 2010

Marcuse on revolutionary despair

August 6, 2010

An excerpt of a letter written in 1969 by German critical theorist Herbert Marcuse to his colleague Theodor W. Adorno on the German student movement and the prospects for revolution then1:

“We know (and they know) that the [present] situation is not a revolutionary one, not even a prerevolutionary one. But this same situation is so terrible, so suffocating and demeaning, that rebellion against it forces a biological, physiological reaction: one can bear it no longer, one is suffocating and one has to let some air in [...]. And I would despair about myself (us) if I (we) would appear to be on the side of a world that supports mass murder in Vietnam, or says nothing about it, and which makes a hell of any realms that are outside the reach of its own repressive power.”

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1The correspondence in full can be accessed here

The National Encounter for Environmental and Social Justice in Distrito Federal

August 6, 2010

On July 24, the North-American section of Via Campesina held a National Encounter for Environmental and Social Justice in Mexico’s Distrito Federal–that is, Mexico City. The day-long encounter featured interventions by representatives of various oppositional social groups and organizational processes, both Mexican and international, on questions related to the climate crisis, agricultural production, and the human predicament. The following is a brief summary of the contributions by forum participants.

A central address at the Encounter was that of Aldo González, from Oaxaca. Noting in his comments that indigenous communities of Abya Yala — what is now referred to as the Americas — have experienced a historical trajectory rather different than those experienced in Western societies, González attempted to set up a dichotomy between “indigenous cosmovisions” and “Western cosmovisions.” He said that some of the former see in nature living beings rather than natural resources, the latter being a product, in his view, of Western thought. González went on to say that indigenous communities in Oaxaca do not want ‘development,’ at least as historically practiced: they would, he said, instead continue to live in the future as they have previously. González emphasized that this should be the message advanced by the indigenous at the coming Cancú¬n Conference of Parties (COP-16) on climate change. González closed his remarks by arguing that the human prospect will be imperiled if it waits for the states of the world to act in reasonable fashion with regard to climate change. Against such peril, he held out the indigenous concept of buen vivir, which he defined as comunalidad — community, or communality.

Manuel Munguía Zapien, of Michoacán, a teacher in Section 18 of the National Education Workers’ Union, spoke of the efforts in which he had engaged to integrate ecological considerations into public-school curricula within the wider consideration of advancing the goal of attaining “harmony with nature” in such schools. Claiming environmental destruction to be inevitable within the confines of hegemonic economic models overseen by the present “world-masters,” Munguía Zapien called in his remarks for a “new social form” — one different than the one which is currently “killing us,” on the one hand, and barring the “self-development” of peoples, on the other.

Graciela González Torres, from Mexico’s National Assembly of the Environmentally Affected, spoke in similar terms of environmental destruction being inherent to the existing world-system, though her analysis was perhaps more dire than that of either González or Munguía Zapien. Destruction is everywhere, she declared, and humanity finds itself “against the wall, fighting for life.” She stressed the need to denounce the various false solutions advanced by status-quo apologists. and said that the struggle against the destruction of the Earth should be one engaged in with joy. She later expressed her belief that various oppositional social struggles had been converging of late, thus perhaps forming the beginnings of a broader anti-systemic movement.

Álvaro Salgado, from Mexico’s Network for the Defense of Maize, shared the alarming findings of a recent study that concluded some 14,000 Mexican communities have lost the ability to cultivate maize and beans due to climate change. Referring to the Via Campesina slogans exhibited on banners in the conference-hall, he asserted that campesinos could indeed “cool the Earth” (enfriar la Tierra) in theory, but only if more general changes in the world as a whole were realized. Some of the destructive effects of existing relations between Mexico and the U.S. were examined by Camilo Pérez Bustillo, organizer of the November 2010 Forum and International Tribunal of Conscience on the Rights of Migrants and the Displaced, who situated the “violations of dignity” suffered by those displaced by environmental degradation—environmental refugees —in the context of the worrying recent developments in migration policy seen in the U.S. Marco Giusti, from the Italian Network for Environmental and Social Justice, shared a document entitled “Towards Cancún: change the system, not the climate” detailing the various failures of the Copenhagen conference and the necessity of instituting social relations other than those dictated by capitalism.

The encounter’s keynote speaker was Pablo Solón, the current Bolivian ambassador to the United Nations. He began his address by observing that a number of socio-environmental problems exist today in Bolivia that cannot be resolved without changes on a global scale, emphasizing that the world must be changed if the social advances realized in recent years in Bolivia and elsewhere are to be maintained and furthered. With regard specifically to the various threats posed by climate change, Solón noted with concern that approximately one-third of Bolivia’s glaciers have disappeared since 1750 CE, that another third may well disappear within ten years, and that all could in theory be gone by mid-century. Linking the fate of those who depend upon water provided by Andean glaciers with that of those who reside in small-island nations and the continent of Africa, Solón reiterated the present Bolivian government’s call for an average-global temperature increase target of no more than 1ºC — that is, just 0.2ºC more than has occurred so far. In accordance with the People’s Accord released at the April 2010 World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, Solón proferred the principles of equity and recognition of historical responsibility as standards to guide ongoing efforts to avoid climate catastrophe. In concrete terms, he called on industrialized societies to cut their greenhouse-gas emissions by 50 percent before 2020 and demanded that the resources presently dedicated to global military spending be re-directed to deal with the climate crisis. In addition, Solón denounced the fundamentally authoritarian manner by which most climate-negotiation processes to have been carried out to date — rulers of a handful of powerful states essentially deciding the fate of all future generations. Solón held democratization struggles to be one of the hopes still left open to humanity. In stark terms reminiscent of those by which Rosa Luxemburg characterized the human predicament nearly a century ago, Solón warned that total environmental degradation the world over will come to pass if international society is not thoroughly re-arranged.

In sum, the Encounter offered important insights on the world-situation that the climate crisis poses for humanity. It is to be hoped that such reflection can be, in Adorno’s metaphorical formulation, “transformed into teaching”1—that is, contribute to the actual transformation of existing reality.

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1Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, trans. E.F.N. Jephcott (London: Verso, 2005 [1951]), §50

For your consideration

August 1, 2010

An observation made by Noam Chomsky in his 1971 debate “Human Nature: Justice versus Power” with Michel Foucault1:

“I think that a democratic socialist libertarian United States would be more likely to give substantial aid to East Pakistani refugees than a system of centralised power which is basically operating in the interest of multinational corporations. And, you know, I think the same is true in a lot of other cases. But it seems to me that that principle, at least, deserves some thought.”

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1A transcript of the debate is available here


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