Archive for June, 2013

Happy birthday Emma Goldman

June 29, 2013

emma G

Happy (belated) birthday to Emma Goldman (27 June). Emma G is warmly remembered for the anarcha-feminist, anti-militarist, and internationalist contributions she made to the social revolutionary struggle in life. Deported from the U.S. in 1919 for her actions agitating against U.S. participation in the First World War, Goldman came to reside within the nascent Soviet Union for some years, growing highly disillusioned and increasingly outraged at the extent of repression meted out by the Bolsheviks against dissident elements, especially from the left–Emma G was famously staying in Leningrad (ex-Saint Petersburg) when the Red Army crushed the Kronstadt Commune, stifling it altogether on the night before 18 March 1921, the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the Paris Commune (1871). Emma G famously then wrote in a diary that, while listening to the official celebration of the Commune in the streets below, merely seeing the smouldering remains of Kronstadt on the horizon led her to despair over the possibility of hope for humanity.

Toward the end of her life, Emma G became very involved with the struggle by the Spanish anarchists (1936-) to restructure society on the one hand while battling the fascist, Stalinist, and liberal threats lined up against them on the other. Though she could not speak Spanish, Goldman visited the anarchist communes and presented her reflections on these developments in media, organized international solidarity efforts for the CNT/FAI through speaking tours, and generally worked to defend and promote the promising example of workers’ and peasants’ self-management emanating from anarcho-syndicalist action in Iberia.

In addition, Emma G is known for her critique of prisons and her sensitive treatment of left-wing political violence, as emanating from compassion for capital’s myriad victims.

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RIP Western black rhinoceros

June 27, 2013

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The African mammals section of New York City’s Museum of Natural History has models of both the white and black rhinoceros found on the continent.  Unmentioned in the texts accompanying the black rhino’s exhibit is the fact that its Western subspecies has since 2011 been considered to be extinct, having been driven by poaching to oblivion.

The animal’s fate is yet another demonstration of the cruelty and senselessness of capital, another victim in the sixth mass-extinction event impelled by hegemony.  RIP.

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“Autonomy: An Idea Whose Time Has Come” by Jérôme E. Roos

June 26, 2013

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I would like here to share a link and PDF copy of Jérôme E. Roos’ recent essay, “Autonomy: An Idea Whose Time is Come,” as published originally on ROAR (Reflections on a Revolution) on 23 June.  It is a very excellent essay appraising the present situation of anti-systemic struggle and the various promises of autonomous social relations.  It is optimistic, noting that the future possibilities of popular, democratic self-management–as expressed via the council system–lie presently within the diverse set of anti-capitalist modes of being seen throughout the globe.  The author cites the Paris Commune, revolutionary Barcelona (1936), and the example of the Good-Government Councils of the EZLN as “concrete forms” of autonomous examples.

Unfortunately, Roos is mistaken in claiming that the Commune of 1871 held out for almost a year against the French military–far less time than that, just over two months!

In solidarity

Autonomy” (PDF)

The Structural Genocide that is Capitalism

June 16, 2013

leech capitalism

First published on Truthout (copyright, Truthout.org, reprinted with permission)

“The dominant class at the world level… has become the enemy of all humanity.”

– Samir Amin, Ending the Crisis of Capitalism or Ending Capitalism?

Garry Leech, an author who had previously penned a book on the FARC insurgency in Colombia (2011), has assembled a forceful denunciation of the status quo with Capitalism: A Structural Genocide. In essence, he argues cogently in this work that the devastating structural violence experienced by societies subjected to the rule of capital since its historical emergence – and that particularly felt by the world’s presently impoverished social majorities – is, instead of being an aberration or distortion of market imperatives, central and inherent to the division of society along class lines and the enthronement of private property. Even a cursory examination of the depth of human suffering perpetuated historically and contemporarily by the hegemony of capital should lead disinterested observers to agree with Leech that the catastrophic scale of violence for which this system is responsible can be considered nothing less than genocidal, however shocking such a conclusion might prove to be.

In this book, Leech guides his readers through theoretical examinations of the concept of genocide, showing why the term should in fact be applied to the capitalist mode of production. He then illustrates capitalism’s genocidal proclivities by exploring four case studies: the ongoing legacy of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in Mexico; the relationship between trade liberalization and genetically-modified seeds on the one hand and mass-suicide on the part of Indian agriculturalists on the other; material deprivation and generalized premature death throughout much of the African continent and the global South, as results from hunger, starvation, and preventable disease; and the ever-worsening climatic and environmental crises. Leech then closes by considering the relevance of Antonio Gramsci’s conceptions of cultural hegemony in attempting to explain the puzzling consent granted to this system by large swathes of the world’s relatively privileged people – specifically, those residing in the imperial core of Europe and the United States – and then recommending the socialist alternative as a concrete means of abolishing genocide, while looking to the Cuban and Venezuelan regimes as imperfect, but inspirational experiments in these terms. In sum, while I take issue with some of his analysis and aspects of his conceptualization of anticapitalist alternatives, his work should certainly be well-received, read and discussed by large multitudes.

Leech begins his text by referencing the original formulator of the concept of structural violence, Johan Galtung. In 1969, Galtung famously expanded prevailing notions of societal violence to include consideration of “the avoidable impairment of fundamental human needs or . . . of human life.” Key to Galtung’s formulation of structural violence in this sense is the gap between “the potential and the actual,” or “what could have been and what is.” Thus, avoidable death resulting from preventable or treatable diseases today constitutes violence, given the technological progression of modern medicine, whereas centuries ago this would not have been the case, according to Galtung. For Leech, then, capitalist society is indelibly marked by structural violence, as the vast inequalities in wealth and access to which it gives rise lead small minorities to be overwhelmingly privileged, while large groups of others are prevented from meeting their basic needs.

Transitioning then to consideration of the question of whether the large number of avoidable deaths observed under conditions of capitalism should in fact be considered genocidal, Leech concedes that the UN’s 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide excludes mass death resulting from one’s pertaining to a given social class as constituting genocide. However, he notes that an initial draft of the Convention from 1947 did include death or injury resulting from “lack of proper housing, clothing, food, hygiene and medical care, or excessive work or physical exertion” within the definition of genocide. Hence, while such a formulation did not appear in the final version with which we are all familiar, Leech does not accept legal positivism in this case as final; in this vein, he could have done well to have also mentioned that Raphael Lemkin, inventor of the concept of genocide, himself believed the charge should include mass murder of persons following from their belonging to particular classes. Leech nonetheless does mention that the 1998 Rome Statute defines the crime of extermination in part as “the intentional infliction of . . . deprivation of access to food and medicine calculated to bring about the destruction of part of a population,” so in this sense has the weight of international law behind him. Leech’s only remaining theoretical difficulty, then, is to argue that intentionality exists within the context of the perpetuation of capital-induced genocide: This proves an easy task, for the question of intent in judging capitalism is not one of examining the actions of particular persons or states (as in most traditional cases of the charge of genocide) but rather of judging the “logic” of the system as a whole. Hence, structural genocide – defined by Leech as “structural violence that intentionally inflicts on any group or collectivity conditions of life that bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part” – can be said to be an intentional outcome of adherence to norms which govern a social system that by nature “inevitably results in . . . death on a mass scale,” as does capital. For Leech, the proffered defense of willful blindness – “such was not our intention,” the system’s managers might exclaim – is no defense at all. Or, in Jean-Paul Sartre’s words: “The genocidal intent is implicit in the facts. It is not necessarily premeditated.”

Following this opening discussion of the theoretical case for considering capitalism to be genocidal, Leech takes a few particularly devastating examples from the contemporary world to illuminate his argument. In Mexico, the passing of NAFTA in 1994 has led to the dispossession of campesinos (peasants) on a grand scale, as the country’s stipulated importation of heavily subsidized maize and other crops from the United States effectively led millions to abandon agriculture and migrate to Mexican and US cities in search of employment in the manufacturing sector, in accordance with neoclassical theories of “comparative advantage” – and very much mirroring the means by which capitalism emerged historically through the destruction of the commons in England. For Leech, this forcible displacement has resulted in the explosion of precarity within the informal sector of the economy in Mexico, as many ex-campesinos fail to find traditional proletarian jobs, and it has also driven the horrifying feminicides of maquiladora workers in the Mexican border regions, migration en masse to the United States (and attendant mass death in the Sonoran desert), as well as the horrid drug war launched in 2006 by then-president Felipe Calderón. Leech sees similar processes in Colombia, which hosts the second-largest number of internally displaced persons in the world (4 million), with many of these people having been removed from their lands due to military and paramilitary operations undertaken to make way for megaprojects directed by foreign corporations.

Alarmingly, in India, Leech reports that more than 216,000 farmers committed suicide between 1997 and 2009, largely out of desperation over crushing debts they accumulated following the introduction of genetically-modified seed crops, as demanded by the transnational Agreement on Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS, 1994) and the general shift from subsistence to export-oriented agriculture. In many cases, the genetically engineered seed varieties failed to expand yields to the levels promised by Monsanto, Cargill, and co., leading farmers then to take on further debt merely to cover the shortfalls as well as to pay for the next iteration of crops – which by conscious design were modified at the molecular level so as not to be able to reproduce naturally, thus ensuring biotech firms sustained profitability (a “captured market,” as it were). That such a dynamic should end in a downward spiral of death and destruction should be unsurprising, for all its horror.

Leech further illustrates his case regarding capitalism’s structurally genocidal nature in a chapter examining Africa south of the Sahel. It is this world region that has been “most severely impacted” by capital’s genocidal imperatives, claims Leech, and it is difficult to argue with this claim: Merely consider the millions who succumb to AIDS on the continent each year or the other millions who perish in the region annually due to lack of medical treatment for complications within pregnancy or conditions such as diarrhea and malaria, themselves catalyzed by pre-existing background malnutrition. All this deprivation is exacerbated, argues Leech, by food-aid regimes overseen by wealthier societies – which in the US case demands that food be purchased from and shipped by US companies, thus effectively removing a full half of the total resources intended for the hungry – and the infamous land-grabs being perpetrated on the continent in recent years by investors from such countries as Saudi Arabia and South Korea. Fundamentally, though, the conflict is one based on the guiding principles of capital: Because Africans in general do not possess the requisite income to “demand” food commodities within international capitalism, they themselves do not constitute a “viable market” and so are rendered invisible – nonpersons, or “unpeople.

In these terms, Leech also discusses the toxic role of the capitalist pharmaceutical industry, which famously and “logically” invests an overwhelming percentage of its research and development funds in highly profitable schemes for lifestyle drugs directed at first-world consumers – at their most absurd, treatments for baldness, erectile dysfunction, and so on – instead of in essential medicines that could relieve the horrendous disease burden borne by the peoples of the global South. Leech starkly illustrates these tensions by noting that, were the eight largest US pharmaceutical companies to have gained an average profit of $6.8 billion instead of $7.7 billion in 2008, with the difference going to purchase anti-retrovirals for the 3.8 million HIV+ Africans who go without any treatment at all, a considerable percentage of the estimated 1.3 million annual deaths observed on the continent resulting from HIV/AIDS could be prevented. Leech summarizes this all rather starkly: “There is no clearer illustration of the shortcomings in trying to reform the behavior of capital than the ongoing annihilation of poor people in sub-Saharan Africa who are dying as a result of the structural violence inherent in capitalism.”

A similarly horrifying genocidal tendency for which capitalism is responsible is the next one briefly examined by Leech: that of the specter of catastrophic climate change. Leech claims it to be a “truly inconvenient truth” that the capitalist system itself is incapable of mitigating the total threat posed by global warming and instead precipitates this grim eventuality due to its incessant need for ceaseless expansion and profit, based principally on the indefinite exploitation of hydrocarbon resources. Clearly, it is the world’s poor who so far have suffered the most from capitalism’s degradation of the climate, despite having contributed next to nothing to the perpetuation of this world-historical problem: the estimated 2,000 Kenyan farmers who killed themselves upon the failure of rains in 2008, as Leech mentions, or the 260,000 Somalis murdered in the 2011 famine that followed from the worst drought in the past 7 decades. Leech observes that the ever-increasing annual death toll for which capital-induced climate destabilization is responsible will merely cause the overall number of 10 million annual preventable deaths to burgeon, leading ultimately perhaps to the deaths of “millions – or even billions,” in what may well develop into the extermination of humanity altogether.

With his antepenultimate chapter “Legitimizing the Illegitimate,” Leech follows Gramsci in seeking explanations for the means by which such a brutal system as capitalism has reproduced itself over time. He observes plainly that “most people’s world views currently reflect the values of capital,” at least within more affluent northern societies, and that capitalism proceeds with its genocidal proclivities while enjoying “the apparent consent of a significant portion of the world’s population.” Like Gramsci, Leech largely faults the hegemonic cultural processes that obtain within core-imperial societies – formal education, the media, work arrangements, etc. – for normalizing the prevailing state of affairs, in part by excluding the barbarous proceedings of capital from consideration – in contradistinction to his own volume. Channeling Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and other theorists with similar concerns, Leech notes that Western consumers remain largely ignorant of the extreme violence that is required as the very basis for the relative privileges they enjoy in global terms; worse, perhaps, most Northerners – a majority of whom, claims Leech, enjoy “middle-class lifestyle[s]” – have the capacity to escape the alienation driven by capital precisely by engaging in mindless consumerism, thus perpetuating the vicious cycle. For Leech, resistance to the rule of capital is far more evident in the global South, where Western imperial military ventures have long been employed to pacify and control the course of history, in radical denial of self-determination, dignity, and justice.

Leech closes this volume with a plea for socialism as an alternative to capitalist genocide. Given the development of his argument in preceding chapters, he declares that any means of attempting to overcome the extreme violence of capital cannot serve merely as a “band-aid” to the metaphorical “appendage severed by the brutality of capitalism.” The system itself must be overthrown, dismantled; the point is not simply to apply anemic reforms that might slightly attenuate capital’s genocidal logic, but to abolish the genocidal system altogether. For Leech, the most appropriate political alternative is that of a socialism marked by participatory decision-making and social control of the means of production; crucially, as well, this project should include concern for nature – hence, “eco-socialism” – as much of the historical experience of socialism clearly has not.

Following from assertions made earlier in the book, Leech sees the peoples of the global South as playing a seminal role in presenting anticapitalist alternatives in the present day. Indeed, he endorses Marx’s late assertions on the possibilities for noncapitalist societies to simply skip the capitalist stage and enter full communism in accordance with pre-existing communal, socialistic values.  In this sense, Leech ends with an appraisal of contemporary experiments in socialism, as in Venezuela and Cuba. While he recognizes that the late Hugo Chávez implemented a vision closer to social democracy than socialism, Leech remains enthusiastic about the various Bolivarian social programs, the thousands of worker-run cooperatives that flowered under Chávez, and the progress taken in the country toward the implementation of popular control of government, not to mention Chávez’s famous internationalism. On Cuba, Leech praises the Castro regime’s well-known successes in the fields of education and medicine – with the latter including the founding in 1990 of the Tarara Clinic, which treats Ukrainian children suffering from the ill-effects of radiation exposure after the Chernobyl disaster without cost – and celebrates the island-country’s near-abolition of child malnutrition, as attested to by UN Special Rapporteur Jean Ziegler, in addition to the World Wildlife Fund’s 2006 declaration that Cuba is the only country in the world to have achieved sustainable development. Tellingly, Leech asserts that Cuba’s main export is health care, while that of its imperialist northern neighbor is weapons!

All these successes notwithstanding, Leech makes some rather problematic assertions in this final chapter on socialism. For one, he claims that the Castros’ infamous imprisonment of those critical of the regime was undertaken “to defend the collective rights of Cubans,” and cites George Lambie’s assertion that “the Cuban state . . .  is benign towards the population.” One can think of many eminent and reasonable observers who would strongly disagree with such characterizations! Similarly, in his discussion on eco-socialism, Leech presents Bolivia under Evo Morales as taking significant measures to protect the environment – without mentioning the 2011 controversy over the government’s plan to build a highway through the indigenous nature reserve (TIPNIS), or the general charge of extractivism, as raised most significantly by the unofficial Mesa 18 at the April 2010 World People’s Summit on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth held in Cochabamba, which criticized the Morales government’s perpetuation of mining and oil and gas exploitation and for this reason was banned from the conference’s proceedings.

Despite our disagreements – I would say that Leech has performed a great service with his presentation of capitalism as being structurally genocidal. Perhaps among the most revolutionary acts one can take, as Rosa Luxemburg asserted, is to “proclaim loudly what is happening.” Leech’s volume does this well and should be greatly commended for this, given the general struggle to “displace and estrange the world” (Adorno) from mainstream presentations of it that would have existing power relations live on indefinitely or until such time as catastrophic destruction sets in, whether through impending nuclear war, environmental collapse or a combination of these two.

It is to be hoped that Leech’s passionate contempt for the brutality and senselessness of capital will be taken up by radical social movements seeking to intervene toward the disruption of the hegemonic death-system, in favor of more emancipatory tomorrows. While it is questionable to hold, as Leech does, that such ends will be served by the seizure of state power and the development of Marxist political parties, and though I would argue that the case of proletarian complicity with capitalist imperialism is more complicated than Leech would have it, what is not open to question is the utter depravity of the structural violence inherent to capitalism. As Mark Twain wrote in contemplating the infamous legacy of the Jacobin Terror during the most intense period of the French Revolution:

“There were two ‘Reigns of Terror’ if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; . . . our shudders are all for the ‘horrors’ of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe [or guillotine], compared with life-long death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heart-break? . . . A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror – that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us have been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.”

Reform and Revolution at Left Forum 2013

June 15, 2013

First published on Counterpunch, 14 June 2013

This year’s Left Forum, held from 7 to 9 June at Pace University in lower Manhattan, was a rather impressive conference, one that arguably lived up to the Forum’s self-ascribed description as the “largest [single] gathering in North America of the US and international Left.”  Rather justifiably, this year’s theme at Left Forum was “Mobilizing for Ecological/Economic Transformation”; a great number of the panels and plenary sessions exhibited during the weekend reflected this dual sense of urgency well.  As is to be expected from a large-tent meeting of “civil libertarians, environmentalists, anarchists, socialists, communists, trade unionists, black and Latino freedom fighters, feminists, anti-war activists, students, and people struggling against unemployment, foreclosure, inadequate housing, and deteriorating schools,” though, the diversity of voices presented at this year’s Left Forum included some perspectives that were more palatable than others.  In this sense, the Forum exemplified the long-standing tensions among leftists between agitating and mobilizing for reform as against revolution, and vice versa.  While I reiterate my admiration and respect for most of the speakers and intellectual positions I encountered during the Forum’s weekend, it should be clear which perspectives I found to be more legitimate, as the reader progresses through this report-back I have made of the particular events I attended over the Forum’s three days.

The Forum’s double theme of ecology and economy were met with considered reflection during the Forum’s very first event, its opening plenary, which took place Friday evening.  Nancy Holmstrom, the session’s chair, emphasized the historical progression reflected in the Forum’s decision this year to take up ecology as central to its theme—an unprecendented step in the conference’s nearly decade-long history.  She observed clearly that climate change and the environmental crisis writ large first and foremost threaten the lives and livelihoods of people of color, women, and the working classes, especially for those who reside within “less-developed” contexts.  Recalling Earth First’s slogan that there can be “no jobs on a dead planet,” she gently rejected the (anti)catastrophist line formulated by Sasha Lilley and co. which makes it taboo to speak of impending ecological doom out of fear of alienating the populace at large, hence driving it even further from the radical political engagement that would be necessary to avert the self-destruction impelled by capital.  Though Holmstrom claimed that there are likely deep-seated denial mechanisms governing much of popular thinking on the environmental crisis, she optimistically pointed to recent findings which exhibit greater concern regarding these matters.  In this way, she invoked a specter of optimism and affirmation for the remainder of the three-day event.

The plenary proper began with an intervention by Christian Parenti, author of Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (2011); he entitled his talk “What Climate Change Implies for the State.”  Quite plainly, he here asserted that the Left should adopt a strategy of recovering and reclaiming the territory of the State, “reshaping” it toward the end of an all-out short-term mobilization to resolve the threat of climate destruction.  Noting the situation to be “bleak” and perhaps even “apocalyptic,” Parenti warned that it already may be too late to prevent self-propelling catastrophic climate change and the Venus effect that Jim Hansen writes about: a 1000-year period of unchecked warming that delivers Earth into a Venus-like state that would destroy all possibilities for life.  As against this, however, Parenti claimed a short window of opportunity during which we might still have the chance to respond effectively to the climate challenge, by mandating progressive 10% reductions in carbon emissions annually.  Returning to his initial comments, Parenti insisted that the means to this end must be the State; complaining that the neo-liberal turn in recent decades has erased statist strategies from left-wing thought, he rather strangely then proceeded to theorize that the State’s primary role within the emergence and stabilization of capitalism has been to facilitate the exploitation and destruction of nature by capitalists.  Somehow, apparently, this same mechanism could be used totally to invert this fundamental role he sees within the forseeable future: developing his idea of a “shadow socialism” as reflected in the history of the State apparatus (a thesis he takes from a forthcoming book), Parenti listed the numerous contributions the U.S. government has made to industrialization and expansion following 1776: the building of canals and railroads; the opening-up of vast tracts of land (no mention of genocidal policy vs. indigenous inhabitants of said lands); support for the rise of aviation, public education, the New Deal; and the prosecution of warfare.  He then argued that the U.S. contribution to climate catastrophe could be brought under control simply by applying the 1970 Clean Air Act: in his words, “we’re [just] waiting for numerous rules from the EPA.”  Parenti proposed a vision whereby the Post Office mandate its entire ground-fleet to switch from conventional engines to electric ones, suggesting that this would reduce the general price of electric cars and so help that transition along….  Naturally, no consideration of the theory of State or regulatory capture was made by Parenti, and it remains unclear what his suggestions mean practically: vote Hillary in 2016, or what?  In closing, he acknowledged that his recommendations were clearly very far from radical or revolutionary, but he insisted that the Left desperately needs to come up with “realistic solutions” to the climate crisis, and that any strategy of merely “being outraged” or “invoking the righteousness of our cause” will fail totally.

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Christian Parenti, sipping his Starbucks and singing praises of the State

Similar in scope and orientation were the comments made by former presidential candidate Dr. Jill Stein, the second speaker for the opening plenary.  Describing her discourse as “political medicine” of sorts, Stein called for a generalized exercise of the power of ordinary people against “the 1%.”  Listing the numerous recent popular upsurges seen in North America—for example, the international day of action against Monsanto, ongoing strikes by fast-food workers, student agitation in Montreal—she held out the hope that a popular movement from below might arrive “just in time” to stave off environmental breakdown.  Inverting the infamous posturing of the Iron Lady, Stein declared that climate science shows us that no alternative exists but to break with the status quo—as illustrated in the half-million who perish annually from climate change, the thousand children dying every day.  Expressing concern that megadroughts are now the “new normal”—she mentioned the raging wildfires seen to the north of Los Angeles in May, and alarmingly worried that the “livestock needed to feed humans” would be imperiled by future heat-waves, even if air-conditioned human spaces were not (no veganism here)—Stein called for systemic transformational change to be effected at an “emergency rate.”  The means?  For her, the option remains the Green New Deal she had formulated during her presidential campaign, which would create 25 million jobs, stop oil wars, codify the rights to work and to unionize, cancel student debt, and provide Medicare and free tuition for all.  She noted that she sees what might be an “unstoppable force for change” in the 1/3 of black males administered by the criminal-justice system, together with the presently unemployed and the millions of essentially “indentured servants” who graduate from college highly indebted.  Noting that the “real catastrophe” is the myth of powerlessness, Dr. Stein called on us all to assert our power in the streets and in the voting booths.

Certainly the most stimulating of the three interventions at the opening plenary came from renowed world-systems theorist Immanuel Wallerstein, who spoke last.  He began by asserting that, like organisms, all social systems have lives, and that the capitalist system will not—cannot—possibly survive much longer.  (When this claim was met with resounding audience applause, Wallerstein, ever the scientific Marxist, quickly clarified that such a declaration was simply a factual statement, rather than a projected desire.)  Stipulating that the general hope of humanity is to achieve “relative democracy” and “relative egalitarianism,” Wallerstein noted that there exists no democratic State in the present world-system, and that no such State has ever existed.  Counterposing the “spirit of Davos” with the “spirit of Porto Alegre,” he hypothesized that the capitalist world-system will inevitably be altogether replaced by another system (or a multiplicity of systems) by 2050; Wallerstein calculated that the odds are approximately 50/50 for the egalitarian and democratic Geist to win out against hegemonic power.  Hanging over the chance for revolutionary social transformation, however, are the “three imponderables” Wallerstein soberly identified, all of them outgrowths of the logic of capitalism: environmental crisis, pandemics, and nuclear warfare.  The first of these is associated with the inherent operation of capitalism, claimed the professor: for capitalists to internalize the externalized environmental costs of production, profit and hence growth would be impossible.  Similarly, he argued, the specter of pandemics finds its basis in highly unequal access to healthcare, while the possibility of a “Dr. Strangelove” event precipitated by some particular “nut” grows more likely under Wallerstein’s prediction of expanding nuclear proliferation in the coming decades, as the acquisition of such weapons responds to defensive needs amidst the imperialist onslaught.  Wallerstein clearly declared the “figures” on climate change to be “devastating”; the question is whether the imponderables will explode before the conclusion of the stipulated transition to more humane social systems by 2050.  Endorsing the Andean conception of sumak kawsay (buen vivir, or “good living”), Wallerstein argued that economic growth should be seen as cancerous rather than virtuous, and he insisted that future civilizational change will require a decline in overall standards of living—if these are to be measured by “wealth” in commodities.  In conclusion, the point for Wallerstein is for us to reflect rationally and carefully on our values, and on what realities we want to preserve, and which we would like to jettison.  He closed by emphasizing that no solution is possible within the strictures of the capitalist world-system.

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Immanuel Wallerstein predicting capitalism’s inevitable demise within 4 decades

The more than 350 panels offered at Left Forum 2013 began on Saturday morning.  During the first session, my comrades and I presented on the “Theory of One-Dimensional Society, the Specter of Climate Collapse, and Prospects for Social Transformation.”  We began the session by showing the infamous calving event off the Greenland ice sheet as captured in the 2012 film Chasing Ice; the film-maker’s juxtapositioning of the ice break-up with scaling of a similar event in lower Manhattan proved rather instructive, given the physical location of the event.  As chair, I introduced the panel and opened by presenting and briefly evaluating Herbert Marcuse’s theory of the one-dimensional society, as developed in One-Dimensional Man (1964) and previous essays: essentially, that monopoly capitalism is unique as a social system in that it largely erodes the function of the imagination and hopes for a better reality by promoting instrumental reason in place of critical rationality, in addition to the mass consumerism which creates artificial needs that tie subordinated classes into the Establishment, with the resulting empirical failure of the proletariat to smash capital.  I did however note limitations to the application of Marcuse’s theses in the present day, given for one that American-style capitalism is surely failing to “deliver the goods” to the general population of the U.S., given soaring poverty rates and other indicators of social hardship, and in light of well-established public-opinion polls which demonstrate significant differences in orientation among U.S. residents in comparison with established governmental policies on a number of issues, environment among them.  I then questioned whether the issue was a matter of providing a practical opening for popular, dissident opinion to be expressed in policy-making; aligning myself with Takis Fotopoulos and Max Horkheimer (at the latter’s most optimistic), I theorized that the worrying apathy exhibited in the U.S. main on the climate and a number of other pressing matters could perhaps well be overturned with the advent for example of workers’ councils and community decision-making structures.  Next, my comrade Jani Benjamins invoked Jacques Ellul and warned of Western “technique” which has essentially colonized the entire world, directing everything to the end of production; he quite sensibly observed that historical considerations show clearly that the presently overdeveloped social relations seen in capitalist societies are very far from necessary or desirable.

My friend Sky Cohen then intervened, commencing his presentation with a clear repudiation of the main thesis of Catastrophism: he asserted that it is precisely because we are not dealing with the horrific realities of climate change that we remain apathetic, and that it would be entirely unproductive for radicals to isolate ourselves from the conversation, as the authors of that volume would seem to suggest.  He noted the trajectory of human population growth from 2 to 7 billion over the past century, not to promote any Malthusianism, but rather to warn of the immense number of persons considered by hegemonic power as “surplus populations” whom these power-groups effectively expect to be sacrificed to the altar of growth and profit.  Sky then mentioned the negating studies showing a 90% decline in Caribbean coral reef cover and mentioned the ongoing droughts in the U.S., as well as the frightening wildfires that have raged in southern California.  Given prevailing trends, Sky cautioned, hundreds of millions of Southern peoples are likely to be displaced from their homes over the coming decades; in light of what seem to be the new (disastrous) ecological constants, he expressed his impatience with the often “hyper-utopian” hopes projected by many anarchists against the very real trends tending toward annihilation.  He mentioned the 3500 deep-water oil wells scattered around the globe, questioning to what degree a successful post-capitalist revolution could effectively avoid the ecological disaster represented by each such oil-rig, and he tragi-comically noted that, while the Keystone XL pipeline meets with legitimate resistance, the largest oil spill in history—the highway and transportation system of the U.S.—is met without question, and in fact is celebrated and embraced.  Lastly, Quincy Saul declared his agreement with many of the previously made points, asserting that we must as a movement tell the truth, even if the prospect of mobilizing to avert catastrophe seems a desperate one.  He noted that most people remain entirely untouched by the goings-on at Left Forum, and indeed that the one-dimensional society pervades even (and especially) so-called activist spaces.  Quincy declared boldly that there exists no real left or climate movement in the U.S., and he asked why it is that we are failing to accomplish anything in these terms.  The specter of extinction—including human extinction—he asserted, is not primary in our minds, yet he observed that the work of an anti-capitalist movement has seemingly never been easier, for to continue with economic growth obviously implies suicide.  Painting the panorama as a largely “ghastly” one, Quincy nonetheless declared that we must not succumb to despair or cynicism, but rather seek to build revolutionary movements amidst the likely go-ahead that will be given to projects like Keystone XL, and advocate a generalized reduction in consumption levels to approximately those now enjoyed by the middle classes of presently developing societies.

For the second session on Saturday, I attended the panel “Jean-Paul Sartre Revisited in a Time of Crisis,” chaired by Elizabeth Bowman of the Center for Global Justice and the Radical Philosophy Association.  Professor Joseph Catalano of Kean University spoke first, presenting among other points Sartre’s famous argument that the world’s state is as it is because of the way we are—that is to say, that we tolerate the hegemonic powers which oversee generalized destruction and brutality, and hence we confront the world we deserve.  Catalano claimed Sartre as postulating that, if millions perish due to poverty and war, it is our own responsibility; he also clearly established Sartre’s belief in the presence of radical evil, particularly among the most affluent classes, who exhibit hatred for common people in their desire to uphold their privileges amidst mass social misery: capitalists “love to kill.”  Bowman spoke next, focusing her comments on Sartre’s unpublished manuscripts on ethics from the mid-1960’s.  She opened by noting Sartre’s reaction to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, which was to claim that humanity could either continue on its present path or destroy itself entirely.  Developing from his anxiety regarding nuclear warfare, Bowman argued, Sartre then came to conclude that each person must assume zir responsibility for the fate of human history; echoing Immanuel Kant, Sartre came to hold that, in whatever action we take, we present a maxim by which we believe humanity should act in general (“Morality and History”).  According to Bowman, Sartre’s vision of a future society importantly features an absence of power relations, and he argues that this society should be developed autonomously rather than by diktat—that is, not at the behest of a Party.  Bowman concretely asked how it is that we might get everyone collectively to decide to stop shopping, so as to bring down capital, and she pointed via Sartre to the problem of self-subordination to given social systems: noting Sartre’s enthusiasm for the Algerian Revolution, she cited Sartre’s belief that social change will come about when the chance of dying in struggle against the system becomes less than that of dying by continuing to follow the orders handed down by the system’s administrators.

Next on the Sartre panel was Bob Stone, who reflected on Sartre’s 1964 Rome lecture at the Gramsci Institute which examined the idea of an “integral humanity.”  Stone explained that Sartre found two contemporary political models particularly inspiring for action: the French Resistance to Nazi occupation, and the Algerian Revolution.  Both attempts began as clandestine means to awaken the working class to its task of liberating humanity from oppression altogether, as through individual assassination campaigns, yet they developed later into centralized armies.  Stone spoke to the “negative totalizers” which radically threaten the present continuation of Sartre’s hopes for universal human emancipation, with nuclear war and ecocide being the most dire of these.  Indeed, recalling Günther Anders (though not mentioning him by name), Stone described humanity itself as a whole as now being the oppressed, against Marxian analyses which privilege consideration of the proletariat: we all are the “us-objects.”  Stone’s concept of these “negative totalizers” stressed that these are human creations and hence contingent realities that can be reversed; he called for a new Bastille, and optimistically asserted that, thanks to technology, humanity presently has a better capacity to coordinate generalized uprisings than was the case during Sartre’s lifetime: if between 10 and 40 million protested the impending Iraq invasion on 15 February 2003, then surely these same persons (and more) can organize a global general strike!  Lastly on this panel, Matthew Ally spoke to socio-ecological perspectives on Sartre, examining the intertwining trends of anti-humanism within much of environmentalism and the anti-ecological sentiments seen in much of humanism.  Though Sartre clearly cannot be reclaimed as a pioneering ecologist—as Ally noted, Simone de Beauvoir is on record as having remarked that Jean-Paul much preferred the concrete world of cities to nature, and Sartre himself wrote in his 1965 manuscripts that the natural world must be “subjected […] to human desires without reciprocity”—his toxic anthropocentrism, instrumentalism, and exceptionalism remain important philosophical residues which continue to necessitate interrogation and abolition today.

During Saturday’s lunch break, noted anarcho-syndicalist and linguist Noam Chomsky gave a public address at the Forum.  Sadly enough, much of his commentary constituted repetition of many of his other recent speeches and articles (see, for example, here), so if the reader is familiar with these interventions, little new will be presented in this brief summary of his talk.  Nonetheless, to share: Chomsky analyzed what he calls “really existing capitalist democracy” (RECD), which contradicts substantive notions of democracy—participatory, direct, and so on—and in fact mirrors mainstream liberal-democratic theory, which (like Leninism) holds that the general populace must be excluded from decision-making processes and regimented so as to support the status quo, or at least refrain from interfering with it.  Following some initial comments on the current state of U.S. politics, which Chomsky cautiously warned to bear resemblances to late Weimar Germany, he asked how the future fares under continued conditions of RECD: doubtlessly, highly grim.  The two “dark shadows” which threaten the future are those of environmental catastrophe and nuclear war.  The first such threat is “obvious,” one that is being exacerbated “enthusiastically” by the advanced-capitalist settler-colonial societies on the one hand and, says Chomsky, resisted on the other by so-called “primitive” societies.  Each day’s environmental indicators as reported in the press show the “lunacy” of RECD, which for Chomsky in fact represents its self-described “rationality.”  While Chomsky warned that there exists no “guardian angel” to ensure that the material conditions for decent survival not be utterly destroyed by capitalism, he did note that the U.S. public is close to the international norm in its expression of concern for the environment and advocacy of measures to prevent its collapse, as revealed in public-opinion polls.  With regard to nuclear war, Chomsky alarmingly mentioned that this specter came close to conflagration just two years ago, during the covert operation to assassinate Osama bin Laden: Obama had ordered the SEAL team sent to kill OBL to use all necessary force to escape, even and especially if such force would have to be directed against the Pakistani military, which of course was not apprised of the clandestine strike beforehand.  Chomsky asserted that war could well have resulted, had the SEAL team been located, and that this war could have surpassed the nuclear threshold.  That it did not was a matter of luck.

In terms of Iran, Chomsky sensibly proposed that a rational alternative to the controversy over uranium enrichment and U.S./Israeli threats of attack would be to establish a nuclear-weapons free zone in the region (NWFZ), yet he noted that progress toward this end was subverted most recently when Obama cancelled the December 2012 conference on the subject that was planned to be held in Helsinki.  Chomsky similarly positioned U.S. anxiety over China’s expansion of its military in its governing assumption that it owns the world—as reflected in the question posed among mainstream thinkers of who “lost” China to revolution in 1949.  Chomsky closed by noting that soon there will be celebrated the eight-hundredth anniversary of the Magna Carta, which famously included the Charter of Liberties as well as the Charter of the Forests—the latter, less well-known, endorsing the idea of commons as against private depredation.  In contrast to Garrett Hardin and other capitalist apologists, Chomsky asserted that it is the indigenous who protect the Earth’s systems, and that the Latin American example of “liberation” from the “lethal grip” of imperialism via the Pink Tide governments that have arisen over the past decade should prove inspirational.  Channeling Martin Luther King, Jr., Chomsky ended by observing that while one trend in human history tends toward oppression and destruction, its inversion—which Chomsky implied to carry more weight—seeks justice, freedom, “and even survival.”

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It is a pity that I arrived late to the panel I chose for the subsequent (third) session, “A New World in Our Past: Using Anarchist History Today.”  My lateness meant that I missed all of James Birmingham’s presentation on anarchist archaeology (or anarchaeology) and most of Cam Mancini’s words on current Wobbly (I.W.W.) strategy.  However, I did catch the comments made by Wayne Price, author of The Value of Radical Theory (2013) and Anarchism & Socialism: Reformism or Revolution? (2010).  Price gave a historical analysis of the most recent sustained anarchist upheaval in the United States, which took place during the Sixties (which in fact amount to the years 1955-1975, as he claimed).  The various experiences of anti-authoritarian left groupings during these decades showed, in Price’s estimation, the often large impacts that small groups of radicals can have—Price compared the legacy of the Sixties to that of the radical abolitionists before the Civil War.  He shared the seemingly little-known fact that there was registered more opposition to the Vietnam War among working-class persons than on college campuses, and he examined the dialectical process whereby the shattering decolonization efforts undertaken by Third World masses called into question the priorities of many middle-class students and activists within the U.S.—yet the successes evinced by these national liberation forces often served to legitimize Leninist and Stalinist ideologies among U.S. radicals, to the detriment of anarchism.  Price foresees another economic crash on the horizon, one that will bring about generalized suffering, and he predicts that a future mass-movement will be a combination of the class-struggle radicalism of the 1930’s and the New Left of the 1960’s.  Concretely in these terms, he mentioned the 2005 transportation workers’ strike in New York City, which effectively shut down the city: if this model were to be replicated, supported, and intensified, he argued, its effects on finance capital could be considerable!  For his part, the panel chair Adam Quinn shared some of his findings from research into historical anarchist-immigrant communities in the U.S.: he hypothesized that many such immigrants espoused anarchist philosophies both because of their previous exposure to strong anarchist movements in their mother countries (e.g. Italy and Spain) as well as in response to their experiences with the worst aspects of the statist bureaucracy in the U.S..  Mentioning the recuperation by secular Jewish anarchist-immigrants of traditional Jewish holidays, Quinn envisioned similar proposals for leftists today, toward the end of expressing greater joie de vivre.  He also regulated Price in the question-and-answer period, when the latter misrepresented the neo-Zapatistas’ original attempt to catalyze a social revolution throughout Mexico with their January 1994 insurrection.

The first session of the Forum’s third and final day saw an especially exciting panel, hosted by Social Medicine: “Health Care Struggles in Embattled Communities: Critical Historical Lessons, Political Continuities—Black Panther Party, Harlem; Young Lords, Lincoln Hospital/South Bronx—and Beyond.”  This event began with the words of Professor Alondra Nelson, author of Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination (2011).  Beginning with the projection of the famous image of Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton dressed in leather jackets, with the latter brandishing a shotgun, Nelson declared that the leftist romance which has focused on the Black Panther Party’s (BPP) armed self-defense campaigns has in fact served to eclipse its efforts to promote justice in healthcare.  Indeed, Nelson shared that the BPP’s 1972 revision of its original ten-point platform included new demands for “completely free health care for all black and oppressed people” as well as “mass health education and research programs” designed to “give Black and oppressed people access to advanced scientific and medical information.”  In this sense, the BPP’s vision was not limited merely to a sort of welfare-state improvement in access to medical care, but rather based itself in the chance to develop self-determined healthcare systems.  Nelson importantly situated the BPP’s strides in calling for revolutionary medicine within the established history of racism in the medical sphere as directed against blacks, from the Black Cross Nurses’s association, which was to form the basis for the health-care infrastructure of the new nation-state envisioned by Marcus Garvey, to Fannie Lou Hamer’s denunciations of sterilization campaigns as well indeed as the medical neglect to which Huey Newton was subjected after being shot by police in 1967.  The professor also mentioned international influences on the BPP’s health activism: the examples of Che Guevara and Frantz Fanon, in particular, as well as the Maoist barefoot doctors campaigns, with which BPP militants were well-acquainted from their frequent visits to Red China.  Nelson noted that, at its height, the BPP was running campaigns that claimed to be testing tens of thousands for sickle-cell anemia, and that it stipulated that it have a clinic operational in each of its national chapters; additionally, she explained that the Panther’s newletters often straightforwardly presented scientific and medical information, without any sort of patronizing simplification.  She closed her presentation by noting that the BPP’s health-care activism lives on through such examples as the Carolyn Downs Medical Center in Seattle, as in that of the Common Ground clinic set up in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

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Professor Alondra Nelson ties the Panthers’ health activism into their reading of Fanon

After Nelson, Cleo Silvers spoke, having been a participant in the world-historical takeover by workers of the Mental Health Services department of Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx in 1970.  The occupation lasted just under a month, said Silvers, and this has been the first and only time such a thing has happened, at least within the U.S.  Shepard McDaniel of the People’s Survival Program then spoke to the role played by the Lincoln Detox Program in the occupied hospital, an initiative that sought to use acupuncture and other holistic methods to stem the tide against heroin abuse in the local community.  One audience member stressed that the Panthers’ health-care model has been fruitfully reproduced in many other contexts, especially on the global level—e.g. among the Zapatistas.

Following the Panther healthcare presentations, I attended another excellent panel: “Political Ecologies of Developmental Terrorism: Neo-Liberalism and People’s Resistance in India,” as organized by the Sanhati organization.  Partho Ray opened by discussing agricultural and environmental matters in India, following the turn to neo-liberalism taken by the Indian State in the late twentieth century.  He observed precipitous ecological decline with the onset of trade liberalization and the attendant shift to cultivation of cash crops, together with the introduction of genetically modified seeds owned by Monsanto and co.  As has been noted on these pages recently, Ray estimated that 300,000 Indian agriculturalists have taken their lives over the past two decades due to indebtedness, failed crops, and increases in the prices of farming inputs.  He warned that, while U.S.-India cooperation on nuclear matters is infamous, the less well-known joint Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture seeks explicitly to propagate the U.S. agricultural model in India, where some 70% of the population is involved in agricultural production—the KIA board, Ray reports, includes such luminaries as Walmart and Monsanto.  As against these trends, Ray pointed to the development of ecological alternatives within the janatana sarkars established in the regions of land liberated from governmental control by Maoist rebels.  Speaking to nuclear energy policy in India, Rajeev Ravisankar observed that the toxic origins of nuclear power in the country—the erection of the Tarapur reactor in 1963—were helped along by Bechtel and General Electric; he finds the development of nuclear-weapons capacity by the Indian State to be little more than an exercise in nationalist chauvinism, particularly with the 1998 expansion in such capacity, as overseen by the BJP.  Ravisankar rightly noted stark inequalities in India’s turn to nukes: while the development of nuclear power and arms prove highly profitable to the wealthy, and project images of virility to boot, it is ordinary Indians who must suffer from the effects of nuclear waste, mining for thorium and uranium, and the specter of accidents.  Ravisankar warned of present plans to construct the largest nuclear plant in the world in Jaitapur (9000 MW), and he explored the controversies over the ongoing Koondankulam project in coastal Tamil Nadu in detail.  Ironically enough, plans for the Koondankulam plant were first agreed to in 1988 between Rajiv Gandhi and Mikhail Gorbachev—this, two years after the Chernobyl catastrophe!  The heroic mass-resistance exhibited in recent years to the planned Koondankulam plant seeks physically to block the designs of the “rich capitalists, multinational corporations, imperial powers, and global mafia,” in the words of S.P. Udayakumar, in favor of the well-being of humans and nature alike—no matter what the State says, accusing protestors of being manipulated by foreign powers!

Following Ray and Ravisankar, Sam Agarwal described the “largest land-grab since Columbus” that is being prosecuted in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh, an entity that was carved out of Madhya Pradesh in 2000 explicitly for the purpose of facilitating mineral exploitation.  There can be no doubt that Chhattisgarh is well-endowed in natural resources: its territory contain substantial quantities of tin, iron ore, uranium, and diamonds, all of which have stimulated the appetites of parasitical multinational companies.  One of the major problems within this process is the fact that nearly a third of the state’s population is adivasi, or indigenous, and that most of Chhattisgarh’s mineral wealth is concentrated in regions that are themselves largely populated by adivasis, who observe collective notions of property.  Indeed, Agarwal reports that a full 40% of the state’s adivasi population has been forcibly displaced in recent years to make way for mining operations!  What is more, this mass-mineral exploitation also implies devastating deforestation policies, with an estimated 78% of forests in the state’s Korba district affected by mineral development.  Agarwal argues that federal mining regulations are simply fradulent: the protections they stipulate are regularly ignored, and adivasi gram sabhas (popular assemblies) often meet with violence and coercion intended to grant consent to companies’ designs for surface mining.  Furthermore, the salwa judum paramilitary militias are estimated to have destroyed some 644 villages, affecting over 350,000 adivasis.  Despite these depressing realities, Agarwal holds out the hope that people’s power can work to block the continuation of mining devastation, as in the case of the Rowghat iron-ore mine, where the power of the Naxalite insurgency has effectively prevented the carrying out of mining.  Finally, Siddharta Mitra explored similar issues as seen in the western Orissa mountains (Niyamgiri), where the Dongria Kondh people confront the London-based Vendanta corporation, which desires to mine bauxite from the highly biodiverse hills where they reside.  As in Chhattisgarh, the process is plagued with fraud, whereby Vedanta on the one hand accepts the decisions of the gram sabhas of adivasis residing in elevations below those they desire for the mining, and the State on the other hand fabricates countless charges of sedition against indigenous resistors, and moreover besieges their communities.

Perhaps the most disastrous panel I encountered at Left Forum this year was “How to Solve the Israel-Palestine Conflict: 0, 1, or 2 State Solution.”  First-off, no speaker on the panel even considered a no-state solution to the crisis, so I am unsure why that option was mentioned in the title.  Beyond that, the panel (excluding the chair, who merely moderated) consisted of three Jewish Americans, two of whom defended at least in an interim period the existence of Israel, and only one Palestinian.  Regarding the relative absence of indigenous Palestinian voices at the discussion, though, Norman Finkelstein (being one of the panelists) clarified that all Palestinians who had originally been invited to speak had refused to do so, and that the sole Palestinian present at the actual panel, attorney Lamis Deek, was a late addition.  In his comments, Finkelstein reiterated the line he has developed in recent years, namely that while the mass-mobilization of Palestinians themselves to force Israel’s hand in ending the occupation is a necessary and critical condition of a just resolution, it is not sufficient, in that international public opinion must also support them.  He argued that the question surrounding Israel-Palestine should not be framed as one associated with personal preferences, but rather pragmatism: the international consensus, to which the U.S., Israel, and a few assorted members of the Pacific island “mafia” constitute the only dissenters, is for a two-state solution.  Finkelstein claimed that those who, like the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions (BDS) campaign, claim to invoke international law for their cause cannot pick and choose which aspects of such law they desire to see implemented—international law as presently formulated supports Israel’s right to exist, in sum, and thus militates against contemplation of a one-state solution.  Self-described lesbian socialist Sherry Wolf spoke next, showering praise on BDS for having aided in presenting a counter-narrative to ruling ideas on the Israeli State; among other things, she asserted that a two-state solution would enshrine the legal discrimination suffered by Arab Israelis.  Generally, she expressed dismay at “realist” approaches to the conflict, such as those that favor two states; citing the example of the Egyptian Revolution, she stressed that, had the protestors begun from “practical” premises, Mubarak would likely still be in power!  Professor Stephen Shalom followed, arguing that even if the Palestinians were to achieve a one-state solution, it would still be unjust, assuming it kept the capitalist mode of production intact.  So while he hopes ultimately for a binational solution in the future, in addition to a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and imperialism, Shalom feels that practically it is already difficult enough to achieve something approximating a legitimate two-state solution—meaning one that is not a mere archipelago of bantustans—and that mobilizing for one state would prove exponentially harder.  Deek spoke next (last), noting that Israel is not fighting for its survival, but rather for the maintenance of the privilege of domination it exerts over the indigenous Palestinians.  She declared passionately that Palestinians will not renounce their rights to return to the lands from which they were expelled 65 years ago, nor that they should be asked to do so.  In her opinion, the present state of Gaza shows the future of a two-state solution; for her, the question should not be one of convenience, but rather justice.

The question-and-answer period for this panel was entirely a mash-up:  a great deal of yelling, interruptions, mischaracterizations, evasions.  Following his comments at the beginning of the panel, Finkelstein remained silent under the very end of the discussion period, when he remarked that any movement that seeks to engage a general audience would do well to invoke international law, and that posturing by making nice-sounding claims in a small room at the Left Forum is an entirely different matter.

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Norman G. Finkelstein stoically weathers the storm as the room around him descends into acrimony

The final event at Left Form 2013 was the closing plenary, which featured renowned Marxian ecologist John Bellamy Foster, German anti-systemic theorist Tadzio Müller, and Bolivian Vice President Álvaro García Linera.  The mere fact that García Linera was invited to speak at the Forum remained a source of controversy throughout the three days of the conference, given his role in the violent repression of a May 2013 general strike targeting the Morales regime for its failures to live up to its supposed commitment to socialism and notions of buen vivir, not to mention a similar repression in 2011 of indigenous protestors opposed to the State’s plans to construct a highway through the TIPNIS park reserve.  On the other hand, of course, the Forum’s organizers were seemingly pleased that Morales had in April 2010 hosted the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, as a counter-summit to the official negotiations that have meaninglessly been held by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) for two decades now.

Foster opened his comments, entitled “The Epochal Crisis,” by noting that finance capital dominates the entirety of the world economy at present; he observed that economic growth rates within the Triad (U.S./Canada, Europe, and Japan) have been slowing down over the past decades, and likely will continue to slow in those to come.  As was to be expected, he here restated his theory of Marx’s conception of the “metabolic rift,” whereby capitalist agriculture depletes the Earth’s soil of its necessary minerals—a symbol of its larger disruptive effects in ecological terms.  Quite simply, Foster declared that the majority of production under capitalism is simply waste, and relatedly that it is the global South which bears the brunt of ecological exploitation today.  He once again invoked his theory of the “environmental proletariat,” mentioning that China’s Pearl River delta is among the world’s most industrialized regions, yet, like Bangladesh, is threatened greatly by future sea-level rise.  Foster speculated that, with the intensification of the effects of climate change, those proletarianized by capitalism will engage in mass struggle—left unanswered is the puzzling question of how it is that this “eco-proletariat” might intervene effectively, given that it will likely be far too late if it does not act, insofar as it can, before the ocean’s levels rise by several meters.  He outlined a vision taken from David Harvey that calls for “co-revolutionism” between ecological and economic concern, and closed by stating that he was “honored” to present at the plenary with his co-panelists, whom he claimed to have “done more to advance” these visions than he had.  Apparently the contemporary critique of “socialist” productivism escapes the good professor.

In my view, Tadzio Müller’s comments, which followed those made by Foster, were at once explosive and justified, proving in this sense to be a good corrective to the relative lack of criticality espoused by larger-name celebrities present at Left Forum, from Christian Parenti to Foster himself.  Müller began by warning the audience that, rather than celebrate or engage in comforting left-wing delusions, “we do need to worry, quite a lot.”  In general terms, he argued, humanity is losing, and “losing big”: though movements against austerity have arisen to combat neo-liberal designs in southern Europe, for example, they have had few successes in actually preventing such reactionary policies from being implemented.  Similarly, claimed Müller, we cannot expect the miraculous transformation of millions of Euro-Americans to militant socialism; the ongoing economic crisis, which might have catalyzed such changes, manifestly has failed to do so.  Given this negating state of affairs, Müller observed that the question is one of identifying a leverage point, as from physics: that is, given a limited ability of leftist movements to “project force,” such groupings should expend their anti-systemic energies in an effective manner.  One concrete example Müller presented was that of the ongoing energy transition seen in Germany in recent decades, a development that was accelerated after the 2011 Fukushima disaster, when mass-mobilizations in the streets forced the rightist, neo-liberal Merkel regime to commit to the phasing out of nuclear energy over the short term.  Today, a full 20% of the country’s total energy comes on average from renewables sources—and this figure can reach 100% on especially sunny days.  Moreover, up to 2/3 of this energy is owned at the local level, rather than by large corporations.  For Müller, renewable energy by its design inherently lends itself much more to decentralized notions of politics, and so in his opinion this development, which he terms the most positive socio-ecological transformation seen in any industrialized society, merits a great deal more reflection and, indeed, reproduction.

Then came the vice president’s turn to speak.  Immediately upon taking to the podium, a large portion of the right-hand side of the orchestra seating exploded, holding up signs and banners calling for the release of prisoners arrested during the repression of May’s anti-government protests and condemning any yanqui intereference in Bolivia’s internal politics.  García Linera continued with his prepared comments, unfazed, not even deigning to afford eye contact with his dissident compatriots, who by phenotype far more closely resemble the country’s indigenous majority than he.  The VP droned on about the formal and informal subsumption of labor to capital, and other revelations he had supposedly come to in his years working by Morales’ side.  I decided to leave prematurely, disgusted by his arrogance.  As I exited the auditorium, there were his Escalades, loyally awaiting the return of the vice head of State.

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Adorno on historical progress: Can humanity avert total ruin?

June 15, 2013

Republication (with updates and revisions) with Heathwood Press of “Some Reflections on Theodor W. Adorno’s Account of Progress,” the very first essay on this blog! (1 April 2010)

12 June 2013

meltdown

It should not be taken as an exaggeration to claim that the very future survival of humanity is at present imperiled.  Whereas the prospect of humanity’s collective suicide by means of nuclear annihilation seemed a plausible threat during much of the twentieth century, today this decidedly horrifying role seems to have been taken up by the specter of catastrophic climate change.  As evidence being continually released by concerned climatologists and biologists constantly reminds us, the dangerous anthropogenic interference with Earth’s climate systems that has been driven by the onset and perpetuation of the capitalist mode of production stands to render impossible the continuation of much of life over large swathes of the planet in the near future.  With this in mind, it would seem that the anti-authoritarian French psychotherapist Félix Guattari was right to warn that “there will be no more human history unless humanity undertakes a radical reconsideration of itself.”[1] It is with these rather bleak considerations in mind that I argue that attention should be focused on German philosopher and social critic Theodor W. Adorno’s 1962 lecture “Progress,”[2] an intervention that Adorno sees as having its basis in the question of “whether humankind is able to prevent catastrophe.”

Adorno situates his reflections on progress within an epoch he sees as potentially giving birth to “both utopian and absolutely destructive possibilities.”  He observes that the chance for both such possibilities finds itself constrained within a present in which “the forms of humanity’s own global societal constitution threaten its existence”; no less than the prospect of “averting utmost, total disaster” constitutes then for Adorno “the possibility of progress.”  In Adorno’s view, progress is indelibly linked to “the survival of the species”—there can be no progress without the realization of the “happiness of unborn generations,” a “notion” that Adorno takes from the work of his comrade Walter Benjamin as constituting the very “notion of redemption.”  Indeed, the prospect of progress pre-supposes the as-yet unfulfilled historical possibility for the “establishment of humankind,” an eventuality that Adorno sees as opening “in the face of extinction.”  Insofar as “humankind remains entrapped by the totality which it itself fashions,” claims Adorno, “progress has not yet taken place at all.”

Existing society for Adorno thus proffers the prospect of total regression; the chance for the realization of the determinate negation of such regression is in Adorno’s view however “still not without all hope.”  Echoing some of Hannah Arendt’s commentary on the experience of Nazi and Soviet totalitarianisms,[3] Adorno asserts in Hegelian terms that “part of the dialectic of progress is that historical setbacks […] provide the condition needed for humanity to find the means to avert them in the future.”  The “warding off [of] catastrophe” is in this sense a possibility Adorno sees as promised in the prospect of “a rational establishment of overall society as humankind.”  Like Benjamin, who sees in “every second” of the future “the door through which the Messiah could enter,”[4]5Adorno suggests that progress can begin “at any instant.”  Expanding on this idea dialectically, Adorno asserts that present injustice “is simultaneously the condition for possible justice”:  seemingly aligning himself with claims made by fellow German critical theorist Herbert Marcuse[5] and North-American social-ecologist Murray Bookchin,[6] Adorno argues that the already-existing ‘material base’ provided by the historical development of the capitalist mode of production—and in particular, its technologies—could be-redirected and re-organized so as to provide a reasonable life for all existing humans:  “no one on earth needs to suffer poverty,” claims Adorno; “for the first time,” even “violence might vanish altogether.”  Such world-historical accomplishments could only be achieved, of course, if ‘the existent’ were somehow to be wrested away from its embeddedness within capitalist oppression.

Central to the prospect of the realization of the “utopian possibilities” Adorno envisages is the “philosophy of reflection,” or the emergence of thought critical of the instrumentalizing, life-negating realities propagated by capital and domination generally considered.  Adorno sees such critical thought by itself, though, as insufficient, for “[r]eason’s helpful self-reflection […] would be its transition to praxis.”  Practical, revolutionary intervention is desperately needed in the present, in Adorno’s view:  if, as he says, a “self-conscious global subject does not develop and intervene,” human survival itself is in jeopardy; hence, the very “possibility of progress […] has devolved to this subject alone.”  In this sense, the “awakening” of humanity is “the sole potential for a coming of age”; progress is to be attained through a “coming out of the spell,” for it is only when “humanity becomes aware of its own indigenousness to nature and brings to a halt the domination it exacts over nature through which domination by nature continues” that progress can exist, according to Adorno.  Thus, “it could be said,” Adorno tells us, that “progress occurs only where it ends.”

This critique of the domination of nature was originally formulated in the 1944 text Adorno wrote in exile together with Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment: there, Adorno and Horkheimer posit that the “collective madness that rages today”—that of a world “radiant with triumphant calamity”—finds its origin in “primitive objectivization, in the first man’s calculating contemplation of the world as a prey.”[7] The entirety of the subsequent development of human history after this point—and in particular, the historical creations of human self-domination, together with that visited on other humans and the non-human world—follows, in Adorno and Horkheimer’s view, from this primal sort of dominative orientation.  In this sense, then, to overturn the domination of external nature might perhaps allow humanity to liberate itself from domination  altogether.  Progress, says Adorno, “wants to disrupt the triumph of radical evil”:  it constitutes “resistance against the perpetual danger of relapse […] at all stages.”

As compelling as Adorno’s account of the prospect of humanity’s awakening may be to those taken by it, Adorno himself seems to have long been rather pessimistic regarding the possibility of its actual realization.  In “Progress,” he quite plainly observes that “[t]he idea of a progress which leads out and away is presently blocked”—this, “because the subjective moments of spontaneity are beginning to wither in the historical process.”  Such a view is without a doubt informed by his exploration, with Horkheimer, of what the two refer to in Dialectic of Enlightenment as the ‘culture industry’:  the socialization processes of existing society which work to “ensure that the simple reproduction of mind does not lead on to the expansion of mind”[8]—formal education, the mass media, television, and ‘culture’ generally.  In these theorists’ disturbing account, such processes come to reign in existing society, creating a “totally administered world” and hence fettering humanity in large part to the “gigantic apparatus.”[9] As serious as they consider the threat of the culture industry to human freedom and historical progress, however, neither Adorno nor Horkheimer seems to have believed that the colonization of mind propagated by existing social relations implies the absolute victory of the existent:  in Horkheimer’s words, “Mutilated as men [sic] are, in the duration of a brief moment they can become aware that in the world which has been thoroughly rationalized they can dispense with the interests of self-preservation which still set them one against the other.”[10] “Reason,” Horkheimer continues, “could recognize and denounce the forms of injustice and thus emancipate itself from them.”[11] Hence, the importance Adorno places in “Progress” on the “philosophy of reflection”—for in his view, “[o]nly reason […] would be capable of abolishing this domination [i.e., that of nature and thus of humanity]”—and hence also his theoretical assertion that “finally progress can begin, at any instant.”

Given Adorno’s account of progress, then, what can be made of it today?  Arguably, a great deal.  As arresting as many of Adorno’s observations on progress are, and despite the lecture’s age, it is undoubtedly the case that his comments are highly relevant to consideration of the currently prevailing state of affairs.

The status quo, like the time on which Adorno was contemplating over sixty years ago, is marked by the potential for “universal regression” and “absolutely destructive possibilities.”  It is surely the case that “humanity’s own global societal constitution” is at present in jeopardy—human survival is itself in question.  For confirmation of this claim, one need only peruse the many climatological reports that have been released in recent years[12] which predict that, due to dangerous anthropogenic interference with the Earth’s climate, average global temperatures will likely rise between 4° and 6°C before 2100—if not more!  Climate change on such a scale would truly be catastrophic:  a world with an increased average global temperature of 4° C above that which prevailed in pre-industrial human history would likely see the break-up of the Ross and Ronne ice shelves of Antarctica, an eventuality that would in turn precipitate the collapse of the entire West Antarctic ice-sheet and hence raise sea levels dramatically; both Australia and the South Asian subcontinent are expected not to be able to support agricultural production under the environmental conditions that would likely exist in such a world.[13]  An Earth warmer on average by 5° C would likely see the downstream flows of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers—which at present provide life for billions of currently-existing humans—reduced by half their present volume; indeed, climatological conditions in such a world would simply render large swathes of the Earth’s surface uninhabitable for human life, with isolated ‘belts of habitability’ reportedly receding to the far north of Earth’s northern hemisphere and the far south of its southern hemisphere, in addition to highland regions in Africa.[14]  It is to be imagined that those who would find themselves residing outside such “sanctuaries” would be devastated by famine.  Given an increased average temperature of 6° C—the most severe case of climate change considered by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to be likely or even possible in the twenty-first century, yet itself arguably an under-estimate—the Earth’s oceans are expected to be acidified, largely anoxic, and thus almost entirely bereft of life, while ‘super-hurricanes’ regularly circumnavigate the globe; worse, the synergy of methane-air clouds produced by the mass emission of ocean-dwelling methane hydrates released by previous climate change and of the hydrogen sulfide (H2S) created by the mass-rotting of formerly existing organic beings could indeed result in the dismantling of the ozone layer altogether![15]  This worst-case scenario would bear resemblance to the worst mass-extinction event experienced since the emergence of life on Earth, one that occurred at the end of the Permian Age 251 million years ago, when average global temperatures rose by 6°C and approximately 95 percent of all extant species went extinct.  Clearly, humanity itself cannot be considered a species exempt from such peril.

If the science underpinning the various predictive scenarios regarding likely future climate change is sound—and no compelling reason to doubt such seems to exist—then it is surely true that the phenomenon of catastrophic climate change imperils the very future survival of humanity, in addition to the millions of other life-forms with which humanity shares planet Earth.  As Elizabeth Kolbert writes in her dark assessment of recent warming trends,[16] it is as though the overdeveloped, ‘advanced’ capitalist societies are enacting their own death as well as the destruction of most of life on Earth.  Insofar as theorizing about the possibilities of averting such a horrendous outcome can be considered a useful task, then, to reflect on Adorno’s conception of historical progress may prove fruitful.

As strange as it may be to declare as regards a philosopher generally known for his seemingly desperate pessimism, Adorno is perhaps too optimistic in “Progress” regarding the very prospect of progress.  The specter of catastrophic anthropogenic climate change that hangs over the future—and present—seems to negate the very geographical and physical pre-conditions that it is to be imagined would be necessary for the realization of Adorno’s anarcho-Marxist sense of social redemption—the occurrence of the “liberating event,” the emergence of a world in which “no one shall go hungry” and no one will “fear to be different”[17]—that he sees as possible.  This latest in a long string of catastrophes that have marked human history, for its part, amounts to climate genocide, as Gideon Polya rightly claims[18]:  it constitutes the mass-murder of a hitherto unprecedented number of humans by capitalism.  Without radical intervention, billions can be expected to die; consider the quarter-million who perished during the 2011 Somalia famine, which followed from the worst drought experienced in the Horn of Africa in the last seven decades.[19]  His reactionary politics aside, renowned Earth-scientist James Lovelock predicts “about 80%” of the world’s population to be annihilated this century due to the changes threatened by looming climate catastrophe.[20] The extremity of the present state of affairs, indeed, is so absolute that its characterization by Noam Chomsky in the 1992 documentary Manufacturing Consent as “the possibly terminal phase of human history” is hardly a presently inaccurate conclusion.  In light of such considerations, it seems unclear how Adorno could today justify his claim that progress can begin “at any instant.”

This aspect of Adorno’s argument notwithstanding—it was a remark made during a different time, though one similarly imperiled by the megaton bomb—much of the rest of his commentary on progress could be helpful in terms of framing the extremity of the present situation.  He is certainly correct to claim “progress today” to at minimum demand “the prevention and avoidance of total catastrophe”[21]; the radicality of Adorno’s positive vision of progress—the demand that the “domination exacted over nature” be “halt[ed]” and that the “happiness of unborn generations” be secured—undoubtedly pre-supposes a thoroughly different set of social relations than those impelled by capital.[22]  Just as “[w]rong life cannot be lived rightly,”[23] so cannot affirmation be found within prevailing hegemony:  “Where bourgeois society satisfies the concept [of progress] which it harbors for itself, it knows no progress.”  Adorno rightly remarks that historical progress can in no way constitute “capitulation to the mainstream.”

If humanity truly is today faced “with its [own] extinction,” it is to be hoped that such a prospect in fact “opens,” in Adorno’s words, the possibility for “the very establishment of humankind,” among other “utopian possibilities.”  Other than a descent into total catastrophe, no alternative can be gleaned from the present:  “there is nothing left,” Horkheimer seems to correctly state, “but barbarism or freedom.”[24] If matters as presently constituted “just go on,” in Benjamin’s formulation, then “all is lost.”[25] Without a radical irruption of the prevailing world-course, humanity will fail totally to observe the new categorical imperative that Adorno sees Hitler as having imposed “upon unfree [humanity]”:  that humans “arrange their thoughts and actions so that Auschwitz will not repeat itself, so that nothing similar will happen.”[26] If the recurrence of such absolute catastrophe is to be avoided, humanity must somehow come to be established, to be born—only thus can there be the possibility of progress beyond the sets of social relations that justify nothing other than “hopeless sorrow.”[27]

The enormity of possible future negations—stated plainly, omnicide, or total ecocide—notwithstanding, it could perhaps ultimately be true that a  realization of sorts of Adorno’s account of progress is a project that is at present still plausible.  It is within the realm of possibility that Adorno’s “self-conscious global subject” could come to employ reason and so, in the words of Ronald Aronson, “awaken from [its] delusion […] to attack the social structures responsible for the impending disaster.”[28]  Surely a rational, radical re-orientation of existing technologies could help to avert impending climate catastrophe as well as introduce at least a modicum of justice and freedom for the dispossessed billions residing on Earth today; it is to be imagined that the resources presently employed to maintain nuclear weapons, militarism, and the arms trade—to name only a handful of present barbarous irrationalities—could be re-arranged so as to promote humane ends.  Such a solution naturally cannot be had as long as exist growth economies and class societies; Adorno’s concept of progress, like any other reasonable analysis of the present situation, demands their abolition.

In the end, then, Hannah Arendt seems right to assert that “the miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, ‘natural’ ruin is ultimately the fact of natality.”[29] Only such a “beginning”[30] would allow for the realization of a state in which “people [have] no cause to fear,” wherein “there [is] no impending catastrophe on the horizon.”[31]  As Ernst Bloch writes at the close of the first volume of his Principle of Hope, humanity “and the world carry enough good future” within them[32]; the expansive revolutionary historical tradition which Adorno largely overlooks confirms this thesis.  To (re)connect with such realities, toward the end of advancing radical struggle, would seem the order of the day.  Doubtless, humankind’s present task is daunting:  “Debarbarization of humanity is the immediate prerequisite for survival.”[33]


[1]        The Three Ecologies, trans. Ian Pindar and Paul Sutton (London: Continuum, 2000 [1989]), 45.

[2]       In Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History, ed. Gary Smith, trans. Eric Krakauer (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1989) and Critical Models, ed. and trans. Rolf Tiedemann (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).  Both translations are employed at various points in the following text.

[3]        The Origins of Totalitarianism (San Diego, California: Harcourt, 1968 [1951]).

[4]        “On the Concept of History” (1940), Thesis XVIII.B

[5]       Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (Boston:  Beacon Press, 1966).

[6]      Murray Bookchin, Post-Scarcity Anarchism (Oakland, California:  AK Press, 2004).

[7]      Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford, California:  Stanford UP, 2002 [1947/1944]), 1, 176.

[8]      Ibid,100.

[9]      Ibid, 194.

[10]    Max Horkheimer, “The End of Reason,” from The Essential Frankfurt School, eds. Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt (New York: Continuum, 1997), 48.

[11]    Ibid, 47.

[12]  See e.g. David Adam, “Met Office warns of catastrophic global warming in our lifetimes,” The Guardian, 28 September 2009; Steve O’Connor and Michael McCarthy, “World on course for catastrophic 6°C rise, reveal scientists,” The Observer, 18 November 2009; Alok Jha, “Global temperatures could rise 6C by end of century, say scientists,” The Guardian, 17 November 2009.

[13]   Mark Lynas, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2008), 186-213.

[14]   Ibid, 214-235.

[15]  Ibid, 236-263.

[16]   Elizabeth Kolbert, Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change (New York:  Bloomsbury, 2006), 189.

[17]    Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life (trans. E.F.N. Jephcott, London: Verso, 2005 [1951]), 245, 156-7.

[18]   Cf., inter alia, “G8 Failure Means Climate Genocide for Developing World,” Countercurrents, 11 July 2009; see also Polya’s website on the issue (http://sites.google.com/site/climategenocide/home).

[19]  “UN says Somalia famine killed nearly 260,000,” AlJazeera English, 2 May 2013.

[20]  Decca Aitkenhead, “‘Enjoy life while you can,’” The Guardian, 1 March 2008.

[21]  Adorno, History & Freedom: Lectures 1964-1965, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, UK:  Polity, 2006 [1964-1965]), 143.

[22]  Ibid, Problems of Moral Philosophy, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, UK:  Polity, 2000), 176.

[23]  Ibid, op. cit. (2005 [1951]), 39.

[24]  Horkheimer, op. cit., 48.

[25]  Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings. Volume 4: 1938-1940, trans. Edmund Jephcott et al. (Cambridge, Massachusetts:  Harvard Univ. Press, 2003), p. 184; ibid, One-Way Street and Other Writings (London: Verso, 1997), 80.

[26]  Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E.B. Ashton (New York: Seabury Press, 1973), 365.

[27]  George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, trans. H.B. Nisbet (Cambridge: Univ. of Cambridge Press, 1975), 69.

[28]  Ronald Aronson, The Dialectics of Disaster: A Preface to Hope (London: Verso, 1983), 289.

[29]  Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago:  Univ. of Chicago Press, 1958), 247.

[30]  Arendt, op. cit. (1968 [1951]), 473.

[31]  Adorno, op. cit. (2006 [1965]), 143.

[32]  Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, vol. 1 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1986), 447.

[33]  Adorno, op. cit. (2005), 190.

Sartre: Intellectual responsibility is practical, action-oriented

June 10, 2013

sartre

An excerpt from Ronald Aronson’s Jean-Paul Sartre: Philosophy in the World (1980), which mentions some changes in Sartre’s thought and orientation following the revolutionary upsurge of May 1968 in France (p. 317-9).  Sartre’s provocative turn expressed here retains all of its relevance 40 years on.

“But as he absorbed the experience of May, he decided that the intellectual should first ‘suppress himself as intellectual’ in order then to put his skills ‘directly at the service of the masses’. […] This new posture was most sharply and provocatively defined in his interview with John Gerassi in 1971.

Sartre here gave the simplest answer yet to his constant question: what should the intellectual do? – he should act. To be a radical intellectual was above all to be committed to put oneself bodily in opposition to the system. In conversation with Gerassi he reviewed his own political history going back to the Occupation and describing his shifting relations with the Communist party thereafter. The Algerian and Vietnamese wars had convinced him of the need to develop a movement to the left of the pcf; and by his own activity, he had helped to bring that new movement into being. ‘But I was still a typical intellectual. That is, I did my work at my desk, and occasionally joined a parade in the streets or spoke at some meeting. Then May 1968 happened, and I understood that what the young were putting into question was not just capitalism, imperialism, the system, etc., but those of us who pretended to be against all that, as well. We can say that from 1940 to 1968 I was a left-wing intellectual (un intellectuel de gauche) and from 1968 on I became a leftist intellectual (un intellectuel gauchiste). The difference is one of action. A leftist intellectual is one who realizes that being an intellectual exempts him from nothing. He forsakes his privileges, or tries to, in actions. It is similar, I think, to what in the us you would call white-skin privileges. A white leftist intellectual, in America, I presume, understands that because he is white he has certain privileges which he must smash through direct action. Not to do so is to be guilty of murder of the blacks – just as much as if he actually pulled the triggers that killed, for example, Bobby Hutton, Fred Hampton, Mark Clark, and all the other Black Panthers murdered by the police, by the system.’ […]

‘It is very easy to denounce the war in Vietnam by signing petitions or marching in a parade with 20,000 comrades. But it doesn’t accomplish one-millionth what could be accomplished if all your big-name intellectuals went into the ghettos, into the Oakland port, to the war factories, and risked being manhandled by the roughs of the maritime union. In my view, the intellectual who does all his fighting from an office is counter-revolutionary today, no matter what he writes.’

‘Are you saying,’ Gerassi inquired, ‘that the responsibility of the intellectual is not intellectual?’

‘Yes,’ Sartre replied, ‘it is in action. It is to put his status at the service of the oppressed directly. Just as the German intellectual who told Hitler and talked about his anti-Nazism while he earned money writing scripts for Hollywood was as responsible for Hitler as the German who closed his eyes, just as the American intellectual who only denounces the Vietnam war and the fate of your political prisoners but continues to teach in a university that carries out war research and insists on law and order (which is a euphemism for letting the courts and police repress active dissenters) is as responsible for the murders and repression as is the Government and its institutions, so too, here in France, the intellectual who does not put his body as well as his mind on the line against the system is fundamentally supporting the system and should be judged accordingly.'”