Posts Tagged ‘direct action’

KPFK Interview on Eros and Revolution

April 17, 2016

PO_SCSS86_01 (3)-1

On April 11, I was invited to speak with Chris Burnett, host of the Indymedia on Air program (KPFK 90.7, Los Angeles), about my forthcoming book, Eros and Revolution: The Critical Philosophy of Herbert Marcuse.  The recording of our conversation can be found below.

“Indymedia on Air” Interview on COP21

December 17, 2015

Peter Kennard, “Five Minutes to Midnight”

This is an audio recording of my joint conversation with Lisa Lubow, an organizer with Building Blocks against Climate Change, and host Chris Burnett on the “Indymedia on Air” program (KPFK 90.7 Los Angeles) that took place on Monday, 7 December 2015.  The half-hour show was dedicated to discussion of COP21 in Paris, the climate and environmental crises as a whole, and the possibilities for direct action and popular resistance against ecological destruction.

Review of Herbert Marcuse’s Paris Lectures at Vincennes University (1974)

October 27, 2015
The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, 16th October 1834 exhibited 1835 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Philadelphia Museum of Art: The John Howard McFadden Collection, 1928 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/TW1258

J. M. W. Turner, “The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons” (1834). Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Published on Heathwood Press on 27 October 2015.  Co-written with R.C. Smith

Herbert Marcuse’s Paris Lectures at Vincennes University
ed. Peter-Erwin Jansen, Charles Reitz
142 pp. – $20
ISBN: 1512319023
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015

Discovered in 2014 by Peter-Erwin Jansen, then annotated and edited by Jansen and Charles Reitz for publication in 2015, Herbert Marcuse’s 1974 Paris Lectures at Vincennes University do not necessarily provide any radical new material in comparison to some of the well-known works which he was already writing at the time when these lectures originally took place. That is to say that there is no grand treasure of previously unseen revolutionary insight waiting to be discovered in these hitherto unpublished manuscripts. With that observation in mind, what makes these lectures significant and worth reading for the Marcuse scholar has to do with some of the finer nuances of analysis that Marcuse presents regarding American society as the most advanced stage of monopoly capitalism. His discussion on the dynamic forces of revolution and counterrevolution are also notable in this regard. When considered in the context of his more major works, these lectures provide further insight into Marcuse’s overall critical theory. For the non-Marcuse scholar on the other hand – that is, the conscious citizen looking to understand the dynamic context of contemporary neoliberal capitalism and its historic genesis – this book offers an entry point into Marcuse’s thought and his excellent, highly reliable analysis of our modern times. This potential entry into Marcuse’s social philosophy is further reinforced by supplementary commentary by Sarah Surak, Detlev Claussen, and Douglas Kellner.

Integration, the dialectic between rulers and ruled, and new social movements

Though these lectures were first presented in 1974, Marcuse’s sharp analysis of some of the key trends of American society at the time highlight much of what we continue to observe today. In some instances, it could be said that Marcuse even anticipates what we now identify as neoliberalism, not to mention the rise of the mass-surveillance state and the underlying struggle and emergence of contemporary social movements.

Consider, for example, his discussion on the integration of the population with the dominant and coercive system of capital. By “integration” Marcuse means to describe: “the acceptance of, and even the identification with, the capitalist system among the majority of the population, including the majority of the working class” (p. 22). The general thrust of Marcuse’s analysis in this regard is the manner in which the dominant forces of contemporary society (the ‘bad totality’) attempt to keep people “within the framework of the capitalist system and, perhaps, even within the frame work of the capabilities of capitalism” (p. 22). As Marcuse explains, this integration is understood to take place “on three very different levels” (p. 22). The first is the sphere of consumption in which, “In satisfying the needs beyond the mere subsistence needs for a large part […] of the population, the increasing productivity of the service industries churns out more and more comforts, luxuries, and services like organized vacations, traveling, and so on and so on. These are powerful mechanisms which bind people to the established system” (pp. 22-23). In a sense these mechanisms of control help mask over surplus repression. They deflect from the suffering and misery which, in many ways, becomes the hidden reality of capitalist society. This is especially so, Marcuse explains, “when the people cannot imagine a better alternative” (p. 23).

The second level is what Marcuse terms “the management of the mind” (p. 23), which means “the consciousness as well as the unconscious” of the subject. In a sense, what Marcuse is surveying here is a reality we now know all too well: the maintenance of the present social order through structural and systemic mechanisms, albeit sometimes subtle, of control and coercion. The rise of the mass-surveillance state, as Edward Snowden has disclosed, is a perfect example. It is worth noting that it is an example that Marcuse also references in his lectures, decades before Snowden’s leaks revealed the hidden reality of state surveillance programs. Other examples can be found in what Marcuse describes as “two less noticeable phenomena, namely, the release and the satisfaction of primary aggression” (p. 23). In other words, “The increasing violence of films and television” as well as “The increasing aggressiveness in sports and entertainment, and so on” are exemplifications of a sinister psychological paradigm, one which we first learn about in the work of Freud. This paradigm, this play of psychic forces, can be described according “to the degree to which a social system frees the aggressive instincts of man and woman and at the same time succeeds in keeping them within the established framework so that they don’t blow up the society, that this satisfaction of aggressiveness strengthens the society which produces such satisfaction” (pp. 23-24).

To further describe the reality that Marcuse is pointing toward, we could cite several other phenomena as practical examples, including the self-deceiving satisfaction of consumerism. At the heart of consumerism and, equally, the greed and egoism commonly observed in contemporary society, is the unleashing and ultimate rationalization of excessive or rapacious desire for material goods, which, in many ways, is linked to deepening repression. On the one hand, consumerism reinforces the existing system; it strengthens some of the basic drives of contemporary capitalist society. On the other hand, in unleashing greed and egoism and rapacious desire, there is a sort of strange rationale on a systemic level which moralizes greed and attempts to keep the ailing psychology of consumerism in check. Thus, in the case of the Libor scandal for example, where it was discovered that banks were falsely inflating or deflating their rates so as to profit from trades, the bankers involved were condemned on a moral level. They were labelled as ‘greedy’ and ‘immoral’ and, in some cases, it was even argued that these bankers were in no way a representation of the system they inhabit. In popular discourse and reaction, it was rare to see any question of the capitalist context, of the logic or rational of modern political economy, which fosters the sort of behaviour of the bankers in question on the basis of the very impulses the contemporary social system unleashes. Thus, in an odd way, we observe another case of the degree to which the contemporary social system fosters, supports or frees antagonistic forces of man and woman while at the same time endeavouring to keep these destructive forces and impulses within the established framework. The satisfaction of greed and rapacious desire, as opposed to generosity, solidarity and egalitarianism, strengthens the system which produces such satisfaction; but it is moralized so as to ensure the maintenance of that system.

The final, third level “on which integration takes place is systematic and overt repression” (p. 24). Marcuse cites a particularly relevant example which concerns many young people today. To quote in full:

Students know all too well, for example, that if there is anything that indicates radical activity on their record, it will be all but impossible for them to find a job, especially with the entirely negative job market.

Allied with this systematic repression we witness a reduction of civilized sensibilities. You only have to look at some of the decisions made by the Supreme Court in the last years in order to see the dangerous extent of this reduction of civil liberties and, at the same time, the systematic and methodical increase in the power of the police, the National Guard, and other so-called forces of law and order.

This may suffice in order at least to outline the integration, the popular support of the system and some of the basic mechanisms which engender this support.

Following this, Marcuse turns his attention to a fruitful discussion “on the question of who is the actual agent of this repression”, or, as he rephrases, “who is actually the dominant class, the ruling class which is in control of American society” (p. 25). Here another example of particular relevance in our attempt to understand the broader social trends of contemporary society might be found, as Marcuse discusses the dialectic between rulers and ruled, offering some key passages which could be said to describe certain aspects of the unfolding of the contemporary neoliberal context (pp. 27-29). Referring back to the analyses offered by C. Wright Mills, Marcuse reiterates that “domination over the capitalist societies today is shared and organized by three groups” (p. 27), namely corporate leaders, politicians and the military. He then describes how this ruling class, “which not only is not monolithic but permeated with antagonisms, has a common feature, namely, the preservation of the established system” (p. 28). It is along these lines where Marcuse offers a valuable insight which further highlights the importance of this text in these early years of the 21st Century. He argues, when discussing the dialectical relationship between rulers and ruled, that the “various components of indoctrination, manipulation, and management of the mind also become […] instruments for expressing the will and the interests of the indoctrinated population” (p. 28). In essence, Marcuse is explaining the relation between structure and agency, in which “the government and its institutions, the ruling class, systematically makes what is called public opinion, but once made, this public opinion, which is constantly being reasserted, has in turn its own influence on the policy makers” (p. 28). One could argue that this practice is even more prevalent now, after decades of liberalization, in which the growing appearance of freedom – to debate policy or to vote according to one’s own will – is actually countered insofar that the people participate in the rule of society – that is, in the perpetuation of the misery of dominant, coercive and hierarchical social, economic and political conditions.

The people can indeed express their will, which is no longer their will but has been made their will by the ruling class and its instrumentalities. The people as authors, the people as buyers and sellers, in turn influence the policy of the rulers. […] There is no doubt that the people who cast their vote in any election are even, in the sense of the system, free people because nobody forces them to vote. But, still, are these the same people who can become subjects of radical change? (p. 29)

There is something horrifying about the reality that Marcuse is surveying here – a trend which, perhaps now more than ever, can be observed in its fullest. It is debatable, firstly, whether one’s vote can actually influence the policy of rulers. The crisis in Greece is a clear example of why such a question is justified. Even in the so-called radical party politics in the UK and the US led by Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders respectively, there is still an element of conformism – an element of conservativism, which, in essence, attests to the deepening of the status quo. The “oppositional” economic policies outlined by Corbyn and Sanders alike are really not that radical. They are viewed as progressive precisely because the social, political and economic context has, after so many years – perhaps beginning with the fall of the movements from the 60s and 70s – moved so far to the right. The arguably general absence of radical political subjectivity within these two examples of so-called radical Left party politics today attests to what Marcuse was indicating decades earlier. In a sense, the dialectic between rulers and ruled has developed beyond Marcuse’s conception, if we consider that, in the very existence of the party itself, the status quo of a less-than-revolutionary politics is upheld. Moreover, there is a distinction which must be drawn today – a distinction between the radical subjectivity of autonomous participatory (democratic) movements and the so-called radical subjectivity of the party, particularly as the politics of the latter persists as an extension of the hierarchical and institutional world, and, generally speaking, is framed largely by the ideology of representative democracy (i.e., democratic capitalism). It is debatable whether Marcuse was feeling his way toward this distinction in his 1974 lectures, but one could interpret his argument along such lines when he writes: “that there is a feedback, there is indeed a considerable degree of activity, opinions, and attitudes by the people influencing the government, and that on the other hand at least recognize themselves in their leaders” (p. 31). He then leaves us with one remark which is particularly telling:

The people as authors, the people as buyers and sellers, in turn influence the policy of the rulers. And it is interesting to think back, and not too long back, when among the American Left the slogan was “Power to the People.” “Power to the People.” The slogan is now used to far less a degree because the question “Who are the people?” cannot for any length of time be postponed (p. 29).

In some respects, the distinction highlighted above seems to be playing out today between the emergence of new social movements – which are grassroots, participatory, generally prefigurative, and more or less horizontal – and the lingering ideology of party representation. One could argue that it is, in part, the question “Who are the people?” that contemporary movements are attempting to answer in precisely the same way that they are also responding to the crisis of democracy. In other words, the question “Who are the people?” is symptomatic of alienation, socially and politically. The correct response is not a turn further away from democratic assembly and participation, to a further deepening of the questionable satisfaction of collective reliance on a leader; it is instead a revitalizing of the idea of the commons, of the grassroots, of collective struggle and solidarity – that is, dealienation on several levels. Occupy-style movements are a perfect example of the general political horizon contemporary social movements are suggestive of in this regard. Attempting on the level of praxis to answer questions around the contemporary crisis of democracy, participatory politics and what it means to be ‘public’ in twenty-first century society, the very political concept and definition of “the people” is brought into direct focus, so much so that the existence of hierarchy is challenged on the basis of a ‘mutually recognising’ politics which insists that the ultimate goal of emancipatory change must be, from the start, a product of (dealienating) interaction.

For Marcuse, the real possibility of a revolution in the most advanced industrial countries is one “not on a basis of poverty and misery, but rather on the basis of wasted abundance” (p. 49). Even though misery and suffering and struggle still play more of a role than what Marcuse may let on, especially now in the context of neoliberal austerity and the systematic dismantling of the welfare state, he is nevertheless on to something when he writes:

The result of the ever more explosive contradiction is the gradual development of what we may call an anti-capitalist consciousness; the development of an anti-capitalist consciousness and of an anti-capitalist mental structure, unconscious, among the population in the metropoles, a consciousness still largely unorganized, spontaneous, without definite goals, but, in any case, the consciousness and instincts, drives, “compulsions,” which very definitely come into conflict with the operational values required to sustain the capitalist system. That is to say, the protest comes into conflict with the so-called performance principle, which is the reality principle governing capitalist society. And against this performance principle, we see now the gradual emergence of an opposition―and I repeat, an opposition still unorganized, still to a great extent spontaneous―an opposition against toil as such, an opposition against alienated labor as a full-time job, opposition against the fact that life for the vast majority of the population, is to cite the phrase from Marx, “life as a means to an end and not as an end in itself,” namely life as a means to make a living, as one says, as a means for daily reproducing one’s own existence without ever, or only when it is too late, getting at the joy of really enjoying life (pp. 56-57).

Perhaps it is no coincidence that, in various instances of Occupy-style events and the ‘movements of the squares’, protest and struggle are just as present in action and language as joy, solidarity, and collective caring. Returning back to the joy of life, while practicing and experimenting with variations of participatory democracy and actual egalitarian possibilities – public and co-operative libraries, public medical tents, solidarity kitchens, social clinics, mutual aid networks, sustainability initiatives, self-managed workplaces – can it be that contemporary movements represent a more developed politics than what Marcuse saw fragments of in his own time? Is it not that these occupied spaces, these commons-oriented and participatory spaces of practice, are built on the idea of alternative forms of social relations which, in the process, seem to demonstrate a more mature form of the sort of new revolutionary movements of the 60s and 70s?  That contemporary social movements are beginning to emerge in challenge against not only the economic status quo but also the social, relational, emotional, psychological, political, cultural, and so on, attests in many ways to the many-sided transformative politics that Marcuse spent years arguing toward. To conclude this thought, consider the passage below in relation to some of the social movements we are witnessing throughout the world today, who aim toward a radical egalitarian and democratic horizon and seem to suggest some sense of a critically retrieved and holistic notion of social progress:

What is required to bring out the full, entire, and qualitative difference between socialism and capitalism is not so much the continued ever more efficient development of the productive forces, but the total redirection of the productive forces altogether towards new goals and toward a new quality of life. Now, in view of this fact, there must be not only the political and economic revolution, not only new institutions and basic social relationships, but also the reversal and subversion of the entire system of values that kept at least Western civilization going, going on the ever more repressive and destructive aspects, until this very day (pp. 59-60).

Capital, radical consciousness, and world-historical revolution

As alluded earlier, one of Marcuse’s principal concerns in the 1974 Vincennes lectures is to continue with a lifetime of investigation into the conditions underpinning the reproduction of the “bad totality” that is global capitalism, as juxtaposed with the possibilities of breaking free from this “Iron Cage,” to use Weberian terminology. As in his “Assessment” of “The Movement in a New Era of Repression” (1971), he observes in these lectures that the contemporary U.S. left lacks a “mass base” among the populace precisely because of the strength of integration, while on the other hand he laments the “sad phenomenon” whereby the oppressed racial and national minorities in the U.S. have been depoliticized and suppressed (p. 4)—thus blunting the revolutionary hopes he had identified as emanating from militant people of color at the conclusion of One-Dimensional Man (1964). The critical theorist moreover notes that, on the international stage, the “arrangement” the U.S. ruling class has made with the Soviet Union contributes to the overall stabilization of world capitalism, and he presciently speculates that a similar “arrangement” would be made with the People’s Republic of China (p. 7). Defining the “objective conditions” as “the strength or weakness of the State or the ruling class [versus] the strength or weakness of the working class,” Marcuse soberly acknowledges that the prevailing tendency is toward neo-fascism rather than any kind of socialism (p. 13, 10). In this sense, Marcuse observes knowingly that the problem of consciousness—the “subjective conditions”—does not have to do with any lack of knowledge regarding the factual situation, for the implicit and expressed political philosophy of the conformist majority in late-capitalist society would seem to be driven much more by powerlessness:

Yes, there are the objective conditions which one knows well: It is repression; it is corruption; capitalism no longer works without   inflation, unemployment, etc., etc. But what can one do? Nothing at all. (p. 18)

In idealistic terms, Marcuse counterposes against such widespread resignation the radical consciousness, which in Kantian terms mobilizes the “imagination as a cognitive faculty” to show “that the impossible is not impossible” (p. 16). It is in this sense that the radical consciousness is “way ahead” of the objective conditions, for it dialectically “projects potentiality in the objective conditions” and “anticipates possibilities not yet realized” (p. 18). Though Marcuse clearly sympathizes with this latter approach, he defines both the conformist and radical consciousness alike as manifestations of false consciousness—insofar as the latter refuses to apply a Marxist analysis to the changes in the capitalist system since the nineteenth century (p. 19). Speaking to the disillusionment felt by many of those formerly in opposition when ‘the Revolution’ was not consummated at the end of the 1960s, Marcuse criticizes the disengagement into which many radicals fell: “Any absenteeism from political life, any absenteeism from links with political activity is escapist and is conformist” (p. 33). Taking an historical view, the critical theorist observes that social revolution is a process, and that it cannot be presumed to be without its regressions. This is particularly the case for the world-historical revolution that Marcuse anticipated as possible for the end of the twentieth century or the beginning of the twenty-first: being “more radical and more sweeping in scope than all preceding historical revolutions,” this “would be a revolution not only in the political and economic institutions, not only a revolution in class structure, but also a total transformation and subversion of values in all spheres and dimensions of the material and intellectual cultures” (p. 59; emphasis added). The philosopher observes that:

we cannot possibly assume that the largest and most radical revolution in history […] would come about in a straightly ascending curve and would come about in a relatively short time. (p. 34)

Though Marcuse remains faithful to the possibility of this world-historical revolutionary transformation, and agrees with Marx that it would have to centrally include the advanced-capitalist core of the world-system, he specifies in the Vincennes lectures that he expects this revolution to be the work of “75 to 150 years” (p. 34)—in an echo of the closing lines to Counterrevolution and Revolt (1972). He clarifies that, though he believes the prospects for this revolution to be long-term, it will never come if the radical opposition does not strive to incubate it now.

As in Counterrevolution and Revolt, Marcuse in these lectures also discusses the phenomenon of the vast extension of the U.S. working class. Citing statistics compiled by Stanley Aronowitz and the U.S. government, Marcuse shows that monopoly capital has largely suppressed the middle class and made 90 percent of the population into a dependent class (pp. 40-42). The theorist then cites a famous letter from Marx to Engels (1865) in which the former tells the latter that the “working class is revolutionary or it is nothing at all” (p. 61). Marcuse interprets Marx’s statement here as suggesting that the laboring class is revolutionary insofar as its “needs and aspiration […] are irreconcilable and incompatible with the capitalist system” (p. 62). Returning to the discussion on conformist consciousness, he then declares the contemporary U.S. working class not to be revolutionary as a whole, though he does endorse Marx’s general point about the conflict between capital and labor, concluding that this antagonism is “bound to explode in the long run” (p. 62). As in a number of other addresses from this time-period, the critical theorist points out the militancy of a radical minority among the U.S. working class, compelled as it is by the combination of workplace alienation and revolutionary consciousness to engage in spontaneous acts of subversion, such as absenteeism, sabotage, and wildcat strikes (p. 63-64). Marcuse sees in such acts, and in the parallel vague public awareness of the obsolescence of the capitalist mode of production, the decline of the performance principle and a growing threat to regnant obedience (pp. 64, 52).

The critical theorist concludes by suggesting that this militant minority among the workers could, like radical students and people of color in struggle, serve as the catalyst for the future disintegration of U.S. and thus global capitalism (pp. 66-67). Closing on an ecological and syndicalist note, Marcuse anticipates laborers challenging workplace hierarchy and humanity engaging in a “total redirection of production […] towards the abolition of poverty and scarcity wherever it exists in the world today,” together with a “total reconstruction of the environment and the creation of space and time for creative work” (p. 69). Anticipating the profound exacerbation of the environmental crisis which was already evident at the end of his life, Marcuse announces that the “abolition of waste, luxury, planned obsolescence, [and] unnecessary services and commodities of all kind” would imply a lower standard of living for the world’s privileged minority, but that such a ‘sacrifice’ in capitalist terms would not be an excessively high price to pay for the possible “advent” of libertarian socialism (p. 69).

Closing thoughts

It is a testament to the fundamental character of Marcuse’s thought that he was able to identify, decades earlier, some of the deepest trends underlying the evolution of late-capitalist society. That he could, with remarkable precision, analyze the earliest developments of what we now understand as neoliberalism is one of many examples of the acute, incisive and penetrating qualities of Marcuse’s social philosophy (and also that, more generally, of the early Frankfurt School). Though it is certainly true that there are dated aspects to Marcuse’s argument in these lectures, this is only understandable considering that it is a basic principle of critical theory to remain rooted in history. Looking back, there may be concepts and arguments which can be retrieved and advanced. But this does not take away from Marcuse’s overall theses, formulated by way of remarkably complex and comprehensive research on the dynamic processes and forces of modern dominant, coercive and authoritarian society – as well as the foundational basis for emancipatory praxis and the development of an actual democratic, egalitarian social conditions.

At a time of endless “critical studies” and commentary, which do not always reach down to the levels of fundamental interdisciplinary analysis representative of the very essence of critical theory, we would do well to reflect on the crisis of contemporary social theory and the need to return to the roots of the Frankfurt School. In confronting the crisis of apolitical social theory, Marcuse can help show us the way forward as almost every sentence he composed in these lectures and elsewhere reminds us of the precisely foundational nature and transformative potential of critical theory.

The manner in which the critical theorist identifies, for example, the changing dynamics of capitalist society—whereby Marcuse suggests that revolution within the most advanced industrial nations will no longer be primarily based on hunger and misery but on wasted abundance (p. 49)—in many ways anticipates what we’re witnessing in these early decades of the 21st Century. Popular movements today – such as the sustainability movement, the circular economy, or the rise of eco-socialism, to name a few – are emerging in response to this very concept. The question of whether these movements are actually revolutionary and evidence an emancipatory politics is a legitimate one. In many cases, these mainstream initiatives – consider, again, the rise in the notion of the circular economy – seem to lack a more fundamental transformative project of thought. But what these movements are responding to – their language, their direction of imagination, and their efforts at re-designing modern political economy, no doubt exemplifies one of Marcuse’s basic arguments in his 1974 Paris lectures. Efforts in the realms of voluntary simplicity, political veganism, green syndicalism, and direct action for the climate represent more radical and direct manifestations of Marcuse’s argument with regard to ecological politics.

It unfortunately seems to be the case that many commonalities can be seen between the world-political situation today as compared to the case forty years ago. In light of the endless wars, extreme and burgeoning economic disparities, and ever-worsening environmental-health indicators, it is evident that capitalism continues to hold all of humanity and nature ransom in the Iron Cage. Though Occupy and the popular uprisings in the Arab world have demonstrated the significant potential for resistance and even revolution, the pendulum has clearly swung back again toward the consolidation of the system in recent years, as seen especially in Egypt, Syria, and the U.S. Perhaps the radical consciousness is more widespread now than before these breakthroughs, but it still confronts an entrenched conformist consciousness among the general populace, at least in the U.S. and Europe, as well as a fascistic concentration of power, wealth, and military might that is coordinated by the transnational capitalist class. Recent events in Greece evidence precisely this point. Here, a counterhegemonic movement emerged as a significant wave of grassroots energy only to crash upon the counter-revolutionary shores of the European Union, its entrenched neoliberal governments, and institutional politics. Greece may have seen mass mobilization, but much of Europe left revolutionary Greek movements to struggle for themselves (aside, perhaps, from the odd ‘solidarity’ march). In this sense, Marcuse’s comments on the glaring absence of a “mass base” for revolutionary social transformation remain apposite, as is the theorist’s analysis of the ideological basis for conformism, underpinned as it is by nihilistic fatalism and a mistaken feeling of powerlessness. Marcuse’s conclusion in the 1975 assessment of the “Failure of the New Left?” remains entirely true today: “[t]he transition to socialism is not now on the agenda; the counterrevolution is dominant.”[1] Though the inertial perpetuation of these negative conditions over time might lead one to conclude that a change in tactics and strategy would be justified, the problem of capitalism and domination still remains, such that the response in parallel likely remains radical mass-struggle to construct an anti-systemic multitude to disrupt and reorganize the hegemonic social, economic, and political institutions in all their facets.

Moving forward, the challenge for emerging scholars and writers in critical theory is to understand what key concepts need retrieval, critical sharpening or abandoning. In light of this challenge, an important question might be raised: how might these previously unpublished lectures inspire a project aimed toward advancing the Frankfurt School? What new ideas do they inspire? In what ways might Marcuse’s thought assist the pressing question of emancipatory politics and contemporary critical theory as we move forward in the 21st Century?

Another key challenge, as Marcuse would have it, is to engage with popular movements and help inform and guide their diversity of struggle today. Marcuse understood, in many ways, that revolutionary societal transformation is a complex, dynamic and many-sided process. In essence, we could say that it is subject to an extended social-historical process of revolutionary transition which could very well “take a time of at least 75 to 150 years” (p. 34). How can critical theory assist new social movements in establishing the basis for emancipatory societal transformation? Marcuse teaches us that, in the years past and in the years ahead, critical theory must constantly and normatively present the challenges of theory to movements in the field of practice. It is always possible that, in an actionist rush of blood for the thrill of practice, movements become inclined to abandon theory, usually to the detriment of practice which then turns incomplete, contradictory and incoherent. To borrow from Andrew Feenberg, theory must be a ‘philosophy of praxis’ – a ‘philosophy of praxis’ that engages on the level of practical action. If Marcuse (and arguably the first generation of the Frankfurt School in general) are the torch bearers when it comes to this philosophy of praxis, it is the challenge of the new wave of thinkers in this tradition to claim this torch and further illuminate the path forward. In doing so, theory must continue to draws its concepts and its inspiration from the revolutionary activity of new social movements and, as Charles Reitz recently commented, normatively challenge them to work for the radical rather than the minimal goals of socialism. If one were to take a single stirring inspiration from these lectures, this would be it.

[1]     Herbert Marcuse, The New Left and the 1960s: Collected Papers Volume 4, ed. Douglas Kellner (London: Routledge, 2004), 189.

Emergency Hearts, Molotov Dreams: A scott crow Reader

September 24, 2015

emergency hearts

Comrades, it is with deep gratitude and excitement that I wish to announce scott crow‘s new book:
Emergency Hearts, Molotov Dreams: A scott crow Reader. Selected Interviews and Conversations 2010-2015.

Emergency Hearts, Molotov Dreams is a selected collection of interviews, presentations and conversations that crow has given over the last five years covering a variety of topics such as anarchy, cooperatives, police brutality, prisons, animal liberation, environmental justice, surveillance and political movements. Many of the interviews have been expanded, remixed and edited from their original publications to expand on the ideas, praxis and histories.

This book is from a new radical publishing cooperative GTK Press in Cleveland, OH, which is part of the longstanding bookstore called Guide To Kulchur.

Preface by Tom Nomad
Afterword by Lara Messersmith-Glavin
Poem by John Clark

Interviewers featured: Abby Martin, Grayson Flory, Anne Gessler, Kit O’Connell, Vic Creatuure Mucciarone, Baruch Zeichner, Jonny Gordon-Farleih, Nathan Diebenow, Matt Tedrow, DJ Pangburn, and Darwin BondGraham. Including a co-presentation with Debbie Russell.

210 pages
$20 shipping included

Copies can be ordered directly from GTK Press, or picked up at one’s local alternative bookseller.

Here is my review of the text, featured prominently on the cover insert:

“Through these illuminating interviews, crow shares his critically valuable thoughts on State oppression, class inequality, social exclusion, and the destruction of the biosphere.  He hails advancing dual power, resistance culture, direct action, anti-authoritarian internationalism, and inter-species solidarity together with courage and joy.”

Praxis interview with Paul Messersmith-Glavin on Climate Change, Capital, and Organizing

July 25, 2015

perspectives

@Taylor Weech (Truthscout)

This is a link to the Soundcloud audio version of Paul Messersmith-Glavin’s 14 July interview on the Praxis podcast regarding climate change, capitalism, and radical organizing.  Paul’s conversation with host Taylor Weech is wide-ranging but focused on the gravity of the ecological crisis.  Paul shares his experiences with Hella 503 and the Parasol Climate Collective, particularly in terms of the climate canvass these groups carried out in the St. John’s proletarian neighborhood of Portland, Oregon, and he provides a solid philosophical anarchist framing for radical, anti-systemic action to limit the future severity of global warming.  He envisions such a type of praxis as melding together Occupy Wall Street and the Movement for Black Lives, “times a thousand, or a hundred thousand.”

Paul is a board member of the Institute for Anarchist Studies (IAS), and a co-editor of Perspectives on Anarchist Theory.  He also wrote the foreword to Imperiled Life: Revolution against Climate Catastrophe.

New Prologue to Imperiled Life: 2015 Update

May 5, 2015
@Santi Mazatl (Justseeds)

@Santi Mazatl (Justseeds)

This is the translation of the new prologue written for the Spanish translation of Imperiled Life: Revolution against Climate Catastrophe (IAS/AK Press, 2012), entitled Clima, Ecocidio y Revolución

Published originally on the Institute for Anarchist Studies (IAS) website, 5 May 2015

“The revolution is for the sake of life, not death.”1
– Herbert Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension

I am very glad that this translation is being published in Spanish. It is important that critical writings be shared. Given that Imperiled Life came out nearly three years ago, I see it as necessary here to provide a brief update of some of the most important events that have taken place in these years, particularly with regard to environmental questions—as well as to reflect on the present status of anti-systemic social movements and to make some recommendations for eco-anarchist strategy and praxis.

It is clear that the magnitude of climate change has not diminished, let alone stopped, in the past three years. Instead, it has accelerated at an alarming rate. Both NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have confirmed that 2014 was the hottest year for planet Earth since official records began at the end of the eighteenth century.2 In terms of average global temperatures, the months of May, June, and August 2014 broke all the previous records.3 In point of fact, the climatologist Don Wuebbles says that last year could have been the hottest year of the last five millennia, while a study published in Science in March 2013 shows us that average global temperatures are at present higher than 90% of those experienced during the entirety of the Holocene geological er. The Holocene began 12,000 years ago, when temperatures stabilized so as to allow for the development of agriculture and the misnomer “civilization.”4 Welcome, then, to the Anthropocene.

Given such an insane context, it should come as little surprise to consider that during the very warm winter of 2014, an entirely unprecedented amount of melting was experienced in Alaska—the result of a temperature spike of between 15 and 20°C (27-36°F) higher than the averages observed for this time of the year at the end of the twentieth century. Similarly, it should be noted that, at the beginning of 2013, the Australian Meteorological Institute saw it necessary to add a new color to its heat-index so as to depict the new temperature extremes raging at that time in the interior of the continent, which reached 54°C (129°F).5 What is more, the Amazon region is currently suffering its worst drought in the past century, the fatal result of global warming in combination with the mass-deforestation of the tropical rainforest.6 At the end of 2013, the Philippines was confronted with the strongest typhoon observed in history, leading to the death of 1,200 people.7 Beyond this, the latest biological data show a decline of a full half of terrestrial animal populations since 1970, and further that 41% of amphibians, 26% of mammals, 13% of birds, and one-fourth of marine species are at immediate risk of extinction.8 As Elizabeth Kolbert details in her eponymous 2014 work, we find ourselves fully immersed within the Sixth Mass Extinction.9

Increasingly more scientists are communicating to us openly about the profound gravity of the environmental crisis. During the forum on “Environment and Alternatives” that took place at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in June 2014, several experts from this institution concluded in unison that the ongoing destruction of the biosphere puts at risk the very existence of humanity, whereas two independent studies published in Science and Anthropocene Review in January 2015 warned that the present rate of environmental degradation imperils complex life on the planet.10  In this sense, the British economist Nicholas Stern, the famous author of the 2006 Stern Report, declared at the start of 2013 that he should have been more direct about the risks that humanity and nature run due to climate catastrophe.11 For its own part, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shows in its July 2014 report on the supposed “mitigation” of the climate crisis that the rate of emissions of carbon dioxide has burgeoned in recent decades: while said emissions expanded by 1.3% annually from 1970 to 2000, they increased by 2.2% each year during the first decade of the new millennium, leading to a disturbing annual increase of 3% in the most recent data, for 2010 and 2011.12 What is more, in early 2015, after having evaluated the twin threats of nuclear war and environmental crisis as it does every year, the association of atomic scientists which has run the “Doomsday Clock” since 1947 reported that it believed humanity to have only three minutes left before midnight: that is to say, before annihilation. This new symbolic revision of the time indicates that, in the analysis of these scientists, the present moment is the gravest moment since 1983, when there existed a serious risk that Ronald Reagan would initiate a nuclear attack against the Soviet Union.13

t should thus be very clear that capital and authority have no solution for the climate or environmental crises, nor for the multidimensional crisis that is comprised of the political, economic, social, and cultural spheres, beyond the ecological. The Conference of Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has since 2012 demonstrated its clear nature: to dawdle and babble on aimlessly amidst such an absolutely severe situation. In 2012 itself, the member-nations met in Doha for COP18, being for this reason the guests of the emir of Qatar. It is emblematic of the farcical nature of the COP that the Qatari emir, together with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the USA, has supported Islamist rebels in Syria that later would form the very basis of the Wahhabi forces of Islamic State (ISIS), and that thousands of migrant workers have lost their lives in recent years in this Gulf kingdom, where gargantuan buildings are constructed, as is evident in the case of the Qatar Foundation Stadium, which is to house the 2022 World Cup.14 As was seen in the experience of this COP in Doha, as well as during COP17 in Durban, South Africa (2011), all the recent UN conferences have left us with utter unreason: in Qatar, the member-nations effectively allowed the Kyoto Protocol to expire, while in terms of COP19 in Warsaw, Poland, nearly 30% of the world’s governments failed to even send ministerial representations.15 The most recent conference in Lima, Peru—COP20—appears to have been little more than preparation for the next meeting, to be held in Paris at the end of this year, where it is to be imagined that international conflicts will surge between the European Union and many Southern countries against the United States, which under the Obama administration has systematically ignored international law in favor of neoliberal deregulation and the false alternative of a “voluntary” climatic regime on the global level.16 In parallel terms, true authoritarianism was seen emanating from the “Citizens’ Revolution” of Rafael Correa during COP20, when several members of the Climate Caravan through Latin America were arrested for having expressed their opposition to the State’s plan to open the Yasuní National Park to oil drilling by Chinese capital.17 With regard to the bilateral accord signed between China and the U.S. at the end of 2014, it is clear that this agreement certainly would not limit the average-global temperature increase to 2°C higher than the average global temperatures which prevailed during preindustrial human history—with this being the level that is said to the “upper limit” before the triggering of a truly global suicide, though even this assessment might be overly optimistic—even if such minimal changes were observed in reality.18  Given the present trajectory of economic expansion that is foreseen for both the People’s Republic of China and the U.S., the chance that such demands would be observed is rather slim.

In light of the gravity of the present situation, we must not resign ourselves to the facts at hand—for, if there is no global social revolution in the near term, there would seem to be no future for the life of humanity and the rest of nature. There exist several historical and contemporary examples of how to mobilize so as to promote and carry out profound changes in society. I agree with Peter Stanchev in holding the neo-Zapatista movement in Chiapas and the anarchistic experiment of the Kurds in Rojava to be stars that illuminate our path toward the possible anti-capitalist, feminist, and ecological future.19  In reflecting on the proposals set forth by the Mexican anarchists Ricardo Flores Magón and Práxedis G. Guerrero a century ago, it is elemental to affirm the place of direct action as a means of achieving social equality and climate justice.20 I would like to call special attention to the proposal made by the Environmental Union Caucus of the International Workers of the World (IWW EUC) for an ecological general strike, which shares many commonalities with the concept of climate Satyagraha that has been advanced by Ecosocialist Horizons.21 In both cases, the idea is that the masses of associated people express their “truth-force” by intervening and interrupting the functioning of the global machine of production and death while they also develop an inclusive, participatory, and liberatory counter-power—a global confederation of humanity instituting ecological self-management.

The question for the moment, then, is how to contribute to the flowering of this global people’s uprising toward happiness, liberation, and Eros, in the words of George Katsiaficas.22 I will leave the final word for the slogan thought up by B. R. Ambedkar, the twentieth-century Dalit social critic: “Educate! Agitate! Organize!”

1 Herbert Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978), 56.

2 Suzanne Goldenberg, “2014 officially the hottest year on record,” The Guardian, 16 January 2015.

3 John Vidal, “August was hottest on record worldwide, says Nasa,” The Guardian, 16 September 2014.

4 Goldenberg; Shaun A. Marcott et al., “A Reconstruction of Regional and Global Temperatures for the Past 11,300 Years,” Science, 8 March 2013. Available online: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/339/6124/1198.abstract.

5 Robert Scribbler, “Arctic Heat Wave Sets off Hottest Ever Winter-Time Temperatures, Major Melt, Disasters for Coastal and Interior Alaska,” 28 January 2014. Available online: https://robertscribbler.wordpress.com/2014/01/28/arctic-heat-wave-sets-off-hottest-ever-winter-time-temperatures-major-melt-disasters-for-coastal-and-interior-alaska. Jon Queally, “Burning ‘Deep Purple’: Australia So Hot New Color Added to Index,” Common Dreams, 8 January 2013.

6 Jonathan Watts, “Brazil’s worst drought in history prompts protests and blackouts,” The Guardian, 23 January 2015; Manuel Mogato, “Typhoon kills at least 1,200 in Philippines: Red Cross,” Reuters, 9 November 2013.

7 Jonathan Watts, “Brazil’s worst drought in history prompts protests and blackouts,” The Guardian, 23 January 2015; Manuel Mogato, “Typhoon kills at least 1,200 in Philippines: Red Cross,” Reuters, 9 November 2013.

8 Damian Carrington, “Earth has lost half its wildlife in the past 40 years, says WWF,” The Guardian, 29 September 2014; Robin McKie, “Earth faces ‘sixth extinction’ with 41% of amphibians set to go the way of the dodo,” The Guardian, 13 December 2014; Tom Bawden, “A quarter of the world’s marine species in danger of extinction,” The Independent, 30 January 2015.

9 Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (New York: Henry Holt, 2014).

10 Emir Olivares Alonso, “El planeta ante un crisis que pone en riesgo la humanidad,” La Jornada, 4 June 2014; Oliver Milman, “Rate of environmental degradation puts life on Earth at risk, say scientists,” The Guardian, 15 January 2015.

11 Heather Stewart, “Nicholas Stern: ‘I got it wrong on climate change,’” The Guardian, 26 January 2013.

12 Suzanne Goldenberg, “UN: rate of emissions growth nearly doubled in first decade of 21st century,” The Guardian, 11 April 2014.

13 Tom Bawden, “Doomsday clock: We are closer to doom than at any time since the Cold War, say scientists,” The Independent, 22 January 2015.

14 Josh Rogin, “America’s Allies Are Funding ISIS,” The Daily Beast, 14 June 2014; Owen Gibson and Pete Pattisson, “Death toll among Qatar’s 2022 World Cup workers revealed,” The Guardian, 23 December 2014.

15 Sophie Yeo, “Warsaw climate talks: nearly 3 in 10 countries not sending ministers,” The Guardian, 13 November 2013.

16 John Vidal, “Is the Lima deal a travesty of global climate justice?” The Guardian, 15 December 2014.

17 Red Contra la Represión, “Libertad a Cristian Rosendahl Guerrero y contra las agresiones a la Caravana Climatica,” Enlace Zapatista, 14 December 2014; David Hill, “Ecuador pursued China oil deal while pledging to protect Yasuni, papers show,” The Guardian, 19 February 2014.

18 Ibid.

19 Peter Stanchev, “From Chiapas to Rojava—more than just coincidences,” Kurdish Question, 6 February 2015.

20 Claudio Lomnitz, The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón (New York: Zone Books, 2014); Práxedis G. Guerrero, Artículos literarios y de combate: pensamientos; crónicas revolucionarias, etc. Placer Armado Ediciones, 2012 (1924), 28.

21 Elliott Hughes and Steve Ongerth, “Towards an Ecological General Strike: the Earth Day to May Day Assembly and Days of Direct Action,” IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, 30 March 2014. Available online:

http://ecology.iww.org/node/391. “Call for Climate Satyagraha!” Ecosocialist Horizons, 3 November 2014. Available online:

http://ecosocialisthorizons.com/2014/11/call-for-climate-satyagraha.

22 George Katsiaficas, “Toward a Global People’s Uprising” (2009). Available online: http://www.eroseffect.com/spanish/levantamiento_global.htm.

 

On Climate Satyagraha: Interview with Quincy Saul

April 9, 2015

Published on Counterpunch, 10 April 2015

The socio-ecological catastrophe that is global capitalism is clear for all to see. We are in dire need of an alternative system which does not ceaselessly destroy nature and oppress and impoverish the vast majority of humankind, including our future generations, whose lives may very well be highly constrained if not outright canceled due to prevailing environmental destructiveness. It is in this sense of contemplating and reflecting on alternatives to capitalist depravity that I was fortunate enough recently to discuss the present moment and some of the possible means of displacing hegemonic power with Quincy Saul of Ecosocialist Horizons (EH). Quincy and the rest of the members of this collective have envisioned a compelling means of overcoming the environmental crisis: that is, through climate Satyagraha.

The latest biological studies show a decline of a full half of animal populations on Earth since 1970, and an ever-burgeoning list of species and classes of vertebrates at immediate risk of extinction: a quarter of all marine species, a quarter of all mammals, and nearly half of all amphibians are on the edge.1 Moreover, two independent studies published in Science and Anthropocene Review in January conclude that the present rate of environmental destruction essentially threatens the fate of complex life on the planet.2 Meanwhile, global carbon emissions continue in relentless expansion, with each new year bringing a new broken record, whether in terms of total greenhouse gas emissions, average global temperatures, or both. Truly, then, this is a critical moment in human history, one which could lead to utter oblivion, as through the perpetuation of business as usual, or alternately amelioration and emancipation, as through social revolution.

Quincy, could you share your assessment of the global climate-justice movements at present, some seven months after the People’s Climate March (PCM)—a development of which you were famously highly critical—and five months after yet another farcical example of the theater of absurd that is the international climate-negotiation process, as seen at the Twentieth Conference of Parties (COP20) in Lima, Peru?

Thank you Javier for compiling those statistics. There’s such an immense range of data out there, and it’s important to hone in on the key information. In terms of the climate-justice movement, the problem I see is that the whole doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts. So you have this amazing, fearless, courageous work that’s happening on local levels, all over the world—too numerous to even start listing. When it comes to resistance struggle, people are resisting mines, pipelines, and destructive development projects from the Altiplano of Peru to central Indian jungles, the Amazon River, indigenous reservations in the U.S., the factory-cities of China, the Niger Delta—uncountable acts of courage that people are taking to defend their ecosystems and their lives, whether climate change is the central issue, or it’s about defense of a single ecosystem. And then on the prefiguration side, there are people on every continent who are working really hard laying the foundations for the next world-system. Seed-saving, agroecologies—people are combining ancestral productive projects with appropriate technologies, building community resilience, and constructing community democracy in the context of war and natural disaster. So this is hopeful and wonderful work that has be encouraged. But somehow it’s not adding up.

One example I’d pick is this wonderful campaign that’s happening around the island-nation of Palau to create the world’s largest marine reserve. They want to ban commercial fishing in this whole area. It would be an unprecedented development, and it deserves our full support. But if ocean acidification is not addressed at the level of the whole earth-system, then a ban on commercial fishing is not going to save those beautiful marine ecosystems. That’s kind of the problem. The key question is convergence—how all these local movements could add up to something more than the sum of their parts. But what we have now is almost the opposite: when all these groups get together, they add up to something less. So what I wrote in that article is what Al Gore said many years ago: that he couldn’t understand why people weren’t undertaking massive nonviolent civil disobedience campaigns to shut down coal plants. And we’re still not seeing that. Everybody gets together, and it’s less than Al Gore: it’s petitions, it’s rallies, books, movies, advertisements. There isn’t even anything illegal. Not that illegality is the measure of what we should be doing or not doing. But whether we’re talking about the gatherings in New York, Durban, or even Lima, I don’t think it’s much of a difference. Durban and Lima were much more militant than New York, but these actions are still not at all commensurate to the scale of the catastrophe you just illustrated.

Our friend Sky Cohen said to me when I last saw him, “Look, I don’t think anyone is doing the work they should be doing. I mean, Bangladesh is going under water.” He was funny; he said, “Even Subcomandante Marcos isn’t doing enough!” And I resonate with that. Who’s doing enough? I got some criticism for what I wrote, but what’s the balance sheet? I think that now is the time for those who defended the march to speak up. What changed? Was there any payoff for this multimillion-dollar PR campaign? Did we concretely reduce carbon emissions? Did we change the United Nations agenda? Did we put climate change as a question on the map that now has to be addressed? Is it being addressed? All the things they said: “the biggest climate change march ever,” “this changes everything.” Has it? Let’s see. We can measure these things. But we aren’t; I think on some level people are afraid to.

So what is the answer? How do we get the whole to add up to more than the sum of its parts? I don’t have the one answer, but I do think that part of the diagnosis of what’s wrong is that there’s a problem inside of us: I think we lack imagination about what a real movement would look like. I think too many of us identify too much with this Earth-destroying system, such that we can’t imagine what it would be like to make a break from it. This is especially the case in a place like New York City, which epitomizes “empire as a way of life.” The other problem is that we keep chasing the ruling class around to all their conferences. I can’t get over it; when are we going to stop doing this? We know what the outcomes are going to be: they’re going to have a big PR campaign, they’re going to open up new markets for false solutions. We’ve seen this process happen so many times. When are we going to stop just conference-hopping around the world, putting up a big pagoda, and having the “alternative people’s tent”? An alternative precedent was set in Cochabamba, Bolivia, when they made the Cochabamba Declaration, which is still the most radical document out there on climate change, in terms of calling for even less than a 2°C rise in average global temperatures—a 1.5°C cap. They just held their own conference and set their own agenda on their own schedule.

I think these are the key things: We need to stop chasing the ruling class around the world, and we need to build our own autonomous bases of resistance and prefiguration. Again, all this amazing local work, how do we help it converge? How do we help it become more than the sum of its parts? I think the first step is that we have to imagine what that would look like, and that means imagining a break from the system that we’re dependent on. Concretely, how would you not have fossil fuels be part of existence anymore? Not as a consumer decision, but as an ontological life movement?

Recently, I read Truth and Dare: A Comic Book Curriculum for the End and the Beginning of the World (Ecosocialist Horizons/Autonomedia, 2014), which you helped to edit and write, as I understand. This work is divided into ten chapters or sections, and comes with an appendix listing seemingly hundreds of recommended readings. Could you speak to the vision which led you to put Truth and Dare together, and the hopes you have for it?

Thank you Javier, I’m very honored that you read it. Just to give some credit: I can be blamed for it, because I was the final editor, but I must credit Fred Ho, Seth Tobocman, Joel Kovel, and many other people who sent in suggestions for that curriculum. It was a big collective effort.

The vision? All the literature that was out there about ecosocialism was pretty academic, and we wanted to break out of that. We wanted to break out of the academic perspective and make ecosocialism a perspective that’s available to children, to people who don’t have the time or energy or inclination to read The Enemy of Nature or Imperiled Life or any of the many books out there that illustrate our problems. Specifically, we wanted to give an illustration of how our collective understands ecosocialism, which differs from the way some other groups have put it forward, as you’ve noticed.

Specifically, this comes through in our understanding of gender and the role of patriarchy in the development of capitalism; it comes out in our understanding of indigeneity, which relates to the question of intrinsic value; it comes through our attention to spiritual traditions and their role in emancipatory politics; and in terms of our perspective on questions of revolutionary strategy, where we understand struggle and prefiguration as equally important. So in those four areas, our conception of ecosocialism differs in some ways from what other people are putting out there. We wanted to put all this into an accessible framework. Another part of the vision is that we wanted the artwork to be of high quality. The whole first chapter has no words. We wanted to do that, to draw people in.

In terms of hopes for it, we just hope that it is both useful and inspiring. For rookies, it can be a point of departure to learn about all kinds of things. And for people who already know a lot, if it can inspire them, or maybe give them a new perspective on ecosocialism—even if they disagree with it—hopefully it will help them think more deeply about things. The curriculum at the end includes everything from children’s books to movies to scholarly theoretical texts, so hopefully all ages will find a way to make use of it. We also want to do translations. We have some inroads for Chinese, Spanish, Swahili, and Arabic versions. We hope that people read it and review it.

I particularly liked Paula Hewitt Amram’s illustration of the toad in “The Ecosocialist Horizon”: the panel in question says, “Nature has intrinsic value: it has value independent of us.” It is both telling and ironic that an amphibian should be chosen to depict this point, in light of the sordid fate to which humanity and capitalism—or better, capitalist humanity—has consigned these animals.

There’s this documentary I saw recently about a water struggle on a Diné (Navajo) reservation. They were fighting for their water, and a younger native woman repeated what one of the elders had told her—that actually the water didn’t even belong to the Diné people. The water belongs to the frog.

You highlighted the question of intrinsic value. In one word, what is ecosocialism? It’s socialism plus the intrinsic value of nature: a non-anthropocentric socialism, that’s what we’re going for here. In terms of how we see an ecosocialist horizon, that’s one of the crucial things. We differ from a lot of socialists who have a much more Cartesian outlook about inanimate, “clockwork” nature, here for human use and abuse. So we are breaking from those socialists, but on the other hand we are connecting to every single indigenous tradition on every continent. Perhaps there are very few universal things, yet one of the universal things it that every non-state or pre-state people—whether you call them tribal, indigenous, aboriginal, etc.—have some sense that nature is alive, even if it’s inanimate—that it has value outside of us. And I want to expose some of the socialists on this, because it’s very hip now to pay lip service to indigenous struggles. All socialists do this, and that’s great, a big change over a few decades ago. But in terms of the actual ideology, a lot of these socialists have a paternalistic, condescending attitude toward indigenous cosmovisions—they don’t believe in the Pachamama or in the Great Mystery; they don’t believe that value really exists independent of human labor. They think that this spiritual stuff is some sort of anachronism that will be overcome through social labor on the factory floor. And that’s just a disaster. That’s Manifest Destiny. So what we want is an anti-Manifest Destiny socialism, a non-anthropocentric socialism—not only for the humans, but for the frogs as well. I really want to expose that: If you want to have real solidarity with the first nations, you should pay attention to what they say, not just support them as bodies which just happen to be blocking a pipeline. No, genuine solidarity with first-nation peoples should be built on ideological unity, on a shared belief in and commitment to the defense of intrinsic value of nature.

Last summer, you attended the conference of the Pan-African Network for Nonviolence and Peacebuilding in Cape Town, South Africa, and the document which issued forth from this convergence was the “Call for Climate Satyagraha!”  Please speak about the proceedings at this conference, and what you mean by climate Satyagraha.

Thanks for reading. This was a historic conference. It was organized by War Resisters International together with local sponsoring organizations. It was the first fully Pan-African conference on non-violent resistance, in the sense that there had been a few others, but they were smaller and more localized. There were people represented from over 30 countries in Africa, from some 50 countries globally, and from every continent. And everybody came with some kind of a base; people were representing organizations.

We were invited to bring the ecosocialist perspective to conversations around nonviolence and anti-militarism. We did three things: we handed out invitations to a discussion on the draft document of the “Call for Climate Satyagraha; we did a big event, which included speeches, a tribute to Dennis Brutus, who was a very visionary person in terms of ecological struggle and climate change; and several world-class musical acts of local and international musicians. We were also part of a working group that met every day called “Resisting the War on Mother Earth and Reclaiming our Home.” A lot of the Working Group’s time was spent discussing the climate Satyagraha proposal, and refining it.

I’ve read a fair amount about struggles throughout Africa, about historical and contemporary genocides, but I had never really met people from a lot of these places. It changes things when you’re talking to someone from South Kordofan, Darfur, or the DRC. These are people who are here for a conference on nonviolence and peacebuilding, not on climate. And they’re coming from places where there’s not a lot of room for bullshit. Life and death: they’re taking a risk even being there. I was expecting people not to reject the environmental analysis in any way, but just to say, “Well, that isn’t really what we’re working on. This is a good idea I support, but we’re focused on trying to get these two ethnic groups to not kill each other.” But that wasn’t the case. People have a very acute awareness of how environmental factors are going to immediately play out into violent, warlike situations. They have an acute awareness of how climate change is going to precipitate violence in their communities. So to really meet people from these places and to know that whenever you talk about “the climate-justice movement,” you’re not just talking about some activists in New York, Lima, or Durban; you’re talking about these people! It was really transformative for us, to realize that these too are the faces of the climate justice movement, that this is a world-wide struggle which includes everyone.

There was a very positive response from so many people. We approached it with a lot of humility: we handed out our draft, and we said, “This is an invitation to discussion. We’re interested in any feedback or critique you have.” We had to push people to critique, because they were really into the idea from the beginning for the most part. It was, and remains very inspiring and challenging to understand that.

In terms of the idea of Satyagraha, it’s an old idea. It means “to hold onto truth,” “love force,” “truth-power.” There are many different definitions and translations. It’s a method of political struggle, an action and a process, which combines resistance and prefiguration. The Satyagrahi, or the person who engages in Satyagraha, has to embody the principles they’re fighting for. In this sense, I think this is really the antidote to a lot of the dead-end NGO activism in the U.S., where politics is a career. I think it’s this kind of salaried activism that is getting us nowhere. It’s not about going to work with your styrofoam cup of coffee, sitting at your computer all day sending emails, and calling that a climate justice movement. You have to really embody what you’re fighting for. This has a negative and a positive element, a rejection and an affirmation: You have to resist the war on Mother Earth, and you have to embody the alternative, “being the change you want to see in the world.” So I think as a framework, Satyagraha is hugely important. There’s a long history, very complex, in many countries, especially in South Africa and South Asia. I think specifically for people in the US, where we’re very colonized by the NGO activist culture, and its endless divorce of means from ends, it’s liberating for us to think about Satyagraha.

Climate Satyagraha: we need a climate Satyagraha now because 2015 is our deadline! The IPCC has been saying since this 2007, with their Fourth Assessment Report (4AR). In the 4AR, the IPCC said that 2015 is the deadline for a carbon emissions peak if we want to keep a temperature increase below 2°C, which as you know from Cochabamba isn’t even enough. Still, it is a threshold to be recognized, because if you get beyond that point, the various positive feedback loops in the earth-system are triggered, and it all slips out of our hands. So what do we do? We’ve chased the elite, we’ve written petitions, we’ve done everything short of what Al Gore called for, which is actually blocking the production and further use of fossil fuels. So that’s what we need, a mass nonviolent prefigurative resistance movement to keep the oil in the soil. The one strategic element we’re adding is the attention to ports and logistics, as we’ll see in the next question.

To turn to the question of spirituality: Let go of your ego form of the self for a moment and think about the future generations, about what’s going to be left on this planet after you die, and the opportunity that we have now. We have every technical ability to turn the tide. If you read David Schwartzman and a lot of other people—even if they don’t get a lot of publicity—there are actually immense strides in terms of solar technologies that could enable us to contain contain climate catastrophe and also reduce energy poverty. We already have climate catastrophe, but it could get hellishly worse. So we have that opportunity right now, but it’s a year-long opportunity. Next year carbon emissions need to begin a rapid decline. What, then, does it take? We can’t know the future, but we can know the path: I think Satyagraha lights the way forward. We have to hold on to the truth, which is love, which is power: that we can change the course of history.

What it says in Truth and Dare is that we need a convergence. “All of the world’s profound spiritual and revolutionary traditions converge for the preservation of life and beauty, in a world and time in which both are threatened.” Bottom line, all of these forms of organized spirituality value life—all the major world religions. Everybody needs to come together in a struggle against the big multinational corporations and their puppets in government.

As economic and ecological catastrophe continues, breaking-apart societies are going to get pretty ugly, and that ugliness will be expressed though all of our social contradictions, one of which is religion. So I do present a rather “pro-spiritual” line, but I know that Third Reich meant “Kingdom of God.” Religion is not inherently emancipatory in any way. During the decolonization movement in India, they would have big rallies for Hindu-Muslim unity. People of both religions wanted decolonization, and they had some foresight to see that things would get ugly if they didn’t emphasize strongly that they were united on this. And it wasn’t enough, but it also was something. We’ll talk about the Sarvodaya villages in Sri Lanka, some of which have acted as firewalls for the spread of ethnic and religious violence, because the people of those villages stood up to the mobs. Similarly, we must emphasize and educate around inter-faith unity here, as this will be a key part of our resilience to climate change. If we don’t do that type of work more and more, it’s going to get even worse, and it’s already terrible, especially for Muslims in this country.

Clearly, the question of logistics and the prospect of physically blockading the flow of capital is not foreign from current events, in light of the 2015 labor dispute between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA). How do you think labor can be radicalized (or radicalize itself), both in the U.S. and throughout the world, and come to the revolutionary consciousness which is such a necessary prerequisite for engaging in material struggle against climate catastrophe from below? What can you say about the relationship between workers at the point of production and concerned outsiders, such as climate activists and radical intellectuals?

On the first question, I spent a couple of years working in and around organized labor. I worked with the United Electric Workers in Chicago and later I came to New York and worked with a Teamsters local, through a program at the Murphy Institute. These groups I worked with are exceptions to the norm: the United Electric Workers, like the ILWU, are some of the few radical unions left, who paid the price, and their membership got decimated, because they refused to sign Taft-Hartley. I only know in detail the U.S. labor movement. But let’s be honest, there’s not much of a labor movement in this country, unless you call retreat a movement. It’s important to say that, because leftists do a lot of “rah-rah labor movement,” but the only obvious movement is retreat. Union density has been declining for the last several decades, and people are fighting noble defensive struggles, but you can’t necessarily call that a movement.

I think the old answers still hold true: people are radicalized and revolutionized through struggle and collective action. The problem is I think what Guy Debord said, that the representatives of the working class have become the enemies of the working class. We spent a lot of time in the Teamsters fighting our own International reps, and against other mobbed up locals. There are important exceptions, obviously, but there’s really very little collective action or struggle. The labor “movement” is often all about corporate campaigns—meaning a bunch of union staffers doing media smear campaigns against the corporation, and the workers aren’t involved at all. Every few years they have election drives where workers are rounded up to vote for the less anti-union candidate. And then there are Potëmkin organizing drives. Every once in a while, they’ll do a big “Rah-Rah” spectacle. I think that’s what happened in the recent Walmart strike, to be perfectly honest; we were lied to. The whole country was told that workers were striking at Walmart. But go talk with them now; see what’s happening. They haven’t built a movement.

It’s not about building working-class power. The words “working class” barely even appear in mainstream labor movement discourse. It’s about integrating people into the middle class—that’s what they’re trying to do. That’s the state that things are in. But on the brighter side, if you look at labor-movement history, you see that change never comes from the established leadership. The CIO was born in a fist-fight on the floor of the AFL: John Lewis punched William Hutcheson, and the rest is history. Another thing that you see is that union organizing doesn’t come gradually; it always comes in surges. In the late 1920s union density was at a historic low. Within a decade it was the highest in U.S. history. So change is going to come from outside the established union leadership, and it’s going to come suddenly. I think we saw some seeds of that in Wisconsin when the state house was occupied. Who ended the occupation? It was the union leadership; they literally told people to “put down their picket signs and pick up their clipboards.” The people are ready, but the leadership is holding them back.

In terms of the relationship between workers at the point of production and climate activists: I think the novelty in the call for Climate Satyagraha is that we’re not talking about the point of production, but rather about the point of distribution. These are the new commanding heights, the new lynchpin of the global economy, and I don’t think that’s really been grasped by a lot of people—the way global political economy functions structurally today with just-in-time production. When you buy something from Walmart, it’s shipped two hours later from Shenzhen, so that Walmart doesn’t have to stock their shelves with excess product. Capital when not in motion ceases to be capital, so it’s constantly in motion; department stores get restocked several times per day. Then you have these mechanized ports, such that the entire port of Shanghai is run by a handful of workers. It’s an amazing opportunity for an intervention, for workers’ control. Chicago has about a hundred thousand workers in the logistics industry through whose hands pass about 60% of all commodities in North America. A hundred thousand workers is not that many. I think this is the equivalent of the GM Fisher No. 1 Plant that was famously occupied in the 1930s. If you occupy that one plant that none of the rest of the factories can function without, you can shut down the whole supply chain. That’s where the focus has to be.

But let’s be honest, in terms of relations between workers and activists, they’re terrible. With important exceptions, people don’t know each other, and they don’t even speak the same language. I think part of the problem is the climate-activist identity, which I think comes out of the dominant NGO culture. The NGO culture has transformed the way we think about social change over the past 60 years for the worse. Once climate activists and radical intellectuals start speaking a language that the people working in the ports can understand, and once they start leading lives that these people can relate to—instead of just conference-hopping and emailing—as soon as we can concretely build solidarity in door-to-door organizing, then we can see a change. I would emphasize the door-to-door approach. Hardly anyone one does that anymore. That’s the way to organize; you go door-to-door. As soon as the climate activists start doing that in the ports, I think you could see serious results.

I understand that you and David Schwartzman, author of “Solar Communism” (1996), have been working together to concretely propose that the Bolivarian government of Venezuela play a significant role in simultaneously advancing renewable energy and anti-capitalism on the global stage. Please explain how you envision this process unfolding. For me, the contradiction between petrosocialism and ecosocialism is fundamental and daunting. Why do you think the Venezuelan State would champion a dialectical transcendence of the very extractive economy on which it has depended for its power and prestige?

They have to. In 2013, they came out with a new Plan de la Patria, which was the campaign that Chávez ran on for his last reelection. It wasn’t just something that they wrote up in a room. It was a constituent process of creation. Some of the people I spoke to last time I was there said it was almost on the scale of the constituent assembly for the constitution (1999). It was a massive effort to get this document together, and it’s worth reading. Venezuela is the first government in the world to officially call for ecosocialism. So what does that mean? That’s the big question, and that’s literally being determined now at all levels of society. There are people in Venezuela who are counter-revolutionary, people who are opportunistic, people who are very radical. This fight is happening inside the ministries and it’s happening in in the fields—with the Green Revolution being practiced on one side of the street and agroecology on the other. It’s everywhere.

Why would they transcend petrosocialism? In terms of their mandate, they have to. They have a mandate to ensure the “general wellbeing” of all their citizens, in a healthy environment, for all perpetuity. So if they burn all the oil in the Faja del Orinoco—they just discovered a field that may be bigger than Saudi Arabia, though it’s hard to believe these oil predictions—everybody in the country and the whole world is going to be at severe risk. So they can’t. It says in the Plan that ecosocialism is another stage in socialism, where we respect the rhythms and cycles of nature, wherein we learn from indigenous peoples—all the language is in there. So the question is how, and also it’s a question of conscientization, to use Paolo Freire’s term. Ecosocialism has to be expressed at the level of poder popular, and that’s starting to happen.

There are contradictions in the Plan de la Patria, because they call for a coordinated mass-movement for climate justice, yet they also call for increased extraction of natural resources. When I was there for the Fourth Congress of Biological Diversity, this was all being debated. I think Brecht was right when he said, “in the contradiction is the hope.” These are the stages that we have to get through to move forward in a revolutionary process. How do you use oil to get off oil? It’s a huge challenge, and it’s not just a domestic problem—some people were very explicit there, saying quite plainly, “If we stop exporting oil, we get invaded by the Yanquis.” That’s the primary reality; they just prevented a coup!

So how do they do this? They have the mandate, and they’re required to do it based on what the people have asked of their government, and the government is constituted on poder popular. I think they’re better situated to do it than anyone else. Why? Because they’re sitting on a giant gold mine. Just use all that oil money to become the solar-energy hub of the entire world. Bring experts in from all over the world, build up the industry, train cadre in appropriate solar technology, and then send them out all over the world, like the Cubans send doctors. The key, qualitative tipping point that has to be reached in terms of renewable energy, is to build solar panels with solar power, no longer with fossil fuels. Venezuela has the money to start that process. Not only that, they also have the political process and the level of political consciousness among the general population to be able to precipitate something like that. You need it all. You can’t just have good people in government; you can’t just have a mass movement. You need these people situated at all levels to be able to push something like that forward. That’s the context of the proposal that David and I wrote—for people in the grassroots and in the government—for a new Gran Misión to solarize the economy of Venezuela and jumpstart the transition in all the Mercosur countries.

There is a revolutionary process underway in Venezuela, which you can’t necessarily tell without visiting it or studying it in detail. The key thing is, how do we play a role in this? We have to side with the people in Venezuela who are fighting for the ecosocialism that we want, which isn’t the Green Revolution, nor is it the opportunism of the Chinese Communist Party. It’s grassroots democracy built around communes, agroecology, and ancestral cosmovision. Those forces are there to be supported. This is the most important point to make, really. Using existing oil reserves, Venezuela can create a fully solarized economy within the next decade, stop using oil, and moreover provide all the seed money for the same transition in the whole region. The fact that that kind of proposal can potentially be heard and responded to in the mountains, in the jungles, in the barrios, and in the corridors of power in Venezuela is extremely unique.

Returning to the concept of climate Satyagraha, which we know to be a model that is clearly influenced by Gandhi and the Sarvodaya movement: given that you are proposing a “return” to Gandhian strategy, what is your assessment of the legacy of the Sarvodaya (or “common good”) movement during Gandhi’s lifetime and since? Our friend John Clark writes a very friendly account of the movement in The Impossible Community (2013), wherein he notes it to essentially be an anarchist mass-movement, given the stress on direct action, decentralization, ahimsa (non-violence), self-management, and (voluntary) redistribution of lands to the poor peasantry.3 John also discusses Sarvodaya Shramadana, a community-based alternate-development movement that blends Gandhianism and Buddhism in Sri Lanka, and he likens it even to the Zapatistas’ liberated territories. Yet I do not think that Gandhi’s approach should be considered as being beyond reproach, in light of his numerous critics, both from his day and ours.

Definitely. I recently read B. R. Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste that just came out with a long introduction by Arundhati Roy. I learned a lot from this, and I’m a lot more critical of Gandhi than I was before reading that book. In fact, I would go so far to say that the discussion of Satyagraha has to be completely divorced from the person of Gandhi to move forward progressively. Gandhi may have been a political genius but he had big blind spots and prejudices, to say the least. Yet in this complex matrix of contradictions is the path to truth. Gandhi, and Roy credits him with this, got something that Ambedkar didn’t, which is that Ambedkar saw the “liberated future” as an urban metropolis, whereas Gandhi had the vision to see—even if it wasn’t born of a specifically ecological understanding—that the future may lie not so much in a massive urban metropolis but in a return to village economies, as set forth in Hind Swaraj.

I recently got back from Sri Lanka, where I had the opportunity to learn a lot about the Sarvodaya movement, which is inspired by Gandhian ideas. Sarvodaya means “the awakening of all.” A. T. Ariyaratne, the founder of the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement in Sri Lanka, contrasts this to utilitarianism—the philosophy from European liberalism of “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Sarvodaya is about everyone, not just the majority. Sarvodaya Shramadana means “the awakening of all through collective work.” Founded i>n 1958, they started by going door-to-door, the way everything starts, by going to people’s houses in a village and talking to them about their lives and their needs. Then they would bring people from the city—Ariyaratne was a college professor, so he brought his students—and they would do this work together with the people of the village. Then someone in the next village heard about it and invited them to come. Fifty years later, there is a network of 15,000 villages, and over 2,000 are self-governing and self-reliant. It is a very unique formation in the whole world.

One of the things that is really compelling is the methodology they’ve developed. They’ve come up with a whole vocabulary for development, so that they’re not always stuck with the Western paradigm. It’s a five-step program: it starts with individual awakening (Purna Paurusodaya), then family awakening (Kutumbodaya), then village awakening (Gramodaya), then national awakening (Deshodaya), and finally world awakening (Vishvodaya). That’s the program. Recently they’ve just started the Deshodaya campaign—that’s how long they’ve taken. There’s a saying that bad news travels fast and good news travels slowly. This is a slowly building movement, and it’s good news! I think part of what appealed to me is about Sarvodaya was the culture—it was such a breath of fresh air! Everyone was so kind and generous. You could tell that everybody had been through a process of really soul-searching for why they’re in this work in the first place. That isn’t something you encounter much in the U.S., where people are involved for all kinds of crazy reasons, which can be a big obstacle to moving forward over the long term.

So it’s a very slow, non-violent revolution. You don’t often hear words like anti-imperialism or anti-capitalism; they don’t always come up. It’s very much rooted in satisfying people’s basic needs, and they’ve defined basic needs democratically. There are some interesting things about this. One is that employment is not included. They don’t think that it’s our purpose here on this planet to have a job. Instead they talk about leading fulfilling lives. Also they say that they are working for a world without poverty or affluence. So there are elements which are very revolutionary, but they don’t rant and rave about it. The politics are all prefigured in what they’re doing. Their conception of a society based on human needs sounds simple, but if you push it to its limits you realize it’s challenging capitalism at the level of the individual, the family, the village, the nation and the world.

It’s really amazing what they’ve built. At this point, about one in twenty people in Sri Lanka has gone through a Sarvodaya training process—about 1 million in a country of 20 million people. They’re everywhere, and they work with everybody. They’ll work with other NGOS, even with USAID, but they don’t get corrupted by it. Their guiding philosophy acts as a force field against the corrosive influences in the mainstream.

Our whole political culture in the U.S. left is built around protest and opposition; resistance and struggle. We’re not used to a politics that starts with meditation, and focuses on working with and caring for our neighbors. These Sarvodaya villages have acted as firewalls to contain the spread of ethnic violence, as I’ve said, so their politics are very real. We have a lot of discussion in the U.S. about what climate resilience. It occurred to me while visiting a self-managed village in Batticaloa, in the wake of a tsunami and a civil war, that the best resilience you can have is community democracy. When disaster strikes, are people going to know each other? Are they going to be able to work together to do things? Resilience is built by going door-to-door and finding out what your neighbors are doing and how to work and live together. So to go back to some of the other questions—I think Sarvodaya challenges us to rethink, what is the revolutionary subject? Who is the real climate justice activist? What does the revolution look like? Fifty years ago, A. T. Ariyaratne said, look, we need a revolution against capitalism and imperialism, but we are taking the long, slow, non-violent path to get there. Now five decades later, they are still on that path. They don’t protest, so they aren’t immediately recognizable as part of the left. But there are millions of people who protest all the time—and how many village economies have they built based on self reliance, democracy, and respect for nature? I was very inspired by what I saw and learned there.

In your critique of the People’s Climate March, entitled “Like a Dull Knife: The People’s Climate ‘Farce,’” you close by invoking the counter-image of the peoples of the U.S. autonomously deciding to overthrow the historical relationship we have maintained with the rest of the world for centuries: that is to say, parasitism and predation. You anticipate that we will abandon our “imperial hubris” and join the revolutionary ecosocialist uprisings of the Global South. How do you envision this transition proceeding in the imperial core of the capitalist world-system, or the “belly of the beast”?

Good question. I think this is the kind of thing that a lot of people haven’t really thought out. As far as I know, Marx and Engels said, “We don’t write recipes for the cooks of the future.”

Or, as they write in The German Ideology: “Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.”

Right—so we’ll see, and we are seeing. But on the other hand, climate change gives us a deadline, so we have to move a little more quickly here. First of all, this is an empire. It’s different than just any oppressive regime: there’s a major qualitative difference. We have a responsibility not only to our own population to bring it down, but as a matter fact to the entire world, whose emancipation is held back by our failure to overthrow it from the inside.

All empires fall the same way: through reclaiming the land. Sometimes it takes a long time. It took about three hundred years for the Roman Empire to fall. But it started on the peripheries, with people taking the land back. I think there’s no reason to think it will happen any differently here. It has already to some degree begun in the sense of the Monroe Doctrine falling apart. We no longer have any military bases in South America—

Colombia?

Well, Colombia is a U.S. military base. And so is Costa Rica. But the point is that, forty years ago, all these countries had military bases. So this process has begun, but it has to happen in the heartland too.

There’s a contradiction here: because we need more coordination and coming together than ever before, but we also need to break up the empire. So how does that look? That’s the question. For socialists, the question is, do you believe in the Socialist United States? Or is that a contradiction in terms? This is not a nation built on freedom, but on slavery and genocide. Let’s understand that and move forward. There are some wonderful things that happened in this country’s history, and we can continue to honor those things and respect them. The “founding fathers” said some great things—even the North Vietnamese copied their constitution! But the fifty states as we know them are an imperial project. So the people need to reclaim the land. The key element is how do we make sure that these reclamations—these secessions—are progressive. This is really a key thing, because if you look at the progressive things that have happened in our country’s history, it has mostly been federal legislation—Civil Rights, women’s suffrage, and so on. These are not things that the states decided. Grassroots democracy has to prevail over grassroots fascism. So this is a challenge: We need to break up the empire, but make the breaking-up a greater coming-together. We need to realize that the empire actually is in the way of our coming together closer.

This is controversial, but I would say that the vision for revolution in the belly of beast is not one of seizing power; it’s one of exodus. I think that’s very concrete in a coastal city like New York—we literally have to leave, because it’s going under water. So we should immediately, starting now, begin to plan the exodus. Sometimes the exodus is a physical movement; sometimes it doesn’t have to be a relocation. It can be a change in the way of life—a secession from empire as a way of life. Go back and read Exodus. It’s an interesting analogue to our times. Lots of people didn’t want to leave the pyramids; they liked the flesh-pots of empire. We’ve got a lot of nice flesh-pots around here: all the fast food and smartphones. We have to give that up. And along the way, some people are going to want to turn back. They’re going to make a little golden iPhone and worship it.

I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I think that that’s the model: A revolutionary exodus which dismantles the pyramids. My ideal vision would be an ecosocialist confederation of maroon societies. And I think you can actually see the seeds of this starting to grow in places like Troy, New York, in northern Vermont, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—all the places where we’ve organized convergences with Ecosocialist Horizons, we’ve tried to focus on places where the system is already breaking down, and people are already in the midst of building something new. Again, the key question is how to make the breaking-apart of empire a greater coming-together of the people? It’s the same path, we just have to learn how to walk it, and since time is short, to run it.

1 Damian Carrington, “Earth has lost half its wildlife in the past 40 years, says WWF,” The Guardian, 29 September 2014; Robin McKie, “Earth faces ‘sixth extinction’ with 41% of amphibians set to go the way of the dodo,” The Guardian, 13 December 2014; Tom Bawden, “A quarter of the world’s marine species in danger of extinction,” The Independent, 30 January 2015

2 Oliver Milman, “Rate of environmental degradation puts life on Earth at risk, say scientists,” The Guardian, 15 January 2015.

3 John P. Clark, The Impossible Community: Realizing Communitarian Anarchism (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 217-45.

Ecology, Ethics, Anarchism: In Conversation with Noam Chomsky (transcript)

April 3, 2014

chomsky and javier

First published on Truthout on 3 April 2014 (copyright, Truthout.org, reprinted with permission)

 

There can be little doubt about the centrality and severity of the environmental crisis in the present day. Driven by the mindless “grow-or-die” imperative of capitalism, humanity’s destruction of the biosphere has reached and even surpassed various critical thresholds, whether in terms of carbon emissions, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, freshwater depletion, or chemical pollution. Extreme weather events can be seen pummeling the globe, from the Philippines—devastated by Typhoon Haiyan in November of last year—to California, which is presently suffering from the worst drought in centuries. As Nafeez Ahmed has shown, a recently published study funded in part by NASA warns of impending civilizational collapse without radical changes to address social inequality and overconsumption. Truthout’s own Dahr Jamail has written a number of critical pieces lately that have documented the profundity of the current trajectory toward anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) and global ecocide; in a telling metaphor, he likens the increasingly mad weather patterns brought about by ACD to an electrocardiogram of a “heart in defibrillation.”

Rather than conclude that such distressing trends follow intrinsically from an “aggressive” and “sociopathic” human nature, reasonable observers should likely associate the outgrowth of these tendencies with the dominance of the capitalist system, for, as Oxfam noted in a January 2014 report, the richest 85 individuals in the world possess as much wealth as a whole half of humanity—the 3.5 billion poorest people—while just 90 corporations have been responsible for a full two-thirds of the carbon emissions generated since the onset of industrialism. As these staggering statistics show, then, the ecological and climatic crises correspond to the extreme concentration of power and wealth produced by capitalism and upheld by the world’s governments. As a counter-move to these realities, the political philosophy of anarchism—which opposes the rule of both State and capital—may hold a great deal of promise for ameliorating and perhaps even overturning these trends toward destruction. Apropos, I had the great fortune recently to interview Professor Noam Chomsky, renowned anarcho-syndicalist, to discuss the question of ecological crisis and anarchism as a remedy. Following is a transcript of our conversation.

Professor Chomsky, thank you so kindly for taking the time today to converse with me about ecology and anarchism. It is a true honor to have this opportunity to speak with you. Before we pass to these subjects, though, I would like to ask you initially about ethics and solidarity. Would you say that Immanuel Kant’s notion of treating humanity as an end in itself has influenced anarchist and anti-authoritarian thought in any way? The concept of natural law arguably has a “natural” affinity with anarchism.

Indirectly, but I think it’s actually more general. My own view is that anarchism flows quite naturally out of major concerns and commitments of the Enlightnment, which found an expression in classical liberalism, and classical liberalism essentially was destroyed by the rise of capitalism—it’s inconsistent with it. But anarchism I think is the inheritor of the ideals that were developed in one or another form during the Enlighnment—Kant’s expression is one exmple—exemplified in a particular way in classical liberal doctrine, wrecked on the shoals of capitalism, and picked up by the libertarian left movements, which are the natural inheritors of them. So in that sense, yes, but it’s broader.

You have described humanity as being imperiled by the destructive trends on hand in capitalist society—or what you have termed “really existing capitalist democracies” (RECD). Particularly of late, you have emphasized the brutally anti-ecological trends being implemented by the dominant powers of settler-colonial societies, as reflected in the tar sands of Canada, Australia’s massive exploitation and export of coal resources, and of course the immense energy profligacy on hand in this country. You certainly have a point, and I share your concerns, as I detail in Imperiled Life: Revolution against Climate Catastrophe, a book that frames the climate crisis as the outgrowth of capitalism and the domination of nature generally understood. Please explain how you see RECD as profoundly at odds with ecological balance.

RECD – not accidentally, pronounced “wrecked” — is really existing capitalist democracy, really a kind of state capitalism, with a powerful State component in the economy, but with some reliance on market forces. The market forces that exist are shaped and distorted in the interests of the powerful—by State power, which is heavily under the control of concentrations of private power—so there’s close interaction. Well if you take a look at markets, they are a recipe for suicide. Period. In market systems you don’t take account of what economists call externalities. So say you sell me a car. In a market system we’re supposed to look after our own interests, so I make the best deal I can for me, you make the best deal you can for you. We do not take into account the effect on him. That’s not part of a market transaction. Well there is an effect on him: there’s another car on the road, there’s a greater possibility of accidents, there’s more pollution, there’s more traffic jams. For him individually it might be a slight increase, but this is extended over the whole population. Now, when you get to other kinds of transactions, the externalities get much larger. So take the financial crisis. One of the reasons for it is that—there are several, but one is—say if Goldman Sachs makes a risky transaction, they—if they’re paying attention—cover their own potential losses. They do not take into account what’s called systemic risk, that is, the possibility that the whole system will crash, if one of their risky transactions goes bad. That just about happened with AIG, the huge insurance company. They were involved in risky transactions which they couldn’t cover. The whole system was really going to collapse, but of course State power intervened to rescue them. The task of the State is to rescue the rich and the powerful and to protect them, and if that violates market principles, okay, we don’t care about market principles. The market principles are essentially for the poor. But systemic risk is an externality that’s not considered, which would take down the system repeatedly, if you didn’t have State power intervening. Well there’s another one, that’s even bigger—that’s destruction of the environment. Destruction of the environment is an externality: in market interactions you don’t pay attention to it. So take tar sands. If you’re a major energy corporation and you can make profit out of exploiting tar sands, you simply do not take into account the fact that your grandchildren may not have a possibility of survival—that’s an externality. And in the moral calculus of capitalism, greater profits in the next quarter outweigh the fate of your grandchildren, and of course it’s not your grandchildren, but everyone’s.

Now the settler-colonial societies are particularly interesting in this regard, because you have a conflict within them. Settler-colonial societies are different than most forms of imperialism; in traditional imperialism, say the British in India, the British kind of ran the place: they sent the bureaucrats, the administrators, the officer corps, and so on, but the place was run by Indians. Settler-colonial societies are different; they eliminate the indigenous population. Read, say, George Washington, a leading figure in the settler-colonial society we live in. His view was—his words—was that we have to ‘extirpate’ the Iroquois, they’re in our way. They were an advanced civilization, in fact they provided some of the basis for the American constitutional system, but they were in the way, so we have to extirpate them. Thomas Jefferson, another great figure, he said, well, we have no choice but to exterminate the indigenous population, the Native Americans; the reason is they’re attacking us. Why are they attacking us? Because we’re taking everything away from them. But since we’re taking their land and resources away and they defend themselves, we have to exterminate them. And that’s pretty much what happened—in the United States almost totally—huge extermination. Some residues remain, but under horrible conditions. Australia, same thing. Tasmania, almost total extermination. Canada, they didn’t quite make it. There’s residues of what are called First Nations around the periphery. Now, those are settler-colonial societies: there are elements of the indigenous populations remaining, and a very striking feature of contemporary society is that, throughout the world—in Canada, Latin America, Australia, India, all over the world, the indigenous societies—what we call tribal or aboriginal or whatever name we use—they’re the ones who are trying to prevent the race to destruction. Everywhere, they’re the ones leading the opposition to destruction of the environment. In countries with substantial indigenous populations, like say in Ecuador and Bolivia, they’ve passed legislation, even constitutional provisions, calling for rights of nature, which is kind of laughed at in the rich, powerful countries, but is the hope for survival.

Ecuador, for example, made an offer to Europe—they have a fair amount of oil—to leave the oil in the ground, where it ought to be, at a great loss to them—huge loss for development. The request was that Europe would provide them with a fraction—payment—of the loss—a small fraction—but the Europeans refused, so now they’re exploiting the oil. And if you go to southern Colombia, you find indigenous people, campesinos, Afro-Americans struggling against gold mining, just horrible destruction. Same in Australia, against uranium mining, and so on. At the same time, in the settler-colonial societies, which are the most advanced and richest, that’s where the drive is strongest toward the destruction of the environment. So you read a speech by say Obama, for example, at Cushing, Oklahoma—Cushing is kind of the center for bringing together and storing the fossil fuels which flow into there and are distributed. It was an audience of oil types. To enormous applause, he said that during his administration more oil had been lifted than any previous one—for many, many years. He said pipelines are crossing America under his administration to the extent that practically everywhere you go, you’re tripping across a pipeline; we’re going to have 100 years of energy independence; we’ll be the Saudi Arabia of the 21st century—in short, we’ll lead the way to disaster. At the same time, the remnants of the indigenous societies are trying to prevent the race to disaster. So in this respect, the settler-colonial societies are a striking illustration of first of all the massive destructive power of European imperialism, which of course includes us and Australia, and so on. And also the –I don’t know if you’d call it irony, but the strange phenomenon of the most so-called “advanced,” educated, richest segments of global society trying to destroy all of us, and the so-called ‘backward’ people, the pre-technological people, who remain on the periphery, trying to restrain the race to disaster. If some extra-terrestrial observer were watching this, they’d think the species was insane. And in fact it is. But the insanity goes back to the basic institutional structure of RECD. That’s the way it works. It’s built into the institutions. It’s one of the reasons it’s going to be very hard to change.

In Nuclear War and Environmental Catastrophe (2013), you argue that global society must be reorganized so that “care for ‘the commons’ […] become[s] a very high priority, as it has been in traditional societies, quite often.”[1] You make similar conclusions in an essay from last summer reflecting on the importance of the efforts to defend Gezi Park in Istanbul, which you frame as being part of a “a struggle in which we must all take part, with dedication and resolve, if there is to be any hope for decent human survival in a world that has no borders.” How do you see the possibility of thoroughgoing social transformation and the devolution of power taking place in the near future—through the emergence and sustained replication of workers’ and community councils, as in the participatory economic model (Parecon), for example?

That’s a well-worked out, detailed proposal for one form of democratic control of popular institutions—social, economic, political, others. And it is particularly well-worked out, in extensive detail. Whether that’s the right form or something other, I think it’s a little early to tell. My own feeling is that a fair amount of experimentation has to be done to see how societies can and should function. I’m a little skeptical about the possibility of sketching it in detail in advance. But that certainly should be taken very seriously, along with other proposals. But something along those lines seems to me a prerequisite first of all for reasonable life, put aside the environment—just the way a society ought to work, with people in a position where they can make decisions about the things that matter to them. But also I think it is a prerequisite for survival at this point. I mean, the human species is reaching a point which is unique in human history—just take a look at species’ destruction, forget humans. Species destruction now is at the level of 65 million years ago, when an asteroid hit the Earth and destroyed the dinosaurs and a huge number of species—massive species destruction. That’s being replicated right now, and humans are the asteroid. And we’re on the list, not far.

In a speech reproduced over 20 years ago in the film version of Manufacturing Consent, you describe hegemonic capitalist ideology as reducing the life-world of Earth to an “infinite resource” and “an infinite garbage-can.” Even then you had identified the capitalist tendency toward total destruction: you speak of a looming cancellation of destiny for humanity if the madness of capitalism is not halted within this, the “possibly terminal phase of human existence.” The very title and argumentation of Hegemony or Survival (2003)continue in this line, and in Hopes and Prospects (2010), you claim the threat to the chance for decent survival to be one of the major externalities produced, again, by RECD. How do you think a resurgent international anarchist movement might respond positively to such alarming trends?

In my view anarchism is just the most advanced form of political thought. As I’ve said, it draws from the Enlightenment, its best ideals; the primary contributions of classical liberalism carry it forward. Parecon, which you mentioned, is one illustration—they don’t call themselves anarchists—but there are others like it. So I think that a resurgent anarchist movement, which would be the peak of human intellectual civilization, should join with the indigenous societies of the world so that they don’t have the burden to save humanity from its own craziness. This should take place within the richest, most powerful societies. It’s kind of a moral truism that the more privilege you have, the more responsibility you have. It’s elementary in every domain: you have privilege, you have opportunities, you have choices, you have responsibilities. In the rich, powerful societies, privileged people like us—we’re all privileged people—we have the responsibility to take the lead in trying to prevent the disasters that our own social institutions are creating. It’s outrageous to demand or even observe the poorest, most repressed people in the world taking the lead in trying to save the human species and in fact innumerable other species from destruction. So we should join them. That’s the role of an anarchist movement.

In “Human Intelligence and the Environment” (2010), you raise the possibility of factory workers taking control of the means of production and autonomously deciding to break with business as usual, opting instead to produce solar panels or high-speed rail. This recommendation is entirely anarcho-syndicalist in nature, in keeping with your own proclivities: indeed, it bears much affinity with the prospect of an ecological anarcho-syndicalism, a concept that has been advanced by the Environment Union Caucus of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW-EUC) recently. A particularly promising proposal the EUC has made is that of an ecological general strike. In a similar vein, economic historian Richard Smith recently called for the mass-shuttering of large corporations and vast swathes of industry as a means of giving humanity and nature a chance against climate destruction. Moreover, since the U.S. military is the single largest contributor to the problem of anthropogenic climate disruption, the Pentagon should effectively be dismantled for this reason, among others, of course. How might activists present these pressing goals in ways that do not lend themselves to being dismissed as mere utopianism?

Well, let’s take the idea of converting industry to producing solar panels, mass-transportation, and so on. That was not utopian. The US government virtually nationalized the auto industry a couple years ago—not entirely, but took over large parts of it. There were choices at that point. If there had been a powerful movement of the kind that we’re discussing, with a popular base, it could have pressed for something very realistic, which I think would have had the support of the working class. A strike will be regarded as a weapon against them—it’s taking away their livelihoods, their survival. The choices were two, really: either the government rescues the auto industry at the taxpayers’ expense and hands it back to pretty much the original owners, maybe different faces, but structurally the same owners, and have them produce what they were doing before, which is destructive. That was one possibility; that was the one that was taken. The other possibility, which could have been taken, and with a sufficient powerful popular movement might well have been taken, is to put those factories into the hands in the working class, and have them make their choices rationally, in the interests of themselves, their communities, the general society—and do exactly what you were describing: produce solar panels.

Take mass-transportation. Going back to markets—if you take an economics course, they tell you markets offer choices. That’s partly true, but very narrowly. Markets restrict choices, sharply restrict choices. Mass transportation is an example. Mass transportation is not a choice offered on the market. If I want to go home today, the market does offer me a choice between a Ford and a Toyota, but not between a car and a subway. That’s just not one of the choices available in market systems, and this is not a small point. Choices that involve common effort and solidarity and mutual support and concern for others—those are out of the market system. The market system is based on maximization of individual consumption, and that is highly destructive in itself. It’s destructive even for the human beings involved—it turns them into sociopathic individuals.. But it also means that the kinds of things that are needed for survival are out of the market system—like mass-transportation. That’s the form of economic growth that could help preserve the hopes for survival. I don’t think that it was at all unrealistic for that to have been done; there was nothing utopian about that.

Now as compared with things like say general strikes, I think that’s much a better step to take. It’s not saying, let’s throw a wrench in the machine and harm everybody in the interest of some longer-term goal. It’s saying, let’s take a wrench and fix the machine, so it can function right now, with all you guys working, doing better jobs, running it yourselves. You’re better off psychologically, socially, in every respect, and you’re also producing a world that makes sense to live in. That’s I think the better way to proceed, in general.

According to German critical theorist Herbert Marcuse, revolution can be defined in part as action which seeks to secure the life, freedom, and happiness of future generations.[2] In light of looming catastrophic climate change, this definition would seem to hold a great amount of importance today. Within the modern Western revolutionary tradition, some of the most promising movements have arguably been Gracchus Babeuf and the Conspiracy of Equals, Rosa Luxemburg and the Spartacus League, and the Spanish anarchists. What would you say is the role of direct action in revolutionary struggle?

First of all, I think we shouldn’t assume that revolutionary struggle is the only option. What we’ve just been discussing, for example, you can call reformist if you like: it’s taking the institutions, reshaping them, reconstructing them, turning them into democratic institutions, and carrying out actions that are quite feasible and would be beneficial for all of us. Is that a revolution, is it a reform? Who knows? What’s the role of direct action, say, in that? Well, the role of direct action would have been realistically for popular movements to have pressured the government to take that direction, which would not have been impossible. In fact right now in the Rust Belt—something like this happened in the old Rust Belt, on a much smaller scale. Back in 1977, U.S. Steel, a major corporation, decided to close their operations in Youngstown, Ohio, which was a steel-town that had been built by steelworkers, by the union; it was a major steel town. That was going to destroy everyone’s occupation, the community, the society, everything—and it’s a decision made by bankers somewhere, who weren’t making enough profit. The steelworkers union offered to buy the plants and have them run by the workforce. This was an effort that the corporation didn’t want. Actually it’s kind of interesting—it would have been more profitable for them, but I think a class interest militated against it. This happens frequently. A multinational frequently will refuse an offer by the workers to buy out something they want to close and prefer to take the loss of just destroying it to having the precedent of worker-owned enterprises. That’s what is looks like to me; I can’t prove it. Corporations are totalitarian institutions—we don’t get access to their internal decisions—but that’s what it looks like.

Anyway, the company refused, and it went to the courts. I think it went all the way to the Supreme Court. Staughton Lynd argued the case for the community and the steelworkers; they lost, but they could have won, with enough popular support. Anyhow, after they lost, the steel [factories] were abandoned, but they didn’t give up. Working people started developing small enterprises—worker-owned—which they tried to integrate into the community, and it’s now proliferated significantly. Around Cleveland, northern Ohio, there’s quite a network of worker-owned enterprises—not worker-managed. There’s a gap. But worker-owned enterprises which can become worker-managed. It’s expanding. Right now there’s an effort by the US steelworkers union to make some sort of a deal with Mondragón, the huge Basque conglomerate which is again worker-owned, with management selected by workers, but not worker-managed. And that’s got some prospects, too.

So what is direct action? Well all of these things are direct action; they’re direct action geared to the existing circumstances. Direct action has to be based on an analysis of what the existing circumstances are, and how an action can modify them positively. There’s no general formula; you can’t say direct action is good or bad. Sometimes it can harmful, sometimes it can beneficial; sometimes it can be revolutionary, sometimes it can be reformist. You simply ask yourself what can be achieved now. So these developments in, say, northern Ohio really are reformist—they’re even supported by Republican governors and by some sectors of business, because it sort of fits their right-wing, libertarian conceptions. Fine, let’s pursue that—nothing wrong with it. But you just can’t give general formulas for tactical choices. They depend on an exact, close analysis of the situation.

The Sparticists are a good case in point. Rosa Luxemburg went along with the Spartacist uprising, though she was opposed to it. She was opposed to it not in principle but because she realized it was going to fail, was going to be crushed. But out of solidarity she went along with it, and she was killed.

Returning to the question of natural law, I would like to ask whether you think natural right applies to non-human animals? In an interview from 2010, you acknowledged that there exists a “moral case” for vegetarianism, but at a recent talk at University College London you claimed that animals cannot have the same rights as humans because, lacking reason, they cannot be considered to have responsibilities. Can you clarify what you mean by this? As you likely know, many anarchists and anti-authoritarians today consider vegetarianism and veganism essential to the project of reducing humanity’s domination over nature.

That makes sense, but that’s separate from the question of whether animals have the same rights as humans. It’s a fact that animals don’t have responsibilities; we can’t overlook that. If I have a dog, the dog has no responsibilities. Maybe I’d like it to bark when a criminal comes, but I can’t say the dog’s guilty if it didn’t do it. So it’s a fact that animals don’t have responsibilies. Responsibilities are related to rights. This does not say you should murder animals, but it is a recognition of reality. In fact, vegetarianism or veganism I think have a moral basis. But so do lots of other things. Like when you got here, you drove or took public transportation, meaning you used energy—that harms the environment. You made a choice: your choice was to harm the environment in order to come here so we could have this discussion. We’re making choices like that every moment of the day. Well, one of the choices has to do with people in countries where there is meat but not much else: should they eat it? That’s another choice. We have our own choices. We are always—we can’t overlook the fact that we are constantly making choices which have negative effects, and this is one of them. There is an opportunity cost to vegetarianism.

Personally, I’m not a vegetarian—I almost never eat meat. The reason is I just don’t have time for it; I don’t have the time to think about it, I don’t want to think about it. I just pick up whatever saves me time, which usually is not meat, but I don’t purposely check to see if there’s a piece of chicken in the salad. Okay, that’s a choice. I don’t like—I don’t think we should have factory farming, the free range business is mostly a joke—I understand that very well. With regard to rights and responsibilities, they do relate, and I don’t think we can overlook that. You can say the same about an infant: an infant doesn’t have responsibilities. But the reason we grant the infant rights is because of speciesism, and you can’t overlook that, either.

In theoretical terms, I sense a great affinity between the analysis you and Edward S. Herman present in Manufacturing Consent and the dissident cultural research engaged in by Western Marxists during the twentieth century. You are famously given to quoting Antonio Gramsci’s saying, “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” I would like to ask whether you believe the U.S. populace to be too conservative, distracted, and enthralled by the system to move radically against it? Do you think the public will become the “second superpower” you hope for in Hegemony or Survival?

I’m not sure the public is that conservative, frankly. There’s some interesting indications to the contrary. So for example in 1976, the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence, there were polls taken in which people were asked what they thought was in the Constitution. Nobody has a clue what’s in the Constitution. But the answers basically were, do you think this is an obvious truth, and if it is—it’s probably in the Constitution. One of the questions was “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs,” and the majority of the population thought that was in the Constitution, because it’s obviously true. In the late 1980s, there were polls taken asking people, “do you think that a right to health care is in the Constitution?” A very large proportion, I think maybe a majority of the population, thought it was in the Constitution. If you take a look at polls generally, you find that even among sectors of the population that are considered very right-wing—you do studies of people who say, “get the government off my back, I don’t want the government”—they turn out to be social democrats. They want more spending on health, more spending on education, more spending on, say, mothers with dependent children—but not welfare, because welfare was demonized by racists, Reagan and others. And this runs across the board, even on international affairs. So a majority of the population thinks that the US ought to give up the veto at the Security Council, and follow what the general world population believes is right. You take a look at taxes, and it’s striking. There’ve been polls on taxes for about forty years. Overwhelmingly, the population thinks the rich should be taxed more—they’re undertaxed. The policy goes in the opposite direction. Polls are not definitive: you have to inquire into why people are answering the way they do; there could be a lot of reasons. But they’re not insignificant, either.

My own feeling is that people like Adam Smith were basically right, that there is a natural sympathy for others. I think the rich and powerful understand that. I think that’s one of the reasons why there’s such massive effort to destroy the institutions in the society that are based on solidarity. So for example why is the right wing—and in fact not just the right wing, because it goes over to Obama—so intent on undermining Social Security? It costs nothing, essentially; it’s a very efficient program; people survive on it; it works very well; there’s no economic problems that couldn’t be tinkered with—it’s really marginal. But there’s a major effort to destroy it. Why? It’s based on solidarity. It’s based on concern for others. There’s a major attack on the public schools—deep underfunding, vouchers, all kinds of things. Foundations are trying to undermine them. Why? Public schools are a major contribution to modern society. They’re one of the real contributions of American society—mass public education. Why destroy them? Well, they’re based on solidarity. If you take the ideology that we’re supposed to believe in, why should I pay taxes for the schools in my neighborhood? I don’t have kids in school, I don’t have grandchildren in school, and I never will. Why should I pay taxes? Well, you pay taxes so that the kid across the street will go to school, because you care about other people. But that has to be driven out of people’s heads. It’s a little like markets and consumption. Markets are favored by the economics profession, by the rich, and so on, up to a point—they really don’t believe in them, they want the powerful State to come in and save them if they’re in trouble. But ideologically they’re preferred, because they restrict human action to individual self-gratification—not mutual support, not protection of the commons.

Actually the commons are an interesting case. We’re coming up to the eight hundredth anniversary of the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta had two parts. One part was the Charter of Liberties—the central part was presumption of innocence. That’s out the window. By now, being “guilty” means Obama wants to kill you tomorrow; that’s the definition of guilty. “Innocent” means he hasn’t gotten around to it yet. But the other part of the Magna Carta was the Charter of the Forests—that’s the part that you find in popular myth, like the Robin Hood myths. Robin Hood was protecting the commons from the predators. That’s a big part of our history—English history. The commons were cultivated by the general population. The commons were the forests, the fields, the source of fuel, food, welfare—you know, widows would pick things from the forest to survive. And it was nurtured—it was nurtured by the public, it was cared for—they weren’t let to grow into jungles. They were carefully cared for. The Charter of the Forests was an effort not by the population but by the barons to protect the commons from the king, but the population wanted to protect the commons for themselves.

Then you move into the capitalist period, beginning with the enclosure movements which drove people off the land and so on, and you have a destruction of the commons. Today, in the capitalist ethic, there’s a concept called the “tragedy of the commons” which you study in economics, which teaches you that if you don’t have private ownership of the commons, it’s going to be destroyed. Well, based on capitalist morality, that’s true. If I don’t own it, what should I do to try to preserve it? But in ordinary human life, that’s just totally false. Privatization is the tragedy of the commons. We can see that in fact: when you privatize the commons, it gets destroyed for private profit. If the commons are kept under common control, they are cultivated and nurtured, because people care about each other, and they care about the future. When you ask, is the population conservative? I doubt it. I think these are deeply rooted sentiments and understandings which show up all the time: they showed up in labor struggles against the industrial system which was dehumanizing people, in peasant societies they show up, in indigenous societies today struggling against, say, gold mines—maybe it’ll give them more material wealth, but it’ll destroy their lives. You find this everywhere. And in the great thinkers of the past, you know, in the people we aren’t supposed to admire, like Adam Smith, it’s a central doctrine.

Actually it’s kind of interesting, if you look at Smith—everybody knows the phrase “invisible hand,” but practically nobody looks at how he used the phrase. He rarely used it, a couple of times. One of the uses is when he discusses what would happen—it’s an agrarian society he’s talking about—what would happen if some landlord controlled almost all the land? What would happen? He says, well, out of his natural sympathy and concern for other people, he would distribute the wealth, so, as if by an invisible hand, society would end up being egalitarian. That’s the invisible hand. The other major usage of it actually is in an argument against—against—what we call neo-liberal globalization. He considers England and asks what would happen if in England the merchants and manufacturers decided to invest abroad and import from abroad. He says, they would gain, and England would suffer. However, they have a kind of natural tendency to want to function in their own society—a kind of a ‘home bias,’ it’s sometimes called, kind of like an affinity to their own societies. So as if by an invisible hand, England will be saved from the ravages of what we call neo-liberal globalization. That’s not what you’re taught. But they’re coming from a different era. That’s the precapitalist era, and conceptions were quite different before capitalist morality distorted them.

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[1] Noam Chomsky and Laray Polk, Nuclear War and Environmental Catastrophe (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2013), 83.

[2] Herbert Marcuse, “Ethics and Revolution,” in Ethics and Society: Original Essays on Contemporary Moral Problems, ed. Richard T. De George (New York: Anchor Books,1964), 140-1.

Ecology, Ethics, Anarchism: In Conversation with Noam Chomsky (video)

March 31, 2014

This is a video of my interview with Noam Chomsky that took place at his office at MIT on Friday, 28 March 2014.  We discussed the place of anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism vis-à-vis the profound and ever-worsening environmental and climatic crises today.  Specifically, we conversed about Immanuel Kant, the Enlightenment, participatory economics (Parecon), indigenous struggle, the commons, direct action, really existing capitalist democracy (RECD), vegetarianism and veganism, conservatism, democracy, and reform vs. revolution.

A transcript of our conversation is forthcoming.