Posts Tagged ‘Kim Stanley Robinson’

Toward an Ecologically Based Post-Capitalism: Interview With Kim Stanley Robinson

March 17, 2018

NY 2140

Copyright Reproduced with permission

Kim Stanley Robinson is an award-winning, New York Times-bestselling author. A science- and climate-fiction novelist, Robinson has written more than 20 books, including the bestselling Mars trilogy and the critically acclaimed Forty Signs of Rain, The Years of Rice and Salt, and 2312. In 2008, he was named a “Hero of the Environment” by Time magazine, and he works with the Sierra Nevada Research Institute.

In this interview, Truthout talks with Robinson about his books Green Earth and New York 2140. Set in the present or near future, Green Earth portrays struggles over climate science in the US capital, whereas New York 2140 depicts life in a 22nd century metropolis that has been inundated by the melted polar regions.

Stan, thank you kindly for being open to participating in this interview. First, Ursula K. Le Guin passed away recently. Her influence on your own creative writing is marked. Do you have any reflections on Le Guin’s life and work that you wish to share?

I wrote a memorial statement after her death for Scientific American. What I can add to that now as I continue to feel the loss of her living presence, is that in listening to the science fiction community talk about her, I’m struck by how beloved she was, both her and her work, and I’m thinking now that this was a very unusual quality in her work and her person. Also, less crucially, her work always had a quick sureness about it; she didn’t waste words or pile on details. She cut a clean line, as surfers would say. That’s the mark of a good style: distinctive and clear. Her prose has a poetry to it.

One major theme in Green Earth and New York 2140 is democracy versus capitalism. New York 2140 begins with a statement of Proudhonian or Marxian value analysis: The coders Mutt and Jeff (as workers) create the surplus-value (profit) that drives the capitalist monster which persists even in the year 2140, after it has melted Greenland and parts of Antarctica, raising sea levels by 50 feet and devastating coastal and low-lying regions. You clarify that it is capitalism that is responsible for such ecological catastrophe, in parallel to the grossly unequal wealth and power distribution it engenders. Capital’s class divisions are symbolized in New York 2140 in the struggle between flooded lower Manhattan and the intertidal region versus uptown, where the superscrapers of the rich stand on higher ground. Ultimately, you envision mass popular resistance building up from a rent strike toward a global general strike to overturn this oppressive system. Is this how we should wield revolutionary democracy and organize?

A fiscal strike is one possible way to exert people power. Finance is systemically over-leveraged — and therefore in a precarious position — if something like the 2008 crash were to occur again. Such a crash will happen anytime there is a crisis of confidence in the markets and in the value of money, and the various money-surrogates. People could all together and at once refuse regularly scheduled payments, or less radically, they could together remove their money from banks and put them in credit unions. Done as a mass-action, this would crash the system. After that, there would have to be a plan to rescue the banks by nationalizing them, as we did to [General Motors] in 2009. This is just one tactic and just one step on the road to post-capitalism, but it does point out the power people have as the ultimate source of value, including financial value. Finance is parasitical on ordinary people, so some modes of detoxification are available. The parasites can’t live on their own.

Your exploration of the exercise of autonomy and egalitarian cooperation at the MetLife Tower, transformed into a cooperative living residence, and via the Lower Manhattan Mutual Aid Society in New York 2140 recalls the anarcho-communist Peter Kropotkin’s analysis in Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902). Indeed, your Mr. Hexter advises his youthful counterparts that “[h]elping animals or helping people” would be just ways of being in the world. May I ask to what degree libertarian socialism inspires you?

I have never read a definition of the word “libertarian” that makes any sense to me, nor sounds attractive as a principle, so I avoid that word as much as I can. Maybe “democratic socialism” is the better term for me — the idea being that people in democracies would elect representatives that would then pass laws based on socialist principles. That is a story I’m often interested in telling, as something that could and should happen in our near future. It’s my form of utopian science fiction. The social democracies of north Europe and the name “social democrat” also resonate for me, although these political parties, when in power in Europe, have had to make alliances and compromises with capitalism that make them far from satisfactory. But from the viewpoint of the United States, they look like at least a step along the path to more justice. There would be more steps later. I usually favor stepwise reform, but I have to admit we need the steps to come really fast, one after the next, now that climate change is about to overwhelm us.

In both Green Earth and New York 2140, you raise many imaginative possibilities in terms of collective responses to climate catastrophe that we might want to consider: redirecting excess sea-level rise into East Antarctica and inland deserts; introducing Arctic polar bears to Antarctica to avoid extinction; designing floating cities; rebuilding beaches and shorelines; and infusing the Arctic Ocean with vast quantities of salt transported in container fleets in order to restart the thermohaline circulation, or Gulf Stream, threatened by global warming. The emphasis on cooperatives and the commons in New York 2140, in parallel to Green Earth‘s examination of simple living, “freeganism,” and the transition to wind, water and solar energy gives us a lot to think about.

Some of these ideas have been explored by research institutes since I wrote about them in my novels. I don’t think the researchers involved read my novels; I think they are ideas that emerge naturally given the problems we are facing. So, pumping seawater up onto the Antarctic ice cap could be done, but would require something like 7 percent of all the energy humanity creates. Even so, it might be considered a good idea compared to losing all sea level infrastructure and beaches and ecologies. Assisted migration is being planned and even tried experimentally, and this will continue, but polar bears to Antarctica was my idea of a joke. It has been taken up and studied, however. Salting the Gulf Stream would probably not work, and yet it might be tried if the Gulf Stream stalled, just to see.

Still, you have caught the drift of my fiction — I’m interested in describing actions like these. Some are geoengineering, some are political economy and involve return of the commons, socialism, clean energy, etc.

Over the course of Green Earth, we see “gradualist-progressive” elements within the State evermore placing science center-stage in the struggle to curb capitalism’s contributions to climate change. We encounter Charlie Quibler, the young aide to Sen. Phil Chase, drafting a bill to legislate the implementation of recommendations made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), only to have the law inevitably watered down by legislators, including Chase himself. Then, Washington, DC, is struck by a massive storm, and it is on the flooded Mall that Quibler confronts Chase, imploring him to finally do something about climate change. Subsequently, Chase announces his Democratic presidential candidacy at the North Pole — or what’s left of it — and upon being elected as the “first scientific presidential candidate,” he launches an emergency climate mobilization in the “first 60 days” of his administration. In New York 2140, similarly, there is a revolutionary, popular upsurge which follows a massive hurricane that sweeps through the city; yet here, too, the revolt “lives on” through the State. In light of these social-democratic models you present for evidence-based policy-making and your view that scientific inquiry is linked to justice and fairness, what do you make of the status of science now one year into the Trump regime?

It’s been a year of continuous assault on science and justice by the Trump administration, and it’s been shocking to see how many people there are willing to implement such a … wicked vision…. But all of these poor people will immediately run to a scientist the moment they feel sick — that’s their doctors. They believe in science when they’re scared for their lives. What this reveals is their hypocrisy … and greed, but also, the strength of the system they’re attacking, which enfolds them completely. We live in a world that is a scientific achievement, and we can’t live without the scientific achievements, and even though some of the scientific achievements have definitely led us to our current crisis — public health and agriculture leading to quick population rise, and carbon-burning energy leading to climate change — still, it’s science in action that will be involved in all the solutions, along with politics aiming our scientific work.

I think the science is robust and will survive this attack from Trump, his supporters, the Republican Party in the US and capitalism worldwide. There will be damage, and the political battles will never end, but over the long arc of history. You know the rest.

In New York 2140, you cite John Dos Passos recalling a meeting with Emma Goldman at which “everybody [gathered] was for peace and the cooperative commonwealth and the Russian Revolution.” It is clear that your work features several anarchistic characters and themes, yet you also often invoke Lincoln’s vision of government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” as an ideal. So, 100-plus years since the Russian Revolution, do you consider the state necessary for the transition to an egalitarian, ecological post-capitalist world?

Yes, I do. This is not an easy thing to say, given how much that is bad has accrued around what we call “the state” in world history. But the term is probably too broad and philosophical. If you want to use it, and speak at that level of broad generality, I’ll join briefly and say, we need the state itself to become just and scientific, and the expression of everyone alive agreeing how to live together. That agreement formalized as laws becomes the state…. Best to focus on creating a good state based on just laws. For getting through the climate change emergency, I think it’s the only way that will work.

In closing, do you have any thoughts for the ongoing struggle of promoting “compassion for all sentient beings” (Green Earth) within the context of the sixth mass extinction?

Time is running short in terms of dodging a really bad sixth mass extinction that would result if we create a much, much warmer world by our burning of carbon into the atmosphere. If we can quickly reduce our carbon burn, which is really what powers our culture now, that would be a huge change and would allow all sorts of other good potentialities to come to pass. We have to keep emphasizing the need to decarbonize fast. Fortunately, the technologies to do this include women’s rights (this stabilizes population) and economic equality (this reduces impacts of poverty and over-consumption). Justice is a climate-change technology of great power, so there is no need to set up false dichotomies as to which good cause we support. The good causes reinforce each other and we need them all at once. This is why capitalism has to give way to an ecologically-based post-capitalism, which, in some features, will be aspects of socialism chosen democratically. We have to figure out a way to pay ourselves to do the work of survival.


Science Fiction and Radical Politics: An Interview with Kim Stanley Robinson

April 12, 2016


In the current issue of CounterPunch magazine (volume 23, number 1 [March 2016]), I have an interview with radical sci-fi novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards and the author of more than twenty books, including the Mars trilogy, Forty Signs of Rain, The Years of Rice and Salt, 2312, and Aurora.  We discuss political philosophy, religion, history, existentialism, commitment, ecology, and nature, among other things.  An excerpt follows below; the interview in full can be accessed by purchasing the issue or subscribing regularly to CounterPunch.

JSC: Many of your works deal centrally with history, whether actual, alternate, or speculative-futural. In The Years of Rice and Salt [2002], you present several different compelling interpretations of human and natural history: for example, the image of a rising gyre, “dharma history,” or “Burmese history”—“meaning any history that believed there was progress toward some goal making itself manifest in the world,” or “Bodhisattva history,” which “suggested that there were enlightened cultures that had sprung ahead somehow, and then gone back to the rest and worked to bring them forward—early China, Travancore, the Hodenosaunee, the Japanese diaspora, Iran—all these cultures had been proposed as possible examples of this pattern […].” In Aurora (2015), moreover, you mention the idea of history being parabolic, cyclical—as in Hindu cosmology—or as resembling a sine wave or an S-curve. It would seem to me that we are at the apex of the parabola, or just after it on the downward curve, such that we must somehow invert it, transforming it more into an S-curve shape. Which view(s) of history do you think best represent(s) the history of humanity?

KSR: I like thinking about historiography, and the various patterns or shapes that people have ascribed to history so far, but as we don’t have any counter-examples to what’s happened, and the entire sequence of world history seems quite contingent and non-repetitive, even non-patterned, I think we can only regard these theories as highly fanciful, and use them as ways to suggest how to act now.

I like Marx’s basic pattern or sequence of capital accumulation and class warfare, and Arrighi’s elaboration of it, describing capitalism’s expanse from Genoa to Holland to Britain to America. I also like Hayden White’s analysis suggesting that all theories of history fit with suspicious accuracy a few extremely basic narrative patterns from literature (going right back to oral storytelling of the paleolithic). This makes all historical patterns look suspect, as being stories we like to tell ourselves, and very simple stories at that.

Various trajectories of technology, culture, and the planet itself all mesh together into what we call history, so a shape for history itself is very hard to see. Still it is probably worth trying, as a way of organizing our political hopes and purposes. It could be said that the attempt to do history at all is itself a utopian project, as we try to organize our efforts in the present. One utopian shape to history is the rising gyre; things cycle, as with Arrighi’s capitalism, but at each turn of the cycle, it gets bigger or moves into in a different modality. Another is the logistic curve, the S curve, repeated upward in stepwise fashion as we marshall new abilities and get better at enacting global civilization. Often I think of history as a pursuit is just another kind of fiction, a genre — a good genre, including lots of summarization and analysis as compared to dramatization, an emphasis I like. More than most fiction, this genre makes an attempt to fit with what really happened in the past, which is hopeless in some ways, but valiant. Thus a kind of realism, and all realisms are always artificial, but interesting. So history is a great genre of literature, a cousin to novels.

JSC: There are also clear existential-psychological dimensions to your novels. In The Years of Rice and Salt, you portray Khalid and Iwang, the drivers of the Samarqand Awakening of science, arguing with the Sufi Bahram in the bardo, or the Tibetan vision of the afterlife, after they had been killed by a resurgent plague. Khalid channels Shakespeare’s Earl of Gloucester: he declares that the gods “kill us for sport” and impugns Bahram for the latter’s devotion to love amidst the power of a world-historical course so indifferent to human happiness, while Bahram in turn stresses that courage underpins love, hope, and the commitment to struggle. Perhaps the existential dimension is most present in Aurora, particularly once the surviving crew reaches Tau Ceti and realizes the dream of settling any of its planets to be illusory. Despair grips the survivors, and many turn to suicide. Thus a cruel fate confronts them: now what, if anything, they ask?

KSR: Existentialism is the best way to express all this. I take it this way: the universe is meaningless, but has cast up the human species by a kind of miraculous accident: here we are, brief dust devils of awareness. The only meaning this cosmic accident has is what we make up for it ourselves. If we can make a meaning, good. But inevitably it’s the creation of mortal and transient creatures, so it’s not easy to see how to make a truly hopeful and inspiring meaning. Trying for one can feel better than not trying; sometimes much better. Even very satisfying. Certainly history, which makes each of us part of a larger story that outlasts us as individuals, is one of these attempts at meaning — as are all the religions. But again, the creation of meaning is another work of fiction-making. Possibly a life of writing novels has made everything (philosophy, religion, history) look like literature to me. Sorry; my religion, I suppose.

Rebellion and Prefiguration against Refeudalization and Saktiná

December 22, 2015

Marcuse_74_ParisPublished on Heathwood Press, 21 December 2015

In Salisbury, Maryland, from Thursday 12 November 2015 to Saturday the 14th, the sixth biennual International Herbert Marcuse Society conference took place: “Praxis and Critique: Liberation, Pedagogy, and the University.” Held at Salisbury University (SU), the conference was hosted by Professor Sarah Surak. It was comprised of approximately 23 panels, together with a few workshops—notably including a collective art-making effort to “Express Your Fantasies,” inspired in part by reflecting on the above image of Marcuse speaking in Paris. The convergence brought together a number of radical philosophers and activists who spoke on historical and contemporary struggles and their relationship to Critical Theory, the Frankfurt School theorists—particularly Herbert Marcuse, of course—Marxism, and anarchism.

At the panel on “Critical Theory in the Twenty-First Century” held on Friday afternoon, speakers reflected on the meaning of Critical Theory today: the question of its relevance for the present world, and its relationship to the project of liberatory social transformation. Professor Arnold Farr, host of the 2013 Marcuse Society conference at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, spoke to the multiple sites of oppression in capitalist society—race, gender, and sexuality, alongside class—that constitute the various contradictions through which capitalist society is “shot through.” In parallel, Farr identified the cycle whereby critique opens the possibility of change, while the possibility of change helps critique along in turn. Co-panelist Lauren Langman then observed that Critical Theory and its theorists should be primarily concerned with three matters: critiquing society, promoting open-mindedness, and having a vision. He optimistically observed that the strength of the transnational capitalist class is “based on a bowl of jello,” and that humanity “will get a better society” eventually. Stefan Gandler, author of Critical Marxism in Mexico, discussed autonomous Mexican movements, including the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), other armed left-wing guerrilla forces, and the mass-popular resistance evinced throughout the country in response to the State’s forcible disappearance of the 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in September 2014, as well as the popular mobilizations that undermined the heavy-handed response the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) initially had launched against the EZLN during the latter’s insurrection of January 1994. In terms of militarism and non-cooperation, Gandler mentioned that several Mexican Army units refused to follow orders mandating suppression of the Zapatista rebellion, thus greatly limiting the amount of blood shed during the twelve days of war. Andrew Lamas, host of the 2011 “Critical Refusals” conference at the University of Pennsylvania, affirmed the continued relevance of W. E. B. Du Bois’ analysis, emphasizing that capitalism can only be overcome in unison with the abolition of white supremacy.

Simultaneously, on the “Rationalizing Environments” panel, SU undergraduate student Jake O’Neil examined environmental and “green” discourse, posing the question, “Is Going Green Enough?” Applying a Marcusean analysis of one-dimensionality, instrumental reason, and the performance principle to the ever-failing project of attempting to “solve” the ecological crisis within the strictures of capital and the State, O’Neil provided a genealogy of the rise of “green consumerism” and the “green economy” over the past generation, contrasting the colonization of the concept from its original association with anti-capitalist politics. Once one becomes enthralled to green consumerism, one’s commitment to a better future is individualized and commodified, thus serving the end of recuperation—that is to say, falsely to integrate the contradictions of capitalism, in turn shoring up that very same system. O’Neil’s clearly Marcusean alternative is to “open up” the realm of environmental discourse, subject hegemonic approaches to critique, and hence allow for “the possibility of liberating, radical change”: namely, a global transformation propelled by the flowering of a Marcusean “new sensibility” among the general populace that would valorize the importance of all terrestrial and marine life, in place of the prevailing valorization of capital and destruction.

Meanwhile, at the panel “Popular Culture and Prefigurative Politics—on which the Brazilian Marcuse scholar Imaculada Kangussu addressed the question of how art can help to advance the new sensibility and provoke “inner revolutions”—John-Patrick Schultz intervened on “Walter Benjamin and Prefigurative Politics: The Utopian Hermeneutic of Space.” Schultz opened immediately by juxtaposing the Benjaminian concept of the “dialectical image”—whereby “capitalist materiality converges with radically democratic possibility” through direct action and decolonization—with the 30 November 1999 (“N30”) actions taken by the ACME collective, the anarchist Black Bloc, and the Global Justice Movement (GJM) as a whole against the World Trade Organization (WTO) summit in Seattle—otherwise known as the “Battle of Seattle.” The speaker stressed how the GJM instituted prefigurative politics in its actions, seeking not a utopian futural break with capital but instead the immediate founding of “an alternative social order” based on direct or horizontal democracy—these being demands and orientations that “reject[ed] the idea that there can be no other future and provid[ed] a concrete illustration of that alternative.” In Benjaminian terms, Schultz detects in the anti-WTO protests in Seattle and in the recent “movement of squares” of 2011 to the present a “surviving historical desire for democratic social control.” Through their prefiguration of a “novel future,” Schultz emphasized, such movements disprove David Harvey’s questionable claim in Rebel Cities (2013) that autonomous, decentralized models of opposition are incapable of presenting a serious challenge to capitalism and the State. Instead, as Schultz writes, their “utopian hermeneutic […] entails a highly antagonistic demand for collective, egalitarian enjoyment [that is] wholly at odds with neoliberalism” and the capitalist system.

On the evening of Friday the 13th, a number of conference-goers attended a reception at an art gallery in downtown Salisbury, featuring a number of beautiful surrealistic paintings by Antje Wichtrey that appear in the volume Versprechen, dass e sanders sein kann (“Promises that it can be different”), edited by Peter Erwin-Jansen. Besides this, the gallery exhibited works that had been created by graduate students attending the “Express Your Fantasies” workshop on Thursday. Apparently, the discrepancy seen between the original Marcuse photograph discovered in the Paris lectures that served as the conference’s main image and the edited version reproduced by the university administration on campus—one lacking the graffiti depicting female breasts, as above—inspired many of the students to express artistic fantasies involving breasts. In addition, those assembled at the gallery celebrated the birthday of Herbert’s son Peter that night—in the presence of Peter himself and his wife—but negatively, it was while we were indulging in art and enjoying the gathering that we first learned about the attacks in Paris. One of the participants made an announcement about the scores of lives taken, and he invited conference-goers to share in a collective discussion about the events and their likely impacts on war, international relations, and the fate of refugees at lunch-time the next day.

At our Saturday morning panel on “Post-Soviet Marxism: Marcuse in the Developing World,” George Katsiaficas began with a presentation on “Eurocentric Views of Civil Society.” Katsiaficas argued that the established power of Western capitalism has often led to the repression of consideration of alternative views of the meaning of civil society, especially in non-bourgeois and non-Western terms. He offered the politeness and fairness of Confucian social norms on hand in Korea and the enlightening thought of Islamic thinkers like Ibn Rushd (Averroës, 1126-1198 CE) and Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) as promotive of different forms of individuality. Furthermore, he mentioned the early republican governance structure of Lugash under Gudea in classical Mesopotamia (ca. 2144-2124 BCE) as well as the assembly-based republics that arose along the Ganges River from approximately 600 to 300 BCE, together with the parallel birth of Buddhism and Jainism as more egalitarian off-shoots of Hinduism. Moreover, the investigator declared forthrightly that the “theory of Oriental despotism” which permeates much of Western political sociology vastly underplays the very real Western despotism imposed on the non-Western world through imperialism—as starkly illustrated in the estimated 10 million Asians who were murdered by the U.S. military during the twentieth century. Katsiaficas remarked that civil society played an enormously important role in the Gwanju Commune (1980), adding that it still has a great task to accomplish today, in light of the propulsion of domination—the “gangsters running society” and “freedom of war and private property”—intensifying reification and what Jürgen Habermas has called outright “refeudalization” of the globe. I then followed, examining Marcuse’s views on authority and the transition away from capitalism—the question of whether the critical theorist is more in keeping with anarchism and libertarian socialism or Jacobinism and authoritarian socialism. Though the answer is not entirely clear, given the ambiguity Marcuse expressed at times about the need for an “intellectual” or “education” dictatorship to lead humanity and history out of the capitalist impasse, my view is that Marcuse’s political philosophy is more consistently libertarian than authoritarian—it is more concerned with decentralization and autonomy than temporary or “transitional” dictatorship. This is clear from “Protosocialism and Late Capitalism: Toward a Theoretical Synthesis Based on Bahro’s Method” (1979), Marcuse’s last essay. Still, like the EZLN, which has a political system governed by assemblies and a parallel military command-structure, Marcuse may have felt that there was some degree of a need for both: a “Committee for Public Safety” alongside mass-popular intervention and the creation of the commune. Next, comrade Nick Zeller spoke on the fascinating case of Marxism in Thailand, a cause advanced by one Jit Phumisak, who originally and dialectically had been contracted by the CIA to translate Capital into Thai in an attempt to pressure the Chakri monarchy to take evermore authoritarian-repressive measures against the regional specter of agrarian and proletarian revolution. While translating and thus confronting Marx’s work on political economy, Phumisak himself became a communist militant. He went on to write The Face of Thai Feudalism (1957) and was for this reason imprisoned. After being released, Phumisak joined Thai communist guerrillas—this being a commitment that would lead to his martyrdom in battle against the State. Zeller shared the radical theorist’s analysis of the joint exploitation of the Thai masses, as prosecuted by imperialism and feudalism (saktiná); discussed the similarities and differences between this analysis and that of Marx’s views on non-Western societies like India and Russia; and related the stress Phumisak placed on an alliance between the peasantry and the small but expanding industrial proletariat of Thailand and Southeast Asia in overthrowing the “Western saktiná stage” of world-history. Zeller even mentioned the possibility of engaging in historiography from the vantage point of “saktiná history”—that is, of analyzing history as domination and the struggle against it. Such could be a dialectical counterpart to the “dharma history” or “Bodhisattva history” Kim Stanley Robinson envisions in his alternate-history book, The Years of Rice and Salt: namely, “any history that believed there was progress toward some goal making itself manifest in the world [… or] which suggested that there were enlightened cultures that had sprung ahead somehow, and then gone back to the rest and worked to bring them forward […]” (Stanley Robinson, 2002, p. 733).

At the panel “Biopolitical Spaces of Resistance and Domination,” Jennifer Lawrence presented on critical artworks developed in the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the emancipatory potential for aesthetic eco-resistance as a means of speaking to truth to power and its propaganda in a talk called “In Order Not to Die from the Truth: Disaster, Art, Resistance.” Lawrence’s co-panelist James Stanescu then expounded on stupidity, rationality, and animality. He noted that we humans cannot suppress our similarity with the other animals with whom we have co-evolved: that children cannot but recognize themselves in apes and vice versa, and that the interest we take in clowns, metaphysics, and the aesthetic dimension reflects our prehistorical, primordial animality. The “idiot,” in the sense of an intellectually challenged person, slows everything down, and asks the questions which need answering. As Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari wrote, it is a question of becoming-minor, or “becoming-animal.” Stanescu cited Marcuse’s observation in One-Dimensional Man (1964) that materialism demands the overcoming of the ill-treatment of non-human animals in the historical process, and that our profound commonality with the other animals should lead us to conceive of our own selves as potential “meat,” and thus to reject speciesism on the one hand while practically adopting veganism or vegetarianism on the other. Alexander Stoner spoke next on “Human-Ecological Transformation and Contemporary Ecological Subjectivity,” addressing the dynamics of capitalism and discontents revolving around catastrophic climate change and the environmental crisis writ large. Taking an historical view, Stoner examined the challenges presented by environmentalism during the third quarter of the twentieth century (1950-1975), as more people came to question the superfluousness of work and the utter irrationality of environmental destructiveness, but he noted how the realm of necessity re-asserted itself in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis and “stagflation,” much as the Empire strikes back. Stoner spoke to the seeming paradox of increased environmental attention and concern amidst accelerating planetary degradation, and asked whether, as eco-crisis becomes increasingly apparent, the causes of this crisis are becoming increasingly illusory. Stoner took Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2014) to task in this sense, for Klein identifies the problem as neoliberal capitalism—a surface phenomenon—rather than the capitalist system as such. The speaker expressed concern that radical environmentalists who fail to advance the understanding that it is capitalism which is the problem—as expressed, for example, in Allan Schnaiberg’s formulation of the “treadmill of production”—we will in fact run the risk of enabling capital. Stoner nonetheless conceded that Klein’s examination of the alternative represented by “Blockadia” has value, though he clearly indicated the superiority of anti-capitalist analyses that concern themselves with the productive apparatus, as compared with primarily redistributional approaches like social democracy or Keynesianism.

During the final session Saturday afternoon, SU Professor Michael O’Loughlin gave a presentation on “Dispelling Ideology: Marx, Marcuse, and Chomsky.” During this talk, O’Loughlin principally counterposed the philosophies of Marcuse and Chomsky, stressing that the former—that is to say, the Marcuse of One-Dimensional Man—is far more pessimistic than Chomsky, who believes that the various problematics of capitalism and domination can be resolved through progressive activism and anarcho-syndicalism. Whereas Marx believed the subject in struggle to be the proletariat, Marcuse in One-Dimensional Man more or less expresses the thought that false consciousness is all-consuming, that class-consciousness is marginal, and that there is “No Exit” from the capitalist hell. Yet O’Loughlin conceded in passing that, by the time Marcuse’s Essay on Liberation (1969) had been published, numerous radical movements had arisen across the globe to challenge regnant one-dimensionality. The professor argued that Chomsky, throughout his sustained and productive career as radical public intellectual, has sought to undermine ruling mystifications through empirical “takedowns” which activate public reason and the instinct for freedom he, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, believes humans innately to possess, as well as by promoting alternative modes of social organization rooted in equality, justice, and democracy. Chomsky’s intellectual and political activism was portrayed as following from the dissident’s faith in ordinary’s people capacity for reason and his belief that intellectuals must be with “the people,” and that the revolution will be made by everyday people themselves. Though O’Loughlin did not explicitly proclaim the inverse of such comments—that is, that Marcuse was an aloof elitist and authoritarian who despaired of the people’s incapacity for critical thought and revolutionary social transformation—it was to a degree implied, however great a distortion of Marcuse’s life and work such an interpretation would be! It is quite unjust to limit “Marcuse” to his most pessimistic book, One-Dimensional Man, and to suggest that he, like Vladimir Lenin or the Jacobins, did not believe that the common people proper were capable of changing the world. One need only consult Marcuse’s 1978 conversation with Habermas and company, “Theory and Politics,” to be freed of such an illusion, for in this intervention, the critical theorist declares faithfully that “everyone knows what is necessary,” and that the truth of a revolutionary general will and “the possibilities for its realization” are demonstrable to all (Marcuse et al. 1978/1979, pp. 136-138).

O’Loughlin concluded his presentation by considering three future scenarios for the U.S. in January 2016: the inauguration of Donald Trump as president, thus confirming the deepest pessimism of One-Dimensional Man; the alternate presidential inauguration of Bernie Sanders, an eventuality which O’Loughlin believed would be consonant with the spirit of Marcuse’s Essay on Liberation; and the inauguration of Hillary Rodham Clinton, signifying a compromise between these two options, and a “partial” victory for social movements, in O’Loughlin’s analysis. Whatever the outcome of the elections, though, it ultimately remains puzzling to associate Marcuse with electoral politics at all, given his well-established emphasis on extra-parliamentary opposition as the primary means of historical progress.



Marcuse, H, Habermas, J, Lubasz, H, & Spengler, T. (1978/1979). “Theory and Politics,” Telos 38.

Stanley Robinson, K. (2002). The Years of Rice and Salt. New York: Bantam.

Kim Stanley Robinson: The Kerala on Human Equality and the Earth as Garden

February 5, 2015

lotus flower

A selection from “The Age of Great Progress” describing the Travancori League, from Kim Stanley Robinson’s alternative-speculative history, The Years of Rice and Salt (2002), p. 522:

“The Kerala laughed, looked at Ismail and gestured at the colorful and fragrant fields.  ‘This is the world we want you to help us make,’ he said.  ‘We will go out into the world and plant gardens and orchards to the horizons […] and terrace the mountains and irrigate the deserts until there will be garden everywhere, and plenty for all, and there will be no more empires or kingdoms, no more caliphs, sultans, emirs, khans, or zamindars, no more kings or queens or princes, no more qadis or mullahs or ulema, no more slavery and no more usury, no more property and no more taxes, no more rich and no more poor, no killing or maiming or torture or execution, no more jailers and no more prisoners, no more generals, soldiers, armies or navies, no more patriarchy, no more clans, no more caste, no more suffering than what life brings us for being born and having to die, and then we will see for the first time what kind of creatures we really are.”

Paul Cezanne, "In the Woods"

Paul Cézanne, “In the Woods”

Reviewing Elysium: Working-Man’s Death and Multitudinous Struggle

August 26, 2013


Originally published on Counterpunch, 23 August 2013

Elysium, the newly released sci-fi film from 33-year old director Neill Blomkamp starring Matt Damon as the proletarian hero Max, is not to me an escapist artwork. Instead, I believe Elysium to lie within the contemporary genre which we might call “art of the transition”—that is, which depicts the struggles and various contradictions and negations of the ongoing historical shift away from capitalism and rampant social brutality. (Other prominent recent examples from the world of film I would include in this line would be Children of Men, Blomkamp’s very own District 9, Avatar, and the Matrix, among others.) Invoking (and inverting) a trope seen in classic sci-fi art works like Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, which contrast social conditions on an emancipated anarchist planetary body (Anarres/Mars) versus those seen on the capitalist-totalitarian Earth or its stand-in (Urras, in LeGuin’s world), Elysium is a revolutionary slice of life from the seemingly-apocalyptical landscape of Los Angeles in 2154—wherein generalized impoverishment and oppression are starkly present, reminiscent of “Baghdad” (says Damon)—which contrasts with the orbiting space-station Elysium, home to the affluent and capitalist overlords. While on Elysium there any many green, open spaces, with mansions adorned by pools and maintained by robot servants, Earth-dwellers inhabit a veritable hell. That the Earth scenes were filmed in a landfill in Mexico City (reportedly the second-largest in the world), with the Elysium scenes shot in Vancouver, BC, speaks clearly to the types of inequalities Blomkamp concerns himself with in his new work.

I do not wish to spoil too much of the film’s plot, so as not to degrade the experience of those others who have not yet seen it. Yet, briefly, to explain: Max, the protagonist and hero, is a presumably orphaned child raised by Mexican (or Central American?) nuns who comes to land a job working assembly-line production of robot police-units after having done time for stealing private property for a few years. As in George Lucas’s THX-1138—Lucas’s very first and his most anti-authoritarian work, which I would claim directly inspired Max’s assembly-line occupation in Elysium—disabling accidents take place at the workplace, with no accountability processes in place to check managers and upper administration. Max falls victim to such a workplace accident, due to negligence and pressure from his overseer—who flatly warns Max that, if the latter refuses to perform the risky maneuver, he will demand Max’s resignation and easily replace him with any number of other prospective workers, to be called up from the mass labor-army reserve. Following this negative turn of events, and with mere days to live, Max tries desperately to find a way aboard Elysium, where seemingly every building famously contains a highly advanced therapeutic machine which can free the body of all ailment and disease. To get Max onto Elysium is a difficult demand to fulfill—as Max’s clandestine/criminal electronics collaborator Julio knows well, various spacecraft carrying wounded and ill Earth-humans have been incinerated by the capitalist security forces as their desperate voyages approached Elysium’s perimeter.

To observe the scenes from the Elysium station—particularly those involving Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster)—is to confront legitimate depictions of the closely-knit ties binding the most privileged to State repression. Blomkamp is certainly presenting a left-wing account of politics here, with the wealthy minority turning ever-increasingly to fascist means to uphold their privilege—a tendency observed last century by Herbert Marcuse, as by Chris Hedges in the present one! On the other side of the dialectic, a veritable revolutionary humanism informs the struggle-from-below shown in the Earth scenes, as symbolized most centrally in Max’s journey from proletarian to disabled ex-worker and artificially augmented revolutionary militant. In positive (and realistic) terms, the Earth-based opposition we see in the film is ethnically diverse—mostly Latin@, with Max as the exception—as against the white-washed country club of Elysium. Unfortunately, a specifically feminist critique of the hegemonic oppression depicted in Elysium is largely lacking—Delacourt, at the top, coordinates the Elysium station’s “defensive measures” against incoming “undocumented” space-flights of refugees from Earth (thus depicting “liberal feminism”), while the only other female lead, Frey, is a nurse and mother who, other than for helping to heal a wound incurred by Max in his escape, is largely passive in her roles.

The film provides a great opportunity to reflect on prevailing power relations, and how it is that they might project into a future like that shown in Elysium. While the film’s course does not directly examine the historical turns and negations which led Earth into near-total oppression, with the physical separation of the ruling class into an orbiting station—the film is not Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which dedicated two episodes to a time-warp to Earth that takes the crew to a time just before a popular uprising by the poor, which would ineluctably pave the way for the transition beyond capitalism and the founding of the Federation—it viscerally demonstrates to the audience how that likely did arise: through militarized, unchecked exploitation of the Earth and its working classes by the vampiric capitalist class. Dialectically, in its presentation of globalized (and extra-terrestrialized) solidarity and resistance to the machine—and particularly in Max’s impressive strength and combat skills, as exercised against the guardians of the system—Elysium also advances an anti-statist, internationalist message which speaks to the revocability of given oppressive power relations. In this way, the film explores an important set of principles that arguably correspond to present and future hope for the human race: mass-struggle, as through the multitude.1

So then, assuming the rule of Elysium is indeed overthrown and the formerly privatized advanced medical technologies socialized (I will not say whether the terrestrial proletarians are victorious in the end), the question arises: what would the peoples of Earth decide to do? How would they respond? Would they also socialize production on Earth and fairly redistribute the concentrated wealth previously held by the overlords of Elysium? Would they collectively decide to dedicate significant resources to address the catastrophic ecological changes wrought on Earth by the capitalist system—insofar as this is possible? As a first act, they would doubtlessly abolish the gross inequalities separating Elysium from Earth.

To contemplate the prospect of overthrowing the neo-feudal powers-that-be, as Elysium helps us to do, is an exciting prospect. Regardless of what Blomkamp feels he must say so as not to alienate potential investors in his future films (“It’s just human nature” that “the gap between rich and poor on Earth will simply get worse and worse, no matter how hard we try to change it”), to watch Elysium might perhaps serve to strengthen one’s hopes for and commitment to the successful future anti-capitalist revolution.

Hopefully it will not take until 2154 to achieve.

1Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude (2005); see also Empire (2001) and Commonwealth (2010).