Posts Tagged ‘Theodor Adorno’

From the archives: “For a different world,” from a draft of Imperiled Life (Sept. 2011)

September 14, 2018


Images courtesy @SyriaRevoRewind

I am pleased to share this section from a draft of Imperiled Life: Revolution Against Climate Catastrophe, which examines contemporary revolution and repression in a few Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) countries. It was finished on September 11, 2011. Had they been included, these reflections would appear at the bottom of p. 171 of the book as it is. I welcome feedback and criticism in the comments section below. Please note that the images used above are not necessarily contemporary to the timing of this writing [e.g., the Douma Four were disappeared in December 2013].

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, it should be said, has played a thoroughly counter-revolutionary role to the so-called Arab Spring, in accordance with its own interests and those of the U.S. it serves. This has been seen in its pushing within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) for a conservative resolution of the delegitimization experienced by Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime in Yemen since mass-mobilizations arose there in the wake of Mubarak’s fall, but it is expressed most starkly in the KSA’s invasion of the island-state of Bahrain following the birth there of a mass-protest movement against the al-Khalifa ruling family in early 2011. The movement has since been suppressed, with Manama’s Pearl Square—the common at which protesters met to mobilize—physically destroyed and protesters detained and prosecuted, in standard operating procedure. It seems the KSA in part fears the mobilization of Bahrain’s Shi’a could be replicated among the Shi’a minority residing in eastern Saudi Arabia, where most of the country’s oil resources are located; it may also fear the the model of solidarity observed among Sunni and Shi’a protesters in Bahrain. The billions given in a welfare package prepared by the House of Saud for workers to stave off is one with their purchasing of billions of dollars of arms from the U.S.

In the case of Libya, developments have been more negative than elsewhere. Given the very real ties between the Qaddafi regime and Western powers since 2003—intelligence-sharing between Libya and Western governments, oil contracts with Western corporations, and Qaddafi’s brutal mass-detention of African migrants traversing Libya en route to Europe—the sudden commencement of NATO military operations against Qaddafi in March 2011 struck [me] as somewhat puzzling. By now, though Qaddafi has fallen and the Transitional National Council has taken power, it should be clear that Western intervention in the country has little to do with humanitarianism. That Western officials say not a word of the forced displacement and massacres of black African migrant workers as prosecuted by the Libyan ‘rebels’ is a comment on their humanity, as are the deaths at sea of hundreds of such workers, attempting to flee ‘the new Libya.’ For its part, the stock market welcomed the taking of Tripoli by oppositional forces.

The situation in Syria is bleak as well. Since the beginning of protests in the country in March 2011, Ba’ath President Bashar al-Assad has overseen an entirely obscene military-police response aimed at employing force against those calling for his fall. Unrest in Syria reportedly began with the detention of youths who authored graffiti reproducing the cry that has animated subordinated Arabs throughout this period of popular mobilization: “Al-sha’ab yourid isqat al-nizam!” (“The people want to overthrow the regime!”) The deployment of government tanks and infantry units in cities throughout the country in recent months has resulted in the murder of some 2,300 regime-opponents and the imprisonment of another 10,000. The regime’s defensive tactics, borrowing from Saleh in Yemen and Mubarak loyalists in Tahrir, have been more ruthless still than in these cases, for Assad’s security apparatus has engaged in near-daily attacks on assembled crowds and funerary processions as well as the use of naval barrages against coastal settlements. It is unknown precisely what political currents unify the Syrian opposition other than calls for Assad’s resignation, but it is self-evidently comprised at least in part by anti-authoritarians. In contrast to the case in Libya, or at least among those Benghazians heard by Western powers, Syrian dissidents are strongly opposed to the prospect of Western military intervention against Assad’s brutality. In this belief, as in the various mutinies reported among soldiers opposed to the commands demanded by Assad’s commanders, the Syrian example is an important one, however bleak the future if Assad’s military hangs on.

Though Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has reportedly called on Assad to halt the repressive tactics, it is undeniable that Assad’s response to protests has been informed by the Islamic Republic’s attempts at suppressing protests emanating from the Green movement from the 2009 presidential elections to the present. The Greens, of course, hardly represent a reasonable political progression beyond the conservatism of Ahmadinejad: their adulation of Mir Hossein Mousavi, prime minister during the Iran-Iraq War who oversaw mass-execution of leftist dissidents in the years following the 1979 revolution against the Shah, perpetuates myth,1 as does their advocacy of the suspension of public subsidies for materially impoverished Iranians. There seems to be little sense among Iranian reformists that the Islamic nature of the post-1979 regime is to be called into question—parallels with post-1949 China are found here. Perhaps a return to the perspectives advanced by Ali Shariati in the years before 1979 could aid subordinated Iranians in overturning that which Marxist critic Aijaz Ahmad terms “clerical fascism” in Iran.

1[An allusion to Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin’s analyses; “myth” here can be understood as the general oppression of an unenlightened, non-emancipated world.]


Review – The Frankfurt School, Postmodernism and the Politics of the Pseudo-Left

February 9, 2016


First published on Marx and Philosophy, 8 February 2016

The Frankfurt School, Postmodernism and the Politics of the Pseudo-Left: A Marxist Critique
Mehring Books, Oak Park, Michigan, 2015. 320pp., $24.95 pb
ISBN 9781893638501

In his “Marxist Critique” of The Frankfurt School, Postmodernism, and The Politics of the Pseudo-Left, David North, a high-ranking member within the Trotskyist Fourth International, chairman of the U.S. Socialist Equality Party (SEP), and editor of the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS), reprints polemical essays (2003-2012) voicing the response of the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI) to the heterodox theoretical suggestions made by fellow travelers Alex Steiner and Frank Brenner to incorporate greater concern for psychology, utopia, gender, and sexuality into the ICFI’s program. Whereas Steiner and Brenner sought to open the Fourth International to the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School and Wilhelm Reich’s sex-pol approach, North repudiates any such suggestion as beyond the pale and plainly communicates his revulsion with the Frankfurt School as an alternative to Marxism-Leninism. To rationalize his dismissal of Critical Theory, he rather baselessly ties its legacy to the rise of postmodernist irrationalism. North essentially claims any left-wing intellectual “deviation” from the ICFI’s Trotskyism irredeemably to espouse “pseudo-left,” “petty bourgeois,” “anti-Marxist,” even “anti-socialist” politics. To sustain such fantasies, North presents a highly dishonest, even unhinged analysis of the Frankfurt School theorists and theories.

Starting in his Foreword (2015), North clarifies the association he sees among the “anti-materialist and anti-Marxist intellectual tendencies” represented by the Frankfurt School, existentialism, and postmodernism, which for him converge to form the “pseudo-left” (v). North facilely groups the Frankfurt School theorists together with the thought of Nietzsche, Sorel, and postmodernists like Foucault, Laclau, and Badiou (vii). Centered on “race, nationality, ethnicity, gender, and sexual preference,” “pseudo-left” approaches have in North’s opinion “come to play a critical role in suppressing opposition to capitalism, by rejecting class […] and by legitimizing imperialist interventions and wars in the name of ‘human rights’” (vii). North cites SYRIZA (Greece) and “the remnants and descendants of the ‘Occupy’ movements influenced by anarchist and post-anarchist tendencies” as typifying “pseudo-leftism” (xxii). He then enumerates the following accusations against the “pseudo-left”:

  • that it rejects Marxism,
  • advances “subjective idealism and philosophical irrationalism” in place of historical materialism,
  • opposes class struggle and socialism,
  • denies the centrality of the proletariat and the need for revolution,
  • promotes identity politics,
  • and advances militarism and imperialism (xxii-xxiii, 205).

In his stentorian 2006 letter to Steiner and Brenner, “Marxism, History, and Socialist Consiousness,” North dismisses his counterparts’ attempts to “infiltrate the disoriented anti-Marxist pseudo-utopianism of Wilhelm Reich, Ernst Bloch, and Herbert Marcuse” into the ICFI’s program, and dismisses the sexual-psychological dimensions of Steiner’s concern for the development of socialist consciousness (24, 30). Almost in passing, in an attempt to discredit Marcuse and Theodor Adorno, North opportunistically claims that these thinkers supported Stalin’s Moscow Trials, yet no evidence is produced for such serious charges (44). North employs the same line against Bloch, who, unlike Adorno and Marcuse, admittedly was a Stalinist for some time: the author hypothesizes that Bloch’s utopianism “has something to do” with the “political swinishness” Bloch evinced during Stalin’s purges (44).

In this essay, North identifies communism as the culmination of Enlightenment materialism and rationalism, while dissociating Steiner and Brenner from Marxism altogether. In North’s words, these latter take after the “demoralized petty-bourgeois theorists of the Frankfurt School,” who for the SEP chairman are supposed to have rejected Marxism and the Enlightenment wholesale (64-9). Turning to a discussion of utopianism, the author indicates that “Utopia […] is not part of a Marxist program” (72, original emphasis). North argues that the relevance of utopia had been superseded even in Marx and Engels’ day (76-80). Yet tellingly, North boasts of Marx and Engels’ “brutally critical” approach toward “any tendency expressing a retreat from these theoretical conquests [they had made]” in the early years of international communism (80).

North then associates utopianism with idealism, presenting a deterministic account of the development of these philosophies, such that socialism remained “utopian” before the onset of industrial capitalism (82-4). He accuses Steiner and Brenner of resurrecting Bernstein’s reformism because Bernstein disagreed with Engels’ repudiation of utopianism, and of sympathizing with Kant due to their concern for morality (98-102).

The author then launches a tirade against Wilhelm Reich, whom he denounces for being “pessimistic” in his analysis of the rise of Nazism (Mass Psychology of Fascism [1933]), an account that challenges the inevitability of revolution under sexually repressive monopoly capitalism (113-21). Against Steiner’s recommendations, North clarifies that contemplation of Reich’s sex-pol “can only result in the worst forms of political disorientation” (114-5).

In “The Political and Intellectual Odyssey of Alex Steiner” (2008), the ICFI’s response to Steiner and Brenner’s reply to “Marxism, History, and Socialist Consciousness,” North expounds more invective against the Frankfurt School. Sketching his view of the affinities among Critical Theory, Marxist humanism, and the New Left’s “middle-class radicalism,” North explains his view of how such “pseudo-left” thinking has penetrated the academy: that is, through the efforts of the “ex-radicals” of the 1960s, who putatively propagated an “unrelenting war—not against capitalism, but, rather, against Marxism” (134). He proceeds to slanderously claim Critical Theory as being “grounded in a reactionary philosophical tradition—irrationalist, idealist, and individualistic” (140, emphasis added). Passing to comment on Steiner’s “apologetic defense” of Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization (1955), North observes that his counterpart’s affirmation of Marcuse’s account cannot be separated from the critical theorist’s “rejection of the revolutionary role of the working class” (193-5). The author peremptorily concludes by reiterating the charge of “petty-bourgeois” ways of thinking—all the while counterposing the thought of Marx and Trotsky, who epitomized the petty bourgeoisie; of Engels the grand capitalist; and of Plekhanov and Lenin, Russian nobles.

In “The Theoretical and Historical Origins of the Pseudo-Left” (2012), North endorses the continued centrality of Trotsky’s concern for resolving the “historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat” and dismisses accusations of state capitalism raised against the USSR (202-3, 206-7). North contrasts Trotsky’s structured vanguardism to the “petty-bourgeois despair” he sees Adorno and Max Horkheimer advancing in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944/1947) (207-10). North asserts the revisionist repudiation of reason and the proletariat to be fundamental to the thought of Marcuse, Raya Dunayevskaya, and “countless anarchist, post-anarchist, and post-structuralist tendencies,” and he ties together Marcuse’s Freudianism with the “post-Marxist Left” that arose after 1968 (210-9). On North’s account, the affinity that the “petty-bourgeois” and “affluent” left has for heresies such as Critical Theory, post-Marxism, and even postmodernism putatively reflects its “hostility to the struggles of the working class” (219-20, emphasis in original).

Besides the centrality of ad hominem attacks within these “interventions” by North, one is struck that the essays in this volume actually contain only a handful of oblique references to Critical Theory. North offers no serious analysis of the Frankfurt School here. Instead, he resorts to slanderous character assassination and half-baked theories of guilt by association. The text often repeats the point either that Critical Theory is non-identical to Trotskyism and as such merits little attention, or that the Frankfurt School served as a major inspiration for postmodernism due to the challenges it raised against orthodox Marxism, and as such should be considered taboo. Both claims are nonsensical. Part of the issue, clearly, is North’s reduction of Marxism to Trotskyism, particularly that of the ICFI/SEP.

In assessing North’s account, one must firstly examine the author’s most inflammatory charge: that Adorno and Marcuse “went along” with the Moscow Trials (1936-1938). North provides no evidence for this accusation, though it is quoted without citation in WSWS writer Stefan Steinberg’s “Letter and reply on Theodor Adorno” (2009). North’s source for the accusation is a 1938 letter Adorno wrote to Horkheimer, identifying Hitler as a capitalist pawn who would soon attack the USSR, expressing his disappointment with the Moscow show trials and Soviet cultural policies, yet concluding that “the most loyal attitude to Russia at the moment is probably shown by keeping quiet” (Wiggershaus 162). This is not definitive proof of North’s charge. The allegation is belied by Adorno’s May 1938 letter to Walter Benjamin, commenting on a meeting with Hans Eisler: “I listened with not a little patience to his feeble defence of the Moscow trials, and with considerable disgust to the joke he cracked about the murder of [Nikolai] Bukharin” (Claussen 237-8, emphasis added). Adorno’s biographer explains that Benjamin, Adorno, and Horkheimer all disagreed with Bloch’s support for the Moscow Trials (ibid). Thus is North’s charge against Adorno disarmed. And Marcuse? He mentions the trials in the 1968 preface to Negations: “The last time that freedom, solidarity, and humanity were the goals of a revolutionary struggle was on the battlefields of the Spanish civil war […]. The end of a historical period and the horror of the one to come were announced in the simultaneity of the civil war in Spain and the trials in Moscow” (Marcuse 1968, xv).

While this does not evidence Marcuse’s contemporary views of the Moscow Trials, it speaks for itself. I asked Peter Marcuse, Herbert’s son, what he thought of the accusation that his father had supported or “gone along” with the Moscow Trials: “That’s absurd. Though my father had identified tendencies within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) that he felt intended to subvert the Soviet Constitution, he didn’t believe the Moscow Trials were the proper means of dealing with this” (personal conversation, 13 January 2016). North’s accusations against Adorno and Marcuse thus appear baseless.

Another clear issue is North’s conflation of Critical Theory with postmodernism—a gross distortion. While the critical theorists certainly challenged several fundamental points of orthodox Marxism, it is untrue that all of them rejected revolution and opposed class struggle and socialism, as postmodernists do. One cannot reasonably charge the libertarian-socialist revolutionists Marcuse and Benjamin with repudiating the Enlightenment or advancing “irrationalist […] and individualistic” politics.

Regarding the claim that Critical Theory rejects class struggle and the revolutionary role of the proletariat, it bears noting that the various members of the Frankfurt School differed on these questions and shifted their views over time. While Adorno generally disagreed with the historical-materialist view of the proletariat, the same is not true of Benjamin, Marcuse, or the young Horkheimer. Marcuse challenges Marx’s analysis of the proletariat when examining U.S. society in One-Dimensional Man (1964), but by the end of the same decade, he had jettisoned such pessimism. In An Essay on Liberation (1969), Marcuse clarifies his belief that the proletariat retains its revolutionary role, amidst the “historical power of the general strike and the factory occupation, of the red flag and the International” (Marcuse 1969, 51-3, 69).

For Adorno, the relationship with the proletariat is complex. In “Society,” one of his final essays, Adorno writes that “[s]ociety remains class struggle, today just as in the period when that concept originated” (Adorno, 272). This quote definitively illustrates the falsehood of North’s accusations and clearly delineates Critical Theory from postmodernism. Though Adorno is no syndicalist, given his decentering of the proletariat as world-historical subject, his negative-dialectical approach remains revolutionary, expanding the Marxian concern with exploitation and class society into an overarching anarchistic critique of domination. Class struggle thus is not “disappeared” in Adorno’s thought, or in Critical Theory, but rather forms one current within a confluence of generalized anti-systemic revolt.


Adorno, Theodor W. 1989. “Society,” in Stephen Bronner and Douglas Kellner (eds), Critical Theory and Society: A Reader (New York: Routledge).

Claussen, Detlev 2010. Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

Marcuse, Herbert 1968. Negations: Essays in Critical Theory (Boston: Beacon Press).

Marcuse, Herbert 1969. An Essay on Liberation (Boston: Beacon Press).

Wiggershaus, Rolf 1994. The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press)

National Geographic redraws Arctic Ocean to reflect observed ice loss to date; May 2014 the hottest May on record

June 24, 2014

National Geographic has seen it necessary significantly to revise the extent of sea ice it depicts as existing in the Arctic Ocean in its forthcoming 2014 atlas.  In comparison with 1989, when the currently depicted Arctic sea-ice extent was first drawn, the loss looks to be about half, if not more–in keeping with the death spiral the Arctic has been forced into by the capitalist mode of production.

old atlas

1989 atlas

new atlas

2014 atlas

Intimately related to this horrid trend, of course, is the progressively warmer state of Earth’s climate: May 2014 was the hottest May experienced since records began, being 0.74C hotter than the twentieth-century average for the month.

may 2014

“The forms of humanity’s own global societal constitution threaten its existence, if a global self-conscious subject does not develop and intervene.”

 — Theodor W. Adorno, “Progress”

Green Syndicalism vs. Anti-Civ: Social Revolution or Primitivist Reaction? A Polemic

November 21, 2013


This is a written version of the talk I presented on 11 November at the Boston Anarchist Bookfair

First published on the Industrial Workers of the World Environmental Union Caucus (IWW EUC) website

I will begin concretely by acknowledging the undoubtedly dire environmental situation of (post)modernity—to consider the most devastating facet of the crisis, let us consider catastrophic climate change. In May of this year, the global atmospheric carbon concentration was found to be 400 parts per million, or about 1.5 times that which prevailed in preindustrial human history. This is a level that has not been seen since the Pliocene geological epoch some 3 to 5 million years ago, when average global temperatures were 2 to 3°C higher than they are today, and no sea ice existed in the Arctic. Climatologists have determined that, since the onset of industrial capitalism, the Earth has warmed 0.8°C, and they estimate conservatively that the planet will experience an average warming of 4 to 6°C by the end of the twenty-first century. This is likely an underestimate, given that scientists find it difficult to integrate the observed and projected contributions of the various positive feedback loops which global warming gives rise to within their models.

If we contemplate contemporary history, we can very clearly see the profound effects catastrophic climate change has wrought on the world: consider Super Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) in the Philippines, which is said to have killed more than 10,000 people last weekend—the strongest tropical cyclone to ever make landfall, Haiyan was an an intensification and repetition of sorts of Typhoon Bopha, which struck the archipelago nation last year. Similarly, we can think of Cyclone Nargis (2008) in Burma, Cyclone Phailin in South Asia just a few weeks ago, Superstorm Sandy last year, Hurricane Katrina (2005), the Horn of Africa drought and famine of 2011, the two major droughts which have struck the Amazon in recent years (2005 and 2010), the 2010 fires in Russia, the unprecedented flooding events seen in Pakistan in 2010 and India in 2011, the record-shattering Arctic summer-sea ice extent in the years 2007 and 2012….

To examine these admittedly disconcerting realities, I will disclose my own political bias, that of an anarchism influenced greatly by Marxist political economy. I take catastrophic climate change to result from the second contradiction of capitalism, whereby the move from M to C and M’ (money → commodity → money prime [original M plus profit])—or what is the same, the ceaseless imperative for economic growth—leads the capitalist class to undermine the very material basis on which its exploitation of nature and humanity depends. Given such a disclosure, you can already see that I do not accept this outcome as the inevitable result of “civilization”—indeed, as I will explain, I find such a claim to be intellectually lazy, disingenous, and rather dangerous.

Anti-Civ Reaction

First, I will consider the “anti-civ” tendency, as represented principally in the writings of Derrick Jensen, Aric McBay, and Lierre Keith, all of whom advocate an approach known as “Deep Green Resistance” (DGR)—with the exception of McBay, who recently abandoned the group. I will not consider John Zerzan or the Green Anarchy magazine which came out of Eugene, Oregon starting in 2000. Though I claim the anti-civ line to be most authoritarian, I will not here discuss the scandalous transphobia of Jensen and Keith, which has recently come to light in the wake of the controversies which surfaced at the Law & Disorder Conference in Portland this May.

So, then, what are the basic philosophical positions of the anti-civ tendency? As Jensen explains in his Endgame volumes 1 and 2, today’s ecological crisis is taken to be the inexorable result of the establishment millennia ago of cities, as follows from the onset of domestication and the rise of agriculture. For Jensen, “civilization” is a “culture […] that both leads to and emerges from the growth of cities.” Clearly, this is not a very materialist sort of analysis. Jensen asserts that civilization is “irreedemable,” as it can never be sustainable, for, on his account, cities require the ceaseless expansion of inputs (or imports) from landbases that are not their own—with the result that the “civilized” engage in conquest and imperialism, using force to robs others for their own benefit. Jensen’s thought is also inspired by a veritable animism, as in his posing of the question of what trees and stones say, or his recommendation that those interested in sustainability ask the land how it views different social arrangements… Given these assumptions, Jensen concludes that the only truly sustainable level of technology is that of the Stone Age, or Neolithic Era, which predated the first cities of Mesopotamia: in practical terms, humanity today must elect—or be forced to “elect”—to abolish agriculture, abandon all technologies developed since the Neolithic, and undergo a massive population decline (a “corrective”) in accordance with Jensen’s conception of a “sustainable carrying capacity” of the Earth, which he claims grossly to have been overshot under conditions of civilization. In Endgame, Jensen defensively asserts that he is no Pol Pot or genocidal madman—but his positions should speak for themselves.

In his view, all environmental strains of thought other than his are hopelessly deluded, for, as he argues, they do not question the “death culture” of civilization, nor do they frame the question in a way that would prepare action aimed at overturning this death-society—that is, through the destruction of civilization. Another major premise of Jensen’s is that, the longer civilization is allowed to live on, the greater the damage will be to the world’s ecosystems and peoples.

In the abstract for this talk, I claimed Jensen’s environmental philosophy to be “undialectical, highly inegalitarian, and even reactionary in its assumptions and recommendations.” Why might this be the case? If it is not already glaringly obvious, allow me to elucidate my point.

Let’s take Jensen’s discussion of “industrial medicine” as an illustration of my argument. He makes a fair point in asserting that, on the one hand, medical doctors and the medical system in general can treat certain debilitating conditions which arise well, but they then contribute to these very maladies through the production of mass quantities of medical waste which are then incinerated. While this is a legitimate criticism, there is no sense in Jensen’s argumentation that anything meaningful could be done to vastly reduce the production of medical waste—say, through the practice of sterilization of implements rather than the mass-employment of disposable ones. Moreover, in responding to the charge that his position is “heartless” in its call for the abolition of civilization together with life-saving medicines (pharmacology), he retorts by blaming victims in an undialectical fashion: the drugs which are prescribed to treat diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and cancer, for example, are “integral to an economic system that exploits workers, degrades the environment, and increases the suffering of indigenous peoples,” he says. This sort of assertion is standard fare for Jensen—it is not capitalism or class society but civilization that is the problem. This dubious line of reasoning is seen also in his claim that modern medicine only or overwhelmingly benefits the rich—with this, he effectively naturalizes capitalist U.S. society and completely obscures reasonable alternatives to such, as in the socialized medicine of Europe.

In essence, my claim is that Jensen’s philosophy is monolectical—he dogmatically conflates capitalism with civilization, when the two are far from the same. It is for me entirely unclear that the mere fact of agriculture leads inevitably to the “radiant calamity” we see in postmodernity. Rather obviously, it is not the campesin@s of Mexico who are destroying the world. In this sense, I agree with Takis Fotopoulos of the Inclusive Democracy Project when he speculatively implies that, had the Industrial Revolution and capitalism not been imposed on the peoples of the world, they conceivably would have developed their technologies in a less destructive fashion than what we have seen in fact. I accuse Jensen of being ahistorical in the extreme, as well as highly disingenous: his entire thought is permeated by false dichotomies, as in the claim that we either have computers, pharamacology, catastrophic climate change, and genocidal imperialism or we live in egalitarian and harmonious social relations like those arguably instituted in prehistorical times. For Jensen, there is little sense that the development of civilization could have been different than what it has been. He is no revolutionary thinker inspired by the Enlightenment’s desire to overthrow oppression—instead, his philosophy serves extremely obfuscatory ends.

It should come as little surprise that Jensen has nothing to say about the revolutionary history of humanity—yes, under conditions of “civilization”—from the helots of Sparta to Spartacus, the French and Haitian Revolutions, the Spanish anarchists, the Hungarian Revolution, May 1968—or 1968 throughout much of the globe, as in Mexico, the U.S., and Japan, in additiont to France—and he in no way engages with such emancipatory social philosophies as anarchism or autonomous Marxism. For him, resistance is limited to the struggles of the Lakota, Geronimo, Tecumseh, and other militant indigenous individuals and groupings. While such forms of resistance are obviously important, they are far from comprehensive.

In sum, I view Jensen as a reactionary: his claim is that the peoples of the world must accept—or be forced to accept—their own mass-death in order to serve the mad schemes he conjures up by means of poor theorizing. For him, as the First of May Anarchist Alliance notes critically, the overwhelming majority of “civilized” peoples—including the working classes, though they make little explicit appearance in his writings—are “insane” and therefore to be written off entirely. With this assertion is seen Jensen’s effective Leninism, as I personally saw most clearly at the “Earth at Risk” conference at UC Berkeley in November 2011: according to the conversation he had with McBay on DGR strategy, the idea is that small groups of anti-civ militants will work to take down civilization themselves, given that we “can’t wait” for the people to intervene radically themselves. This is a rotten philosophy of authoritarianism.

Social Revolution through Green Syndicalism

As an alternative, let’s examine green syndicalism, which I take to be a combination of proletarian self-management—as in anarcho-syndicalism—with ecological concern, as is reflected in the philosophies of eco-socialism, social ecology, and ecological anarcho-communism. All these modes of thought aim at overcoming class society, social domination, and the domination of nature by breaking radically from the grow-or-die imperative of capitalism. These viewpoints do not take the extreme anti-technological position of Jensen and company but rather dialectically see promise in certain types of technology—for example, in labor-saving technologies, which at minimum seek to reduce the unpleasurable burden of toil and at maximum (as in communism or post-scarcity anarchism) intend to effectively abolish labor altogether by means of automation; in life-enhancing technologies, such as antibiotics and other helpful means of extending the human lifespan; as well as nature-protecting technologies, such as renewable energy sources that do not emit carbon. It should be said here, as against the fatalism inspired by undialectical primitivism, that a transition to solar and wind energy would not necessarily demand a massive expansion of the obviously problematic practice of mining, given that the rare earths needed for such a transformation are already contained within existing infrastructures, such that they can be recycled without need to resort to further extraction. Such a socio-political course is one to be adopted by a conscious, empowered humanity that has taken control of the means of production, thus shattering capitalist domination and disproving primitivist defeatism.

Having overthrown capitalism and the State, a future eco-syndicalist humanity would be able to observe various ecological practices which have been developed from within the context of capitalist modernity yet never within that context observed due to the hegemony of mindless growth economics. I am thinking here of the precautionary principle, whereby a given action (say, in production) is not to be allowed if there is reason to believe such a move would cause harm to humans and/or nature, in addition to systemic recycling, the overturning of planned obsolescence, generalized vegetarianism, economic contraction, and the re-orientation of production toward need and use rather than luxury and exchange.

Though it is to be imagined that the realization of such critical socio-economic transformations would greatly reduce the burden humanity has imposed upon the environment within the history of capitalism, it is also true that such an overhaul would not absolutely do away with the exploitation and domination of nature altogether. In this sense, Herbert Marcuse is arguably right to assert that the idea of a total reconciliation between humanity and nature “belongs to the Orphic myth, not to any conceivable historical reality.”1 Taking an analogy from Marcuse, one he develops in his revolutionary interpretation of Freud in Eros and Civilization, I should here like to distinguish between the “basic domination” and “surplus domination” of nature. On Marcuse’s account, basic repression is required for the continuation of everyday life within civilization, but surplus repression is not: the latter corresponds to a socially unnecessary level of unhappiness which accords with the interests of dominant groups, such as capitalists. (Marcuse takes his account of basic and surplus repression from the distinction Marx made between necessary and surplus labor.) By overthrowing capitalism and the surplus-repression which it demands, humanity can come to experience a far more liberated existence, claims Marcuse. In my argument, the case is similar with the domination of nature: a significant proportion of the domination humanity exercises with regards to nature under conditions of capitalism can certainly be overturned by means of the exercise of mind and the embodiment of a political praxis which accords with such—as in social revolution—but a basic level of domination will likely live on even in a global post-capitalist civilization, particularly in light of the considerable size of the total human population, the vast majority of whom must be allowed to live in more materially favorable contexts than currently prevails.

I argue that this dynamic is far preferable to the alternative advanced by Jensen and company: that is, for billions to be murdered in conformity with the genocidal fantasies of primitivism. I here accept that any defensible notion of politics will provide for the health and well-being of the world’s human population, present and future; I certainly agree with Theodor Adorno when he claims the “notion of redemption” to be inextricably linked to the “happiness of unborn generations.”2 To demand a mass die-off of humanity as a precondition of sustainability should self-evidently be ethically unacceptable to all. Beyond this, however, in practical terms it is far from evident that mass-death is necessary at all, given the reasonable alternatives in terms of socio-ecological practice open to a conscious humanity that has transcended the horrid capitalist system. Once again, to naturalize “civilized” humanity as being inevitably capitalist is an untenable position.

Strategically, green syndicalism seeks to integrate class struggle into environmentalism: to overthrow the capitalist class and do away with productivism, both materially—as in production—as well as ideologically—in culture and social relations. Granted, this struggle would likely entail the abandonment of many capitalist technologies and, as Richard Smith has argued cogently in his “Six Theses” on “Capitalism and the Destruction of Life on Earth,” entire sectors of the capitalist economy—as examples, he mentions “not just fossil-fuel producers, but all the industries that consume them and produce GHG emissions – autos, trucking, aircraft, airlines, shipping and cruise lines, construction, chemicals, plastics, synthetic fabrics, cosmetics, synthetic fiber and fabrics, synthetic fertilizer and agribusiness CAFO operations, and many more.” Arguably, the overwhelming majority of consumption engaged in by the overdeveloped societies should also be jettisoned—besides having terrible effects on nature and workers, such consumer goods truly contribute little to human happiness, after all. It should be obvious that, though perspectives on industry and development such as these remain highly critical, they have exceedingly little to do with the primitivist rejection of all technologies other than those which were on hand in the Neolithic.

Concretely, we can point to several tactics with which to move toward a green syndicalist future for humanity: workplace militancy, social antagonism, agitation, indignation, direct action, occupation (or decolonization), blockades of capital, general strikes, and particularly ecological general strikes. I see a militant transitional period as including two critical moments: one which would work to interrupt the drive of the death-economy that is capitalism, and another which would seek to construct a participatory and inclusive counter-power as an alternative to regnant barbarism.

Differently from orthodox Marxism—and, indeed, Jensen himself, who claims delusionally that he is entirely convinced that his dream of abolishing civilization will come to pass—I subscribe to no blind sense of optimism here. I believe we must think again of Super Typhoon Haiyan, and what horrors such as this portend for the future, whether it continues to be capitalist or rather somehow becomes democratic, syndicalist, and ecological. As Murray Bookchin argued famously, anarchism provides humanity with the ethical option of choosing to intervene and overcome capitalism and domination. This end is far from assured, yet little alternative exists other than radical struggle.


1Herbert Marcuse, Counterrevolution and Revolt (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972), 68.

2Theodor W. Adorno, “Progress,” in Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History, ed. Gary Smith (1962; repr., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 85 .

Intervention as Radical Struggle: On Arendt, Negativity, and Resistance

October 7, 2013


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

NB: This essay is a modified version of the author’s submission for the 2013 Hannah Arendt Prize

“What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.”

– Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition1

Doubtless, there exists much reason to study disobedience, the spark behind all knowledge,” as Gaston Bachelard claims in his Fragments of a Poetics of Fire. I would argue that Albert Camus is right to claim rebellion—which, as he says, can only ever be a social project infused by notions of solidarity, rather than individualism—intimately to be related to the defense of human existence—survival, in the first place—as well as to the political task of advancing human flourishing.2 Alarmingly, both such struggles today confront especially severe threat: as Noam Chomsky describes it plainly, the prospect of decent human survival is presently imperiled by the twin specters of nuclear war and environmental catastrophe.3 Given the totally inadequate approaches that constituted power have presented vis-à-vis these world-historical problems—radical denial on the one hand, and conscious exacerbation on the other—the question becomes whether we can hope for revolutionary interventions from below, emanating from that which Giorgio Agamben terms “the non-State, which is humanity,” to address these pressing dangers in rational and humane fashion.4 As we have seen in recent years with the shattering entrance onto the public stage of oppressed humanity seeking to manage its affairs autonomously from and antagonistically against the State and capital, such hope does not seem entirely without merit.

In this sense, Arendt is correct to note, as she did in reflecting on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, that the tide of history can shift radically and rapidly, once established hierarchies are disrupted by the broad-based delegitimization of prevailing power relations.5 Indeed, such a perspective seems to be one of the major, optimistic conclusions to be gleaned from George Katsiaficas’ sweeping study of People’s Power movements throughout much of Asia—that despotism is doomed once the demos struggles together to overthrow it, and that the militaristic repression perennially visited on dissident movements reflects the oppressors’ very fears of the power of the people.6 Hence, I completely reject the nihilistic notion that intervention constitutes little more than a “decoy or distraction in the face of futility” or a “cover or compensation for hopeless battles and set-ups.” Consider for a moment the Great French Revolution of 1789-1794: one would be at a loss to think of a similarly shattering event in human history, one that abolished monarchy and feudalism at a stroke—not to mention recognizing the end to formal slavery in Saint Domingue/Haiti, following the radical struggle of the slaves there themselves to destroy the system oppressing them. I claim that G.W.F. Hegel was right to celebrate this intervention as “a glorious mental dawn,” one that led “[a]ll thinking beings” to experience “jubilation.”Similarly, Louis Antoine de Saint-Just justifiably declared the Revolution as promoting the concept of happiness, which heretofore had been denied by existing social arrangements; it was for this reason “a new idea in Europe,” and a new reality.8

So while fatalism, defeatism, and any sense of Schopenhauerian pessimism should be considered misguided—as well, indeed, as reactionary, given the effective legitimization such orientations afford the powers that be—it would also seem questionable to claim, as Bachelard does in his Fragments, that human progress “amounts to a series of Promethean acts.” Granted, my concern here may have more to do with my conception of Prometheus and the common use of the adjective Promethean: Prometheus is rightly celebrated as a rebel who opposes divine authority in order to make critical scientific knowledge readily available to humanity. Yet the charge of prometheanism is often made, I think rightly, against certain interpretations of Marxism—arguably following from Marx’s own works—and other ideologies which base their social projects on the unquestioning domination of nature and the “development of the productive forces.” In light of the undeniably pressing contemporary ecological problems which have resulted from the uncritical productivism advanced systemically by capital—species loss, ocean acidification, the progressive melting of the polar ice caps, a greater incidence of drought and famine—any sense of Prometheus as the founder of an unbounded quest for scientific and technological development should not be welcomed today: consider Mary Shelley’s subtitle to Frankenstein (“The Modern Prometheus”), or J. Robert Oppenheimer. Against Prometheus, Herbert Marcuse likely is more justified to present Orpheus the lyre-player as an alternative mythological figure from which to draw inspiration: tranquility, aestheticism, and eroticism (particularly queer varieties) seem more germane to the depth of the current crisis.9

Turning, then, to the questions of how intervention might become “powerful and compelling” within the current juncture, and what role thought should have in this process, I would strongly agree with the major figures of the Frankfurt School in their emphasis on the centrality of negativity within conceptualization and interpretation. Their “critical negativism,” as identified by C. Fred Alford, is particularly relevant today: thought cannot assent to any social arrangement which perpetuates deprivation, suffering, and alienation as radically as does capital—as T.W. Adorno writes, “So long as there is still a single beggar, […] there is still myth.”10 Put plainly, thought should today ceaselessly be pointing out the utter barbarism of the hegemony of capital, patriarchy, and the State. Philosophy, in sum, should serve the end of agitation, indignation, and education, toward the end of organization, to paraphrase B.R. Ambedkar. This final concern—that of praxis—would to my mind be the principal goal toward which thought should strive today; basing itself in the prospects for dialectical affirmation against capitalist barbarism, philosophy would do well to counterpose the range of possibilities which we know are readily at hand, from our own personal desires for alternative societal arrangements, as from the compelling history of revolutionary social movements across the globe. Waxing, then, between an Adornian disgust at the machinations of hegemony and a Blochian emphasis on the principle of hope, philosophy could come to serve radical struggle—that is, intervention.

Passing from idealist critique to material intervention, it would seem that the world-Geist [Spirit] should take on the form of revolutionary, anti-systemic mass-movements. Engaging in direct action—with the examples of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) and other black blocs in mind—this mass-movement would prioritize participatory democracy via popular control of all social institutions, from the means of production to cultural production and beyond. In this sense, I envision a mass-dual power strategy, whereby Agamben’s “non-State,” or humanity, both prefigures the emancipated future it desires and works actively to bring such into being—by doing- and being-other, as theorized inter alia by John Holloway.11 Concretely, this praxis would involve the physical blockade of capital, as seen recently in protests against the tar sands infrastructure or the planned Koondankulam nuclear plant in India’s Tamil Nadu state, as well as in the “mass disturbances” seen in China over ecological devastation, in addition to the disruption of its operations throughout the life-world, particularly through sustained general strikes. Indeed, the Industrial Workers of the World’s recent introduction of the concept of the ecological general strike, whereby laborers refuse their participation in capitalism’s ecocidal projects toward the end of developing participatory models that would allow for ecological balance, is an especially inspiring model for current and future intervention.12

In sum, it seems clear that radical struggle is the order of the day. Intervention, if it is to have concrete meaning or be relevant at all, seeks human happiness, tranquility, liberation—like art that is worth its name, in Marcuse’s formulation.13 Undoubtedly, the threats which are today aligned against the realization of these ends are considerable; Hegel was largely correct to identify history as a slaughterbench which sacrifices the happiness of humanity to hegemony. We can clearly see such analysis confirmed throughout the calamitous world today: think of the recent Tazreen and Rana Square disasters in Bangladesh, or the 2011 Somali famine.

However, it is also clear that humanity is capable of far more affirming projects than those which hold power today. Dialectical thought, and the praxis which may follow from it, can serve to overturn negation.


1>Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 5.

2Albert Camus, The Rebel (trans. Anthony Bower, New York: Alfred Knopf, 1956).

3Noam Chomsky and Laray Polk, Nuclear War and Environmental Catastrophe (New York: Seven Stories, 2013).

4Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community (trans. Michael Hardt, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 65.

5Hannah Arendt, On Violence (San Diego: Harcourt, 1969), 48.

6George Katsiaficas, Asia’s Unknown Uprisings, Volume 2 (Oakland: PM Press, 2013); for the author’s review of Volume 2, please see “A Review of ‘Asia’s Unknown Uprisings,” The White Rose Reader, 21 July 2013.

7G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of History, trans. J. Sibree (New York: Colonial, 1899), 447.

8Quoted in Sophie Wahnich, In Defense of the Terror (trans. David Fernbach, London: Verso, 2012), 69.

9Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization (Boston: Beacon, 1966).

10C. Fred Alford, Science and the Revenge of Nature (Tampa: University of South Florida Press, 1985), 15-16; Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia (trans. E.F.N. Jephcott, London: Verso, 1974 [1951]), 199.

11John Holloway, Crack Capitalism (London: Pluto, 2010).

12For the IWW’s Environmental Union Caucus, see

13Herbert Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension (Boston: Beacon, 1978).