Archive for the Environmentalism Category

Polygraph Issue 22: Ecology and Ideology

Posted in Apocalypse Porn, Cultural Theory, Environmentalism with tags , , on September 13, 2010 by traxus4420

aka What I’ve Been Doing For The Past…er, I’d rather not say how long. Look, it’s an academic publication. By graduate students, even. Read more on the homepage.

If any of this sounds interesting, you can buy it on Amazon, which I normally wouldn’t recommend but it’s sort of hard to find otherwise. Don’t worry, I’m not making any money.

Not on the cover: a long introduction by the editors, and a (critical) review of Lee Braver’s A Thing of This World and Graham Harman’s book on Latour by me. Both can be found in PDF form via the link to the homepage. Don’t worry, collegiality is strictly maintained throughout.

As co-editor I’m not allowed to pick favorites, but even the pieces I disagree with (some more violently than others — readers of this blog will probably be able to guess which ones) are at least well put.

UPDATE:

Individual article summaries here via co-editor Gerry Canavan.

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Aesthetics of Apocalypse

Posted in Apocalypse, Cultural Theory, Environmentalism, structuralism, Zizek with tags on May 28, 2010 by traxus4420

In the eons since my last post, Haiti suffered a few more secondary quakes, then Chile had an earthquake, Iceland erupted, covering the skies with volcanic ash, Greece’s ongoing crisis spiked again and got bailed out, Thailand tried to have another revolution, American liberals continued to fantasize about right-wing revolt, then British Petroleum vomited death all over the Gulf Coast. And Tennessee got flooded. Of course it hasn’t been anything close to eons, just a couple of months. Though unstylish, Bill McKibben has the right idea: the bad old days of ‘alienation’ from Nature are over. We don’t even live on Earth anymore.

So let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that we’re living in the end times. Even for someone as preoccupied with the unimportant as I am, the loop linking apocalypse culture product — CGI spectacles of urban destruction, zombie movies, post-apocalyptic video games, David Simon’s new show, Treme — to its critics — academics, magazine critics, bloggers, anyone with a Facebook account — didn’t occur to me as something worth considering until Roger mentioned it in the comments below and elsewhere.

So then I did consider it, and my conclusions are just as depressing as everything else. First, it seems clearer to me now than ever before that that which the authorities designate as ‘popular culture,’ rife for most of its existence (but especially now) with apocalyptic fantasies, is about as helpful for thinking about shifts in public consciousness, utopian desire, and affects, as a BP press release, or one of Obama’s speeches. Films like 2012 or even marginally more intelligent ones like 28 Days Later exist to provide an imaginary audience with the experience of what it’s supposed to think and feel. Reductionist, yes, but to militate too much against reductionism on the consumption end gives a free pass to reductionism on the production end. If the zombie film should be the most self-aware manifestation of long-term cultural regression, its sense of irony has already grown stale and decadent; the basic premise of the genre, the horror of limitless need in a limited world, is a limit on thought and feeling that stopped being productive a long time ago.

We live in the high point of a moment when previously discredited genres like science fiction, fantasy, horror, and superhero bildungsromane have cache among critics, when high and lowbrow just as often refer to different perspectives on the same object as they do different objects. I suspect the vogue for these texts is grounded in an aesthetic sympathetic with modernist architecture’s dictum that form should express function. In the great non-psychological literary tradition of Voltaire or Kafka or Borges, ‘genre’ texts do not assume any relationship between individual psychological experiences and universal significance; they merely announce a set of rules and perform a series of variations, allusions, and allegorizations geared toward maximum readability. The interesting ambiguities lie in just how the pieces fit together: is Deckard an android? Or in the fine points of allegorical reading: does Tolkien’s universe embody a paganized Christianity or a Christianized paganism? Or in how to parse an ethical dilemma: is it ok for Batman to surveil all of Gotham? Does Jack Bauer really need to torture all those Muslims? Whose revenge is justifiable in Hostel (try Martyrs for a more interesting version of this question)? The world is grasped as a theoretical structure that can only be interpreted, known, and/or changed by structural means: the physical actions of a character, the revelation of a secret, the destruction of the world.

Here is Benjamin Kunkel profoundly not getting it in the pages of Dissent from a while back:

“Our literary sci-fi novels are bereft of strongly individual characters—the apocalyptic ones even more depopulated than they know, the clone narratives at least bespeaking the anxiety that their characters are redundant—and the ongoing merger of genre fiction (where the reader is accustomed to finding no complex characters) with literature (which no one would think to accuse of being indifferent to individuality) has allowed the liquidation of character to pass virtually unnoticed. And this, it seems, is likely to be among the most accurately futuristic features of the “literary” genre novels: they will have been the harbingers of a literary sea change in which complex characters are rejected by critics and ordinary readers alike as morally unattractive (compared to generic heros), hopelessly self-involved (because capable of introspection), and annoyingly irresolute (because subject to deliberation). These prejudices are already articulate and operative whenever fiction is discussed, thanks in large part to the incomplete literature-genre fiction merger, and the prestige such prejudices acquire through that merger allows them to be expressed without the taint of philistinism.”

The thoughtful reader of anyone outside the trajectory of Jane Austen, Henry James, and the 20th century American short story will no doubt scoff at Kunkel’s naivete, though it is post-Lacanian, Post-Jamesonian critics whose tastes are being caricatured here. But do his retrograde views on the centrality of psychologically complex characters to fiction imply anything different in practice to this more ‘modern’ taste for structurally transparent riffs on popular genre? Don’t both use their tastes to justify giving special attention to a limited set of individual, ‘properly cultural’ texts? There are clear echoes of the Richardson-Fielding debate over interior account vs. mock epic, or character vs. author, a productive dissensus essential to the ‘rise of the novel.’ As a bored Alec Guinness intoned at the end of Star Wars, death only makes certain individuals stronger. The author-function is now an empty signifier through which any number of historical forces, zeitgeists, and collective fantasies can be read.

As a corollary, a masterpiece today is not necessarily the work of a heroic, individual master, but an individual text that metonymically summons the world on stage. Even better, really, if no one is responsible — a neo-romantic aesthetic, not of nature or natural genius, but of public opinion. Surely the problematic merger between fine art and mass culture Kunkel sees operating in literature is both a) not restricted to literature and b) somehow linked to the perception of ideological transparency of popular genre products, considered more popular the more rigorously processed for the market they are.

The contemporary-apocalyptic impoverishment of the word ‘culture’ to refer to the sterile contradiction ‘lifestyle’ vs. ‘fiction,’ culture’s near-total commodification, is, I think, precisely what creates the expectation that it should ‘tell us something’ about human experience that no other source can. That something includes an associated pantheon: Society, Values, The Unconscious, Desire, The Will to Utopia, Ideology. But what can a discourse so increasingly cut off from everything that might give it content ‘tell us’ beyond itself? Despite its recent topicality, no major blockbuster is likely to reconnect the zombie to Haiti, its place of origin, or Africa for that matter — that would be ‘racist,’ or, rather, would acknowledge in too clear a light the racism that underpins the entire genre (though Japanese video game designers have no such compunctions). There are many other examples. If we grant that the apocalyptic is a dominant discourse in need of parsing, shouldn’t it be more useful to see how it works in the context of actual events than to restrict ourselves to the universe of fantasy conjured by the spectacle (and its supplementary critique)? The same questions can be asked in the context of real-time ideological warfare. On BP’s oil spill for example, the points of entry are too numerous to list more than a few: the company’s cosmetic concern for keeping the oil concealed, underwater, where it can do even more damage; the technocratic fantasies of elite teams of scientists solving our problems a la Armageddon.

By no means am I trying to dismiss the traditional objects and methods of aesthetic criticism once and for all, whether for ideology critique or for anything else. But I do want to make a point about professionalism and myopia.

Take today’s politics of apocalypse. Obscene levels of corruption are publicly announced every day. Everyone is “fiddling while Rome burns.” BP executives wining and dining government officials, the general prostration of public interest to oil conglomerates common to both Obama and Bush Jr.’s administrations, JP Morgan executives inventing credit-default swaps while drinking heavily at a post-fraternity bacchanal. The scandal, that which is in excess of the justice/injustice of the results of the deals, is that they are made unofficially. Any charge of corruption comes after the making-public of a community existing behind the explicit democratic structure of official discourse, in (dialectical) contradiction to it. As has been all too evident lately, the public revelation of what everyone already assumes, even if it is a critique of illegitimate power, can only strengthen it if nothing is done as a result. The critic who speaks from the imaginary position of either the ‘letter’ or the ‘spirit’ of the law thus always risks extending the power of a ruling elite at the expense of democratic legitimacy as a whole. It is in just this sense that the social critic is in league with her target (despite the necessity of her function), a kind of court jester, producing the aura of authority in the very act of ‘speaking truth to power.’

Is it really much of a stretch to say that when we media critics — today we are all media critics (we are all ‘intellectuals’) — discuss a Hollywood film or a bestselling novel, we are in the same situation? Just as the professional ethics of journalistic ‘objectivity’ insist that reporters stick to official public facts and statements, professional aesthetic criticism focuses primarily on ‘culture,’ which (just as in the ‘rational public sphere’ of press releases and stump speeches) is dominated by the official statements of entrenched powers. They will forever be scandalized by the entirely pedestrian difference between a given discourse and everything else. That old insult, ‘idealist,’ should then be updated to refer to anyone who is ‘just doing their job.’ A reporter should never deal only in official facts; a film critic should never only write reviews; a philosopher should never write ‘pure philosophy.’ Impartiality is irrelevance.

This also entails that we suspend the notion of ideology as a unitary discourse, such that no field, type, genre, or medium can contain ‘the key’ to its structure. If searching for and retrieving that key is the only value Arts & Entertainment are thought to have, then they are by definition worthless. The Zizekian argument about ideology (which I borrowed above in modified form) holds that distance from ideology just is ideology — the claim that one ‘really is’ in excess of the law (whether as authentic human being, social critic, or scheming corrupt politician) even while continuing to perform one’s ideological function flawlessly. In typical Zizekian fashion, to be ‘really subversive’ is not to point out the difference between illusion and reality, but to follow the public law in spite of the unwritten law (the law’s ‘obscene supplement,’ aka the ‘way of the world,’ aka the ‘antithesis’ stage of the dialectic), thus embracing, as he puts it, the “‘crazy’ totality in which a position reverts to its Other in the very moment of its excessive exaggeration.” Don’t just do something, sit there! Conformity is dissent! For Zizek everything refers back to ideology, especially its ‘outside.’ He uses the term ‘ideology’ to indicate the transcendental structure of whatever happens to be the ‘dominant social practice,’ with other social practices just orbiting planets unless they perform the impossible feat of usurping the center. This apparent failure to distinguish between the CNN news ticker and its consequences is really a feature; his ‘innovation’ after all is to avoid the complexities of mediating between (say) Hollywood, the Pentagon, and Wall Street by taking screen reality at face value, reading Red Dawn and Afghanistan in exactly the same way.  As tea leaves.

Which is to point out a dead end, an exhausted discourse, and redirect attention to its ‘context,’ for lack of a better, less bureaucratic term — that which the Borg-like pretensions of so many theories of ideology disguise, no less effectively than utilitarian theories of personhood and efficient markets. Ideology is not, for example, prior to class, or gender, or petroleum. It is not a singular ur-text; ‘in itself’ no more than an empty term that brings strangers into contact. The truism ‘everything is ideology’ suggests instead that there is nothing left to discuss once that contact is established. A speculative, aesthetic definition of Apocalypse Culture might then be: a tendency of otherwise unrelated discourses to collapse around their nonexistent center, to hypnotize each other into talking about nothing. My friends and I, I feel (I can’t think it), have lost an ability possessed by earlier generations to speak without paying tribute to a ghostly imperative to negate ourselves, whether through a meticulously defined but meaningless jargon, or stutters, lapses, and interruptions between vague sentence fragments wrapped in protective irony. Since (according to us) we can only speak about ‘the world’ in terms of commodities, doing so always seems like a ridiculous prospect, even if necessary at times. The only grand statement about the zeitgeist I feel capable of making is that when I watch C-SPAN on YouTube, or read press releases and news websites, I see what looks like the same thing. So we are deaf and dumb. But which is ‘dominant?’ The structural void of ideology that supposedly ‘explains’ our ‘failure to communicate,’ or the 39 million gallons of oil devouring the Gulf Coast?

Notes on Copenhagen, etc.

Posted in current events, Environmentalism, Political Theory, U.S. Politics with tags , , on December 26, 2009 by traxus4420

The cards on the table are these:

– An unprecedented number of world leaders met in Copenhagen to work out an international response to climate change. The West especially needed a deal, because a) it’s generally accepted among their populations that climate change is an existential threat and b) certain ‘developing’ nations are coming of age pollution-wise, making it in the West’s political and economic interest to set the terms of the deal.

– As a consequence of his campaign strategy and the historically obstructionist role of the U.S. in prior attempts at such treaties, Obama became the symbolic representative for the interests of the West at Copenhagen and the lightning rod for the first wave of criticism from the green Left. Concretely Obama needed a deal because without one it would be much more difficult to push even the most modest ‘green agenda’ through the circus of late imperial decadence that is Congress.

– But hold on, Obama only avoided being the unambiguous weak link of the Copenhagen debacle because of the ‘obstructionist’ role played by the U.S.’s chief emerging competitor, China (think of Obama and Wen Jiabao’s conference as an informal passing of the torch ceremony), the West’s agreed-upon villain. As the world’s top two carbon emitters, the U.S. and China were the least willing to make definite commitments (the U.S. came to the talks pledged to reduce emissions to 4% below 1990 levels, compared to a 20% commitment from the EU; China notoriously vetoed not only a proposed 50% reduction in emissions by 2050 but the even bigger commitments proposed for developed countries as well). But the country with vastly greater domestic limitations — China, where millions of households are still without access to electricity — has officially replaced the U.S. in the eyes of the ‘responsible left’ in propaganda pieces like this one, just as the good intentions of Obama replaced the bad intentions of Bush.

– The entirely speculative, ‘meaningful’ deal that was finally arrived was negotiated by a ‘coalition of the willing’ out of sight of most of the conference participants, while being widely praised for legitimizing the idea that poor countries should have to submit to emission limits just like the developed and upper-level developing countries (i.e. China, India, Brazil). Here’s a list by Johann Hari of the democratic proposals that this virtual deal has concretely succeeded in ruling out. These debates have seen the ‘responsible left’ take truly horrific attitudes toward the objections of Nicaragua, Bolivia, Sudan, and Venezuela to the proposed treaty that have even filtered down to progressives like David Roberts of Grist:

It was only by forging a non-UN side agreement that Obama and other national leaders averted disaster. The UNFCCC “took note” of the accord, but since Sudan, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba wouldn’t sign on, it couldn’t formally adopt it.

That’s right—a clutch of hostile Latin American kleptocracies practically derailed the entire process. This can’t help but raise serious questions about whether the UN is the proper venue to hash out emission reductions. Does it really make sense to give 192 nations veto power when the vast bulk of emissions come from under 20 of them?

It may be regrettable from an ‘idealistic’ standpoint, but the only way to get results is to ditch democracy, says Joe Romm of Climate Progress (who nevertheless allows facts to keep him from completely endorsing the anti-China rhetoric):

Ultimately, the point is not the friggin’ process, but the outcome, and if the UN could demonstrate its process could lead to a better outcome, I’d be all for it.  But I doubt it.

I think Obama showed the process that can work to get the best possible outcome:  High-level negotiations by the senior leaders of the big emitters.

Let me therefore end with the conclusion of an analysis by the Harvard economist Robert Stavins:

We may look back upon Copenhagen as an important moment – both because global leaders took the reins of the procedures and brought the negotiations to a fruitful conclusion, and because the foundation was laid for a broad-based coalition of the willing to address effectively the threat of global climate change.  Only time will tell.

This is an extreme example, but the resurgence of ideological pragmatism among the left, especially in the U.S., in the wake of unrelenting defeat, leads to a sort of theoretical agnosticism about politics combined with a blithe acceptance of the structurally weak position it (especially in the U.S.) currently holds. In practice this amounts to agnosticism over the real existence of ideological structures like neoliberalism, which no one could stop talking about when Bush was in charge, combined with prostrate submission to a priori limits on the potential of the progressive movement to change anything. As left economist Peter Dorman puts it in a critique of Waxman-Markey (the guiding framework for U.S. negotiations at Copenhagen):

Mainstream environmental groups are not blind to these problems, but they see them as second-order. Above all, they are soooooo happy that climate deniers are not in command of politics any more. They are fighting yesterday’s battle, to get general agreement on the principle that climate change is caused by people, and people need to do something about it. They like the nice feeling that comes from all of us raising our hands and pledging, scout’s honor, to achieve sustainability by 2050. But they are losing today’s battle to put into place a viable means to get from here to there, and judging from their public statements they don’t even know it.

The failure to go beyond the literal reading of the individual elements of reform bills to grasp their structural role is nowhere more apparent than in the health care debate. Anyone who objects to the Senate bill is an ‘obstructionist’ or ‘hostage taker’ out for self-interested political gain (or sociopathy, or excess of enthusiasm) over the ‘greater good’ moral objective that we all must accept. Progressives, both the weaker of the two opponents and the one liberal Democrats would like to secretly agree with, are expected to cave to the obstructionism of the centrists despite their efforts in getting public support for reform. But not before putting on an ineffectual performance of outrage that makes their opponents feel better about the inevitable.

[The ideological divide within the Democratic party is more succinctly analyzed here.]

Obama: “This notion I know among some on the left that somehow this bill is not everything that it should be … I think just ignores the real human reality that this will help millions of people and end up being the most significant piece of domestic legislation at least since Medicare and maybe since Social Security.”

Set aside for the moment the lies about the policies he campaigned on. First a bad faith moral imperative is employed: blame for the historical failure of the U.S., the the most powerful etc. country in the world, to put together anything more than a catastrophically shitty health care system is shifted away from the anti-democratic structure of the Senate, the power of health insurance lobbyists, and the failure and/or unwillingness of politicians to overcome these obstacles, to any individual on the left who threatens the passage of the textbook Third Way, neoliberal, government-corporate merger that is the Senate bill, and the one Obama apparently wanted from the start. As many have said, the early telegraphing of the Democratic majority and the White House’s unwillingness to reject any deal that can win cloture, and the consequent vilification of progressives who are so willing, kneecapped the left’s power to negotiate. Objections that seem reasonable are the intended casualties of this backlash. Finally the value of the health bill is put in terms of ‘significance’: it’s a big (“sweeping”) reform, and that’s what really matters. After all.

Of course, either the slightly more elitist Senate bill or the slightly more populist House bill would be “a historic first step,” “a foundation that can be improved on in the future” (as defenders like to say). Something that will help real people, etc. But what have we been watching if not the design of the new health bill’s architecture to make the much-publicized progressive improvements — single payer and compromise #1, the public option — all but impossible? Simply because the bill will contain contradictory elements does not mean it has no structuring logic. As the cost of regulation, any currently possible bill ensures that the grip of private health insurers on American lives will be more intransigent and more comprehensive. But these are precisely the sorts of concerns dismissed as ‘symbolic’ by enlightened commenters.

The ‘bill-killers’ chief political argument is/was that necessity combined with progressive pressure will push democrats to renegotiate even if the current bill is abandoned. This best-case scenario would be plausible if the progressive movement were as powerful as a major corporation. For many reasons, it is not. One of those reasons is how unusually stratified American society is as a whole, and how precarious, conformist, and alienated from the rest of the culture we tend to be, especially when educated. But the increasing implausibility of the bill’s defeat from the left (despite 11th-hour statements to the contrary) is only a convincing reason to stop fighting it if one’s subjective approach to politics is the consumerist model presumed by most news media: the independent, neutral observer, who wants “to see both sides of every issue” but is instead forced to decide between Two Bad Extremes. One who (unlike the others) is free to imagine ideal solutions to problems, but whose moral triumph is found in putting away childish things and learning to accept ‘reality.’ But working to improve the bill and threatening its passage aren’t mutually exclusive; defending it and improving it are.

In their ‘realist’ guise, apologists for bank bailouts, compromised health reform, Copenhagen, and the escalation in Afghanistan defer criticism of these policies and their authors to all those previously ignored ‘structural factors,’ now emptied of agency and presented as if laws of nature to be challenged only by the naive (liberal homilies about the sad realities of politics are the ‘soft’ side of this tactic). This brand of cynicism, which reduces all thought and perception to whatever shit is being shoved in your face right now, is worn as a sign of acumen, as it is indeed the gateway to professional status.

By the very gesture of having enabled thought (by excluding ’emotion’ and ‘partisanship’) that the intellectual class, the captured consumer/producers of news events and political decisions, encourages itself to react in place of thinking. From the laptop to the newspaper to the movie theater (and back to the laptop):

But if the term ‘progressive’ is to be taken seriously, a different political reality has to be embraced. All the feel-good talk about ‘getting somewhere’ or ‘good starts’ is so much living in the past. Everyone who calls the shots now knows, or has to pretend they know, that environmental catastrophe and financial crisis are real, and that health reform is necessary. We can be pleased or terrified about that. But from a practical standpoint the most important immediate goal is to move the center left. I always feel uncomfortable writing ‘calls to action’ like this, mostly because I always think that not only is it obvious what should be done, it is being done. And that is pushing back hard in whatever way we can against the future our political elites are building for us, so that, as much as possible, we can build it for ourselves. We can’t make decrees or issue five year plans, or make the kinds of promises campaigning politicians make. In the world we live in, where we are just extras whose consent is either manufactured or assumed, fighting back means refusing to take on ourselves the dreary weight of their responsibilities and the illusion of power that comes with them. Demanding at the same time that they live up to their professed responsibilities and killing their bills when they don’t may be irresponsible in this heavily leveraged political environment — a losing battle — but that’s asymmetric politics. Devoting our energies to help the political class make decisions as if we didn’t exist isn’t even a partial victory, it’s just martyrdom.

May Day

Posted in Environmentalism, History, Marxism, Utopia with tags , on May 1, 2009 by traxus4420

08maypole

According to Peter Linebaugh’s pamphlet history, May Day has both ‘red’ and ‘green’ origins, and has traditionally been a time when humorless commies and libertine tree-huggers can put aside their differences and be excellent to each other.
Here’s my favorite tale:

In 1625 Captain Wollaston, Thomas Morton, and thirty others sailed from England and months later, taking their bearings from a red cedar tree, they disembarked in Quincy Bay. A year later Wollaston, impatient for lucre and gain, left for good to Virginia. Thomas Morton settled in Passonaggessit which he named Merry Mount. The land seemed a “Paradise” to him. He wrote, there are “fowls in abundance, fish in multitudes, and I discovered besides, millions of turtle doves on the green boughs, which sat pecking of the full, ripe, pleasant grapes that were supported by the lusty trees, whose fruitful load did cause the arms to bend.”

On May Day, 1627, he and his Indian friends, stirred by the sound of drums, erected a Maypole eighty feet high, decorated it with garlands, wrapped it in ribbons, and nailed to its top the antlers of a buck. Later he wrote that he “sett up a Maypole upon the festival day of Philip and James, and therefore brewed a barrell of excellent beare.” A ganymede sang a Bacchanalian song. Morton attached to the pole the first lyric verses penned in America which concluded.

With the proclamation that the first of May

At Merry Mount shall be kept holly day

The Puritans at Plymouth were opposed to the May Day. they called the Maypole “an Idoll” and named Merry Mount “Mount Dagon” after the god of the first ocean-going imperialist, the Phoenicians. More likely, though the Puritans were the imperialist, not Morton, who worked with slaves, servants, and native Americans, person to person. Everyone was equal in his “social contract.” Governor Bradford wrote, “they allso set up a Maypole, drinking and dancing aboute it many days together, inviting the Indean women for thier consorts, dancing and frisking together (like so many faires, or furies rather) and worse practise.”

Merry Mount became a refuge for Indians, the discontented, gay people, runaway servants, and what the governor called “all the scume of the countrie.” When the authorities reminded him that his actions violated the King’s Proclamation, Morton replied that it was “no law.” Miles Standish, whom Morton called “Mr. Shrimp,” attacked. The Maypole was cut down. The settlement was burned. Morton’s goods were confiscated, he was chained in the bilboes, and ostracized to England aboard the ship “The Gift,” at a cost the Puritans complained of twelve pounds seven shillings. The rainbow coalition of Merry Mount was thus destroyed for the time being. That Merry Mount later (1636) became associated with Anne Hutchinson, the famous mid-wife, spiritualist, and feminist, surely was more than
coincidental. Her brother-in-law ran the Chapel of Ease. She thought that god loved everybody, regardless of their sins. She doubted the Puritans’ authority to make law. A statue of Robert Burns in Quincy near to Merry Mount, quotes the poet’s lines,

A fig for those by law protected!

Liberty’s a glorious feast!

Courts for cowards were erected,

Churches built to please the priest.

Thomas Morton was a thorn in the side of the Boston and Plymouth Puritans, because he had an alternate vision of Massachusetts. He was impressed by its fertility; they by its scarcity. He befriended the Indians; they shuddered at the thought. He was egalitarian; they proclaimed themselves the “Elect”. He freed servants; they lived off them. He armed the Indians; they used arms against Indians. To Nathaniel Hawthorne, the destiny of American settlement was decided at Merry Mount. Casting the struggle as mirth vs. gloom, grizzly saints vs. gay sinners, green vs. iron, it was the Puritans who won, and the fate of America was determined in favor of psalm-singing, Indian-scalpers whose notion of the Maypole was a whipping post.

Parts of the past live, parts die. The red cedar that drew Morton first to Merry Mount blew down in the gale of 1898. A section of it, about eight feet of its trunk became a power fetish in 1919, placed as it was next to the President’s chair of the Quincy City Council. Interested parties may now view it in the Quincy Historical Museum. Living trees, however, have since grown, despite the closure of the ship-yards.

Perhaps this makes me a reactionary, but I don’t trust utopian stories that don’t end in tragedy — not because of a metaphysical conviction in the impossibility of human happiness, but because I like my tales to be, if only in an oblique sense, historically accurate.

Which means I both like and am uncomfortable with the way Linebaugh ends it:

Where is the Red and Green today? Is it in Mao’s Red Book? or in Col. Khadafy’s Green Book? Some perhaps. Leigh Hunt, the English essayist of the 19th century, wrote that May Day is “the union of the two best things in the world, the love of nature, and the love of each other.” Certainly, such green union is possible, because we all can imagine it, and we know that what is real now was once only imagined. Just as certainly, that union can be realized only by red struggle, because there is no gain without pain, as the aerobiticians say, or no dreams without responsibility, no birth without labor, no green without red.

As a commentor points out, where are the anarchists? It’s an amusing hypocritical foible of mine (and I’m sure is not only mine) that I have a working student-level knowledge of Marxism, am developing one in ecological leftism, and know next to nothing about anarchism; this despite the fact that my few actual experiences of political involvement on the left have been basically anarchist in orientation. This is not very materialist. As usual, I don’t feel guilty. Just incoherent.

Happy May Day.

Tragedy of the Commons

Posted in Apocalypse, Capitalism, Environmentalism, Marxism, U.S. Politics, Utopia with tags , , on April 23, 2009 by traxus4420

Attending the left forum this year was a fine if exhausting time (The Pace University building’s design strategy of putting windows in the hallways but not the classrooms reminded me once again that I don’t understand modern architecture). The panels were numerous and varied, a high proportion sounded interesting, and the tiny proportion I attended were excellent. Read reports by more famous bloggers Louis Proyect and Richard Seymour of Lenin’s Tomb (who was also a speaker) here, here, and here. Doug Henwood’s talk is here, and a response here. Rather than give a report on every panel, I only want to concentrate on one basic theme, though one that has many twists and turns.

Which is, observations/predictions of the future of American (and more generally ‘Western’) ideology. Depending on who you ask, the end of neoliberalism will inevitably occur when the zombie march of bank bailouts and credit-fueled military adventures encounters its absolute limit with the collapse of the U.S. domestic economy (I am more skeptical). But whether or not neoliberalism as a more or less coherent strategy and set of policies is finished, the ideology of free market evangelism with the U.S. military as security hegemon is certainly ‘bankrupt,’ even in the most conservative press. What will replace it? This is implicitly also a question of what will be the new dynamic sector of the ‘global’ economy.

Let’s go with green technology and green jobs, just because it appears to be the only sane choice. Iain Boal reminded us that not even objective necessity necessarily guarantees anything: Obama’s energy secretary Steven Chu is pitching the environmental crisis as an engineering problem to be solved in large part by heavy investment in synthetic biology and biofuels — which unfortunately seem to be an unconvincing proposition for Wall Street, driving a number of the biofuel distilleries into bankruptcy. Nuclear would seem to be the most economically feasible option at this point at the rate politicians keep cautiously talking it up. But while solar power doesn’t seem to be doing much better than biofuel, neither does nuclear (let’s just not bring up coal). One is inevitably reminded of Carter’s failed attempt at an eco-revolution in the ’70s…and then one must think about something else.

So let’s say the socialists are right, and freedom doesn’t work. Say someone at the top finally figures that out, or is forced to from below, and we get our Green New Deal. Where’s the other shoe? Seymour was part of a panel on market ideology’s better half: human rights (here‘s one of his many posts on the subject). Historian Samuel Moyn argued that key components missing from human rights (and present in Enlightenment formulations of natural/universal rights) are those that involve social and economic rights, and strong support for the political right of self-determination — by the 1970s, any pretense of these older concerns had fallen away, a development coinciding with the rise of ‘free market,’ dollar-regime-driven neoliberalism. He described human rights as a form of Victorian philanthropic ideology, a sort of ‘realism’ which functions to deny the possibility of any solution to mass suffering beyond charity while justifying violent military intervention as needed.  During the Q&A,  someone asked if a much-speculated-upon shift to realpolitik would negate future Clinton-style humanitarian intervention. The answer that this is the script that typically follows the period of adventurist ‘idealism’ — “we tried to give them freedom, but clearly all they’re capable of is stability” — seems convincing enough. Human rights should not be understood as the basis for policy. Though it sometimes returns as blowback (i.e. Guantanamo and the Gaza strip) the framework seems vague enough to remain nonbinding, regardless of how aggressive the state is in using it as a pretext for war.

The construction of this emerging narrative, centering around a global reduction of aspiration, seems basically to involve the throwing up of ghosts of the past in the hopes that something will stick. From where I’m sitting, they focus around three major genres: the 1930s (depression, FDR as iconic patriarch and healer of class conflict), the 1970s (energy crisis, green whatnot) and finally the 1890s. The flipside to Victorian philanthropy is Victorian imperial administration, as (self-consciously) personified by Robert Kagan in this recent piece. Here he is reading the ruling class its horoscope:

“Realist” is now a mark of respect, “neocon” a term of derision. The Vietnam analogy has vanquished that of Munich. Thomas Hobbes, who extolled the moral benefits of fear and saw anarchy as the chief threat to society, has elbowed out Isaiah Berlin as the philosopher of the present cycle. The focus now is less on universal ideals than particular distinctions, from ethnicity to culture to religion. Those who pointed this out a decade ago were sneered at for being “fatalists” or “determinists.” Now they are applauded as “pragmatists.” And this is the key insight of the past two decades—that there are worse things in the world than extreme tyranny, and in Iraq we brought them about ourselves. I say this having supported the war.

So now, chastened, we have all become realists. Or so we believe. But realism is about more than merely opposing a war in Iraq that we know from hindsight turned out badly. Realism means recognizing that international relations are ruled by a sadder, more limited reality than the one governing domestic affairs. It means valuing order above freedom, for the latter becomes important only after the former has been established. It means focusing on what divides humanity rather than on what unites it, as the high priests of globalization would have it. In short, realism is about recognizing and embracing those forces beyond our control that constrain human action—culture, tradition, history, the bleaker tides of passion that lie just beneath the veneer of civilization. This poses what, for realists, is the central question in foreign affairs: Who can do what to whom?

And then comes the form of this harsh, purifying knowledge, the new science of society:

And of all the unsavory truths in which realism is rooted, the bluntest, most uncomfortable, and most deterministic of all is geography.

Bureaucratic and economic networks alike find their real ontological ground in the ground itself. The most natural of social sciences provides a new language of globalization, a new way to bypass the claims of rogue and ‘failed’ states. Kagan renders computer and even trade networks phobic. Always open to contamination by nuclear arms, terrorist hate, and uncontrolled populations against which the epidermal layer of national boundaries becomes less and less effective, the world is in need of a new kind of policing for which he will supply the transcendental logic. He counterposes his geographic/strategic realism to liberal humanism and universalism, slyly relying on its homnymy with economic liberalism, the very thing it was supposed to moderate, to bury economic reason even more deeply within the unconscious.

At the same time as it is political realism, we can also call Kagan’s positon the extreme right wing of the new environmental movement: the uninhibited revival of Malthus and MacKinder, the elimination of history in favor of directly using terrain and resource control as a way of controlling political ‘realities.’ As long as we don’t forget the role a certain kind of liberal environmentalism plays in legitimizing its right wing counterpart, keeping both in play for actual decision makers to employ whenever it suits them. The last generation included figures like Paul “Population Bomb” Ehrlich and Garrett “Tragedy of the Commons” Hardin. The key feature of this group is not so much the metaphysical Malthusian assumptions about fixed population growth rates and absolute ‘carrying capacity’ (though those are, amazingly, a recurring problem), but the idea that nature contains social laws we are obligated first to discover and then abide by. My suspicion is that Jared Diamond is the new chief spokesperson, but I haven’t read enough to say much more than that.

Again though, what someone like Kagan offers to the world’s bosses is not a set of rules to follow or ideal solutions to implement, but something more like freedom of movement — ideological flexibility.

Regardless of how the economic crisis is solved, or even if it’s not, it seems to me hopelessly naive at this point to think that a good solution will be arrived at through right argument. A proposal along these lines is just a potential tool with a certain set of use-values. The more easily it can travel, the more comprehensive it is, the more easily it lends itself to use by the most powerful as ideology. Doug Henwood and David Harvey’s hand waves toward “creeping socialism” at the conference, where alternatives to capitalist institutions are designed and employed at the local level, more or less gradually displacing existing structures — coupled with occasional campaigns to shift policy in more favorable directions — still seems like the most effective way to build the base that everyone on the left knows we don’t have. Without the capacity to realize them ourselves, all our great ideas are just fodder for the open source think tank.

GRAND CHALLENGES

Posted in Environmentalism, The Singularity with tags on March 2, 2009 by traxus4420

In the interests of interdisciplinarity and civic engagement, I attended the environmental/energy section of the National Academy of Engineering\’s GRAND CHALLENGES SUMMIT. I had hoped to have Steven Chu (Obama\’s Energy Secretary) and Jim Rogers (Duke Energy CEO) subject their master plans to my withering critique, but as it happened they were too busy. To be fair I doubt their replacements had any less to say. And, due to personal cowardice in large groups of ideological opponents and failure to plan ahead, I didn\’t get to ask any embarrassing questions. My response is therefore sentenced to the void. So it goes.

Early last year, the NAE organized a board of experts to come up with 14 GRAND CHALLENGES to be faced in the coming century. Here they are, with comments. The comments already point out many of the flaws in the list, despite what seems to me a studied innocence of their political subtext. Which can more or less be extrapolated from the fact that the chairperson is William Perry, Clinton\’s Secretary of Defense, overseer of U.S. escapades in Bosnia and Haiti and co-author of the modern ultra-consolidated form of the military-industrial complex. Among the board\’s assortment of technocrats and \’development\’ specialists include science fiction character Ray Kurzweil, hence tomorrow\’s session on reverse-engineering the human brain and the \”mass production of intelligence\” (from the brochure).

The speakers on energy oriented their discussion around the expected topics of solar power and carbon sequestration. The picture suffered from the usual self-contradictions that emerge when a \’free market\’ argument is put in democratic terms. There\’s no \”silver bullet\” solution for the energy problem, therefore coal, nuclear, and (sshhh!) oil need to be \’considered\’ along with renewable sources. But what this ultimately means, as all the speakers made clear, is that oil, coal, natural gas, nuclear, solar, wind, and other renewables should be expected to compete for dominance with only minimal, \’neutral\’ government intervention. Everyone admitted that the technology and/or the economic plan are not there yet for most of the proposed solutions: Silicon PV cells are not expected to become cost-competitive with fossil fuels until 2030; the International Energy Agency (IEA) does not expect carbon storage programs to be effective until 2015. Fusion is still a wet dream.

At least someone (Robert Socolow of Princeton) finally acknowledged the costs of coal extraction not recognized by the market, i.e. mountaintop removal, the legally sanctioned poisoning of drinking water, the flat-out dispossession of the already marginalized people who live near extraction and burning sites. And the same someone acknowledged that 1/3 of the world is still without access to fresh water, a need that could be met with minuscule cost. Current 1st world resource use, not the imaginary threat of future 3rd world use, is the problem. Of course, we learn about these horrors through the proper channels (CNN, MSNBC, private institutes, universities), not the people who live there, the real experts. I can personally vouch for the vast breadth and depth of knowledge about their environment and the effects of coal extraction possessed by some of the Appalachian activists I met last summer, some of whom were even real live scientists.

Despite all rhetoric about the necessity of addressing climate change, no one (especially not Exxon-Mobil\’s R&D VP, F. Emil Jacobs) was willing to advocate the obvious step: massive publicly-accountable government intervention. \”We can\’t let government pick the winner,\” one of them said, and fair play was mysteriously put before life-or-death expediency. As with any deity, contradictory things seem to be expected of \’the market.\’ Can it, for example, simultaneously engineer the short term spread of carbon capture and sequestration facilities, which no one believes is any more than a transitional fix, while working toward a phase-out of fossil fuels in the long term? No one even knows what it\’s going to do tomorrow. No mention either of the decisive and sustained role played by the government in universalizing our catastrophic personal automobile-driven transportation system, crushing all potential alternatives, etc. These contradictions were masked by an irritating tone of PC optimism, where one subset of the 14 GRAND CHALLENGES is the “joy of living,” which translates into the rather anticlimactic prospect of computer-assisted education.

But it was obvious when emcee Moira Gunn entertained the audience with an anecdote about doing weapons inspection for the US Navy (discovering to her amusement that while running X-rays on Tomahawk missiles she was standing on the largest U.S. reserve of napalm — “see? Engineering is not boring!”) that I was probably not in such a like-minded crowd.

Anyway. Ideologues or well-meaning nerds? You decide.

How to watch the news

Posted in Apocalypse Porn, Environmentalism, Ethics, Media, U.S. Politics on February 22, 2009 by traxus4420

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1. Nobody believes in ‘neoliberal ideology,’ including the the neoliberals themselves.

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2. ‘Smart’ = conformist (via Alex)

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3. Obama exists to sell you two things. The first is the socialization of loss.

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4. The second is the spectacular suppression of spectacular atrocity (Guantanamo) as legitimation for a renewed commitment to structural atrocity (American exceptionalism).

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5. Human rights and the associated interventionist politics of the ’90s boom years are too expensive for the new green globalism. Which is more humanitarian anyway, statistically speaking.

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6. The expansion of morality is both a reaction to credit failure and the utopian expression of the green energy bubble. This development itself can be used for ‘good’ or ‘evil,’ but like other bubbles, will eventually burst.

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7. Crisis is the only justification capitalism has left.