Thursday, May 16, 2013

Can Class Consciousness Be Accelerated?

The Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics has been going viral in radical activist circles. It deserves to be read, and it deserves praise, if for no other reason than this: It articulates, far better and more concisely than I could manage, the type of politics toward which I have been bumbling and fumbling for the last two years. (For example, in "Toward a Politics of Urgency" a few months ago.)

Yet it does not address, and thereby unconsciously founders upon, the same antinomy for which I could find no satisfactory response: In a context of accelerated catastrophe, accelerated communication, accelerated data, can (class) consciousness also be accelerated?

Another way to state the problem is this: With a given set of initial subjective conditions (i.e. an international radical milieu that is highly fragmented, ideologically confused, and with more or less tangential links to the sections of the working class directly engaged in productive labor) is it possible to contend for power in a short enough timeframe that we will inherit from capital the potential for abundance, rather than the certainty of scarcity?

As my post from Tuesday makes quite clear, I have already answered that question for myself with a "no". But that is not proof.

One point would seem to speak for the accelerationist approach: The very fact that I and thousands of others have read it within days of its publication, a state of affairs that would have been unthinkable when a certain other manifesto was published 165 years ago. Yet even if everyone who read the manifesto were ultimately convinced of it, and even if they numbered in the thousands, that would represent only a shift in a series of individualized (bourgeois) consciousnesses. It would not be the creation of a new mass consciousness, i.e., proletarian class consciousness.

There is a difference between how individual consciousnesses change and how mass consciousness changes. Put in the most schematic, deliberately provocative of terms: individual consciousnesses may well be changed by reading a manifesto; mass consciousness changes through dialogue and the experience of shared struggle and risk. The Communist Manifesto did not create the 1848 revolutions in Europe, but the revolutions, and the engagement of communists therein, created the mass audience for the manifesto. Can that process be accelerated?

Yes, up to a point. As Lenin once wrote, "There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen." In a certain sense, mass consciousness changes only in those accelerated weeks in which "decades happen." Yet I will dare to differ with Lenin on one point (knowing that if I had to I could very well cite several points at which he contradicted himself on this issue): That a great deal happens in those decades during which "nothing" seemed to have happened, and those are the decades in which the preparatory material is collected for the great improvisations of the accelerated weeks in which everything seems to happen.

Thus consider a historical event that would seem to contradict my pessimism: The Bolshevik Revolution. Within the span of 15 years, the Bolsheviks went from being a faction of a faction to leading the conquest of power. This was possible only as a result of a series of revolutionary uprisings (1905, 1917) in which history accelerated rapidly.

What this account neglects is the extent to which that achievement in Russia was built upon some rather boring preliminaries elsewhere. Lars T. Lih has shown quite conclusively that, as far as Lenin was concerned, he was just templating the German Social-Democratic Party of the Erfurt Program, Bebel and Kautsky, with some necessary adjustments for Russian conditions. This is one of those many fruitful misunderstandings which the historian finds scattered throughout the archives. And the fact that it was a misunderstanding proved to be a flaw that was ultimately fatal. With no open polemic against the orthodox "center" of the Second International (aside from Luxemburg's occasional sallies in the SPD) until the outbreak of World War, the revolutionary left proved incapable of securing a majority anywhere other than Russia. And with the revolution isolated to one country, the path was set for degeneration into Stalin's autocracy. That is not a misunderstanding we can afford to re-enact like cargo cultists.

Thus, if we were to grandiosely compare ourselves to Lenin in 1902, we would find ourselves on the horns of a dilemma: We know that it is not enough to "build a party" in a national framework, that we need a revolutionary international. And yet there is no international, at all: At best only the phantom traces of one in a series of networked interactions.

To the extent that historical analogies serve us at all, a better one would be to the state of proletarian forces in Europe and America on the eve of the formation of the First International. (An organization that made effective use of the most advanced communicative technique of its day, the telegraph.) The technical aspects of overcoming this absence of an international could well be hastened through today's technology: The identification of revolutionary forces, the sharing of information about working-class struggles in all corners of the globe, the propagation of debate and polemic.

Yet can the struggles that give life to those debates and polemics and bring fresh forces and subjects to the fore be similarly accelerated?

Again, the answer (seemingly undermining my basic thesis) is yes. But only to a limited extent. It is no longer necessary for an already radicalized proletarian militant to await the arrival of unrest in his or her particular province to learn from experiences of struggle: If sufficiently attentive, one can draw knowledge and inspiration from Quebec, Greece, Tunisia, Egypt, South Africa, Bangladesh and China even in a small town in Maine. But vicariousness will not crack the shell of indifference or cynicism among the much greater masses of the not-yet-convinced.

Shifts in mass consciousness necessarily play out on a generational scale. If anything, the longer life expectancy in most countries in the 21st century mean this may be even more true now than it was in the late 19th, early 20th centuries. Memories of past defeats and the false lessons learned therefrom linger and "weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living," and bureaucratic apparatuses erected to contain past uprisings retain their demoralizing legitimacy.

Any attempt to short-cut around this persistent feature of human political life defaults into an elitist and idealist misconception of the motive forces of political change. It becomes a matter simply of convincing the greatest possible number of the already-convinceable to adhere to the "correct" program. Thus, in form (though certainly not in content), the Accelerationist Manifesto is homologous to the recent "open letter" from the "Revolutionary Communist International Tendency": A gauntlet thrown down, an impatient stamp of the foot, an imperious slap with an empty glove.

I'm sorry, accelerationist comrades: I wanted to be convinced. I don't want to believe that barbarism will win the day. I want some day soon to survey the transformation of our social relations, and be astounded. But the one thing that cannot be accelerated is that of which we are most needful: class consciousness.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

End of an Epoch

That the Mauna Loa carbon dioxide measurements have crossed the 400 ppm threshold is a fact whose significance is more psychological than scientific. Yet it has been of great psychological significance for me, in that it has forced me to look squarely at some hitherto inconceivable realities.

Even a quick glance at the Mauna Loa data shows that, despite seasonal fluctuations, the overall, year-over-year trend seems to be linear. Since the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the result of the interaction of several complex systems--the global economic system, technological developments, forest and aquatic ecosystems--to have an output that is so, pardon the pun, straightforward is hard to explain without a means of comprehending those systems as a totality.

How is it that, despite two decades of scientific consensus, international summits, and the like, we proceed at a steady pace toward a threshold whose significance is more scientific than psychological: 450 ppm, at which point several irreversible climate changes will likely be triggered? Mainstream social science and journalism point to partial causes or vagaries: political will (or rather, its absence); the collapse of the Soviet Union counterbalanced by the industrialization of China and the other BRICS; European conservationism overwhelmed by the tar sands and fracking gluttonies of North America; etc.

The fundamental cause, however, is that capital, in its prolonged phase of imperial monopoly, is too heavily invested in the exploitation of existing fossil fuel reserves to be able to swallow any large-scale disinvestment or devaluation of those reserves through state action. The fundamental motive force driving the seemingly inexorable rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is capital accumulation. It is fundamentally a social rather than a natural phenomenon. That it is linear and not--thank capital for small favors--exponential is a symptom of a fundamental contradiction of capital that Marx diagnosed over a century ago: The tendency of the rate of profit to fall.

Thus, in 55 years of rigorous scientific observation, we have seen a global increase of 80 ppm: A linear rate of increase of about 1.45 ppm per year. If that rate remains constant, we can expect to hit 450 ppm within about 35 years, by 2048.

There are many natural processes that could accelerate it: For example, the saturation or destruction of natural carbon sinks (e.g. oceans, permafrost, rain forests). The science explicating those dangers is either too tentative, or too poorly understood by me, for it to factor into my presentation at this point. On the other hand, the social phenomena that could slow the increase are things I have given some thought to: Either a global economic crisis that temporarily halts capital accumulation, with all the human suffering that would entail, or a political decision in one or more major industrial nations to dramatically reallocate human labor away from the maintenance and operation of existing, carbon-spewing capital stocks and infrastructure.

Since such a decision would be tremendously destructive of existing capital values, it would, in fact, require a revolution. And so the question becomes: Is there any chance at all, in the next 35 years, of those who are consciously opposed to the organization of human life on capitalist lines being able to carry out such a decision?

If the answer to that is no, or at least a probability of negligible measure, then the science requires a dramatic re-evaluation of political priorities. As powerful as Marxism may be as a method of critique--i.e., as a means of understanding and predicting the destruction that is being perpetrated by those who rule us--its utility as a guide for positive political action was premised on a conditional hypothesis: That the working class would come to a conscious understanding of its own interest in and capacity for revolutionary reconstruction of society after the capitalist class had created the material prerequisites for a higher order of social organization, and before the capitalists had managed to destroy those material prerequisites. In Rosa Luxemburg’s words, the choice facing humanity was that between socialism--understood as a classless society based upon a level of technical development and productivity of labor sufficient to allow the steady and expansive satisfaction of human needs--or barbarism.

If we reach 450 ppm, however, then even if the working class were to take power, it would do so in a context of runaway climatic feedback processes, sea-level rises sufficient to inundate major cities (and even entire nations), dramatic desertification of the world’s bread-baskets, deadly heat waves in some of the most densely populated regions of the planet, etc. Marxism as a method of critique would tell us that new scarcities will give rise to new oligarchies, new distributions of power, and new modalities of exploitation and oppression. Marxism as a mode of critique will tell us that the moment for its realization has passed, that its fundamental positive hypothesis has been invalidated, not as a moment of a self-devouring dialectic of negativity but as an inexorable consequence of physical processes triggered by humanity but escaping its control.

The choice, then, is not between socialism and barbarism, but between various flavors of barbarism. And there may well be some flavors of barbarism which label themselves socialism--and those may well be preferable in respect of the equity with which sacrifices are shared--but they would not be what historical figures like Marx or Engels or Luxemburg or Trotsky had in mind. The conclusion that I must reluctantly draw from this is that humanity had an epoch, a window of opportunity lasting about 100 or 150 years, in which it could have taken the necessary political steps to become more truly human. And instead, we squandered those years on genocides and purges.

A further conclusion that I have reached, that I am not able to derive as rigorously but that seems to follow from the foregoing, is that the main tasks of the moment are neither political nor economic, but ethical or moral. We can only aspire to rule the world if we can aspire to understand it. With the natural processes that will delimit the range of possible political actions so hard to predict, politics remains the domain of the tactical and particular, and universality returns once more to the form of the maxim.

Here are a few such maxims for consideration:

  1. Be Welcoming to the Stranger: Island nations will be inundated, as will low-lying regions (e.g. most of Bangladesh). Much of the tropics will become uninhabitably hot. Continental cores will become inhospitably dry. There will be mass migrations of humanity. Will those migrants be met with razor wire and bullets, or food, water and shelter?
  2. Do Unto Others as You Would Have Done Unto You: Not least because, what befalls one place and people could soon overtake others. Enlightened self-interest is the motivating factor.
  3. Heed the Scientists: The level of specialized knowledge necessary to predict the climatic results of increased carbon forcings is far beyond what any one human mind can encompass; that is why we have computers. The point is not to place scientists in a position of unquestioned authority, as if they were some new priesthood, but to cultivate a valid understanding and healthy respect for the often contradictory and agonistic process of scientific investigation and debate--an understanding and a respect that are largely lacking in many world cultures, including the U.S.
  4. Minimize Further Damage: Beyond the obvious, this means not trusting blindly in the possibility of a technological fix. For example, there has been some speculative talk of distributing aerosols or nanoparticles in the upper atmosphere to increase its reflectivity, and bounce out some of that warming sunlight. That could be wonderful, if and only if it is established first of all that it will not tip the global climate over into a new ice age, and that the compounds in question will not be toxic to existing life forms, etc.

This is as far as I have been able to take it. Crises de conscience are never very pleasant to endure; still less endurable are real crises of the lived environment.

Very well: It’s not my burden alone to carry. As Rabbi Tarfon said: "It is not on you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it."

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Search Committees

There are few faculties, especially those of any college with a religious affiliation or one located in some dime-sized Toonerville, that honestly desire to hire staff whose degrees are more esteemed than their own or whose skills are likely to be more proficient than theirs or whose reputations may case any kind of shadow, even though their protestations while serving on the search committee will conceal (without success) their fears and their intentions. In solemn session, behind fiercely cherished closed doors, they will find faults--with any candidate who is forced on their attention--cracks so minute only the eyes of a smidge could see them; they will be unsure of the lady's suitability (she will be too young or too old, too homely or too pretty--she'll be married in a minute, knocked up within a week, and borne off by her husband to hostess tea parties in Shaker Heights); or they'll be smugly undecided about where the new fellow will be in his work twenty years hence (is there any honest future in Willa Cather studies?); they will wave the flag OVERQUALIFIED like a military banner, be convinced the spouse will hate the school, his neighbors, and the town, and that both will gallop to greener pastures before a year is out, citing several precedents such as Professor Devise and his titillating daughter; they will be disturbed by what seems to be an absence of the proper faith in Mr. Brightboy's background and be instead rather high on Mr. Dimbulb, whose dossier is superlative and whose letters, especially the one from Professor Dormouse, incline their fog to drift in the pip-squeak's direction.

--William H. Gass, Middle C

(For the record I have no reason to believe that this in any way reflects the proceedings of search committees at a certain small, non-sectarian liberal arts college located in a central Maine mill town. It is, all the same, hilarious, leaving one to wonder if Gass did not draw upon direct observations from his time many years ago at a certain comparable institution in rural Ohio.)