Monday, March 3, 2014

Communism and Disaster

The impending climate catastrophe is forcing recalibration of fundamental political concepts across the political spectrum, but especially in the anti-capitalist far left. That is not to say that many, if not most, are responding to this force with much other than an ostrich-like insistence that all remains as it was. But provocative reconsiderations arise in ways and from corners that could not necessarily have been predicted by a linear extrapolation from past intellectual history.

For example, the “left communist” milieu is justifiably known for its theoretical aridity. It was Amadeo Bordiga, for example, who coined the phrase “the invariance of communism”. Yet from this milieu has emerged a “loose collective” around the Out of the Woods blog on I call particular attention to their latest essay, “Let them eat growth” and its concluding paragraph:

“Therefore, we have to pose the question of communism and climate change. This means taking seriously the biophysical aspects of materialism: food production, water supply, clean energy, housing. This isn't only a question of transforming social relations - it requires consideration of the fundamental constraints of thermodynamics that economists typically ignore. Is it going to be possible to feed and house 7-10 billion people under conditions of climate chaos? 'Disaster communism' is our holding term for this problematic. We're currently researching the questions of agriculture, ecosystem restoration, and the worst case scenario of unmitigated climate change. We'll be following up these issues in subsequent posts.”

Can there be such a thing as “disaster communism”? If communism is the collective reappropriation of capitalist property and its re-deployment to meet human need, then communism in the context of climate disaster would require differentiating between those elements of capitalist property that can and should be used, and those that will either be destroyed by the effects of climate change, or should be in order to prevent the catastrophe from worsening. Let us follow the advice of OotW collective and consider these biophysical issues seriously.

  • We know that the human body cannot survive prolonged exposure to “wet-bulb temperatures” (humidity levels) greater than 40C. The prudent thing to do would be to try and figure out which inhabited locations have “locked in” such conditions based on projected global temperature increases, and then either evacuate them, or engage in massive public works that uses solar power and advanced architectural technique to build sufficient shelter from the anticipated heat and humidity. Such conditions have already been observed in places such as Dhahran, Saudi Arabia--a place that has only become a site of significant human habitation for the purpose of fossil fuel extraction. I think it is safe to say that we would all be better off if Dhahran and its environs were depopulated, its inhabitants given useful employment elsewhere. How is that to come about? Clearly it depends on the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy, but also, overthrow by whom, and to what end?
  • Naturally, the locations most likely to attain such conditions of uninhabitability are clustered around the equator. Due to the historical patterns of capital accumulation, those are also places with large populations of starkly immiserated proletarians and limited access to advanced technique. We are looking, therefore, either at massive relocations, or massive public works to reconstruct Lagos, Nairobi, Recife, Dhaka, etc.
  • In terms of water supply and its impact on food production, present climate models can predict which regions will see net declines in precipitation and which will see net increases. The former is sufficient to tell us which regions will become less productive of certain crops. Information on net increases in precipitation is far less useful. As any farmer or serious gardener can tell you, it is not just the total volume of precipitation, but its timing and pace. Does it come as a nice blanket of winter snow that protects perennials and gently thaws to water crops in the spring? A torrential late-summer downpour that ruins crops just before harvest? A February rain shower that washes away the snowcover, leaving plants vulnerable to frost? For farming not just aggregates matter, but patterns, i.e., not just climate, but weather.
  • As climate scientists have explained, and recent extreme weather events have demonstrated, climate change makes weather less predictable. The increase in total atmospheric energy increases the pace of day-to-day changes. Patterns that had been locked in for centuries of the Holocene shift in counterintuitive ways, as polar vortices settle in over Chicago while the route of the Iditarod dogsled race thaws in Alaska. Food production via farming does not depend on any one climatic configuration, as is evidenced by the adaptability of humans in nearly all corners of the globe. But it does depend upon overall predictability of the weather. The science of weather prediction has advanced tremendously in the last century, but has so far not kept pace with the forcing effects of carbon emission.

Thus, while it is possible to predict, with some degree of certainty, which places will be rendered uninhabitable--too hot and humid, too dry, or submerged under rising seas--it is not yet possible to predict the human carrying capacity of the remaining geographies. The latter is what we--the global proletariat--would need to be able to enact “disaster communism”.

Which returns me to the prognosis that I wrote back in May 2013:

“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 [the necessity of communism] 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 [or communism]--and those may well be preferable in respect of the equity with which sacrifices are shared….”

Disaster communism, then, is an attempt to hold on to the word “communism” in the face of conditions that announce its negation and death. It is reminiscent, in many ways, of how early Christian communities, who still identified as Jews, had to revise traditional Jewish messianic teachings after the death of Jesus and the self-evident non-arrival of the Kingdom of God. It is an example of an attempt to theorize and bring about a potentially more humane form of barbarism.

Perhaps this is a vestige of my own Jewish upbringing, or my political training as a Trotskyist, or even both, but I am allergic to efforts to salvage ideas by changing the meanings of words. If the Messiah is the redeemer of all humanity, and humanity has not been redeemed, then there has been no Messiah. If socialism and communism mean the international abolition of classes through the unleashing of material abundance, then without material abundance there can be no socialism or communism. It may be that those words ultimately get redefined into something else whether I like it or not. But my inclination is to stick with the stiff-necked remnant.

Yet in spite of all that, I also continue to call myself a socialist, a communist. What does that signify? I have had a hard time explaining it up until now. Let me make an attempt.

As we slide into the climate disaster, massive population movements will become an increasing feature of human existence. Instead of conflicts between states, or conflicts between classes and/or other interest groupings over control of states, we will see, more and more, conflicts between states and nomadic movements of masses. In the realm of political theory, to the best of my knowledge this is best prefigured by the philosophical anarchism of Deleuze and Guattari (i.e., the “territorialization/deterritorialization” of Anti-Oedipus and the “nomadology” of A Thousand Plateaus), albeit in a nauseatingly romanticized form. Identification with the nomad is the adoption of a kind of anti-politics, in which one does not engage with the state, only strikes pinprick blows at it to try and secure survival without falling under its sway.

A case can be made that, in the Syrian Civil War and its resulting flows of now stateless refugees, we are seeing the first such conflict of our period. This is not to say that climate change “caused” the Syrian Civil War—this would be far too reductionist, though I have seen information suggesting that drought and food shortages contributed to the timing of the uprising. It is just to say that, if one is scanning the globe for images of possible futures, the events in Syria are not only troubling, but carry a high probability value.

The Syrian Civil War also shows that the state, even in its death throes, does not become irrelevant. It fights for its life at the expense of the masses’ lives. Counter-states of various types and levels of repressiveness are erected in its ruins. These in turn create poles of attraction and repulsion, refuge and peril, for the nomadized masses, with greater or lesser hostility to these masses.

In continuing to call myself a socialist or a communist, I intend to signify three related propositions:

  1. As a matter of choice and predisposition, I am more inclined to politics than to anti-politics, that is, to engage with the state in order to replace it.
  2. The type of state I prefer to live in is one that will provide refuge to the dispossessed, the refugee, the nomad.
  3. I do not trust any capitalist or pro-capitalist leadership to respond in that way to our shared catastrophe.

Perhaps we need new words to name the needed actions. But the actions are no less needful in the absence of their proper names.

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