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One Year On

Under Empire, All Life is Imperiled

by JAVIER SETHNESS CASTRO

“After the catastrophes that have happened, and in view of the catastrophes to come, it would be cynical to say that a plan for a better world is manifested in history and unites it.”

– Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics

Channeling Adorno, it would I think prove difficult today to characterize the prevailing world-situation as anything other than highly negative.  Such an interpretation is arguably seen most readily in reflection on environmental matters—specifically, the ever-worsening climate emergency, not to mention other worrying signs of the ecological devastation wrought by the capitalist system.

Perhaps a short summary of key recent findings on the state of the environment is here in order.  Less than two weeks ago, the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawai’i confirmed that the average global carbon dioxide concentration had reached 400 parts per million (ppm)—more than 50 ppm higher than James Hansen and the eponymous 350.org movement claim to be a safe level, and approximately 120 ppm higher than pre-industrial (or pre-capitalist) concentrations.  According to the Guardian, such CO2 concentrations have not been seen on Earth for the last 3-5 million years, during the Pliocene geological era, which saw an ice-free Arctic, savannahs in northern Africa (where currently the Sahara resides), and sea levels between 25 and 40 meters higher than those which obtain today.  In Professor Andrew Glikson’s estimation, the annual rise of 3 ppm in atmospheric CO2 seen last year (2012-2013) is entirely unprecedented during the past 65 million years; as he writes, “regular river flow conditions such as allowed cultivation and along river valleys since about 7000 years ago, and temperate Mediterranean-type climates allowing extensive farming, could hardly exist under the intense hydrological cycle and heat wave conditions of the Pliocene.”  This should hardly be surprising, given that such atmospheric CO2 levels as those we suffer today have never been seen in the entire history (and prehistory) of Homo sapiens sapiens, though our ancestral Homo habilis arguably did endure them.  Indeed, the Earth’s current average global temperature—a slightly different matter than the atmospheric CO2 level, given lags in the latter’s contribution to the former, in addition to the masking effect of aerosols (SO2 et al.) emitted by industry—has recently been found to surpass 90% of all average global temperatures experienced since the emergence of agriculture some 12,000 years ago—and hence also of “civilization.”  Arguably most worrying is Nafeez Ahmad’s recent citation of a 2011 Science paper which projects that, given the current, unprecedented rate of increase in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, global average temperatures could rise a full 16°C by the end of the century—that is to say, nearly three times  the worst-case scenario considered by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its 2007 report (a 6°C increase).

Such considerations are no doubt horrific; they are nonetheless reality.  Some other truths manifested of late that can be associated with these trends include the following climatological news and reports: the 260,000 persons, half of them young children, who the UN recently announced to have perished during the 2011 famine in Somalia, itself catalyzed by the region’s worst drought in the past 7 decades; the hundreds of millions who Lord Stern has recently reported can soon be expected to be forcibly displaced from their homelands due to unchecked global warming; the millions who will face starvation in Africa and Asia as agriculture withers under unprecedented heat; the numerous people of Bangladesh who are losing access to freshwater as rising sea levels cause saltwater to intrude into aquifers, or the millions of Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Burmese, and Rohingya threatened by cyclones like Mahasen; the innumerable species, plant and animal, that face destruction and extinction under the projected average global temperature increases promised by climate catastrophe…  The nauseating list goes on indefinitely.

Consideration of these problematics is the focus of my Imperiled Life: Revolution against Climate Catastrophe, published a year ago now by AK Press in collaboration with the Institute for Anarchist Studies.  Strangely enough, this one-year anniversary of publication is, unlike the case with more joyous occasions, hardly one to be celebrated, for the problems considered within the volume unsurprisingly have only worsened over that time, in keeping with the laws of physics and chemistry.  I would nonetheless continue to vouch for the work’s conclusions: its “diagnosis, prognosis, and remedies,” as mentioned in the preface by my editor Paul Messersmith-Glavin, stem from a social anarchist, anti-systemic perspective on the ecological crisis that I believe to be rational and helpful—insofar as such standards have a place today within political and environmental thought, as I should hope they might.

In structural terms, it should be clear to all honest observers that the climate crisis is the result of the dominance of the capitalist mode of production over the entirety of planet Earth; basing itself fundamentally on ceaseless expansion, the imperatives of capital profoundly contradict the modes of living—cooperative and competitive—observed throughout the world’s various ecosystems.  Capital’s “grow-or-die” maxim resembles that of the cancer cell or a deadly virus more than it does human, animal, or plant life, as theorists from Murray Bookchin to John McMurtry have rightly noted.  As against liberal analyses, then, the State has proved itself to be a mere facilitator of capital’s ecocidal project: consider Obama’s recent profession of enthusiasm for the “development” of the substantial hydrocarbon resources that are believed to reside below the Arctic ice cap, once capitalism has melted that away entirely.  In this vein, David Schwartman is right to cite Michael Klare in his formulation of the U.S. military as constituting the “oil protection service” of transnational capital: imperialism’s long and sordid history of accommodation with its autocratic Gulf petrol-enablers—and its various intrigues and interventions targeting those, from Mossadegh to Qadhafi, who might seek alternative uses of such resources—is well-known.  Recall the Iraq War.

So we cannot look to the State for meaningful assistance in the struggle to overturn the trends which are delivering humanity and Earth’s systems into ruin—as John Holloway notes rightly, the State is “their organization,” referring to the capitalist class.  What of the putative non-governmental organizations which espouse environmental concerns?  Clearly, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and company rightly merit the label of “Gang Green,” in light of their toxic incrementalism and their related willingness to accommodate the very structures which are perpetuating environmental destruction.  Similarly, Cory Morningstar has recently written a legitimate denunciation of Bill McKibben and 350.org on these pages, declaring McKibben’s world-famous yet entirely reformist and thus inadequate organization to represent little more than the “soma of the 21st century,” given its papering over of any critique of capitalism, productivism, militarism, or imperialism.  Essentially, then, what we are faced with is the omnicidal steamroll of the capitalist machine as oiled by the world’s rich and their State, and then the anemic responses from the official “opposition” which has taken it upon itself to attempt to resolve the various environmental crises by doing essentially nothing of substance to achieve those ends.

Thankfully, of course, the story does not end there.  Humanity, as I write in the penultimate paragraph of Imperiled Life, cannot be reduced to the forms of capital and the State; these “do not have the final word.”  We are, then, on a desperate search for radical groupings among the subordinated, or l@s de abajo (“those from below”).  In strategic terms, it would seem that generally to diffuse anti-systemic ecological analyses—assuming these be tied together with humanistic, emancipatory concern for social oppression—remains a crucial task at the present juncture: the counter-hegemonic war of position today retains all of its relevance!  As should be self-evident, of course, efforts seeking merely to “raise consciousness” and metaphorically arm the populace with critical perspectives on the present multi-dimensional crisis should hardly be taken as the end of organizing; rather, such should serve as means to the “happy end” (Ernst Bloch) of a world freed from capitalist and State control, and the attendant looming risk of climate apocalypse.  How these two trends might inter-relate—and whether we can even theoretically hope that they will, this late in the game—is the question on everyone’s minds (or, at least, it should be).  As Allan Stoekl closes his recent review of Adrian Parr’s The Wrath of Capital: Neoliberalism and Climate Change Politics, summing up the struggle to achieve a post-capitalist ecological society: “But how to get from here to there?”  The question is a burning one.  In this vein, we can turn to Max Horkheimer’s obvious yet crucial point that “[t]he revolution is no good” insofar as it “is not victorious.”[1]

Horkheimer is right: it would indeed seem problematic for thought merely to appeal to airy philosophical abstractions amidst the decidedly pressing matter of capital’s destruction of the world—to speak of the promise of the Hegelian Geist, say, or the inevitable triumph of the proletariat, as managed by an enlightened Leninist vanguard—but I would argue that Hannah Arendt’s conception of natality could prove particularly useful at the present moment.  As I understand, she first introduces this idea at the close of her Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), when she counterposes the possibilities of birth to inherited tradition and history, particularly of the imperialist and fascist varieties: “With each new birth, a new beginning is born into the world, a new world has potentially come into being […].  Freedom as an inner capacity of [humanity] is identical with the capacity to begin.”[2]

Arendt expands upon these fragmentary comments on interruption and beginning in her 1958 magnus opus The Human Condition.  Largely repudiating the repressive, fatalistic philosophy of her former mentor Martin Heidegger, she writes the following: “If left to themselves, human affairs can only follow the law of mortality, which is the most certain and the only reliable law of a life spent between birth and death.  It is the faculty of action that interferes with this law because it interrupts the inexorable automatic course of daily life, which in its turn, as we saw, interrupted and interfered with the cycle of the biological life process.  The life span of man [sic] running toward death would inevitably carry everything human to ruin and destruction if it were not for the faculty of interrupting it and beginning something new, a faculty which is inherent in action like an ever-present reminder that [humans], though they must die, are not born in order to die but in order to begin.  Yet just as, from the standpoint of nature, the rectilinear movement of [humanity]‘s life-span between birth and death looks like a peculiar deviation from the common natural rule of cyclical movement, thus action, seen from the viewpoint of the automatic processes which seem to determine the course of the world, looks like a miracle […].  The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, ‘natural’ ruin is ultimately the fact of natality, in which the faculty of action is ontologically rooted.  It is, in other words, the birth of new [people] and the new beginning, the action they are capable of by virtue of being born.  Only the full experience of this capacity can bestow upon human affairs faith and hope.”[3]

This hope for new beginnings—essentially, for a multiplicity of interventions which, à la Albert Camus and his Rebel, assert to power that it has transgressed vital brightlines, and hence cannot be allowed to continue on its path of destruction (“thus far, and no further”)—accords well with Walter Benjamin’s vision of a “leap into the open sky of history,” or Adorno’s contemplation of “a praxis which could explode the infamous continuum.”[4]  Each of us likely has similar visions, whether waking or unconscious—“fuck the police,” “world peace,” “fire to Babylon,” “there is no planet B.”  It is crucial that we somehow coalesce these anti-systemic passions into a generalized movement to overthrow the totalitarian systems that degrade and abuse humanity and, in a most final sense, threaten to destroy future human generations as well as much of the rest of life—millions of species—on the only planetary system that we know is amenable to its emergence and evolution.  Hope today, then, is not passivity and sedation (as with religion) but rather radical struggle (as in revolution).

While there indeed have been positive signs in the past few years in the direction of the development of what dissident historian George Katsiaficas terms a “global people’s uprising,” clearly such developments have met with distressing limitations, many of them indeed emanating from constituted power—think of the police’s dismantling of the Occupy/Decolonize encampments in the U.S., or the various imperial manipulations of and interventions against the numerous uprisings in the Arab-majority world.  The preferred approach, in my view, remains what György Lukács saw as a “mass rising on behalf of reason,” an idea he took from the 500 million signatures to the 1950 Stockholm Agreement calling for unconditional nuclear disarmament—a tradition we have seen well-illustrated throughout the streets and squares of much of the world in recent memory.[5]

The point, in sum—as well as the hope—is to radicalize and intensify these encouraging social strides from below against the system, to help along the birth of the new—or, as Bloch termed it, the “Not-Yet.”  It is past time to sound the tocsin, whether physically like Jean Paul Marat did to defend the Great French Revolution, or musically like Dmitriy Shostakovich did in defense of the memory and future promise of the 1905 Russian Revolution (as well as other revolutions).  The alarm must be continuous, not so that we grow accustomed to it, but rather so that we never lose sight of the substantial tasks with which we are confronted today, and the anarchist means by which we would most likely best respond to these.  Positively and concretely, I would here reiterate some of the proposals for action made by my comrade Cristian Guerrero nearly a year ago in the run-up to planned counter-protests against the G-20 summit in Los Cabos, México: agitation, indignation, mobilization, direct action, occupation, blockade of capital, popular assembly.

Particularly promising, I would say, is the Industrial Workers of the World’s new conception of the ecological general strike, whereby environmental sanity is to be achieved through the disruption of capitalism’s colonization of the life-world and its replacement with participatory economic models.

Javier Sethness Castro is author of Imperiled Life: Revolution against Climate Catastrophe and For a Free Nature: Critical Theory, Social Ecology, and Post-Developmentalism.  His essays and articles have appeared in Truthout, Climate and Capitalism, Dissident Voice, MRZine, Countercurrents, and Perspectives on Anarchist Theory.  He is currently working on writing a political and intellectual biography of Herbert Marcuse.



[1]   Max Horkheimer, Dawn and Decline: Notes, 1926-1931 and 1959-1969, trans. Michael Shaw (New York: Seabury Press, 1978), 39.

[2]   Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (San Diego: Harvest, 1968 [1951]), 465, 473.

[3]   Ibid, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 246-7.

[4]   Theodor W. Adorno, Prisms (trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1967), 117.

[5]   György Lukács, The Destruction of Reason (Torfaen, Wales: Merlin Press, 1980), 850.