Apocalypse and the Left

“The  left.” Since the French revolution, we don’t seem to be able to come up with a better term for that ill sorted group of malcontents, which numbers among its members dictators and democrats, torturers and tortured, Stalin, Gandhi, Mao, Martin Luther King, Pol Pot, and Emma Goldman. If “the left” is more than a Granfalloon— Kurt Vonnegut name for”a proud and meaningless association of human beings”— it has to share a common project. What could that be?  Perhaps: “From each according to his [or her] ability, to each according to his [or her] need,”

You can’t be  on the left and be  for the 1% and against the 99%. You can be on the left without being an environmentalist. And vice versa.  The left has always been concerned with history— the relations of people to each other. Nature has been in the background. The left has been an urban phenomenon. If historically the left has a position regarding nature, it is that nature is to be exploited for the benefit of the masses. Isaac Deutscher  as an aside in  his majestic three volume biography of Trotsky sums up the project of the left as “increasing man’s power over nature and abolishing man’s power over man.”  If the goal of the left is to lift the  burden of necessity on humanity and enlarge the realm of freedom, those two goals are linked and inseparable. And there lies the problem posed by the escalating climate crisis. Nature, history’s  beast of burden, threatens to collapse under the load we have placed upon her, complicating and perhaps fatally compromising the great task of those who struggle for a better world awaiting.

The left  has been largely incapable  of grasping the fact that nature has intruded on its plans. Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth, is a case in point.* In this collection of essays, the five contributors, Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen , James Davis, and Doug Henwood (who contributes a forward), listen to nature’s knock on the door of history, greet their troublesome guest, and display various degrees of discomfort with her presence at the table.

“Ours is an epoch of catastrophe,” writes Sasha Lilly in her introduction. “Near-biblical floods, hurricanes, and fires grow ever more ferocious and frequent . . .. Financial havoc roils the North—likewise epic in nature, if not quite evoking Revelation—caught in the jaws of one of the most momentous crises of the capitalist system. An endless preoccupation with the end times, replete with the undead, weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”  She continues, “It would seem that only a corresponding apocalyptic politics could measure up to the moment.” But it is precisely to combat apocalyptic politics—“catastrophism” is the term the authors use—that this book is written. Worry is its dominant mood, worry not that the biological basis of human life is threatened, but that endless warnings of catastrophe will lead to fatalistic resignation and defections from the class struggle. Henwood writes “Catastrophe can be paralyzing, not mobilizing.”  Lilley tells us that “on the terrain of catastrophic fear,  the left is not likely to win.” Concentrating too intensely on climate crisis is like staring into the eye of the Gorgon. We could be turned to stone. Or seduced into nihilism by the  likes of Derrick Jensen who insists that the only solution to the environmental crisis is to do away with civilization. Or seduced into liberalism by Al Gore. (They don’t have to worry about me on either count. I walked out of  An Inconvenient Truth after one too many scenes of Gore’s butt disappearing through the metal detector at an airport, only to confront in the lobby a display urging me to switch to fluorescent light bulbs; I walked out of a Jensen talk after he described challenging an audience with, “I bet I’m the only one here who has an AK-47.” )

The term “catastrophism” is borrowed from geology, where it refers, according to Wikipedia to “the theory that the earth has been affected in the past by sudden, short-lived, violent events, possibly worldwide in scope.” Geological catastrophists include Immanuel Velikovsky, whose theory that Venus’s close encounter with the earth explains the plagues of Egypt is  considered by scientists to be cockamamie nonsense. But Luis Alvarez was also a catastrophist. His hypothesis that the impact of a giant asteroid striking the earth led to the extinction of dinosaurs, is now largely accepted.

The authors give varying definitions of political catastrophism. Lilley defines it as consisting of: (1) “expecting predestined forces to transform society for the better,” and (2) “the idea that the worse things get the more auspicious they become for radical prospects.” Catastrophists believe that “an ever intensified rhetoric of disaster will awaken the masses from their long slumber.” According to Davis, catastrophism is “a political orientation premised on the assumption that society is on course for an economic, environmental, social, or spiritual collapse due to forces internal or external to us out of which a new society may emerge.” For Yuen the problem is not so much catastrophism as “instrumental, spurious, and sometimes a maniacal versions of catastrophism” and “undifferentiated catastrophic discourse that presumes apocalyptic warnings will lead to political action.”

Though the authors intermittently acknowledge the reality that human beings are responsible for a terrible climate crisis, they undermine the force of this admission by constantly reminding us of all the prophets of doom whose warnings have so often seduced the gullible. Their candidates for the Chicken Little award are a mixed lot.

They include overoptimistic Marxists predicting the imminent demise of capitalism; Malthusians who warn that humans will inevitably multiply beyond the ability of the earth to feed them; and the Ehrlichs, whose population bomb failed to explode on schedule. Helen Caldecott is called a “serial catastrophist” for her decades of warnings that nuclear war could plunge the world into a nuclear winter, and most recently her prophecy that Y2K could result in the meltdown of nuclear reactors and the accidental release of nuclear missiles. Thrown into the mix are Valery Burdakov, the Russian
physicist who thought the space shuttle would destroy the Earth’s protective ozone shield (27),;and most recently all those good folks who believed  it was all over because the  Mayan calendar said so.  There is a chapter on right wing evangelicals longing for Armageddon to save the white race from a tide of color, and Anders Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer, who thought the mild-mannered Marxists of the Frankfurt School were the center of the vast conspiracy to destroy Western civilization. A final chapter analyzes the fascination with zombies and the zombie apocalypse.

Prophets carrying signs claiming “The end is nigh, are a staple of New Yorker cartoons. Are those who now warn of a singular catastrophe facing humanity like those silly sign carriers? The authors don’t quite make that move, but stumble about the question, fretful and worrying. Yuen writes, “False prophecies, like the proverbial boy crying wolf, lead to cynicism and burnout on the part of activists who may have become deeply invested in them.” True that. But the climate wolf is at the door. Yuen admits it. And if we ignore it because earlier warnings proved false, we may realize our mistake when it’s too late, and nature’s teeth are already gnawing our flesh from our bones.

So what is to be done? The authors do not spend much time on the question.  Lilley concludes her chapter “Great Chaos under Heaven: Catastrophism and the Left” with this warning: “If we are committed to the demise of capitalism, we should steer well clear of catastrophism.” As a card-carrying member of a left that no longer carries cards, she assumes our commitment to the demise of capitalism, and leaves unstated the assumption that the collapse of capitalism will free us from the epoch of catastrophe in which we live.  Yuen tells us that, “Naming and explaining capitalism as the root cause of the crisis is essential.”  Neither asks whether the longed for overthrow of capitalism can happen in time to avert nature’s catastrophic intervention in human affairs. If the scientists are right, and none of the authors question their conclusions, we do not have unlimited time  to overthrow capitalism. The clock is ticking.

Tick Tock. Tick Tock.

Henwood, unlike Lilley and Yuen, acknowledges the ticking clock and concludes that we cannot wait for the overthrow of capitalism to deal with the degradation of the biosphere. He writes: “It doesn’t seem fruitful to argue that there is no way to save the earth without ending capitalism. I would dearly love to end capitalism, but any strategy to reverse the despoilment of nature will have to happen before the system of private ownership can be transformed.”

Can a capitalist society reverse the warming of the planet? Henwood believes it must. And if it doesn’t, then what? Will the earth begin to cool when capitalism is lying cold in its coffin? Perhaps and perhaps not. Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China were no more open to the mercy cries of nature than their capitalist counterparts. And for good reason. They had mouths to feed and nations to defend. They both engaged in “primitive socialist accumulation,” which demanded excruciating sacrifices from the masses and equivalent sacrifices from nature.

Perhaps, the class struggle and the struggle for nature will prove to be one and the same. Certainly the earth cannot abide the sequestering of wealth and resources by the 1%.  But the question remains: Do not all the malnourished, ill housed millions of the world who live in filth and dire poverty, without electricity, or medical care, or clean water have the right to enjoy the fruits of humanity’s “mastery of nature,” and does not that require them to have, more electricity, more heating fuel, more fertilizer, more arable land, more water, more precious minerals, more oil for their cars. And can their legitimate demands be met without adding more straws to the breaking back of nature, even assuming we “go green,” conserve more, waste less, proliferate windmills and solar panels, and birth fewer children.

In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels exulted in the bourgeoisie’s ability to subject “nature’s forces to man.” They enumerated its achievements: “machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization or rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground.” The bourgeoisie’s subjugation of nature made possible the unleashing of massive productive forces that would break the fetters of capitalist property relations and make possible the leap to communism. What is left of that dream if nature can no longer be beaten or coaxed into supporting the level of development that makes that leap possible? How can we build a socialist society if  catastrophic natural events— rising sea levels, the failures of harvests, the drying up of rivers, ever more powerful tsunamis and hurricanes—spark resource wars and drive people to struggle for the dwindling resources that remain? Perhaps people will realize the need for rational solutions. But it seems equally likely that they will be driven crazy, and that xenophobia, chauvinism, and atavistic religiosity will increase. Capitalism’s end could bring barbarism. Or utopia.

Evo Morales President of Bolivia, formerly the militant  leader of the coca workers, says we have a choice:

We have two paths: either capitalism dies or Mother Earth dies. Either capitalism lives or Mother Earth lives. Of course, brothers and sisters, we are here for life, for humanity and for the rights of Mother Earth. Long live the rights of Mother Earth! Death to capitalism!”

Professor Frederick Jameson says “It seems easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism” He speculates that this is “due to some weakness in our imaginations.”

These two pronouncements bookend our dilemma. Between them we must find a solution. Mother Earth may be dying. This specter, not, alas, the  specter of communism, haunts the present.

The authors urge us not to plunge overboard into the ravenous speculation about what original sin embedded in the genome of homo sapiens is now working itself out in a possible endgame for the species. But urging us not go there is like urging a person not to think about an elephant. Especially if there is an elephant in the room, turning over the furniture and generally wrecking the place. Yuen tells us, “leading scientists” warn there are boundaries approaching beyond which it is questionable  “whether the earth is to remain habitable for humans and many other species.” Surely it is not out of place to ask how could it come to this, how could this be the culmination of human history on this earth?

Henwood acknowledges he is “someone who finds the temptation to pessimism  too alluring.” Gramsci would pat the  him on his back and remind him “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” Henwood is not alone. What is happening to nature is a slow, but accelerating apocalypse, its progress marked by intense pockets of catastrophe. No wonder we worry. We worry, and keep doing what we need to do. There are many reasons for the absence of the movement, but a sense that we are in desperate times and face the potential death of nature is not one of them.

The environmental crisis, by itself, will not wake up the somnolent masses and shake them into action. I work at a free legal clinic. Every day I see people burdened with the catastrophes of daily life. Of course they do not suddenly rise up and take to the streets because the quantity of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen above 350 ppm. Who would expect such a thing? They have pressing and immediate needs that must be met, environmental crisis or not. When the left can offer them the hope of the society in which those needs will be fulfilled, then we will have a movement.

As we go about the task of building that movement, we are trying to beat the clock. What are our chances? Scientists cannot tell us. Perhaps the clock has already beaten us. If so, what would we do? Stop in our tracks? Do nothing? The fear that we have catastrophe fatigue, that we are disabled and turned to stone is unwarranted. Everywhere people are fighting. They occupy trees in the path of the Keystone XL pipeline, they sit in front of bulldozers at the Canadian tar sands and at mountain top removals in Appalachia; they demonstrate against police abuse; they rally to preserve the safety net for the poor, and the habitat of indigenous peoples and endangered species.  There is no mention in this book of all those who camped in Tahrir Square, Zuccotti Park, and Oscar Grant Plaza. I remember standing in the semidarkness on a cold winter night in Zuccotti Park, amidst a welter of tents providing no shelter at all from the icy winds, with freezing slush on the ground. Looking up at those towering granite and glass skyscrapers that hold the offices of all those who serve the 1%, I thought: What would it take for those fortresses of congealed capital to slip from the grasp of the 1% and fall to us? The imbalance of forces represented by an encampment of tents and fortresses of granite might be illusory. Perhaps those fortresses are weaker than they appear. Perhaps not.

Barbara Lubin tells the story of a dinner with Allen Ginsberg. She was talking about Rwanda, Iraq, and Palestine. “None of the news was good,” she recounts, “and we were getting more and more depressed. I turned to Allen and asked, ‘So, Allen, where’s the hope?’ Allen jumped up, taking the table and the food with him. He was furious. ‘Fuck hope,’ he yelled. ‘It’s not about hope. You don’t do what you do because you hope things will get better. It’s about getting up every morning and asking yourself what’s the right thing to do and doing it.”

“It is only for those without hope that hope’s given.”

Osha Neumann is a Berkeley based public interest lawyer, artist and writer. He is the author of Up Against the Wall MotherF**ker: a Memoir of the 60s with Notes for Next Time.  


* Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth, (Oakland:PM  Press, 2012)



Osha Neumann is an attorney for poor and unhoused people in Berkeley California. He is the author of Up Against the Wall Motherf**er: A Memoir of the ’60s, with Notes for Next Time and Doodling on the Titanic: the Making of Art in a World on the Brink.