Mud-Slide

Photo by The National Guard | CC BY 2.0

At some time in the 1970s, it became obvious that homo politicus, the propertied white male that our dearly beloved Founding Fathers had originally entrusted with the vote, and others over the centuries that were begrudgingly allowed to join them in the privilege, had been transmuted into homo economicus. Now treated as human capital, we are but factors in GDP enhancement, our political lives curtailed by the rise of neoliberalism.

When I turned the key in my car’s ignition recently to flee the Thomas Fire, California’s largest and almost certainly exacerbated by global warming, I was both victim and perpetrator, caught in the ouroboric moment of the snake eating its own tail. When, in October 2016, I cast my postal vote for Jill Stein, I was supporting the sham of American democracy in full knowledge that the institutions supported by this byzantine mechanism regularly victimize my economic, social and recreational opportunities while at every moment endangering life on the planet.

How can I show solidarity with others in our shared and authentic political interest? What level of energy sacrifice is necessary to escape the pay-back of geo-historical forces? What level of anarchic action is required to amend our democracy’s dysfunction without disastrous personal reprisals imposed by the state? Can we do good within a corrupt system with which we are complicit? Or, as Adrian Parr notes, in her startling new book, Birth of a New Earth – The Radical Politics of Environmentalism, 2017, “political awareness arises from the realization that” (quoting Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari) “the reality I see is never ‘whole’ – not because a large part of it eludes me, but because it contains a stain, a blind spot which indicates my inclusion in it.” That stain, that blind spot includes each of us and our profound enmeshment within the global entanglements of neo-liberalism. Remarkably, she sees emancipatory and egalitarian promise within a movement of radical environmentalism that traverses “the identity barriers of race, class, gender, sexuality, geography, age, physical ability and speciesism”.

When a friend suggested to me that the New Year was just a continuation of the annus horribilis of 2017, and all hope for any sort of new beginning must be deferred until the mid-term elections this coming November, I felt very alone. Had he learnt nothing from the remarkably clarifying revelations of the last twelve months? Was he still looking for solutions from within a system that promises freedom, choice and individualism but delivers militarism, exploitation, suffering and oppression along with epochal planetary degradation? Had he not, in 2017, recognized the stain that was his culpability in the horror show of neoliberalism?

Was he, for instance, momentarily buoyed by the victory of Doug Jones over Roy Moore in the recent Alabama senate race? Should we even care to follow the news of such contrived events knowing full well that they are a part of the theater of the surreal whose reality is imposed upon us by our consumption of its tawdry performances? How significant is it that a decent human being fielded by the Democratic Party was able to defeat, by less than two percentage points, a Republican candidate whose reputation places him, on the historical spectrum of evil, somewhere between Rasputin and Adolf Hitler?

Why have any faith in an electoral process that is itself intensely ouroboric in its selection of congress people and senators who, whatever their altruistic ambitions, secure victories ensured by the contributions of the very wealthy and whose interests they then serve legislatively, to ensure their future electability? What solace can possibly be found in the coliseum of our politics? Better, of course, that Jones won, but he too will sink into the quagmire of corruption that is the U.S. senate – an institution that passed a tax bill, at the end of 2017, that will be deeply injurious to the economic and physiological health of the vast majority of the country’s population; ironically the Golden Goose’s base fully expects its reward when they ascend to the ranks of the uber wealthy, eagerly anticipated with every purchase of a lottery ticket. More disturbingly, Adrian Parr raises the following specter: what, she asks, “if the masses desire their own oppression?”

On the night of November 8, 2016, I was genuinely thrilled that Hillary had failed in her entitled bid for the U.S. presidency. There was nothing I feared more than another eight years of my life in America overseen by an administration that wrapped itself in hypocrisy while pursuing the most pernicious principles of neoliberalism – having already suffered through sixteen years of Democratic National Committee rule, headed by Presidents Clinton and Obama, in which I saw the country pushed ruthlessly to the right; towards the neo-liberal ideals of globalism, competition, militarism and the commodification of everything.

We are done with the elegant and smooth-talking Obama (and long done with Clinton) and are now exposed to the crude, but refreshingly un-hypocritical brutalities of Trump. How could this not be an improvement within the polity? How could this not be an opportunity to understand the true nature of our predicament? How could this not be a much-sought-after revelation?

2017 was also the year that Americans were fulsomely reminded of the power of weather terrorism – that frightening derangement of the climate that Bruno Latour calls “a profound mutation in our relation to the world”. As Hurricane Maria raped the Island of Borikén (or colonially, Puerto Rico); as Harvey exposed the petro-chemical sink-hole that is the low-lying prairie surrounding Houston, cutting a swathe through suburbs already condemned by environmental racism; as Florida’s doomed Atlantic coast-line was roiled, and Tampa was ravaged by Irma; as brush-fires destroyed over half a million acres of California wildlands, adjacent suburbs, mountain houses, beach houses, and commercial and industrial infrastructure, the connections between these revelations and the disequilibrium in our environment spawned by the systems of global capitalism may have finally dawned on a few. Certainly, many survivors established meaningful solidarity with each other in ways that transcend difference. But it was the spectacle of these events, framed by the media, that absorbed most of us and vitiated, as Parr writes, “our social energies and forces in the simplified representation of history”.

Amidst police brutality, the relentless incarceration of minorities, the poor and the mentally ill, and alongside the other social and economic savageries of neoliberalism, environmental emergencies exacerbate social fault lines, the crisis of health care and endanger the material and the psychological well-being of increasing numbers of American residents; such oppressive social and environmental disasters are often rendered as apocalyptical entertainment. Parr writes, “A diabolical faith in individualism has fractured us as a society. The sensuality of human beings has been reduced to the narcissistic pleasures of a spectacle culture”. Yet it is within the revelatory truth of such events, as Parr suggests, that we may also move towards solidarity with future generations, other species, and most immediately, with our fellow humans.

2017 provided many such potentially emancipatory revelations in politics, climate and beyond for my friend, and for each one of us. 2018 will doubtless be replete with further expository pantomime from Trump and many moments in other realms that are pregnant with elucidation. As I write, fifteen deaths have been confirmed in the tragic mud-slides of Montecito, a consequence of the recent Thomas Fire which burnt the mountains above this wealthy enclave and made the soils vulnerable to the extraordinary rain-fall of the last two days. Twenty-four people remain missing.

These are deaths, like most incurred in globally-warmed weather events, of extreme terror. As we continue our modern lives, stained by our complicity in an economic and political system which is nourished by the degradation of our terrestrial and atmospheric environment, we might bear witness to their short-lived screams as they were enfolded within the airless horror of mud which bore them towards the ocean at speeds of up to 50 m.p.h. The fact of their deaths, promulgated in the media as a frisson of spectacle and disaster, might be dedicated instead, to emancipatory and egalitarian purpose.

John Davis is an architect living in southern California. Read more of his writing at urbanwildland.org  

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