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The Emergency Brake

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Although the Trump Administration, it was recently revealed, concluded that it’s too late to do anything to avert catastrophic climate change (and, so, why even bother), the UN just announced that there’s still time to avoid mass death and suffering – if there is “massive, immediate transformation.” But how would such an immediate transformation unfold?

Because we seem to be living through a stretch of history in which history is threatening to extinguish history itself, an examination of the 20th century philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin’s concept of the angel of history, and his interrelated notion of the emergency brake, may point to a way.

Evoked by the Swiss artist Paul Klee’s watercolor Angelus Novus, Benjamin introduced the figure of the angel of history in his final essay, “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”Appearing with its face “turned toward the past,” hurtling backward through space by “a storm blowing from paradise,” the angel is unable to close its wings and determine its own movement. Overpowered by this storm, it can do little more than watch impotently as catastrophic wreckage (the manifestation of history and progress) piles up at its feet. That is, caught in the storm blowing from paradise, the storm of history is preventing the angel from doing what it desires to do. But just what does it desire?

As Benjamin writes: the angel “would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what is smashed.” Although prevented from doing so by the storm of progress that determines (and undermines) its flight, the angel’s utopian desire is to repair the world – not in order to restore paradise (a longstanding tendency of utopian messianism), but, rather, to restore life and autonomy to a social world destroyed by the coercive and destructive forces of history and ideology. While the angel desires this, however, the ecocidal storm (the bulldozer of progress, as the Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas phrased the world-ravaging forces of history and technology) is far too powerful.

This is where the messianic notion of the emergency brake enters the picture – rupturing history and releasing its utopian essence. As Benjamin famously put it in his essay’s paralipomena; “Marx said that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps things are very different. It may be that revolutions are the act by which the human race traveling in the train applies the emergency brake.” That is, the emergency brake would stop the “bulldozer of progress,” would cut off the ecocidal storm of history, and thereby allow the revolutionary potential of the angel (and humanity) to realize itself.

But just what is the emergency brake? While it has multiple forms, what is arguably the most democratic manifestation of the emergency brake, and one that Benjamin discussed repeatedly, is the general strike. A supra-national general strike would stop the economy of war and exploitation, and allow the environment to heal itself. And with the storm stopped, Benjamin’s angel of history could land and make whole (could heal) what has been destroyed. That is, humanity could construct a new, just world, not out of relations of exploitation and domination, but from those of radical care (charity, solidarity, and mutual aid).

According to the legal maxim that “the health of the people should be the supreme law” (another type of emergency brake – one cited by jurists, and those contesting coercive power, since antiquity), there is a legal duty to pursue this as well (for, among other things, human health is contingent on the health of its general environment – and freedom from oppression). Indeed, if we are to take this maxim seriously, we must recognize that it implies that conditions that are inimical to health (harmful to the health of the people) must be corrected in order to comply with the “supreme law.”

Following this interpretation, beyond providing various modes of security, a just society’s job is to provide these conditions of health (nourishing food, clean water, clean air, a clean environment generally, salutary housing, the absence of poverty, war, police abuse, and other forms of state and market violence), for their own sake. This is its duty of care. And because a right to these conditions corresponds to this duty, when the fast food industry and the fossil fuel industry, among other destructive industries, are shut down (by the emergency brake, in compliance with the supreme law) and millions lose their jobs, no one would lose their healthcare, or their home, food, or any other condition of health as a result. Not only would people gain a great deal of leisure, by slowing production such an arrangement could avert our impending catastrophe.

Indeed, just as Theseus could not merely kill the Minotaur, but had to escape from the labyrinth confining it as well, we too cannot simply kill our own bull monster (the bulldozer of progress, which also appears as the bull of economic growth) with a general strike. Though it would be a start, we must dismantle the intersecting labyrinths that house and feed it as well (i.e., capitalism, patriarchy, racism, and domination of the human and non-human alike) – or, as report after report, and storm after storm, make perfectly clear, we will all suffer and die within them.

 

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Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and adjunct professor. He lives in New York City and can be reached at elliot.sperber@gmail.com and on twitter @elliot_sperber

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