Catastrophism and apocalyptic politics
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February 4, 2013 at 2:03 am #81610
Sounds an interesting book aimed at stimulating debate.
From the review
Catastrophism represents a "political intervention, designed to spur debate among radicals. [it]presumes that society is headed for a collapse, whether economic, ecological, social or spiritual;" catastrophists are held to believe "frequently, but not always" that said collapse is to be "regarded as a great cleansing, out of which a new society will be born."
Among those who see destruction and decline on the horizon, catastrophists of less authoritarian persuasions are said to "believe that an ever-intensified rhetoric of disaster will awaken the masses from their long slumber," catalyzing radical breaks with the false consciousness imposed by bourgeois-patriarchal hegemony and presumably leading to the insurrectional overturning of the prevailing system which itself is responsible for the prevalence of destruction and despair.
On the other hand, Lilley and company warn that catastrophism, in stressing "panic and powerlessness," runs the risk of promoting "the vanguardist politics of the few," with a putatively enlightened cadre leading the supposedly heretofore conservative masses to smash unreason and realize freedom and revolution, à la Jacobins, Bolsheviks or Maoists. Claiming empirically to examine the "track record" of politics framed in catastrophic terms, Lilley et al conclude that such philosophies "do not serve the Left and the environmental movement," given that an increased awareness among the general populace of catastrophic conditions – social, ecological, political – in no way necessarily leads people in general to shift toward radical, anti-systemic positions.
Lilley is forthright about her own analysis of the capitalist system – "by its very nature, capitalism is catastrophic," with the "ecological catastrophe" driven by capitalism undoubtedly being "the greatest and most serious" of all others facing humanity and life on earth in the present day – and she and her comrades clearly reject any sort of Leninist attempt to resolve the present crisis, affirming instead the "importance of mass radical organizing." Claiming that the "cardinal strength" of capitalism is its "immense and terrible dynamism," she controversially notes that capital cannot be expected to be dismantled by anything other than "protracted mass struggle."
Lilley shows voluntarism on the other hand to be equally problematic, if not more so: It is predicated on the mechanistic notion that the worse conditions in general get, the better these must be for revolutionary prospects. Arguing (perhaps inadvertently) against orthodox Marxian analyses, Lilley points out that labor strikes in the US historically have been most frequent and intense during periods of economic expansion, with the notable exception of the 1930s. Analyzing this same time period in Germany's history, she, like many of the theorists of the Frankfurt School, roundly states that the "ascent of the Nazis to power ought to have provided a mortal blow to the concept that catastrophic political and economic conditions inexorably lead down the road to radicalization and socialist revolution,"
She takes groups like the Weather Underground and the Red Army Faction (RAF) to task for their strategy of "heightening the contradictions" toward the provocation of thoroughgoing state repression – an attempt, as they theorized, at revealing the truly fascist nature of the State, hidden temporarily behind its liberal-democratic facade – that might stir the subordinated into rising up and smashing the system altogether; indeed, she associates much of contemporary insurrectionism, anarchist and libertarian-communist, with this constellation of tactics.
In "The Politics of Failure Have Failed," Eddie Yuen focuses on climate change and the prospects for radical movements to address it from within core-imperialist societies. He notes clearly that "catastrophism is rampant among self-identified environmentalists, and not without good reason – after all, the best evidence points to cascading environmental disaster" – the present environmental crisis corresponds "unquestionably" to a "genuinely catastrophic moment in human and planetary history." Faced with these horrors, Yuen declares it to be absolutely imperative to begin to attempt to resolve this crisis by "effectively and rapidly changing the direction of human society," noting in particular that it is the "status quo of capitalist production of unnecessary commodities and services for the global elites and 'middle classes' [which] is the ongoing catastrophe that must be addressed." He also criticizes rhetoric espousing environmental doom as playing into the hands of the political right and the State rather than those of the Left; he claims that Left-green catastrophism "remains Malthusian at its core."February 4, 2013 at 6:44 am #92057
The Socialist Standard is in fact planning an issue on catastrophism so this will help.PS. I wish contributors would not put quotes in italics (which is hard read) rather than using the Quote facility. Oh, just realised there isn't one here. So, use [/quote] to end andQuote:to begin.February 5, 2013 at 11:29 am #92058
Another article by Sasha Lilley that may be of help that you can cull a quote or two from.http://inthesetimes.com/article/14292/catastrophiliacs/"Periods of radical social upheaval have followed economic crises and—especially—war. But there is nothing preordained about this relationship. Immiseration and eroding living standards do not automatically prompt workers to radical collective action. Workers find different ways to cope, some which would not win the approval of the Left. Historically, workers often take actions, even collective ones, to shut other workers out of better jobs based on race, ethnicity, or gender—such as “hate strikes” by white workers against the hiring or promotion of workers of color. Innumerable acts of solidarity and resistance, of course, mark the history of capitalism. But they are not the only recourse to which members of the working class resort in hard times."We have said much the same as the above in a number of articles in the Standard about socialist consciousness not being automatic and arising mechanistically from class struggle. "The liberatory hopes of the past, and the confidence in the collective power of others has given way to the uncertain hope and fear of collapse, befitting our anti-utopian and crisis-fraught times. Even in the darkest of hours, however, it behooves anticapitalists to construct a politics that categorically rejects catastrophism. No amount of fire and brimstone can substitute for the often-protracted, difficult, and frequently unrewarding work of building radical mass movements, even under situations of the utmost urgency."And again this statement echoes our constant refrain of the need for knowledge and education and the importance of possessing a common achievable vision.She also shares our distain (and Bookchin's) for the anti-humanity of Deep GreensFebruary 8, 2013 at 12:51 am #92059MarukusuboyParticipant
I ordered a copy of that book last week and plan to write an article (or review) about its content for the Standard isseu Adam mentioned.For a couple years I've been listening to Lilley's radio program on KPFA ("Against the Grain"). I happened to hear about this book on Doug Henwood's radio program on the same station. He intereviewed Lilley. You can find a link here (Dec. 20 show): http://www.leftbusinessobserver.com/Radio.htmlMike (S)March 6, 2013 at 3:14 am #92060MarukusuboyParticipant
Adam,Any word on when the issue on Catastrophism will run?MikeMarch 6, 2013 at 7:03 am #92061
It's not been decided yet but, as the issue will also have an article on modern theories of the economic collapse of capitalism, June might be a good month, to co-incide with the G8 summit in London.March 29, 2013 at 2:17 am #92062AnonymousInactive
Hi everyone! I just registered on this forum and I like to say that I look forward to reading this future issue.ALB: will there be something on the breakdown thesis of Krisis/Exit/Robert Kurz? I have found some of these ideas to be rather stimulating but I am quite sceptical at the same time. They argue that labour productivity, with the arrival of the third industrial revolution (the micro processor), has reached such high levels that the economic foundation of ‘normal’ capital accumulation has disappeared, and now the system only lives artificially by ficticious capital accumulation. Two books came out recently: Die große Entwertung (in German) and Vies et morts du capitalisme (in French). There are a few articles in English as well but they are often very short and rough translations.PS. I used the search function and discovered that a pamflett of Krisis essays has already been reviewed in the Standard (in 2003). This review does not deal critically with the ‘economic’ collapse argument itself, however, but focuses on other issues such as the rejection of class struggle.March 29, 2013 at 8:46 am #92063
welcome aboard. I hope you find the forum worthwhile.You have already provided me with a few hour of interesting reading. It makes it a plasant alternative to the usual anglo/americanphile readingMarch 29, 2013 at 8:52 am #920641875 wrote:They argue that labour productivity, with the arrival of the third industrial revolution (the micro processor), has reached such high levels that the economic foundation of ‘normal’ capital accumulation has disappeared, and now the system only lives artificially by ficticious capital accumulation.
The first part seems similar to that put forward by the non-Marxist Federico Pistono we debated recently, author of a book Robots will steal your job, but that's OK; how to survive the economic collapse and be happy (see thread here). His argument was that the pace of technological invention had now become so fast (thanks to developments in computer technology) that the market system would not be able to find jobs fast enough (expand fast enought) for those displaced by this as it had done in all previous technological revolutions.The arguments we put against Pistono are:1. That there is a different between technological inventions and their application. Capitalism only uses them if this is cheaper than employing people for wages, not if they will just reduce the amount of labour required to produce something from start to finish. In other words, capitalism itself places an obstacle in the way of robotisation, etc.2. Unemployment has gone up since 2007 but this is clearly cyclical not technological, i. e is the result of capitalism being in the slump phase of one of its regular economic cycles. Over the past 30 or so years unemployment has gone up and down, not steadily increased as the theory suggests should have happened.3. Employment in places like China has increased immensely over this period, so some of the unemployment in the West could be due to a transfer of production to there, i.e. global employment levels (reflecting the expansion of capitalism) have still increased.We've been sent a pamphlet by Kurz to review No Revolution Anywhere. I don't if the pamphlet or the review will deal with his theory of economic collapse.March 29, 2013 at 6:11 pm #92065DJPParticipantALB wrote:We've been sent a pamphlet by Kurz to review No Revolution Anywhere. I don't if the pamphlet or the review will deal with his theory of economic collapse.
Kurz briefly touches on his theory of collapse in the pamphlet. The rationale is that with each revolution in the means of production the concentration of constant to variable capital increases, and that it is impossible to go back once a stage has been reached eg. early factory production was more labour intensive then present day computer controlled robot production – it seems to be the standard 'automatic' collapse argument with a few extra bits added…Was going to give the Fragment on Machines (pg 690 – 712 of the Grundrisse) a proper read before writing the review. Perhaps this could be discussed on here?March 31, 2013 at 9:24 pm #92066
Federico Pistono explains here in 4 or 5 minutes his particular theory of why he thinks the present economic system is going to collapse. Not very convincing, if only because the first reason he gives is based on assuming that the money to pay interest on a loan can only come from taking out a further loan (whereas in fact it can come out of future production). But he does also use the growing technological unemployment argument.April 4, 2013 at 12:54 pm #92068AnonymousInactive
Pistono cannot be taken seriously it seems. Not only because of the silly interest/loan argument that ALB mentioned just above, but it appears that he has stolen all of his technological unemployment arguments from the book The Lights in the Tunnel (2009).Kurz & co. at least try to base their theory of collapse on value theory, and the main argument is that which DJP just gave. I see two big problems with their approach however: The first is that they don't focus on the general rate of profit but on the total mass of value, i.e. embodied labour, becoming less and less per material unit produced. But as long as the rate of profit is somewhat above zero, capital can always (theoretically) make profitable use of more workers. Of course, an increase in the organic composition has a negative influence on the general rate of profit and this can lead to a lot of problems for capitalist civilization: A low rate of profit tends to slow down accumulation and job growth. It also puts the system as a whole at risk of accidents in the financial sphere; a shock, like that when LB went bankrupt in 2008, may force a large mass of firms out of business. These two arguments are made by Andrew Kliman in his, in my view, excellent book The Failure of Capitalist Production (2011). Based on data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis he shows that the rate of profit has fallen in the United States since the 1970s (not continously thoughout the whole period; sometimes it has also remained constant). Kliman is not a theorist of collapse, however, because he argues that a crisis of devalorisation can actually clean out the system by cheapening the elements of constant capital (one of Marx's counter-acting tendencies). Kurz & co. deny this possibility but I have never seen any actual data from them that could back this up. They don't seem to be aware of the fact that the ICT revolution not only sheds jobs but also cheapens constant capital, and that the continously expanded production increases the demand for more natural resources: to objectify a constant mass of value in a growing mass of use-values, the elements that make up the latter need to be dug up somewhere and processed. Or they are aware of this counter-acting tendency but simply assume that it is too weak to offset the progressive decline and eventual collapse of the capitalist system.April 4, 2013 at 2:15 pm #92067DJP wrote:Was going to give the Fragment on Machines (pg 690 – 712 of the Grundrisse) a proper read before writing the review. Perhaps this could be discussed on here?
I think the key passage here is this (pages 705-6 of the Pelican edition of the Grundrisse):Quote:The theft of alien labour time, on which the present wealth is based, appears a miserable foundation in face of this new one, created by large-scale industry itself. As soon as labour in the direct form has ceased to be the great well-spring of wealth, labour time ceases and must cease to be its measure, and hence exchange value [must cease to be the measure] of use value. The surplus labour of the mass has ceased to be the condition for the development of general wealth, just as the non-labour of the few, for the development of the general powers of the human head. With that, production based on exchange value breaks down, and the direct, material production process is stripped of the form of penury and antithesis. The free development of individualities, and hence not the reduction of necessary labour time so as to posit surplus labour, but rather the general reduction of the necessary labour of society to a minimum, which then corresponds to the artistic, scientific etc. development of the individuals in the time set free, and with the means created, for all of them.
What Marx seems to be saying here is that, if capitalism continued long enough and with productivity constantly increasing, a stage would be reached when each unit of a product would contain so little value (as measured by labour time) that its price would be virtually zero and so could be given away. At which point capitalism, being based on production for sale with a view to profit, could no longer function.As far as I know, this is the only passage in Marx's writings where he uses the word "zusammenbrechen" (to break down, collapse) in respect of capitalism as an economic system. I don't think he thought that this stage would ever be reached, but that he was just theorizing about the final limit of capitalism if productivity kept on increasing.Of course we are nowhere near that stage today, so I don't think this helps explain what is happening at the moment.April 4, 2013 at 10:53 pm #92069AnonymousInactiveALB wrote:What Marx seems to be saying here is that, if capitalism continued long enough and with productivity constantly increasing, a stage would be reached when each unit of a product would contain so little value (as measured by labour time) that its price would be virtually zero and so could be given away. At which point capitalism, being based on production for sale with a view to profit, could no longer function.As far as I know, this is the only passage in Marx's writings where he uses the word "zusammenbrechen" (to break down, collapse) in respect of capitalism as an economic system. I don't think he thought that this stage would ever be reached, but that he was just theorizing about the final limit of capitalism if productivity kept on increasing.Of course we are nowhere near that stage today, so I don't think this helps explain what is happening at the moment,
Yes, society would change a lot before we get there. If manufacturing were to add almost nothing to the value of the final product this means that most of the surplus-value would go to the land owners instead, wouldn't it? (Also, it should be possible to measure this I think.) So even the most remarkable self-reproducing 3D printers cannot, by themselves, free us from the burden of capitalism (as long as they don't produce matter like in Star Trek). We'll still need to convince ourselves of the need for socialism as the good alternative.April 10, 2013 at 7:08 pm #92070DJPParticipant
This topic seems to be flavour of the day. A couple of programs I have half-heard on the world service:http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/worldbizGoing to give a relisten.. (4th April and 30th March editions)
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