Against catastrophism

This is the text of my introduction to a panel on catastrophism that (Catastrophism and the Crisis of the Left) that I MC’d at the Left Forum, March 19, 2011, at Pace University, New York.

Events in Japan have gotten me thinking about crises in general. At first, I thought that it might promote the realization that finding clean, renewable forms of energy may the most urgent task facing us today. But then I thought back a bit to other energy-related crises. One of my beefs with the peak oilers, aside from the empirical one in which I suspect that they’re just wrong about hydrocarbon production, is that impending scarcity doesn’t make people more amenable to rational argument—it inclines them to desperate measures. Polls (e.g. U.S. Oil Drilling Gains Favor With Americans) now show more Americans support offshore drilling and opening up the Alaska wilderness to oil exploration than have in a long time. The BP spill had no lasting effect. Gas over $3.00 a gallon is a far more potent influence on public opinion than is a fading memory of dead fish thousands of miles away. Of course its effects were a lot more profoundly damaging than that, but that’s the way memory treats it now—memory in the sense less of recalling events than as some sort of psychological defense mechanism. Besides, in the words of the wonderful poet A.R. Ammons, who wouldn’t turn up the voltage when you know the lights are going out?

That, of course, is a set-up for talking about economic crisis. Back about 20 years ago, as the manic leveraging of the 1980s was being undone in a long recession, many people expected the worst. Around 1991 it became clear to me that the worst wasn’t going to happen. I wrote a piece about that for Left Business Observer (“After non-collapse”) and my friend Patrick Bond wrote me a letter—quaintly, one inscribed on paper—imploring me, “Say it ain’t so!” He just didn’t want to believe that this wasn’t the Big One.

Of course, we’ve just gone through a bigger one. The recent economic crisis has caused a lot of juices to run on the political left. For the last couple of years, as it looked like both the financial system and real economy were in meltdown—a curious word, given the news from Japan—a certain subset of radicals have been very excited. For years, many of them have hoped for some sort of bone-crunching crisis, some rerun of the 1930s, that might have fortunate political effects.

The mechanisms of that fortunate transformation are rarely specified, but presumably they invovle some sort of productive disillusionment. The masses, once duped by a plenitude of consumer goods supplemented with a lot of snazzy ideology produced by the consciousness industry, would come to their senses once that narcotic flow was interrupted. Presumably, that coming to sense would involve an embrace of some sort of anti-capitalist agenda, and not some desperate longing to return to the status quo ante. Given the absence of any widespread radical critique or organization going into the crisis, it’s not clear how those would suddenly materialize in the midst of one, but no matter. This is a story of some magical intervention, a deus ex machina that would do the work that all our efforts at agitation to date have yet to accomplish.

That has not happened yet, neither here nor anywhere. That’s not surprising, since the historical evidence mostly shows that crises are good for the right, not the left. Crises make people want to retreat to the familiar, not strike out in new directions. So here and in many other places around the world, we’re seeing an upsurge in nativism and xenophobia, not solidarity. The 1930s were an exception, but that’s because things got really really awful then, with the unemployment rate maxing out at 25%. Times have been bad here lately, but nothing like that. Do we really want to see the unemployment rate more than double because it might be good for politics?

Ok, events in Wisconsin are encouraging—though recall that they’re in reaction to the ascendancy of a very right-wing governor. I do hope that this upsurge continues, and spreads. But there’s a risk that it will get siphoned off into support for Democrats, who, if they find their way back into power, will just do watered-down versions of the Gov. Walker agenda.

And now we’re seeing pronouncements from some very smart people who are saying that the economy will never recover. Maybe it won’t; I presume, against all recent evidence, that capitalism isn’t an eternal social formation. But you’ve got to hand it to the thing—it’s been remarkably inventive over the centuries. To read some of the gloomsters, you’d think that capitalism hasn’t been able to generate any growth for the seven or eight centuries of its existence. I think it’s a very unwise move to bet against its resilience.

We need a critique of capitalism that works when the thing is doing reasonably well, which it does most of the time. Because when it’s doing well, it’s still appalling: unstable, destructive, alienating, and violent. If you can’t devise an indictment of capitalism when things are going well—meaning that there are no visible threats to its reproduction from day to day—then you might as well give up. Because it’s going to outwit you.

7 Comments on “Against catastrophism

  1. I’m not sure we are all that capable of distinguishing the ‘when it’s doing well’ from the ‘when it’s not.’ Right now, it’s doing particularly well, having recovered from a weekend bender of housing meth, finance coke, and political ecstasy. And low intensity decline in the U.S. seems to be matched by something looking like the opposite elsewhere in the world. And I know many have cautioned this but it bears repeating, the decline in/of the U.S. is not the same as a decline in capitalism. And decline in the U.S. isn’t the same as crisis. A good parasite knows not to to kill the host until a fresh one can be located.

  2. Hi Doug!
    Very interesting piece on an interesting topic. David Harvey says somewhere or other, “Marxists have predicted twelve of the last three crises”, and I think I’ve always been drawn to Marxism because I want someone to explain why we’re heading full tilt for the brick wall that I see in front of us. I’ve spent decades telling non-Marxists that it is in the nature of the capitalist system to produce crises, and that one day the cumulative effects of these crises will presumably be so severe that the whole thing will collapse. At that point, nobody knows what will happen, so I am authorized to hope that a revolution will occur. That is the basic idea but I have been feeling a little doubtful about it for the past few years. As you point out, “Given the absence of any widespread radical critique or organization going into the crisis, it’s not clear how those would suddenly materialize in the midst of one.” You also mention that crises are often better for the right than for the left. I think that’s true. I am puzzled though when you go on to say: “The 1930s were an exception, but that’s because things got really really awful then, with the unemployment rate maxing out at 25%.” Do you mean that crises actually are good for the left, as long as they’re excruciatingly painful? Isn’t that the basic catastrophist position?
    Kate Browne

  3. Well, Kate, the 30s were good for the American left, but things weren’t so fortunate in Europe. But my point was that the example that so many on the left cling to was truly awful. Do they really want to put 20 million people out of work?

  4. The stagnation in real wages for the US working class is not temporary and won’t stop; the recessions in 80-83, 90-92 and this entire decade should be seen in that light. It may not be catastrophic exactly, but it is historically important if the world’s largest capitalist economy cannot provide a rising living standard for its population over a sustained period of time.

  5. This is excellent. It raises for me a related question as to the predictability of basic social and economic change. In 1960 who could or did predict the rise of an a self amplifying coalition of the religous and corporate right? In some sense, neo liberals and some Marxists share a faith in at least in principle the lawlike nature of social phenomena. This faith becomes extremely problematic now that capitalism has become so entangled with other complex environmental and climate conditions. I would urge readers of this blog and Henwood himself to read this brief April 3 entry by William Connolly in The Contemporary Condition Connolly has a new book, A World of Becoming, which addresses in depth many of these themes.

  6. True stuff, for revolution to happen widespread critique of capitalist prosperity (those miserable joys and inadequate compensations of full access to commodities) has to join forces with militant critique of capitalist poverty and oppression. 1968 was that kind of moment. Unfortunately this might not come along until capital recomposes itself for another successful run that spreads “prosperity” worldwide.

  7. Great stuff. I’m starting to look at each of the last few “crises” as capitalist “creative-destriuction”/consolidation phases.

    The early 80’s downturn busted factory unionism; the early 90’s downturn shed middle-managers; the early 2000’s cleared out the new generation of tech workers, once the supply of foreign workers was up to speed; and the latest crisis is a chance to destroy public sector unionism.

    Catastrophism works hand-in-hand with “unsustainable” — the last word of many leftish rants. Nuclear meltdowns, financial panics, oil spills, even global warming are all “sustainable” — for the few.

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