Saturday, August 10, 2013

Review: Catastrophism

[Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen, and James Davis. Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth. Oakland CA: PM Press; Toronto ON: Between the Lines; Pontypool UK: The Merlin Press Ltd., 2012.]

A surprising assortment of political approaches in a broad range of traditions depend in one way or another on narratives of catastrophe. These politics might be based on averting catastrophe or on hastening it, or they may depend on predictions of its inevitable arrival. The catastrophes to which they respond can include circumstances that really are urgent and dangerous, but in many cases are instead focused on situations that are exaggerated or even pure ideological fantasy. Such politics can be found on the left and the right, in environmental contexts, and in liberal politics. According to the four contributors to this short but important book, catastrophic politics may successfully serve the agendas of the right and of the state, but efforts to mobilize them for more just and liberatory (and environmental sound) politics are more likely to demobilize and even to backfire.

After a Foreword by Doug Henwood and an Introduction by Sasha Lilley, the contributors split the topic four ways. Yuen writes about catastrophism and the environmental movement. Lilley talks about catastrophism and the left. Davis explores how the right mobilizes catastrophic politics, and how the state sometimes opportunistically takes advantage of that even when the agendas of the extra-parliamentary right and the elites with power within state relations are not identical. And, finally, McNally argues that the everyday catastrophe that is capitalism percolates into horrific stories and imagery in popular culture -- an abbreviated presentation of some of his argument from Monsters of the Market (which I have read and enjoyed but did not have a chance to review).

By and large, the essays resonated with the political sensibility I had going into the book and (perhaps not surprisingly given that starting point) felt like they made strong arguments in favour of that sensibility. My contempt for right-wing panic about "cultural Marxism", whether that's the violent right of Anders Breivik or his cousins on the fringe of the supposedly respectable right in North America, is not surprising. But I had neither expected nor sought an analysis that could tie together that with various other sorts of politics, including many much closer to me, and show problems that they all, in different ways, share. However, I am glad to have encountered it. Catastrophism shows up in the more populist sort of right-wing anti-state politics that has an unsettling appeal to parts of the left; in ungrounded liberal wailing about incipient fascism that never really seems that concerned with the perennial casualties caused by capitalist liberal democracy, only their own liberties within it; and both moderate and radical versions of environmental politics organized around catastrophe -- not to mention in a diverse range of marxist and anarchist variants that see catastrophic revolution as inevitable or as something that a band of true believers can catalyze purely by dedication and will.

The authors do not disagree, incidentally, that the current state of the environment is desperate and urgent along multiple axes. What they question is how we can and must respond to that. They point out the empirical observation that people insistently presented with the facts of some pending catastrophe are much more likely to become passive than to become radical. They also point out that though crisis and catastrophe have often been invoked as signs of imminent collapse, historically they have been integral features of how capitalism reorganizes and renews itself to suit new conditions, and they worry that many green and left approaches to the current intertwined social and environmental crises fail to take that dynamic into account. They also make a good case that groups that do form around catastrophic politics are likely to be doomed to isolation or to be drawn into courses of action that will ultimately undercut their claimed support for justice and liberation. They caution strongly against, for instance, politics that do things like point out the (very real) limitations of electoral politics and of mass movements in their clicheed North American liberal mode, and which combine that with an intense and righteous urgency as a way to jump without a solid political basis to any number of adventurist and vanguardist conclusions (which often claim solidarity with oppressed people but are formulated in ways that will inevitably undercut it). As Lilley argues, "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 utmost urgency" (76). Instead, she says, "Radical mass movements typically grow because they offer hope for positive change, while fear demobilizes" (ibid).

What the book really needs -- and perhaps its authors might be working on this very thing (he says hopefully) -- is to augment its solid critique of catastrophic politics with explorations of promising, existing, on-the-ground experiments in political work that reject catastrophism. It would be easy, I think, for people to misread this book and claim that it is denying the very real urgency of our current moment, and compelling counter-examples would help to defuse this possible misreading. An essay examining liberal catastrophism would also have been a useful addition. But even as it is, it is an important contribution to ongoing conversations about strategy and organizing on the left.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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