A Reason to Struggle
September 2018 Preface
This piece originally appeared on the precursor to this blog in 2010. It was intended as a starting place for the development of a social ecological theory that could be applied specifically to building a radical ecosocialist movement in the Sonoran Desert.
A product of the political climate of Arizona at the time, it was written to counter apathetic, pessimistic, and nihilistic tendencies that prevented social organization and action. It is perhaps a non-polemical critique of attitudes also encountered by Murray Bookchin, Chaz Bufe, Brian Oliver Sheppard and others. Through engagement with these ideas, it was quickly realized that our struggle is foremost ethical, at the service of the poor- and working-classes of which we are a part. This led to a search for “positive” alternatives. I consider this a period of “tarrying with the negative,” in the Hegelian sense.
Though these attitudes have receded somewhat in subsequent years, the “things must get worse before they get better” argument helps to partially explain Donald Trump’s electoral victory, and how supposedly progressive “Bernie Bros.” cynically (and misogynistically) supported Trump rather than Clinton (or any alternative candidate, for that matter). While tendencies like primitivism and anti-civ have receded within the left, social revolutionaries must now contend with reform-oriented liberals as well as a growing (though motley and disorganized) “alt-right” movement. It is fair to wonder how many misanthropes and “post-leftists” ended up throwing in their lot with the alt-right?
However, many have also found motivation to act in the Trump era. Now, just as when this piece was originally written, a primary task is to organize so that we may act.
This article is perhaps the earliest exposition of what we would later articulate as the need to attend to the immaterial preconditions for revolution (theory, organization, conceptions of alternatives, historical perspective, belief in our own agency, etc), as the material preconditions (technological development, productive capacity, food supply, etc) have been fulfilled for the first time in human history. This aspect of the “post-scarcity thesis,” initially proposed by Bookchin, is a guiding principle for Better Worlds, Brighter Futures.
While the “Social Ecology Sonora” project is defunct, the work that came out of it is archived on this blog. It is hoped this will contribute to new, similar projects emerging.
In many ways, this essay can be viewed as an early statement of our editorial perspective, which we encourage everyone to read.
Revised September 2018
The world is currently living through the sixth mass extinction event in its natural history, driven largely by capitalist development, expansion, and disturbance. If events continue on such a course, the lifetime of my peers will be marked by the complete destruction of the rainforest, elimination of polar icecaps, and extinction of most of the fish in the oceans, just to start. While the possibility of abundance of the means of survival (food, shelter, clothing) now exists to satisfy the needs of everyone on the planet, hunger and poverty are still rampant, and scarcity is enforced through global capital distribution and the need to keep commodity pricing maximally profitable. This is not to mention the terrible inequalities perpetuated by a society that sees difference not in terms of “unity-in-diversity,” but as threatening to the hegemonic, brutally competitive corporate culture of an elite few.
Change, as the saying goes, is inevitable. Indeed, the possibility of explaining to my grandchildren what it was like to have known rainforests, icecaps, and ocean life (or even a shred of freedom) brings this phrase into sharp relief.
Yet, where is the revolutionary opposition to this increasingly devastating status quo? Overwhelmingly, I am confronted by self-identified radicals who are won to cynicism, nihilism, apathy, and despair. Unsurprisingly, this seems to be a concentrated reflection of United States society at present.
These sentiments manifest in two particular arguments among radicals here: either, 1) “things must get worse before they get better,” or 2) the attitude that things are already too far gone for any substantive improvement to be possible. In both cases, the result is overwhelmingly inaction and self-fulfilled prophecy.
Indeed, this near-universal mindset has led to the degeneration of the political left into fractured, reform-oriented liberalism on the one hand, and a supposedly “radical” (not revolutionary in any traditional sense) anti-civilization attitude on the other (all disdain for “the Left” from this camp notwithstanding). The former, when they act, attempt to curb the largest abuses of capitalism and the state from within the national political system. The latter, when they act, attempt to speed up what is seen as the inevitable (and catastrophic) collapse of the human, “built” environment. In both cases, their “vision” is defined in the negative–as a reaction–by what they stand against rather than what they are struggling for.
What can explain this drastic shift in perspective from an inherently revolutionary, utopian vision of a liberated, ecological society and the need to bring it about, to the grim attitude of defeat, reform, or apocalypse? Perhaps the largest barrier to a formidable, revolutionary opposition movement, or to a threatening alternative to socio-economic capitalism and the nation-state has been the unwitting acceptance of a capitalist rationale: particularly that of an innately negative “human nature” and the connected view of capitalism (sometimes clouded as “civilization”) as immutable.
Such a rationale, cloaked in pseudo-ecological terminology, is used by economists to justify on the one hand class society, exploitation, and the need to hierarchically order an inherently lazy, greedy, violent, egotistic humanity, and on the other the inevitable, organismic, unassailable “nature” of the market.
Indeed, these attitudes have undermined the struggle for a better world and the building of social movements. The utopian, revolutionary foundations of the left are increasingly viewed as unreasonable, irrational fantasy. Today among radicals there is disdain for organization, planning, or seemingly any type of concentrated, coordinated effort to systematically overcome capitalism and the state. Particularly among the youth, and even among the disaffected remnants of the old “New Left” there is the distinct impression that all that exists is all that can ever exist; that the system of capitalism enforced and fed by the nation-state is immovable, albeit potentially on a path of inevitable, catastrophic failure.
Yet how realistic, how rational, are these views actually? As author and columnist Saab Lofton reminds us, try explaining the “things must get worse” theory to black and Hispanic people in the inner city, or to Hispanic and other immigrants and people of color here in Arizona.
As well, the view that what currently exists is all that can exist; that we are on a predetermined path toward oblivion (or at the very least, rampant capitalism) hinges on an unspoken, immutable natural “force” or “law” that prevents the liberated society from coming into being. Yet, there is no logical impediment to the creation of a world in which “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need” is the economic relationship of society; in which people are able to pursue and find fulfillment to the greatest extent possible.
How drastic the rationale of a movement can change in only two generations! In large part, the left has divorced itself from its own history and the foundations which gave it purpose, meaning, and value. Less than 75 years ago slogans like “a better world is possible” were rooted in the concrete reality of the time. In Spain, the residents of Barcelona were living in a free, “utopian” society. George Orwell, in the first chapter of his non-fiction experience during the Spanish Revolution, Homage to Catalonia, describes in vivid detail the scene in Barcelona at this time:
It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists;… Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized;… Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal…. everyone called everyone else ‘Comrade’ and ‘Thou’, and said ‘Salud!’ instead of ‘Buenos dias’…. There were no private motor-cars, they had all been commandeered, and all the trams and taxis and much of the other transport were painted red and black. The revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud. Down the Ramblas, the wide central artery of the town where crowds of people streamed constantly to and fro, the loudspeakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night.Homage to Catalonia (1938), chapter 1.
This was all a mere 75 years, or two short generations ago. Indeed, the Spanish Revolution was a contemporary world event for my then seventeen-year-old grandmother: many of us have known people that were alive during these times.
But this is not the only glimpse of a concretely-existing, free society. Indeed, major revolutions have happened throughout history, from the Russian revolution in 1917, to the Paris Commune of 1871, to the earlier French, American, and British revolutions. All of these events had tremendous potential, and the participants witnessed, for a time, a state of liberation.
In only two generations, this history has largely been forgotten by the left. The advancement of capitalism has had an effect on the radical movement, colonizing and commodifying our spirit of revolt and desire for a free, peaceful, equitable, and ecological society. As Noam Chomsky and others have pointed out, class consciousness (perhaps at its peak in the United States in the 1930s, while Barcelona fought for its liberation) has been slowly eroded, instilling a sense of the inevitability and immutability of the capitalist system.
Following the end of the Second World War, the most industrialized nations entered a period of post-industrialization that saw a shift from a production- to a consumption-based capitalism. In the United States, the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs correlates to the meteoric rise of the retail and service sectors [and now the “gig” economy -Karlo]. The community has replaced the factory as the primary point of connection between the individual and capitalism. Likewise, capitalism is no longer simply an economic system, but has become a societal form destroying our communities and altering the very ways in which we perceive and interact with one another.
Instead of improving upon the natural diversity and cultural richness of our existing communities, the intrusion of capitalism has had a destructive, simplifying effect on communal life. The displacement of small, local family enterprise by large corporations, coupled with the privatization of public spaces and resources have reduced community members to little more than consumers. When leaving our homes, little is left for us to go or do without spending money. In short, innate, immaterial needs once met by socialization and community are forced to be fulfilled materially with commodities, through the capitalist market that now largely constitutes our neighborhoods.
This simplification and destruction of our communities into a medium for commodity exchange parallels the simplification and destruction of the natural world–both resulting from a system based on infinite growth, cutthroat competition, profit, and the reduction of all life to finite, material (monetary/exchange) value.
Perhaps it is unsurprising that the very serious nature of the problems with which we are confronted has led to such widespread cynicism, nihilism, apathy, and despair. However, precisely because of the seriousness of our situation, we must seek effective means for consciousness raising and transformation–on the social as well as the personal level. In short, what is needed is agency over apathy, optimism over despair, and vision over nihilism.
While keeping in mind our unique problems at present, placing our struggle into greater historical context helps us to realize that the system of capitalism is not inherent, but a recent development not to be taken for granted. So too can we overcome the prevailing cynicism by realizing that capitalism–a prime source of ecological and humanitarian crisis–is manifested and perpetuated not because of some innately negative “human nature,” but by the disproportionate power for manipulation of the many by a few. Lastly, it is important not to lose perspective: those finding themselves within so-called “western civilization,” particularly the United States, should keep in mind that the extent of the commodification of our everyday lives is worst here, where capitalism is oldest (though historically still new) and was emerging in Europe with the discovery of the New World.
Social Ecology Sonora.
Social Ecology Sonora works to fulfill a social ecological vision for our Sonoran Desert bioregion, wherein egalitarian, communal human relationships give rise to decentralized, humanly-scaled metropolitan areas free of hierarchy and domination and in ecological balance with the bioregion in which it exists.
Social ecology, an interdisciplinary body of radical ecological thought, realizes that our current ecological crisis is rooted in social (read: mutable!) problems and institutions: that the domination of nature stems from the domination of human over human. First popularized in the 1960s by Murray Bookchin, social ecology inseparably links the liberated, non-hierarchical, “post-scarcity” human society to the substantive solution of the ecological crisis. If we are truly to re-harmonize humankind with the natural world, we must eliminate domination from within our society.
This blog is meant to inform the reader about the ideas of social ecology, discuss social ecological issues related to the Sonoran Desert bioregion, articulate the vision and purpose of
Social Ecology Sonora, as well as communicate the practical action we are undertaking to fulfill that vision.
Yes, change obviously exists, and is inevitable. Even now, we can see clearly where capitalism and the state are leading us. If left to its own, this change will be for the worse, both in terms of human suffering and ecological destruction. Through radical, militant, organized opposition, through mutual aid and solidarity, through rebuilding our communities and rediscovering “neighborliness,” we can tilt this change not simply toward the better, but toward the greatest, maximally utopian, liberated, and ecological society humankind can create. Most importantly, we must not lose perspective in this era of advanced capitalism and sweeping nation-states. As the information society enlarges the world of the individual, it is easy to see these global institutions as unchangeable. To the serf, feudal society undoubtedly seemed just as immutable and all encompassing. But the fact remains that monarchies and empires have fallen. As the inheritors of a class society headed toward ecological (and humanitarian) destruction, it is time to seriously ask ourselves, “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”
Post-Scarcity Anarchism and other works by Murray Bookchin
Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
Conquest of Bread by Peter Kropotkin