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Left Catastrophism and Its Detractors

The Coming Economic Collapse That Never Was
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The perfect subject for my return to this blog has presented itself in the form of an interview with Sasha Lilley, following up on the 2012 book Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth, which Lilley contributed to.

It has been a long time since I’ve nodded my head throughout an article while fundamentally disagreeing with a key part of its basic thesis. But that was my response to “Hoping for the Worst“, an interview with Lilley by Samuel Grove about just why so many people who want to make a better world seem to yearn for economic catastrophe and collapse, as if it will necessarily hasten the change they seek. With wisdom and clarity, Lilley thrashes what is indeed a commonplace view, which she calls Left catastrophism, used by many progressives and radicals as an excuse to wait for change to arrive, rather than making it themselves.

I found myself agreeing strongly with Lilley while also, uncomfortably, recognizing some of my own beliefs among those she is roundly criticizing. But Lilley’s representation of the archetypal collapse-anticipating radical doesn’t fit me or many others I know. I absolutely, unequivocally do not hope that global catastrophe arrives in order to usher in a new post-capitalist era.

In the first place, like Lilley, I don’t think such a meta-crisis would necessarily yield an egalitarian future. In fact, we suspect quite the opposite would emerge. In times of crisis, Lilley notes, humans do tend to turn toward regressive rather than progressive solutions:

Fear … tends to tilt right, not left. When people are fearful, they’re more likely to accept authoritarian solutions and the scapegoating of immigrants and others.

Ever skeptical of utopic pretenses, I simply do not believe that from the chaos of mass social upheaval will naturally emerge a peaceful, orderly anarchy. Such a thing must be strategized and painstakingly organized through struggle, and then failed at many times before success is at hand.

Even short of reactionary responses to crises, great upheavals are more likely to necessitate centrally coordinated solutions. In the wake of a real collapse scenario — the likes of which pretty much nobody involved in this debate can remotely fathom — the more reasonable among lifelong anarchists may just earnestly support authoritarian solutions. You might think you’ll simply twinkle and consense your way to socialism if the government and its systems suddenly vanished, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Lilley describes the probable result of “disaster fatigue” and the patronizing nature of the notion that more bad outcomes from capitalism will raise consciousness. She notes:

[People] don’t need convincing that something is wrong, or that the system we live under doesn’t work for them.

Unfortunately, Lilley seems to hold out hope in the potential for revolutionary change without war or any other calamity, if only for the sake of having hope. She is cynical about cynicism:

Political despair and a crisis of organization lend themselves to the hope that an external jolt will replace the arduous work of reaching out to and organizing others. … Catastrophism is, amongst other things, about shortcuts and the messy business of fighting and losing sometimes and winning others can be shunted to the side.

Lilley even sympathizes with some catastrophists — those who are desperate for a better world but fear that jolt will be required:

Add to this the very real urgency that many people feel about the need to stop the ravages of capitalism—global warming being the most obvious—and catastrophism is eminently understandable.

I think perhaps this is what discerns a reasonable belief that socioeconomic collapse is highly probable, from catastrophism — the hope that it will happen soon, ushering an era of great positive changes.

Lilley seems to hold as near certainty that capitalism will adapt to oncoming crises, rather than undo itself through internal contradictions or ever allow itself to be undone by outside forces such as climate change or resource depletion.

Denial is the first stage of... No it isn't!

But I see a bit of paradox in Lilley’s assertions:

  1. Capital will not permit itself to wither or collapse from external causes…
  2. …yet, workers could organize to defeat capital…
  3. …and if capitalism were to crumble due to outside factors, the same workers (who are powerful enough to overthrow it now) would then be unable to establish a superior alternative order.

I’m definitely convinced of Point 3, excepting the parenthetical flourish added to emphasize the contradiction, but the other two are not so obvious to me.

This is subjective stuff, to be sure, but my twenty years of closely observing the US Left in action have left me with essentially no confidence that it can or will evolve into a force that could organize a revolution against capitalism.

While I’m perhaps less impressed by the Left and its potential, I also see more weaknesses in late capitalism than Lilley seems to discern. I’m surrounded by optimists who believe capitalism will innovate its way out of climate change and find ways around the very real matter of finite resources. I am far less convinced that the End Game is not close at hand.

Despite my skepticism, pessimism, and cynicism, I believe in working toward practical solutions. I advocate dual power strategy — radical organizing that also happens to be relatively collapse-resistant. It’s an actual plan for dealing with economic catastrophe or smaller-scale chronic crises without necessitating, investing in, or hoping for such events.

I also agree with Lilley that there will be no radical social change without struggle. Collapse, catastrophe, or blue skies, any transformation will be made by people, through organization.

But I find hope for hope’s sake overrated. I spent years mimicking Noam Chomsky’s adaptation of Pascal’s Wager: we don’t know we can bring about real, lasting social change, but we know if we do not try, we are certain to fail.

Okay, well, what does the evidence suggest? After years of believing — insisting even — that a pro-active revolution leading to a dramatically altered world was possible and attainable, I have reached the sad realization that the people of this current world are not going to make that happen, possible or not. Despite my intense desire to conclude otherwise, I see no real evidence that authentic revolution is in the cards.

Lilley’s final statement in the interview is, to me, most revealing of the weakness of all sides of this argument, including my own:

Not surprisingly, catastrophism tends to stress our collective weakness, rather than our collective power.  And that I think is to be avoided, no matter how grim things sometimes appear, because it’s actually inaccurate.

Note the last clause, tagged on to convey truism, but to me it highlights an inadequacy. Don’t stress our collective weakness … because it’s inaccurate; we’re not weak. I rather think the only reason for radicals not to stress the demonstrably profound weakness of the presently mobilized populace is to pretend it is not in fact weak, perhaps fooling people into believing they can accomplish more. Hell, I wouldn’t scorn a rallying strategy that involved a “little white lie”, provided it actually worked.

Current Left strategies (and maybe the whole concept of a “Left”) are failing miserably, while capitalism is very likely entering a new phase of vulnerabilities and limitations.

I don’t think Lilley is suggesting we double down on the status quo Left approaches to change. And that’s good. But continuing to build on strategies that do not include contingencies for collapse is as ill-advised as living without health insurance or not backing up your computer files. (Collapse is not as certain as climate change, so I won’t compare ignoring it to purchasing beach front property.)

But I’m afraid collapse is far more likely than an authentic social revolution emerging while capitalism is, as Emperor Palpatine described his second Death Star, “quite operational”. Since capitalism doesn’t have an exhaust vent leading to a critical vulnerability we can torpedo, we may have to resort to sabotaging its defenses, building strong alternatives, and vigilantly preparing for better opportunities. Besides, the sweetest irony of all would be if, in the end, zombie capitalism lost out not to a lofty idea, but to a superior, competing system already in practice. (No, I’m not actually arguing that irony is a justification for delay. Sheesh!)

I think Sasha Lilley and I broadly agree on so much here, differing mainly in our hopes that the Left can pull off a revolution. We probably also both believe she’s a better writer than I am, so I urge you to read her previous short treatment on this subject, “Apocalypse Now?

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