Hoping for the Worst

July 10th, 2013

Interview with Sasha Lilley, published on New Left Project, by Samuel Grove, July 4, 2013.

Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth is a collection of essays published by PM Press that explores the politics of apocalyptic thinking across the political spectrum. In her essay, ‘Left Catastrophism’, Sasha Lilley focuses on the left’s peculiar attachment to disasters. Recently she spoke to Samuel Grove about why a politics of impending doom should be avoided.  

What is left catastrophism?

  • Left catastrophism, which runs through much of the radical left, is an outlook rooted in political despair. It takes two forms, although they can elide. One is based on the notion that capitalism will mechanically abut internal or external limits—for example, owing to a “terminal” economic crisis or peak oil—and come crashing down without concerted struggle. The other is rooted in the idea that the worse things get, the better they will be for radical prospects. Hence, periods of economic crisis or state repression are welcomed for finally providing the conditions in which ordinary people will lose their illusions about the system and move leftward. Many on the left oscillate between these two versions of catastrophism. Both presume that out of the ashes a new world will be born—the world that we radicals have not been able to create by ourselves. While it often serves as unexamined conventional wisdom, a “common sense” of sorts, catastrophism is counterproductive for anticapitalists.

So there are two dimensions to left catastrophism. The first concerns the objective conditions for revolution, the second, the conditions for a revolutionary subjectivity. Let’s begin with the first. You are not questioning that capitalism produces catastrophes are you? Rather, as you say, that these catastrophes are in themselves sufficient to break the system. What is a better way of interpreting the relationship of capitalism and catastrophe—particularly in the absence of concerted struggle?

  • A good place to start is by distinguishing between catastrophes and catastrophism. Capitalism, by its very nature, is catastrophic. Yet while it is crisis-prone, it also needs crises. That is, crises help the system renew itself. Just look at how the capitalist class has used the current economic crisis to ratchet up productivity to achieve soaring profits, exploiting workers’ fears that they may lose their jobs. So to imagine that an economic crisis will, by itself, bring on the collapse of capitalism is misguided. Similarly, the burning of accessible petroleum reserves—which is certainly catastrophic for humanity, fuelling global warming—does not create an insurmountable limit against which capitalism cannot survive, as some peak oilers suggest. Rather, the depletion of current reserves has driven the search for new sources of petroleum, opening up new avenues of accumulation and profitability. To the point that the United States is predicted to surpass Saudi Arabia in five to eight years as the world’s leading petroleum producer.

The point about Marxist theory, and in particular Marx’s critique of liberal economics, was to show that what was assumed to obey determined natural law was really the result of human action? Nevertheless you take a lot of Marxist theory to task for succumbing to catastrophism.

  • That’s true. As ever, one needs to distinguish between Marx and many of his 20th century inheritors, who turned his arguments into mechanistic dogma. Various political tendencies under the Marxist banner held that iron laws of history would bring an end to capitalism, and that victory was preordained. Although Marx indulged in rhetorical flourishes himself, he was clear that human beings make history through struggle. Over time his views evolved about crises as a trigger for social upheaval. Marx and Engels greeted the 1857-58 economic crisis with the assumption that it would automatically set off a revolutionary wave. That didn’t happen and they subsequently abandoned such expectations. Furthermore, while Marx viewed crises as a central feature of capitalism, he did not equate crises with the system’s collapse.
  • If Marx came to realize that capitalism would not collapse because of crises, many of his successors did not.  Hence, in the early 20th century, European radicals became embroiled in debates over the coming inevitable breakdown of capitalism.  Collapse was constantly seen on the horizon, with deleterious political consequences: complacency on the one hand and adventurism on the other. An example of the latter was furnished by militants in Estonia, where an insurrection was launched without mass support because of the presumption that capitalism was in its death throes: “At 5.15am on December 1, 1924, two hundred and twenty seven Communists started a revolution,” wrote C.L.R. James, “and by 9 o’clock were completely defeated, doing untold harm…”

Is this still something that afflicts the left?

  • The idea that capitalism will collapse under its own weight has much less traction today, in our markedly anti-utopian times, but it does appear in various forms. I’ve mentioned peak oil: the group Deep Green Resistance argue that come 2015 industrial capitalism will start to unravel as a result of diminished oil reserves and will be ripe for take down by a small group of committed militants. We also saw, at the start of the financial crisis, some glee on the radical left that capitalism was unravelling and that our time had finally come. Clearly, that didn’t turn out so well and such euphoria has mainly receded. But it has a hold on the imagination of leftists of various stripes, from anarchist to Marxist, such as Immanuel Wallerstein who draws on the notion of Kondratiev waves to argue that capitalism has been stagnating since the early 1970s and in twenty to thirty years will no longer be with us, replaced by either something better or worse.
  • I should emphasize that I think it’s entirely reasonable for radicals to desire the end of capitalism. In historical terms, it is quite a new system and there is nothing eternal about it. But I believe it is mistaken to imagine that this end will come mechanically, without widespread struggle.
  • The other form of catastrophism—the notion that increasing economic immiseration or state repression move people to the left—is more common amongst radicals today. In the last decade, insurrectionist ideas have become more popular, boosted in one form by the bestselling book The Coming Insurrection. Insurrectionism celebrates increased conflict and concomitant repression as providing a catalyst for revolt. A less exciting version of this notion has had widespread appeal on the left with the assumption that austerity would provoke renewed radical movements. It’s premised on a very simplistic idea of politicization—that people are deluded about the system they live under and need a shock in order to see things as they really are. But this notion, which is quite patronizing, misunderstands the complexities of what moves people to action. It’s ripe for vanguardism.
  • Historically, perhaps the most appalling example of the worse, the better can be found with the leaders of the German Communist Party in the 1930s who believed that if the Nazis came to power, they would pave the path to revolution.  The party informally adopted the slogan, “After Hitler—our turn”, and encouraged its members to vote for the Nazis in the Prussian state elections. It need hardly be said that it ended quite badly for them.

Nevertheless Marx held to the idea that there were certain contradictions in capitalism which are ultimately unsustainable.  For example the planet cannot support compound economic growth forever … //

… As you say though, if ‘catastrophism’ is no solution to hopelessness and compromise on the left, then simply abandoning ‘catastrophism’ isn’t a solution either. It strikes me from what you are saying that just as ideas matter—so does history. There is something quite ahistorical about catastrophism, not just in the sense that it pays no attention to overcome crises, but also in proposing a radical break from all that has gone on before, catastrophism has a kind of wilful blindness to previous struggles on the left; struggles that have brought with them real victories.

It’s generally true that catastrophists undervalue past battles, although not always. There are some, especially of the determinist variety, who would situate themselves at the pinnacle of prior historical struggles. But for the most part, previous struggles—and what made some successful and others not—are less than relevant. Catastrophism is, amongst other things, about shortcuts and the messy business of fighting and losing some times and winning others can be shunted to the side.

You seem to be pointing to an idea that has appealed to sectors of the left over time, of broad social transformation or revolution as a great cleansing, a moment where we start the calendar anew. In terms of radical breaks with the past, I’m sympathetic to the impulse. But there is no such thing as building from scratch, of creating a new society that’s not made out of some of the elements of the old. In earlier debates one side has argued that revolutionary change is not about annihilating the past—a negative sense of revolution—but instead building on the positive elements of the world that exist already in the struggles that we are waging. The other, negative, sense of social change is not confined to catastrophism, but one can see it in the catastrophist notion of a cleansing rupture. 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.
(full long interview text).

(Samuel Grove is an independent researcher and journalist).


Video: Child Explains Egyptian Revolution In Less Than 3 Minutes, 2.50 min, spoken in arab, subtitled in english, on ZNet, by Ali Ahmed, July 08, 2013, (also on YouTube);

NSA controls global Internet traffic via private fiber-optic cables, on Russia Today RT, July 8, 2013.

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