Thinking the Unthinkable 12/04
The election of 2004 will be picked over like carrion for years to come; yet its skeletal outlines are well in place and there to be reflected upon by anyone with eyes to see. The election represents, in effect, the interaction of a number of tendencies that have long been observed and decried by observers on the left, in particular:
A steady, ongoing corruption of the political process, manifest in the internal moral decay of the Democratic Party, now subject to rampant pusillanimity and subservience to an increasingly corrupt, confident Republican Party linked to the Christian Right; the corruption of the latter now extends to frank criminality as evinced, for example, in widespread voting fraud;
A parallel corruption of the press, fawningly subservient to state power and shockingly derelict in presenting elementary facts, much less, their interpretation, to a bemused and confused public. Swept up in the logic of entertainment and trivialization, the press may have reached a nadir in its failure to provide even minimally adequate coverage of the abovementioned voting fraud.
There are innumerable important details to be considered, which I will set aside for lack of space. I want to attend, rather, first, to some of the broad implications of these changes; and second, to the matter of their cause, as a way of setting the stage for exploring the essential condition of what is to be done.
By ignoring the voting fraud in Ohio and elsewhere, the official media let it be known that the collapse of electoral democracy is not newsworthy. This of course makes them as complicitous in its destruction as a Democratic Party that would not fight for a fair outcome. In any case, toleration of the blatant criminality evinced in the last two Presidential elections means that we have effectively lost the self-corrective mechanism that has acted like a gyroscope for some two centuries to keep the system of American representative democracy on keel. Nobody with any sense will delude him- or herself that bourgeois democracy represents the finest achievement of civilization. But it has defined a kind of stable reference against which the parameters of political choice have been able to take shape The prospect of voting the rascals out of office has been a kind of foundation on which politics has been constructed. To lose this possibility means becoming ever more open to an accelerating radical right trajectory inasmuch as the popular forces which can be set against the right lose effective means of representation. In this way, the fascist endgame that many have feared can loom without any particular coup or dramatic event.
This is not the place to haggle over the meaning of fascism and whether it applies to contemporary America. Fascism, like any historical formation, does not appear and reappear as an identifiable species whose inner genetic mechanism provides a readily recognizable phenotype, as though it were a kind of warbler being looked out for by birdwatchers. We do not need a man with a toothbrush mustache, or a balcony, or a military coup, for fascism to arise, nor are we its external observers. Fascism is the reconfiguration of bourgeois rule along authoritarian and corporatist lines once its democratic scaffold has disintegrated. In the doing, it will engage such legitimating alliances (notably in the present instance, Christian fundamentalism, with its various crusades against women and minorities) along with such secondary measures, eg, forms of racism, mythopoesis, etc, as are necessary to weave together its social fabric. We are caught up in this, and, inhabiting its inside, cannot be expected to fully see it for what it is.
I am not claiming that all corrective measures have been exhausted or that the game, so to speak, is over. Quite to the contrary, numerous means of affecting events still remain open; indeed, the purpose of this discussion is to lay bare certain principles by which they may be realized. But though we are still some way from a totalitarian closure, the unprecedented degree of criminality endemic to recent elections and the equally unprecedented degree of cynicism and fatalism with which this has been greeted tells us that we are undergoing an accelerating radical/authoritarian right takeover headed in a fascist direction, and that the prime challenge for contemporary politics is to come to grips with this.
The spectre of capital
Viewing the degeneration of the mainstream parties and the mainstream press, one is impressed by certain common systematic features. To go directly to the point, both are manifestations of the dynamics of capital breaking through all boundaries in the relentless drive toward accumulation—that “Moses and the Prophets,” which Marx recognized as the watchword of the epoch. If capital, crudely put, is “money in motion,” its essence can be seen in the inexorable changover of politics from an activity guided by the principle of “one person, one vote,” to that of “one dollar, one vote”; and, correspondingly, of the takeover of the media by giant corporate interests. The foundation of this development is the increasing division of wealth in the United States. But this division itself is grounded in crisis. Indeed, the present conjuncture was set into motion by the accumulation crises of the early 1970s, and may be viewed as the unfolding of the steps taken to remediate them. As Mickelthwait and Wooldridge describe in their study of the rise of the right in America:
More generally [contrasted to the rise of right-wing foundations in the 1970s], virtually everybody with a corner office in corporate America in the 1970s was moaning about the same things: the economy was in the doldrums, America was losing its competitive edge abroad, they were being regulated “up to their necks,” “the other side” was winning. In 1972, the heads of the 500 biggest companies established the Business Roundtable to lobby for their interests on trade-union rights, antitrust, deregulation and taxes.
There was no “right” waiting in its lair to spring loose. Rather did neoliberalism develop as class struggle from above. One result of this was to jettison the arrangement that had guided capitalist policy and configured politics since the 1920s, the “Fordist’ entente between capital and labor.This was replaced with heightened exploitation of labor, heightened aggressiveness of capital domestically as well as internationally, and with the right wing politics to match, all of which surfaced and took shape with Reagan.
It is important to grasp this as a dialectical process, set into motion by various conjunctures, and setting into motion other conjunctures in turn. Those who undertook to radically critique the media in the 80s did so in alarm over its rightward shift and the structural changes responsible for this, chiefly, the massive consolidation of the great media conglomerates and the associated loss of alternative voices. These were the result of the emerging neoliberal consensus, but they also pointed toward worse. One said back then that if these tendencies were allowed to proceed unchecked, we were going to get a really bad press in the future, one that will further suppress alternative voices while carrying the water of capital—a press, in other words, quite capable of cynically standing by as the electoral gyroscope that had stabilized bourgeois democracy for over 200 years is wrecked and thrown on the scrap-heap. Such a press would not only reflect the rightward shift, but open new ground for it, by normalizing what would have been viewed as unthinkable in an earlier day. To repeat an often stated observation, under prevailing conditions, the Center shifts rightward, in a process that is disturbingly self-reinforcing.
The question of what is thinkable or not is a vexing reminder of old, essentially unresolved, debates about “base” and “superstructure.” As capital lurched into post-Fordism like a great beast of accumulation, as Reagan took power as its avatar and as Clinton opportunistically signed aboard as the “responsible” Democrat of the moment, the next thing we knew, intellectuals in the academy, media and the state suddenly began spouting, as though by force of magic, self-evident “truths” that would have been considered despicable in old-fashioned Fordist times. Ideas like the supreme value of productivity and efficiency for the working classes; or the imperative for government to abandon its pretense to taking care of those afflicted by life, began to be seen as moderate and reasonable. At the same time other remnants of the recent past became unthinkable, for example, that there could be something like a guaranteed annual income for all, or as the UN dared think in 1948, a universal human right which assured among other things, health care, housing, even the right to meaningful work.
The Contours of Opportunism
It is relatively easy to see the forces pressing in this direction being those of capital itself. But dialectics postulates the trajectory of history as the result of an interplay between opposed moments. Thus, the Right’s strength and the Left’s weakness are not simple opposites, but a movement in which the strength of one derives from the weakness of the other. This leads us to examine more closely the abyss that is the Democratic Party.
Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council did not invent opportunism, but inherited it and profited from it in an ethos defined by Post-Fordism and the decline of the democratic media. Opportunism has been a regular feature of class society in which power is deployed between a central authority and courtiers who vie for influence. However, power changes its face as times evolve, becoming under capitalism factored between state and “market,” where the latter term gets its inverted commas to indicate that what is entailed are not traditional markets where producers and consumers meet in open exchange, but a globalized domain under the aegis of accumulation. The salient feature of capital from this respect--and it is one that with time steadily grows in importance to dominate all others--is the relentless drive to extend the domain of commodity formation to embrace all reality, nature and humanity alike.
What makes an opportunist is the selling out of one’s authentic values to accommodate the reigning power structure. One thereby advances that aspect of the self rewarded by centralized power. Just what configures “authentic values” is of course not transparent, and an adequate discussion is not possible here. Let me simply say that an authentic value would be one which contains within itself the universal—ie, the “Wholeness” of the universe and the fulfilment of human being that comes from its appropriation, as against the aggrandizement of the self (or Ego). In an earlier epoch this value structure could be encapsulated in religious terms, and reached its first great syntheses in the teachings of Buddha and Christ. Under the regime of capital, it would have to develop further in order to counter the depredations of commodity-invasion, else it could not claim to represent the universal.
The first great epoch of socialism addressed the commodification of human beings into labor power. By resisting this through the building of working class institutions countermeasures were taken against the corruption of humanity by capitalist exploitation. But at the same time, the nascent movements of the Second International fell victim to another kind of domination, the corporatist insertion of bureaucratic unions and parties as the mediation of the working class.
The rupture that has led to the abyss of the Democratic Party became formalized in the now-obscure work of Eduard Bernstein in the now-forgotten time of 1895. What Bernstein wrote then in Evolutionary Socialism (with the imprimatur of Frederick Engels in his last years) deserves study as an object lesson in the degeneration of a great spiritual ideal. To the extent that Bernstein is remembered at all, it is as the proponent of the idea that the working class can vote itself into power and achieve the ends of the revolution without any particular upheaval. This is indeed what he proposed; but its deeper aspect was revealed in his discussion of another remark, that “the movement means everything for me and what is usually called ‘the final aim of socialism’ is nothing.” In defending this statement Bernstein went on to say that:
I have at no time had an excessive interest in the future, beyond general principles. My thoughts and my efforts are concerned with the duties of the present and the near future, and I only busy myself with the perspectives beyond so far as they give me a line of conduct for suitable action now.
This was the sort of statement that led Rosa Luxemburg to write scathingly of Bernstein as an opportunist, in one of the first instances known to me of the usage of that word. And indeed, Bernstein’s logic can scarcely be surpassed as an example of contemporary opportunism. It became the hallmark of Social Democracy and all its cousins, like the Democrats in the United States. As Luxemburg correctly saw, once notions like those advanced by Bernstein are put into practice, socialism is finished, since it is nothing without its “final aim,” which depends upon the envisioning of a future that is not a mere extension of the present but its radical negation, not just a rearrangement of ownership and a reshuffling of social roles, but a new beginning of society, a “negation of the negation,” to use a term of Hegel’s that Marx appropriated on a number of occasions and that deeply guides his thought.
If socialism, as a practical ideal, is finished, then capital’s reign is rendered practically eternal. The Social Democrat cum Democrat cum liberal cum “progressive” is trapped in an eternal present which, denying the future, denies history and impoverishes human existence. Failure of the imagination—a defect built into contemporary liberalism at its foundation-- is the real ground of the unthinkability that allows the work of the propaganda machine to go forward.
The liberal social democrat believes in nothing, then, despite the fine phrases about “the people.” Nothing, ultimately, is left to him but self-advancement; this further betrayal of the ideal further corrupts his moral sense, and renders the liberal the willing instrument of the violence behind capital’s smooth and abstract façade. Thus Noske and Ebert, Social Democratic tools of the Junkers in Berlin, carried out the orders to summarily execute Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht; thus Clinton gloried in the execution of the brain-damaged Ricky Ray Lector in 1992, and carried out the wars in the Balkans; thus Kerry signed on to the invasion of Iraq. And all in vain: the faithlessness of the liberal compromiser will also be rejected by many voters (irrespective of electoral fraud) who put faith in an unspeakable yet single-minded and hence reassuring politician like Bush.
A parallel loss of faith afflicted many followers of the Leninist alternative to social democracy who, witnessing the degeneration of their own ideal, also abandoned hope that capital could be overcome, and retreated in one direction or another. This collapse has, since 1989 (indeed, for a long time before), been another condition of the seemingly unstoppable surge of the right.
If that is now to be checked, the lesson is clear: socialism has to be, so to speak, un-finished; this is less difficult than it seems once one realizes that it never really got started. The necessity for this is given in the global ruin wrought by ever-expanding, metastasizing capital, sufficient to begin arousing new and global forms of resistance, which now assumes ecological as well as socio-economic form. The faculty for this remains, as ever, the human imagination, born anew with each child. And its requirement is the refusal of death-dealing capital, a negation that clears space for new affirmation. It is time to begin thinking again, and acting accordingly.
This meant, among other things, not reporting the finding by a Professor of Statistics that the probability that the large mass of “irregularities” which favored Bush took place by chance is 1: 150,000,000.
John Mickelthwait and Adrian Wooldridge, The Right Nation (NY: The Penguin Press, 2004), 79.
The most influential of these studies was Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent (NY: Pantheon, 1988). Ben Bagdikian, The Media Monopoly (Boston: Beacon Press, 1983), more or less launched the genre, in response to the beginnings of massive media consolidation.
As President Eisenhower wrote his brother Edgar on May 2, 1956: "Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again.... There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H.L. Hunt...a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or businessman from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid."
For a recent survey, see James Ridgeway, It’s All for Sale (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2004).
Quoted in David McClellan, ed., Marxism: Essential Writings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 79.
Since the United States has never had enough of a worker’s movement to field a true Labor Party, the roots of the Democrats lie in populist soil as well as a wide and ethnically divided working class constituency. During the New Deal, capital’s near collapse led the Roosevelt adminstration to forge this into a simulacrum of social democracy, which, notwithstanding the criticisms launched here, represented the high water mark of antagonism to capital within the history of the United States; and indeed, some of its branches, such as the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party, were quasi socialist. Post war anticommunism crushed these tendencies and set the electorally grounded left on its present course. See Joel Kovel, Red Hunting in the Promised Land (NY: Basic Books, 1994).
For discussion, see Raya Dunayevskaya, The Power of Negativity, Edited and Introduced by Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2002
For whom “progress” is given the incremental quality that denies any radical negation of the given. Obviously, within the rubric of the progressive there are many of an existentially radical persuasion. It is the “liberal” as compromiser-in-depth, who cannot envision fundamental alternatives, that we address.
See Joel Kovel, The Enemy of Nature (London: Zed, 2002).
The city of Mumbai, scene of the fourth World Social Forum, occupies a sharply narrowing peninsula jutting into the Arabian Sea. The once Bombay "beautiful harbor," according to the Portugese in the 17th century-became the Queen of the Orient, and Britain's City of Gold after the Suez Canal made it the primary point of entry into India from the West. Since then, Bombay has never stopped growing, and in its incarnation as Mumbai (the name of a local goddess chosen in a surge of national pride by the people of Maharashtra state, of which it is the capital) is scheduled to become the world's largest metropolis by 2020. Since globalization broke through India's barriers in 1991, the peninsula has become a sort of antenna through which capital, whether as finance, trade or culture, enters the immense country. Torn from the soil and sucked in by that force field, labor follows, which also makes the peninsula a kind of narrow-necked funnel into the Promised Land of fame and fortune. A tiny fraction emerges to glitter in the sun; while for the rest, ghastly crowding and squalor is the rule
What a mess! If Another World is Possible, as the WSF insists, then another Mumbai must be possible, too. But at first impression this appears the wildest dream imaginable. The peninsula, feathery on the map, assaults the visitor on the ground with an appalling facticity. Already variously estimated between twelve and sixteen million, Mumbai blasts the senses in every way. "Overwhelming" was the word most resorted to by non-Indians at the Forum to describe their reaction to Mumbai: overwhelming in sulfurous, cacaphonous traffic, overwhelming in sheer numbers of people everywhere, overwhelming in the fetid ambience of pollution, and most of all, overwhelming in the spectacle of its poverty.
There are undoubtedly other places in the South where poverty is as absolutely dire as that of Mumbai, but I can imagine none where the poor live so much on the road. There are four lane highways in Mumbai where the outer two have become occupied by squatters who erect multistorey shacks out of urban flotsam and jetsam. Elsewhere, for what seems mile after mile, people simply camp out in the street (Mike Davis has estimated that the poor of Mumbai have to cope with one toilet seat for 2000 people), with cooking fires and children sleeping inches from passing vehicles. A phenomenal amount of petty commerce takes place in the road, as young men attempt to squeeze ever-diminishing amounts of value from the oceans of over-produced commodities that define the economic geography of our time, like the chap who set up a card table in the D.N. Road near our hotel with some thirty used books, there to make his fortune. Needless to say, in the aggregate the street commerce significantly worsens traffic and pollution. As a side effect, crossing the street becomes a death-defying sport. I was told that sixty people were killed last year by the red buses that efficiently, cheaply and brutally carry the population to unmarked destinations, but the wonder is that sixty times that number are not run down every day.
Worst of all, at any rate for those of uneasy conscience like myself, is the Mumbai begging industry (for which, see Rohatyn Mistry's great A Fine Balance). Chiefly carried out by women and the very young, this has become a perennially demoralizing experience for the sojourner from the First World. One squirms inwardly to begin with at the tremendous disparities in wealth between the Indian masses and the North; and the mendicants see to it that the torment is externalized. The tiny hands touching one's shoes or plucking at one's sleeve, the exquisite child-mothers with their babies exposed to the choking air that come up to your taxi at traffic lights or jams, or follow you as you walk, as one did for a full mile as we strolled on the harbor road, repeating in that gentle, maddening voice, "Sah, sah," and rubbing the stomach. There is a sepulchral woman I could swear I saw in a hundred different places, cloaked or rather shrouded in grey, face grey, too, and fine-featured with sunken-cheeks and zombie eyes. If you give to one, it seems that dozens materialize and surround you with their imprecations. Thus do numberless human stories and struggles become reduced to a single awful reminder of the injustice that rules the world, turns some of the poorest people on earth into antagonists, and hurls into one's face the gravity of the work before us.
Is another Mumbai possible?
Well, yes, since Mumbai is by no means simply a mess. It is, after all, a very great city, as great as New York, which is also a mess and its homologue across the space of uneven development. And greatness in a city resides in the dispersed heart of its people and not its banks, five-star hotels, or towers-these rendered by the Brits in a gorgeous and syncretic "Indo-Saracenic" style, which is rapidly being overtaken by marble, glass and steel temples to capital. India is currently riding a jazzed-up and unprecedented boom, as the neoliberal intrusion that began in 1991 finally takes hold, enriching some two per cent of the population while the remainder awaits predictable further ruin. The guidebooks may celebrate Mumbai's success-stories, its high-end real estate, as expensive as New York and Tokyo, its dream machine of Bollywood that surpasses the US film industry in sheer quantity and exuberance, and its bill boards, some stretching several hundred feet across the road, celebrating the latest IPO or mutual fund. But I would celebrate the heroism of the producers of Mumbai. These are the real soul of the city. Through all their tribulations, they never seem defeated but muster an astounding degree of resilience, ingenuity and solidarity. As I watched the artisans chiseling furniture in mini-factories next to the road, or the cabbies collectively puttering on their antique (though Indian-made and natural gas-driven) cars, or the women conjuring up meals in the road, or the street merchants packing up their productat the end of the day, taking millions and millions of commodities off the roads and putting them god-knows-where, and waiting, hopefully, for the next day, I started to see, not the "marks of weakness, marks of woe" observed by Blake as he walked through a London that was the late-18th century version of Mumbai, but another level of the Blakean vision: a kind of sleeping giant, its limbs scattered, waiting to be drawn together and awakened.
The World Social Forum, which asserts a claim to be that awakener, first assembled in 2001 as a counterpoise to the World Economic Forum, the yearly gathering of the Big Eight countries and their Satraps and Viziers for the purpose of enhancing accumulation on a planetary scale. But global capital engenders global resistance, and while the big capitalists schmoozed in the extreme, secure luxury of Davos, Switzerland, a diverse opposition came together in in Porto Alegre, Brazil, 15,000 the first year, 30,000 in 2002, and 75,000 in 2003, preparing the way for the continent-hop to India, where estimates of this year's attendance ran from 80,000 to 125, 000. (Next year, the WSF returns to Porto Alegre.)
There's a structural ambiguity to the opposition rendered by the WSF, however. Yes it is for and, to a degree, of the people. But a certain organization of the people is necessary for any gathering so vast, complex and ambitious; and the elements of this are provided by a formation, the Non-Governmental Organization, that itself has proliferated under the conditions of the neoliberal regime, sometimes under the moniker of Civil Society. I recall hearing that there were some 2,500 NGO's at the Mumbai conference center, which seems about right, given the swarm of booths, banners and leaflets announcing one good work after another.
Beyond question there were a lot of excellent people at the WSF, from my friends at Anthra, who teach peasants how to give veterinary care to goats, to trade union groups protecting the dignity of workers afflicted with HIV, Japanese antinuclear activists, a great number of organizations promoting an end to the exploitation of child labor, or championing the rights of women, or opposing the privatization of water, or promoting the liberation of the 250,000,000 Dalits of India (a.k.a. Untouchables), no doubt the largest and longest-oppressed group in history.
But then there were groups whose names were not resonant with radical potential, like the All India Insurance Employee's Association, or the Lokavidya Knowledge Society, or the Maharashtra Shelter of Love Charitable Trust. And there were others integrated with the state, like the Kitakyushu Forum on Asian Women, established with a special fund from the Japanese government and recognized as a Foundation by the Ministry of Labor; and still other groups that are not NGO's at all, but more complex formations like various international configurations of trade unions or political parties. There was, for example, substantial presence by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the dominant political force in the states of West Bengal and Kerala. Estimable the CPI(M) may be, however, no one would confuse it for a fresh, radical initiative on the world stage, or one that has earned the right to march under the banner of Another World is Possible.
Now whatever the particulars of the internal politics of the WSF-and I know virtually nothing about the subject-the fact remains that an organization of this sort can have neither transparency nor internal democracy from below. Moreover, the influence of NGOs of every stripe and size, along with political parties, governmental agencies, and foundations (for example, the Ford Foundation, major lifeline of many NGOs, was in Mumbai keeping a keen eye on the proceedings), virtually ensures a bureaucratic modus operandi. Given these structural limits, the notion of the possible other world seems more like a lowest common denominator, an abstraction to paper over differences rather than the coherent articulation of a transforming vision. The rallying cry, like any signifier repeated often enough without concrete relation to what it signifies, becomes grating and eventually self-mocking. All right already! One wants to say: Just what other world do you have in mind? Is it the neo-Gandhian world of subsistence integrity? The bureaucratically administered, social-democratic world of fossilized Marxist-Leninist parties? The world of the foundations that stand behind the NGO's and mediates them with capital? Or "civil society," within whose hopeless vagueness the needs of capital for rationalization and legitimation can take refuge?
It was salutory then to see the rising of serious opposition to WSF within the event itself. One began to hear of the MR--"Mumbai Resistance"--and its intention to hold a parallel gathering, from the moment of arrival, and saw evidence of its presence on the surreal train rides out to the venue, in the shape of boldly painted slogans like "GLOBALIZATION CANNOT BE HUMANIZED - MR." Because of bureaucratic paralysis, the WSF itself had hardly a sign posted in the teeming city; whereas the MR, lean and mean, simply went out, bought the necessary paints and brushes, and, heedless of licenses and permission from the authorities, sent cadre off to mark up the walls.
Alas, I never got to the MR counter-conference; the flesh was simply too weak in face of Mumbai logistics. But discussions and various circulated materials revealed its core to be a network of South Asian Maoist organizations with a more consistent line on imperialism than the somewhat vacillating WSF, and a common feature repellent to most if not all of the WSF's constituents, namely, willingness to undertake armed struggle. I was struck, too, by the serious and self-effacing character of those who espoused these tendencies, which include significant ventures in Nepal, central India (generally under the rubric of Naxalites, or the Communist Party of India Marxist-Leninist), Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, as well as movements in the Philippines associated with the name of Jose Maria Sison. Given the overall tenor of the global struggle, it strikes me as timorous and self-defeating not to include such people in the debate.
Considerable attention was given to the differences between the Mumbai WSF and the previous versions in Porto Alegre. Not having attended the Brazilian version, I can say little about this distinction, which generally, speaking, goes like this: That Porto Alegre was more attuned to the panels and formal sessions, Mumbai, to the action in the street, which never ceased or even slowed no matter what was being said inside the meetings. Of course, this is at best a relative matter, and has to take into account the extreme variety of the more than 1200 panels at Mumbai, which ranged from crashing boredom in cavernous halls to intense and highly creative workshops. The distinction would hardly be worth mentioning did it not highlight what seems to me to be the most important phenomenon of the whole experience-the movement of the people.
I mean, literal movement, as the precondition for the social movement, the stirring of the giant form-a movement that never stopped so long as I was there, that pulsated up and down with cheerful cacophony, and engaged perhaps the most concentratedly diverse assemblage of human beings ever assembled. Remember, there were 130 different countries at the WSF, and one of them, the host, India, with I would estimate about three quarters of the whole, is a continent unto itself, containing numberless varieties of humanity. Put all these folks, a great many having been silenced throughout their lives, together, and give them license to make themselves heard, to march, shout, recount, costume, sing, dance, theatricize, manifest (and to drum, drum, drum), and we get a spectacle unspoken of outside the work of Mikhail Mikhailovitch Bakhtin, apostle of the carnivalesque.
Bakhtin, of course, never saw or heard of such a carnival as took place January, 2004, in Mumbai. His model was the medieval variant, as transformed by the imagination of Rabelais, which emphasized a sensual, scatological-erotic element foreign to the WSF. But the authentic pulse of Bakhtin's carnival is the movement from below and its regenerative power. This is based, writes Bakhtin,
on the conception of the world as eternally unfinished: a world dying and being born at the same time, possessing as it were two bodies. The dual image combining praise and abuse seeks to grasp the very moment of this change, the transfer from the old to the new, from death to life. Such an image crowns and uncrowns at the same moment. In the development of class society such a conception of the world can only be expressed in unofficial culture. There is no place for it in the culture of the ruling classes; here praise and abuse are clearly divided and static, for official culture is founded on the principle of an immovable and unchanging hierarchy in which the higher and lower never merge.
That immediacy, that contact, the rubbing against each other, the mixing of ways of being (like the New York rap group which drew in an Angolan musician, all surrounded by awestruck Indians)--that fermenting, unpredictable and self-generated in interaction with one another-this to me was the true heart of the Social Forum, which will endure after all the pontifications and rhetoric: it is the authentic, "unofficial" germ of the other, better world. Joel Kovel
Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and his World, translated by Helene Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984) p.166
A New CNS @ 15 3/04
Capitalism Nature Socialism enters its second fifteen years with a new publisher and a new name in the editor's box. With regard to the former, the changes are before your eyes, and we hope you are pleased with the results. As for the latter, some words of introduction are here in order, since the new name is mine.
About ten years ago, increasingly preoccupied with the realization that the ecological crisis was driven by the accumulation of capital, I sought an intellectual community wherein this notion could be developed. CNS seemed then--as it still does today--the ideal forum for the purpose. And so I contacted Jim O'Connor and found that home. The journal and its mission became precious to me, so much so that when Jim announced that he was taking a leave to complete a major writing project, I volunteered to do what I could to carry forward his vision in his absence. I have been buoyed during the transition by expressions of solidarity from the CNS community, international in scope and joined in common appreciation of the great task before us and of the legacy Jim has built.
Let me set down how I understand my charge. CNS, in the words of its mission statement, is "an international red-green journal of theory and politics." There are three qualifiers here, which form an integral whole: the journal is international; it is red-green; and it is dedicated to theory and politics, regarded as two moments of a dialectical figure. Thus:
- CNS is international because it responds to a crisis that affects the whole world, and because the crisis can only be overcome if humanity-all the nations, genders, identities, all the parts that immanently comprise the whole-comes together into a new unity-in-diversity of planetary proportion. Capitalism has always been a world-system; now the epoch of ecological crisis represents a radically new development in which for the first time in the billion years of life on earth the activity of one species dramatically affects the entirety of the globe. More, this has accelerated at a sickening pace in the last 30 years or so, in tandem with the so-called epoch of globalization. This we now understand to be not only a set of processes affecting economy and society on a planetary scale, but also the introduction of new forms of ecological destabilization across great distances-viz, the finding that polar bears have the highest concentrations of dioxin of any species. There is nothing new in the fact that human societies can foul their nest, and that this can even lead to episodic collapse, a process that occurred in Mesopotamia millennia before Saddam Hussein. What is new is the prospect of a single, globalized production system leading to the incipient breakdown of planetary ecosystems as a whole-and it follows, of the civilizations grounded in those ecosystems. Thus imperialism, globalized capital, and the ecological crisis are different facets of the same world-historical moment. It is the mission of this journal to remain cognizant of this scale of things-to not just bear witness but to be a voice for all those around the world who would reclaim history from its capitalist usurpers.
Nor do we opt for the fashionable ideology of "thinking globally and acting locally." It is, to be sure, necessary to attend to local action, not least because if there is to be a unity-in-diversity beyond the grasp of the dominant system, the diversity has to be genuinely democratic, and this can only arise from a respect for place and the fine grain of communal existence. But a world of simple localities is a nostalgic fantasy which neither has nor deserves a chance of survival. We are, after all, a species of six biilion, which has gone this far in the metabolism with nature and cannot turn back without catastrophic consequences. A new world society that rationally attends to the interactions within and between humanity and nature needs to be made. Here a true diversity will prevail--not the artificial negativity of consumerism, but the integration of individuality into a new universal, the "species-being" of a creature who creates universally.
- CNS is red-green because the present epoch manifests a dimension to imperialism and capital expansion hitherto scarce appreciated, namely, that this occurs in relation to nature as well as humanity. Or, since humans are natural creatures, we locate the problem at the interface between the human and nonhuman moments of nature, as it takes now one and now another form, combining and recombining into the numberless manifestations of the ecological crisis. The reason this afflicts us now is, succinctly, that the earth has become increasingly unable to buffer the destabilizing effects of production, which chaotically expand throughout the capitalist ecumene. Ecological destabilization takes place across a fluid boundary by no means restricted to environmental breakdowns such as species loss, global warming, and the impending scarcity of non-renewable energy sources. It occurs also in lived space-the spaces of communities and cities, of human bonds and identities, and in the subjective spaces between ourselves and nature, which is to say, in nature as we represent it and recognize it. Therefore the crisis is no less spiritual and cultural than it is political-economic. The same has to be said for capital, which is not so much an economic system in itself as the cancerous hypertrophy, imposition and insinuation of the value-term into all aspects of human existence. Capital is not inherently an economy, though it has one in spades, and unlike any other: a monstrous transformation of production into a demiurge imposing abstract domination over society and drowning it in the "icy waters of egotistical calculation." It is the totality of capitalist relations and not any singular economic law that sets into motion the cold state violences, wild addictions and nightmarish fundamentalisms which haunt our times.
"Red" and "green" represent different ways of radically contending with these developments, the former essentially in terms of political economy, the latter essentially in terms of the defense of lived space. There are historical and sociological reasons for this, in that red ecological movements are branches of the tree stemming from Marxian socialism while green movements tend to have anarchist genealogies. In our view the red and green perspectives are each necessary because they grasp a real aspect of the crisis; yet they are also individually incomplete and fail to comprehend the crisis as a whole. We see the role of CNS as providing the space for the coming together of radical ecologies so that motion toward the whole can occur. We do this in the categories we set forth, and in regard to the diversity of texts we accommodate.
We have called ourselves a "journal of socialist ecology," but we are equally a journal of "ecological socialism," or ecosocialism. Our ecology is socialist because we regard "nature" as engaging human construction, because the nature we inhabit has histories, and because said histories are the workings out of labor in various degrees of alienation and class struggle. And so we "redden the green." Our socialism is ecological"greening the red"-because in contrast to "first-epoch" socialisms we attend to the neglected use-value side of things: to qualities, needs, aesthetics and lived life as these enter into production and offset the fetishism of exchange and abstract labor. Ecological socialism does not rearrange the economy, therefore: it transforms the economy and overcomes it by seeing the cardinal goal of production as the making of integral and flourishing ecosystems rather than commodities.
- That CNS would be dedicated to theory and politics follows directly from the above reasoning, for just as green and red perspectives are both necessary yet incomplete, so are theory and practice incomplete in isolation from each other. We begin with the Eleventh Thesis, that the point is to change the world and not merely to interpret it. But we interpret this proposition to mean that one only properly understands the world from the vantage of changing it, which is to say, through active struggle. It goes withut saying that we can only change the world on the basis of interpreting it, and the better we interpret, the more worthy the change. Theory is a valid form of practice and valid practice incorporates theory, which is, literally, a vantage place from which to appropriate reality.
The vision of ecological socialism, achingly far from present realization, needs to be continually framed concretely in the light of the here and now. We do not disparage any good-willed effort to make this sad world a better place. But we insist on hewing to Marx's youthful precept of a "ruthless criticism of everything existing, ruthless in two senses: The criticism must not be afraid of its own conclusions, nor of conflict with the powers that be." We are therefore open to everything and bound by nothing except respect for the truth, high standards of scholarship, and refusal to accept the mutilation of humanity and nature. And so we also refuse the comfortable nihilism that proclaims there can be no alternative to the ecocidal regime of capital. We do not know what the [eco]socialism that sits at the end of the chain of signifiers making up this journal's title will look like on the ground, nor, it follows, how to draw exactly the path from here to there. But there are neither logical, historical nor moral grounds to countenance the vulgar propaganda that capital is as far as humanity can go, and we mean to give voice to the positing of alternatives.
Jim O'Connor made CNS open not just to a wide range of viewpoints within the rubric of socialist ecology, but to a wide range of genres as well. The present issue, (which was mainly assembled by Jim, Barbara Laurence and myself, reflects this catholicity, with Philosophizing,studies close to the ground of struggle, examination of various episodes in the "history of nature," critiques of various movements that have arisen to counter the incursions of the dominant system, historical reflections on struggles gone by, active argumentation and dialogue, and fiction. We plan also to add an interview feature allowing an informal look at the lives and works of leading figures in radical ecology, as well as an expanded book review section, that includes thematically organized review-essays along with shorter reviews.
We remain especially interested in the work of younger scholars and activists-and, it needs to be continually emphasized, in work that integrates the question of gender into radical ecology. This is not an empty exercise in political correctness. The class system which eventuated in capitalism began with, and has never ceased to embody, the violent assertion of male perogative. Every move onward of the class system has involved one turn or another in the gender system, and vice versa. Accordingly the fates of women and nature have been intertwined in the twofold alienation where women mediate nature to men while men devalue and exploit female forms of labor as "mere" nature. An ecological politics that is insensitive to this nexus cannot call itself radical.
We have no choice at all as to where we are thrown into history, and one immense choice as to whether and how we are to transform history.
These are terrible, wonderful times, when an old order is dying and a new one waits to be born. I am privileged to be able to work with the CNS community as we try to bring this better world into being.