Apocalypse and the Left


“The  left.” Since the French revolution, we don’t seem to be able to come up with a better term for that ill sorted group of malcontents, which numbers among its members dictators and democrats, torturers and tortured, Stalin, Gandhi, Mao, Martin Luther King, Pol Pot, and Emma Goldman. If “the left” is more than a Granfalloon— Kurt Vonnegut name for”a proud and meaningless association of human beings”— it has to share a common project. What could that be?  Perhaps: “From each according to his [or her] ability, to each according to his [or her] need,”

You can’t be  on the left and be  for the 1% and against the 99%. You can be on the left without being an environmentalist. And vice versa.  The left has always been concerned with history— the relations of people to each other. Nature has been in the background. The left has been an urban phenomenon. If historically the left has a position regarding nature, it is that nature is to be exploited for the benefit of the masses. Isaac Deutscher  as an aside in  his majestic three volume biography of Trotsky sums up the project of the left as “increasing man’s power over nature and abolishing man’s power over man.”  If the goal of the left is to lift the  burden of necessity on humanity and enlarge the realm of freedom, those two goals are linked and inseparable. And there lies the problem posed by the escalating climate crisis. Nature, history’s  beast of burden, threatens to collapse under the load we have placed upon her, complicating and perhaps fatally compromising the great task of those who struggle for a better world awaiting.

The left  has been largely incapable  of grasping the fact that nature has intruded on its plans. Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth, is a case in point.* In this collection of essays, the five contributors, Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen , James Davis, and Doug Henwood (who contributes a forward), listen to nature’s knock on the door of history, greet their troublesome guest, and display various degrees of discomfort with her presence at the table.

“Ours is an epoch of catastrophe,” writes Sasha Lilly in her introduction. “Near-biblical floods, hurricanes, and fires grow ever more ferocious and frequent . . .. Financial havoc roils the North—likewise epic in nature, if not quite evoking Revelation—caught in the jaws of one of the most momentous crises of the capitalist system. An endless preoccupation with the end times, replete with the undead, weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”  She continues, “It would seem that only a corresponding apocalyptic politics could measure up to the moment.” But it is precisely to combat apocalyptic politics—“catastrophism” is the term the authors use—that this book is written. Worry is its dominant mood, worry not that the biological basis of human life is threatened, but that endless warnings of catastrophe will lead to fatalistic resignation and defections from the class struggle. Henwood writes “Catastrophe can be paralyzing, not mobilizing.”  Lilley tells us that “on the terrain of catastrophic fear,  the left is not likely to win.” Concentrating too intensely on climate crisis is like staring into the eye of the Gorgon. We could be turned to stone. Or seduced into nihilism by the  likes of Derrick Jensen who insists that the only solution to the environmental crisis is to do away with civilization. Or seduced into liberalism by Al Gore. (They don’t have to worry about me on either count. I walked out of  An Inconvenient Truth after one too many scenes of Gore’s butt disappearing through the metal detector at an airport, only to confront in the lobby a display urging me to switch to fluorescent light bulbs; I walked out of a Jensen talk after he described challenging an audience with, “I bet I’m the only one here who has an AK-47.” )

The term “catastrophism” is borrowed from geology, where it refers, according to Wikipedia to “the theory that the earth has been affected in the past by sudden, short-lived, violent events, possibly worldwide in scope.” Geological catastrophists include Immanuel Velikovsky, whose theory that Venus’s close encounter with the earth explains the plagues of Egypt is  considered by scientists to be cockamamie nonsense. But Luis Alvarez was also a catastrophist. His hypothesis that the impact of a giant asteroid striking the earth led to the extinction of dinosaurs, is now largely accepted…



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