Platypus Review 35 | May 2011
Last November Platypus organized a teach-in led by Sam Gindin of the Canadian Auto Workers on "Public Sector Unionism, Austerity and the Left" at York University in Toronto. An audio and video recording is available above. What follows is an edited version of the interview Andony Melathopoulos of Platypus conducted with Gindin as a follow up to the teach-in.
Andony Melathopoulos: Clearly these are not very good times for public sector unions, not only in Canada but worldwide. What characterizes the current situation? How does it differ from what unions have faced historically and how they could respond, not only in the 1990s, but during their formation in the 1960s?
Sam Gindin: In the 1960s, there was an explosion of the public sector and also, an environment dominated by militancy. But militancy can only take you so far. You have to develop the capacity to challenge structural constraints, and that wasn’t on the agenda for labor. The result was its defeat, and, simultaneously, the strengthening of capital. At the time we didn’t see the scope of this defeat—our present moment has really shown its scale. One would think the current crisis resolutely delegitimizes capital and the financial system, creating an opening for the radicalization of labor. Instead, labor is weaker than before and capital stronger. This should be recognized as the product of a generational defeat of the labor movement, itself connected to the militant movements of the 1960s. The crisis then is one stemming from the initial strength of labor and its collapse rather than as a crisis of international competition. Any gains made by the Left in the 1960s restructured production in such a way that is not without relation to present-day capital. Throughout the 1960s, the organized working class in Europe and North America continued to pose a threat to capitalism, so much so that capital and the state spent a decade trying to figure out how to respond. Even the United States, the supposed core of the global capitalist economy, encountered its limits, such as inflation. So by the end of the 1970s, it became apparent the working class must be broken, and it didn’t just happen overnight. It continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s, because you never know how far you can go, how many gains fought and won in the past can be lost.
National Day of Protest against national Anti-Inflation program, October 14, 1976.
So the 1980s and 1990s are much of the same story, the story of the weakening of the working class and the deepening of capitalism. Even as the United States pushes further towards being the dominant global power, it struggles through the deep recession well into the 1980s, as capitalism emerges at its most dynamic. By the 1990s, capital is integrating eastern Europe and China, and India emerges as a dominant power. Fewer and fewer speak of leaving capitalism, a common consideration even in the problematic ways it was espoused in the 1960s. Workers’ expectations were once quite militant about not wanting the world to continue the way it was. But over time, they have begun to adjust. To maintain your lifestyle, you begin to work longer hours, the kids stay at home longer. What used to be collective struggles began to be solved by individuals. By the late 1990s, the limits of such an approach became incredibly apparent. People began to borrow, using their home as an asset, getting more into debt. So the 1990s are not just about the defeat of labor, but that defeat as the product of a reconceptualization forced by the state of politics, about the complete breaking down of expectations, the reintegration of people in capitalism as individuals rather than a class. Thus capitalism emerges from the 1980s and 1990s dynamically restructured and restored, and labor and the Left leave feeble.
AM: You describe this period largely as a response by capital and capitalists. What about the politics of the Left through this period? Are they adequate? I mean, historically hasn’t the Left been able to politicize the most dynamic edges of capital reproduction in a way in which it seemed unable to do between 1960 and the present?
SG: That’s a good question. There are forms of resistance, but in the absence of emancipatory politics, they end up becoming part of the defeat. In 1976 we had a general strike in Canada. The question becomes, what happens if you have a general strike, everybody is intoxicated by their power, and the next day, nothing happens? There wasn’t a politicization, much less the onset of a revolution. The 1960s prove exemplary in regards to why the Left ought not exaggerate its power: cultural revolution and anti-war protests do not fundamentally challenge capitalism. While unions could have taken advantage of the moment of capitalist growth to ask for changes in working conditions and hours, they could not challenge capitalism. And while militancy creates a certain space for the Left to raise other questions, nobody was thinking about what unions are, what their inherent limitations are, or what kind of political organizations we need in the long-term. The Left took for granted the existence of a strong working class rather than recognizing that its survival was tied to the fate of working class politics.
So while the 1960s was a period of militancy, we shouldn’t exaggerate how far left it was. There was left activism, but there is a difference between being active against the war in Vietnam, and raising the question of socialism. Let me make it more radical. There is nothing spontaneous about workers becoming revolutionary. There is reason to think that they should collectively resist, and then there is reason to believe that they might form organizations for that resistance. But unions are sectionalist organizations, and have no instinct towards the revolutionary. At one historical moment they might be militant, they might inspire, they might raise standards, they might develop confidence, and in another moment in history they might be ineffective, their response might be towards conserving their own existence. It can easily become "necessary" to reproduce an organization and the conditions that produce that organization. How you break this cycle is hardly objective.
I would characterize the moment right now not as one in which capitalism is legitimated by people thinking it’s fair and democratic or that it creates a beautiful world. This might have been so once in capitalism’s history. I think right now what reproduces capitalism in developed countries is that workers have actually achieved a lot, and the promise is that you can keep most of it if you do not protest. It’s a conservative orientation. This is symptomatic of a fatalistic view towards changing the world altogether. I don’t know that the Soviet Union‘s existence really inspired people to another alternative when I was active, but its failure did evoke the belief that nothing else was possible. You didn’t have to believe in the Soviet Union, but when you saw that even those guys wanted to be capitalist, it was devastating. Fatalism allows for the lowering of expectations, for wanting to hang onto what has been achieved so far. This can’t be overcome by just talking to people, part of it is developing an understanding of the world, but to understand the world you have to feel like it can be changed. Not having organizations capable of expressing our frustrations, whether political organizations or unions, certainly contributes to this pessimism.
AM: Could you expand more on the connection between unions and politics? It seems in the present, union activity increasingly greases the wheels of the electoral success of the New Democratic Party (NDP, social democrats) and Liberal Party in Canada, or the Democratic Party in the U.S. At points in this conversation it seems that what you have in mind for an organized form of politics almost appears to be unions in themselves, yet you also suggest there are limits to how far a union movement can independently generate its own politics. What characterizes these limits?
SG: Unions can be involved in radical moments, but they certainly aren't able to revolutionize the world in the absence of a Left. Unions today are not in the place to offer spaces for people to listen to more radical ideas, to push political parties or to join them, but are busy just defending themselves, handling grievances, busy competing with one another within industries. But even in their best moments, unions are only a fragment of a much larger, complicated world. The rank and file need to be linked to a Left.
A major issue here is that you have to understand class, a class built for the purposes of transforming society. That doesn’t happen spontaneously. Your experience as a worker doesn't teach you that, it teaches you dependency. Class consciousness requires an organization beyond even the most radical union, whose interaction with workers is about understanding their position in society and their links to others. That is the kind of organization you need, and without it, workers look to the union to be merely instrumental in maintaining the world as is. They look to a party in the same way, instrumentally and pragmatically, especially if a party doesn’t even pretend to be radical. But even a party like the NDP, which in the short term will be of little help to the individual worker, doesn’t have ambitions to be a radicalizing factor for workers. You look at the party and wonder, how does a party change the world without a newspaper or a journal where they think through difficult things?
AM: To turn to the material base for class consciousness, there is a way in which organizing in the public sector, from the perspective of capital and its reproduction, limits its dynamism. As you pointed out, reducing public services were linked to regenerating the dynamic character of capital after the crisis of the 1970s. How can something that is increasingly unimportant to capital reproduction generate a progressive transformation from within it?
SG: Well, you certainly don’t want to get trapped into arguing for a larger state but you do want to argue for a fight for a more democratic state and workplace. Right now, that kind of strategy, in itself, is only a strategy for giving unions a way to start a struggle rather than passively saying they can’t do anything. It has some chance of building alliances and opening the door to begin thinking of issues in class terms, in terms of challenging who runs the workplace and questions about the priorities of the state. But, and this hasn’t happened yet, the next step is to honestly and soberly say to people, if they want this they have to become more radical.
This is also true in the private sector. You can’t win in auto manufacturing unless you say, “we have a whole different vision of what this productive capacity should be used for.” So in each sector you have people making demands that can’t be realized unless they fight collectively. But even if they fight collectively, they can’t win if it’s just about militancy, so then you have to raise questions about capitalism. I don’t think any demands take you anywhere automatically, but some allow more than others. You begin to raise questions about who decides what’s valuable and what we think is valuable. You raise questions about production and consumption, and democratic planning—it raises a whole bunch of questions about what kind of economy we will have. To me class consciousness is when people know, and you can say to them honestly, “if you really challenge capitalism as a social system, there is going to be chaos and your living standards are going to fall, but it will be an investment in the future.” When workers accept that then they are class conscious. When you tell them that when you get rid of capitalism everything will be better, that’s not class consciousness.
AM: There seem to be two issues for the Left to consider. The first are organizational problems in which the Left could, for example, create the means for workers to overcome the sectionalism of the union movement. The other is the issue of the Left being able to advance a utopian vision. But utopian impulses can misrecognize the potential of a given historical moment, and as you point out, organization can serve very instrumental ends. How would these two elements come together to make a reinvigorated Left?
SG: The question is, how do you build a movement that can begin to think in class terms to transform the conditions for unions, or in other words, how do you build a culture where socialists can influence rank and file workers without supposing that the line between political organizations and unions isn't real and necessary? I think we need to begin by appreciating the limits of unions, but also the potential. On the other hand, one needs a Left beyond unions, a Left that raises questions that wouldn't be addressed otherwise. The Greater Toronto Worker’s Assembly (GTWA) is trying to think about how we create a new layer of politics beyond ineffectual coalitions, but we are really struggling because, while we do not want to begin from a point of immediate rigid consensus, we are beginning to recognize how crucial it is to develop a cadre of workers and activists who both embody intellectual understanding and are active. This is especially difficult if you want to be honest about the obstacles we face as a movement, but the role of the Left is to challenge things, to reflect on our failures, to resist repeating the notion that the working class are victims. The prime crisis for both labor and the Left today is the inability to rethink and reinvent our movements, our organizations. We end up reproducing archaic or inept modes of understanding and changing the world. So while I see some movements with good impulses, there aren't many that would be organizationally capable of producing a critical cadre, recruiting from the rank and file, developing socialists, promoting education.
The Greater Toronto Workers' Assembly (GTWA) at march in Hamilton, Ontario.
AM: There is a way in which, for example, socialism, or Marxism, are subjective aspects of capitalism. They emerge from capitalism but are reflexive and, in their best examples, comprehend its emergence historically. Of course some types of socialism are romantic, and understand their task to mount a resistance to modernity, but some might consider it a transformative process, and not from the outside, but through capitalism. With this in mind I want to bring the conversation back to something you said earlier about patterns of consumption eroding working class capacities. I wonder how much of this is more a product of the degradation of left politics and its growing inability to politicize the changing character of capital?
SG: Resistance does come from within capitalism, but for me, Marxism is the attempt to look at capitalism from a perspective that can imagine overcoming it altogether. When I watch comrades jumping from the socialist ship, when they seemed at one point to recognize that capitalism would produce nothing but catastrophe, I wonder what about the world convinced them otherwise. I think many have been disillusioned by the failure to fight for bigger things, a failure which has marked the labor movement for well over a quarter century now. This does seem to suggest that Marxists aren't immune to the cynical fatalism that there may be no going beyond capitalism. I wonder what caused this. Was it a degradation of the politics of the Left? Was it the increasing mindset that one is compensated through individual consumption, not through collective politics? I'm not exactly certain how things have gotten so bad, but it seems to me that without a Left that can keep alive some sort of utopian impulse, some refusal that things must be the way they are, and without organizations that can collectively raise these questions, only individual responses, however unsatisfactory, "make sense." Because for workers themselves it seems very hard to develop alternative perspectives. When it became evident that the working class would cease to experience increases in standards of living, reflecting social mobility from being on the street or on the picket line, the reaction was not social rebellion or political upheaval. Workers weren't radicalized—they responded to social problems by assuming the responsibility personally. Instead of understanding capitalism as systemically incapable of producing a world of equality or justice or extended freedom, a consciousness that would have to be politically contextualized and delivered, those demands were met by working longer hours, changing one’s family structure and how it behaves, and debt, all of which only further the kind of dependency produced under capitalism. If you are so busy working you can't explore yourself intellectually or politically, the opportunities for a Left are slim.
AM: As you pointed out earlier one of the reasons why working class neighborhoods surrounding the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) vote conservative is that there is a certain freedom that capital is generating that they do not want to lose. Wouldn’t a socialist politics have to engage that subjectivity and understand the ways in which it could advance politically? Without historical consciousness, how could you tell that the ways in which things are getting worse aren't completely natural?
SG: Without a historical perspective, you would have to make sense of regression in other less effective ways. When times are bad I think people begin to get nostalgic for an imagined past. You get rid of a specific set of politicians and replace them, and for a while, you might have new hopes. That can keep you going for quite a while. You might even get quite militant, but the militancy is about returning to the past. The difficulty is to eventually convince people of the emptiness of a certain kind of life, without being patronizing. It’s enormously difficult, because you are not actually presenting them with a tangible alternative. The role of the Left, then, is to be able to take advantage of a moment to politicize people.
AM: Would you agree that the questions arising from this process will not provide political clarification without a ruthless critique? I mean hasn't your experience been that many groups who already consider themselves anti-capitalist or working class use these categories as a way to affirm their own practices, not to change them? Isn't it true, as Adolph Reed wrote, that "the opposition must investigate its own complicity"? Put another way, what does it say about the Left in the present if the only way to have a conversation about capitalism with activists is to put critique to the side?
SG: The starting point for reinventing the Left is first, to appreciate the extent of our defeat, and second, to acknowledge that we were not in fact that strong and effective before that defeat, that our defeat was produced out of the limits of our analysis and structures. This means that a ruthless critique of ourselves is fundamental. But this can't mean a retreat from activism until we've fully clarified the “right” response. Critique and discussions must not occur just by talking among ourselves; self-examination must occur alongside engagement in struggles. Otherwise we're just talking to ourselves with no reality check.
The problem in bringing a wide range of people together in something like the GTWA is that the early focus is on developing working relationships and the fragility of those relationships means that any political discussions are very cautious and tentative—building bridges gets in the way of the critiques and discussions essential to building a new politics. I don't know a way out of this dilemma other than trying to ensure that such caution is transitional and that at some point the “risks” of the harder discussions must be put on the table. We haven't gotten to that point yet in the GTWA. Some of these discussions have been forced on us where we plan events and have to get to the roots of why we don't agree on certain specifics. But the difficult discussions have not really started. Some think it will be impossible to do so without fracturing the organization, that people are too embedded in their current activism, whether in the movements or unions, to seriously re-examine what we are doing. I think these pessimists are likely right, but the possibility that this may in fact work, or that we may learn something from the experience that leads to trying again in a more promising way, is good enough reason to work through the GTWA. I cannot think of an alternative way of working that is more hopeful. |P
Platypus Review 29 | November 2010
In September of this year, Andony Melathopoulos interviewed Imre Szeman, author, professor, and founder of the Canadian Association of Cultural Studies, on behalf of the Platypus Review, to discuss his analysis of oil politics in light of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the political responses to it. The interview was prepared in conjunction with Brian Worley.
Andony Melathopoulos: In your estimation, did the recent BP disaster precipitate any new thinking from the Left? How could the Left's responses be characterized and do they reveal anything about the state of the Left more generally? Did the disaster in any way change your thinking about oil?
Imre Szeman: I must admit to not following the BP disaster too closely after the initial few days of the event. The direction that the news on the Gulf spill was heading followed a path well trodden by other disasters of the present age, whether natural or social. Shock that such an event could happen, public and political accusations of government and corporate malfeasance and ineptitude, a frightful encounter with (ecological) limits, and finally mitigation in the form of high-sounding words from those in power that seem to put everything back in its place and allow more quotidian disasters and problems to roll back into the news stream. I did not want to be taken on this particular ride, even given my interest in oil; I checked in with the news but tried to keep my distance.
One might expect that an environmental disaster on this scale might prompt some change in how oil is extracted and how it is consumed. Indeed, in a televised address on June 15, 2010, President Obama declared that the BP spill showed that the US had to end its “century-long addiction to fossil fuels,” and made promises to support the creation of alternative fuel sources. It’s an eerie echo of Richard Nixon’s speech from the White House on November 7, 1973, when in reaction to the oil crisis of that year he said that “in the long run, [the crisis] means that we must develop new sources of energy, which will give us the capacity to meet our needs without relying on any foreign nation.” Or Jimmy Carter’s Presidential Address on April 18, 1977, when he stated that “because we are now running out of gas and oil, we must prepare for a… change—to strict conservation, and to the renewed use of coal, and to permanent renewable energy sources like solar power.” As the spill fades from public and political consciousness, I suspect that the outcome of the most recent presidential speech will be like those in 1973 or 1977. Not much will change in the way in which oil is used, not just in the U.S., but anywhere in the world. Our social and economic systems are designed in such a way as to be utterly dependent on oil. After the 1973 oil crisis, the U.S. consumed 14.9 million barrels per day; in 2009, it was estimated that estimated U.S. oil consumption grew more than 40 per cent, to 20.7 million barrels a day. Obama may well want to get the U.S. off its addiction to fossil fuels. But he has a much bigger oil system to deal with. His actions at the COP 15 meeting don’t exactly leave one full of hope at the prospect of change, though the BP spill might alter the political landscape on this issue in some ways.
I’m not sure that the oil spill substantially changed any of my opinions. Mostly, it has reaffirmed several facts about oil. We need it to keep our social and economic systems operating—or at least, operating in their current fashion. We are running out of it, which is why dangerous, deep ocean drill rigs like the Deepwater Horizon—or the Mariner Energy Well, which caught fire in the Gulf on September 2—are in operation to begin with. We are likely to continue to try to find oil wherever it might be, because the operations of capitalism depend on it. While there is lots of talk about changing behaviors and altering the forms of energy we use in order to mitigate such disasters, the reality is that oil remains relatively cheap, easy to store and transport, and can be used for other purposes, too, such as for fertilizers and plastics.
As for responses to the oil spill on the Left, I would say that there are positions one can take with respect to fossil fuels that are not very productive, and insofar as the Left finds itself adopting these positions, it is problematic. The first problematic approach is to insist on the need for better legislation regarding where one drills for oil, as can be found in calls for a moratorium on deep water drilling. The implicit suggestion of such calls is that drilling elsewhere—that is, on land—is fine, as long as certain protocols are followed and laws adhered to. This is an environmental version of liberal capitalism, one that takes an ameliorative approach by which Nature is protected through the strong arm of the state. A second troublesome position is a blunt call for the end to all oil drilling and oil consumption, if not in the present, then in the near future. What this position gains in ethical certitude it loses in a test against reality: It comes across as moral hectoring or bad utopianism. In general, I think the Left must take oil as a symptom and be cautious about reacting to it on the same level on which it appears, namely as a “bad” source of energy that the Left has to reign in, eliminate, or come up with a “good” substitute for. The real issue is capitalism, not oil.
More broadly, the BP disaster exemplifies the way we tend to react to disaster with a kind of “faux shock”—faux because such spills have happened before and cannot but happen, given the scale of oil drilling on the planet—followed by rapid memory loss so that things can continue much as they did before. It was weeks before the U.S. media remembered that a major spill had occurred in the Gulf three decades earlier—the Pemex-owned Ixtoc 1, which spilled an estimated 3,000,000 barrels into the ocean in 1979–1980.
AM: Given that the real issue is capitalism, the difficulty would seem to rest in how one understands capitalism and, with regard to the politics of oil, how one understands the relation of capitalism to oil. In 2007 you took issue with the Retort Collective’s attempt to locate a capitalist core governing the economics and geopolitics of oil production. Rather than separating contemporary capitalism and oil out, you suggest they should be intertwined as “oil capitalism.” What are the political stakes of making or failing to make this distinction?
IS: It is a heuristic move, one designed to draw attention back to capitalism rather than back to oil. The tendency is to think of oil as an externality, an element of capitalism (energy) that can be easily substituted by some other element (solar, wind, nuclear, etc.) without much impact on the nature or character of the system. This is why, when there is talk about energy futures, it seems to be assumed that the economic system of that future will continue to be capitalism. “Oil capitalism” is intended to make us think differently and more deeply about the socio-ontology of capitalism. Could we have capitalism without oil? Plainly. Would it have the same character and form, especially on a global scale? I think not. This is more than a game of alternative histories, of asking, “What if there was no such thing as oil?” Rather, it is meant to confront some challenges coming in the future, and to get the Left to think about topics essential to social emancipation and justice. We tend not to think about the work that energy does socially, and will have to do even if political circumstances change.
But I also think that conjoining capitalism to oil is productive in a more crudely materialist way. Oil is an essential element of capitalism today—essential to its being. We live out a laughable social existence, which at its base depends on a material that resulted from a happenstance of geological history that cannot be repeated and which is rapidly dwindling. Even if we were able to access all the oil on the planet, it would still be of limited supply. I continue to find it amazing that this fact of limit seems to have no impact on the day-to-day operations of capitalism. But how could it in a system in which the crude matter of nature comes as if for free and which measures itself not by limits but by the growth of profit year over year?
When I say that in thinking about oil we should think about “oil capitalism” it is, again, another way of saying that the problem is not oil, but capitalism. No matter what system we operated within, oil would be limited. In other systems, however, we might have a greater capacity to manage the expansion of our economies and populations, and to take this fact of limits into account instead of doing what we seem so adept at today: forgetting about it.
AM: Many Canadian leftists connect Alberta’s massive oil reserves to the 40-year political domination of conservatives provincially, as well as to the growth, since the 1990s, of a conservative populism nationally. Do you agree that the ways in which oil has transformed Alberta should have necessarily led to a rightward move? Are the activities of the Left with respect to Alberta oil in any way implicated? Does the Left’s naturalization of rightwing politics in areas with oil reserves clarify or obscure the political situation?
IS: These are difficult questions, in part because I am still trying to take the measure of the politics of my new home in Alberta. I don’t think that there is anything about oil that should of necessity push a polity to the right or leave it stuck there. Norway would be an obvious counterexample of a space with a very different politics connected to its oil riches. (Though there are problems with this, too: What do we make of a left-leaning country that accumulates riches through the demand and high prices for a commodity that generates political and ecological problems? Perhaps their Seed Vault assuages a guilty conscience.)
Greenpeace activists protest bitumen conveyor belts on the Canadian tar sands mine site, during the Autumn of 2009.
On the other hand, consider the political and economic interests involved in the Athabasca oil sands, commonly called “the tar sands,” in northeastern Alberta. The tar sands have been identified by the U.S. in numerous policy documents as a source of energy so secure for the U.S. that it can be considered less foreign than national. This has been done openly over the past decade or so, beginning with Dick Cheney’s 2001 National Energy Policy. The tar sands also constitute the largest single capital project on the planet, and perhaps one of the largest in the planet’s history, with more than $200 billion invested to date, not just by all the major players in the oil industry, but also by various sovereign investment funds. Incidentally, Norway is among them. So in short, a space dominated by powerful corporate interests and the global hegemon, as areas with large oil reserves tend to be, will have enormous amounts of pressure exerted on it to fall in line politically with the interests of capital.
This creates a formidable challenge for the Left. There is a tendency among some leftists to imagine an inherent conservatism in the Alberta populace—as though a kind of ingrained, old West libertarianism makes the necks of folks out here red, and their brains difficult to change. But how would one explain, then, the founding of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) in Calgary, Alberta in 1932—a party which led to the NDP and which proclaimed that it would not “rest content until it has eradicated capitalism and put into operation the full programme of socialized planning which will lead to the establishment in Canada of the Co-operative Commonwealth”? It is a mistake to write off Alberta as a rightwing dead zone; this supports a misguided notion that activity concerning the tar sands or other political issues within Alberta must always be directed outward, to the rest of Canada or even to the world. Seeing Alberta as rightwing in every possible way serves a dangerous ideological function in the rest of Canada, allowing other governments to get away with neoliberal policies disguised as social democratic measures, as Alberta serves to absorb any fears and anxieties about a shift to the right.
Have the activities of the Left somehow enriched or supported the right? I don’t think so. There are innumerable groups, institutions, and individuals who do invaluable work in the province, including the Pembina Institute and the Parkland Institute. As I said before, the challenges are enormous: This space matters for capitalism, and so it should not be surprising that there is a vast amount of work to be done to produce a new politics in the province. The fact that the right is connected to oil does, I think, obscure what the real issue for the Left should be, since leftists tend to feel they must approach politics through environmental issues. At the level of official, party politics, there is no space for the Left: Could the Liberals or NDP suggest abandoning the tar sands? Insofar as these parties are committed, at best, merely to ameliorating the status quo, the answer is no. I think the focus should be rather on the crimes and misdemeanors of the system—that is, of capitalism. How to approach this at a practical level is a genuine challenge, though the tar sands do offer openings. Norway is a beginning point; it has a huge social trust fund as a result of its oil fields. Alberta has virtually nothing. Is this a legitimate outcome of a public resource?
But this can only be a step. One certainly can speak about capitalism in other than glowing terms in Alberta. In classes I have taught at the University of Alberta, students required little convincing that the system they lived in benefited the few at the expense of the many, and was unlikely to allow them or their fellows lives unstunted by the brutal game of profit.
AM: You have identified three political narratives that take oil to be their central object—namely strategic realism, techno-utopianism, and apocalyptic environmentalism—and criticized them for their inability to inform a politics that could overcome capitalism. How can this critique, and your desire for a Marxian approach to oil politics more generally, help to clarify limitations in the politics of the Left? Why should energy production be seen as anything other than an immediate effect of capitalism?
IS: Talking about oil does not mean moving away from a critique of capitalism, nor does it mean privileging a discussion of energy over the broader system in which it operates. But it does offer a new way into the problem of capitalism, and thus perhaps new political possibilities, while also raising the question of energy for Left critique. One can say energy production is nothing other than an effect of capitalism, which is to say that the latter precedes the former, comes into history fully formed, and so on. Isn’t capitalism as it presently exists, in the form we are living it, an effect of energy production as well?
AM: Certainly, but there is much political content to the history of energy production. At the end of the 19th century, the working class consciously precipitated energy crises though their organized activity around the mining and shipping of coal. In many ways the concentration of energy in hydrocarbons, and its centrality to the expansion of capital, make the worksites where energy sources are extracted and moved ideal foci for the Left. With regard to coal, the Left was once able to integrate its energy politics into a critique of capital. By contrast, energy crises from the latter half of the 20th century onwards appear unconnected to a project of expanding human freedom through the overcoming capital. These crises have been driven by other social and political forces, notably post-colonial nationalism—one thinks of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), for example. Meanwhile, during the Canadian mini-crisis of the 1980s, the politics of then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy Policy were shaped, essentially, by a clash between a centralizing nationalism and a regional Alberta populism, with neither side remotely resembling a Left. How do you account for this historically dynamic aspect of energy crises and the diminishing capacity of the Left to give these crises a determinate political character?
IS: This raises an intriguing point: Couldn’t oil workers go on strike? Couldn’t those who work on rigs stop what they are doing and create a crisis on an unheard of scale? Crises in relation to oil now come not even from geopolitical maneuvering—OPEC is unlikely to repeat its 1973 gambit for a whole variety of reasons—but from breakdowns of the system and from demand. “System breakdown” can mean, literally, when one of the aging series of large-scale refineries has to shut down due to mechanical problems, or when a port where oil is transferred from supertankers to container facilities encounters a problem. Supply chain problems and global demand matter more than political instability.
Oil workers on strike in Iran, 1978.
If this is the case, it would seem easy for the Left to have an impact through collective action of one sort or another. Part of the problem is that the supply chain is in many parts of the world not just carefully guarded, but hidden away, sequestered underground. It is one thing to block trucks dragging coal away from mines and another to identify essential sites in the supply chain of oil. How do you stand in front of a pipeline, for instance? Coal mines are labor intensive and accumulate bodies on a different scale than oil production sites, though here again the tar sands may stand as an exception.
Unions could engage in actions that could produce larger consciousness about oil and capitalism. When it comes to oil, however, this seems unlikely after the 2009 creation of the Oil and Natural Gas Industry Labour-Management Committee, a group consisting of the American Petroleum Institute and fifteen labour unions that plan to work together to retain and increase employment in the oil patch for its members.
AM: But, from the Ogoni and Ijaw in Nigeria to the Achuar people in Peru to fisherman in Louisiana to farmers and ranchers in your home province of Alberta, protests against oil companies seem intent on merely resisting the dynamism of capital. Is there a viable future within these movements? What, if anything, is the upshot of “resistance”?
IS: Resistance… is futile? It seems the problem you are pointing to is the difficulty there has been thus far in developing a politics that goes beyond an immediate negation of (let’s say) a corporate decision. As an example, we could imagine someone taking an oil company to court, saying, “You have polluted my land illegally, so you must, by virtue of the existing set of rules and policies, recompense me.” This is a necessary but not sufficient condition of a politics organized against the broader logics of capital. Can this necessary condition become sufficient? I don’t see why not. But it may be that some of the impetus and direction for it to become sufficient must be applied onto these movements from points outside of them. I do not buy the idea that opposition organically or inevitably moves from part to whole, as seems to be the assumption guiding a number of Left theoretical positions today.
AM: In your work you have commented on an inability, or at least a protracted difficulty, of the Left to locate “the political, economic and conceptual significance of raw inputs into the shape of capitalism.” But isn’t capitalism characterized precisely by its capacity to continually reshape the significance of these natural inputs? Surely the task of the Left would be to realize the potential latent in oil through emancipating society, rather than to naturalize the use of oil under present conditions?
IS: On the contrary, I make no insistence on the present conditions passing over into the future. Let’s put this another way: The Left needs to think about capitalism and work to bring about its end. But it should also consider what that end might look like, though one must be wary of engaging in a kind of “bad utopianism” that tries to sketch out exactly what the future is supposed to look like. When the Left adopts the view that it is a crime to use oil at all, that we should give up on this resource at once and then figure out what to do next, we are presented with neither a convincing position about the present nor about the future.
By mid-century it is estimated that we will have a global population of 10 billion. The carrying capacity of many parts of the planet, in the absence of fertilizers, would be well below what it currently is. We face a future in which we will continue needing fertilizers, whether or not this is seen as being against some inviolable notion of Nature. The planet is filled with infrastructure of all sorts, which is a history unto itself that actively shapes the direction of social life in significant ways. It is unlikely to be simply abandoned, in the manner of a ludic fantasy that the Left still tends to exhibit in some of its concrete imaginations of the future—a future that, apparently, would be filled with trees instead of computers.
The inheritance from capitalism need not commit the future to be capitalist. But it does represent a material and political reality with which we have to contend. I think the banishment of oil from our lives and our consciousness, which does constitute at least some part of the Left’s response to energy, is an error. Indeed, why couldn’t we see oil as a means of emancipating society? Granted, oil could not serve as a permanent means to maintain emancipation, since oil itself is impermanent and limited, and because there are negative ecological repercussions to its use. But imagining that there is a more general politics contained within a blunt opposition to fossil fuels seems to me an error. At best, such an opposition is a first-level response not just to environmental concerns, but to the system that generates them. At worst, it is not much of a politics at all, since it offers only the smallest negative gesture without any suggestion of what might yet be. |P
. Retort Collective, Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in the Age of War (New York: Verso, 2005). Szeman’s response to Afflicted Powers can be found in his article “System Failure: Oil, Futurity, and the Anticipation of Disaster,” South Atlantic Quarterly 106:4 (2007): 805–823.
. "The Regina Manifesto," Program of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation 1933–1956, <http://economics.uwaterloo.ca/needhdata/Regina_Manifesto.html>.
. See Szeman, “System Failure.”
. Szeman, “The Cultural Politics of Oil: On Lessons of Darkness and Black Sea Files,” Polygraph 22 (2010).
Platypus Review 23 | May 2010
A bustling city at dawn. Industrious workers set out from their homes, coming and going in a perfect and productive ballet. But by evening the workers vanish. No trace of foul play. No bodies left behind. Mass disappearances like this have recently occurred across the globe, not of humans, but of millions of honey bees.
The ominously titled 2007 PBS documentary Silence of the Bees begins with a montage of the streets of a major U.S. city that had grown silent because its inhabitants vanished. The empty city, we are told, is not unlike the beehives afflicted by Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a commercial honey bee syndrome that has resulted in massive apian losses. A few minutes into the documentary, however, we are informed that the metaphor should be considered more literally, as “the bees’ disappearance could have colossal repercussions for humans.” As the documentary continues, a chorus of honey bee experts proclaims the apocalyptic scale of the unfolding CCD crisis, as bees “account for about one third of the food that is produced in America.” One suggests that “unless we only want to eat corn, wheat, and rice, we need bees.” Another supposes that “without bees, life as we know it, I do not think, will exist.”
Abruptly, mysteriously, and on a massive scale, honey bee colonies collapsed across North America at the end of 2006. Similar losses have also been observed in Europe, Japan and the Middle East. Reports from the southern U.S. this spring suggest that the problem continues unabated.
Colony Collapse Disorder was relentlessly incorporated into mass culture. Within a year it was the subject of a host of network documentaries, several popular books, and an episode of The Simpsons in which bees across Springfield suddenly vanished. Even Michelle Obama found it fashionable to include a honey bee colony in her new White House vegetable garden.
Public reaction to the plight of the honey bees was notably hysterical and irrational, as evidenced by the global persistence of a news story connecting CCD to cell phone usage. Less recognized and more pernicious is the prediction, reproduced in Silence of the Bees, that the loss of honey bees could reduce food production by up to 30%, which seems to have readily taken root in the public imagination. Subsequently, public anxiety about CCD and food security has been channeled into a host of popularly organized efforts. Nationwide campaigns to raise money for CCD research quickly materialized, from community bake sales to national consumer product marketing campaigns. Public education initiatives have appeared but seem wholly lacking in direction, such as community drives to have their municipalities proclaim an annual “Day of the Honey Bee.” Community and municipal government projects to cultivate urban apiaries and bee habitats have became commonplace in large cities, in spite of the overwhelming predominance and importance of colonies in rural areas.
While there has been considerable research into the agro-ecological causes of CCD, this has not been matched by investigations into the social impulses behind the fascination and fear that has gripped such broad strata of society. An emphasis on studying “natural” causes highlights the widespread belief among researchers and agricultural professionals that keeping bees alive, as well as solving agricultural or environmental problems more broadly, is largely a technical issue. The result has been an excessive emphasis on the development of technical solutions. This reveals how study of “natural” causes today can be understood as a reified symptom of an impoverished popular consciousness, since it functions to completely obscure the social character of nature.
Popular understanding of the actual connections between society and “natural” causes are wholly inadequate. The reception of CCD in contemporary mass culture combines a borderline-apocalyptic pessimism toward the last generation of technical “solutions” (e.g., cell phones, pesticides, crop monoculture) with frenzied efforts to raise money for research to fund the next generation of technical innovation. In other words, the “leveraging” of public anxieties should negatively expose that no conscious social movement today could conceivably pull the levers themselves. The overwhelming and irrational public responses to CCD reveal the absence of the capacity to comprehend society that would come if reason could consciously determine its direction. The mania surrounding CCD exposes the fact that no broad-based political movement in the present could possibly shape even a modest agenda for agricultural policy reform today. The impossibility of reform, let alone any kind of substantive restructuring, is more worrisome than the disappearance of honey bee colonies itself. It signals the disappearance not only of the possibility of a mass conscious force that could direct society, but of the consciousness that such a thing might be desirable—or even necessary. In short, it signals the death of the Left.
Honey bees, like fertilizer or herbicide, are an important modern agricultural input. Placing high densities of colonies in fields of pollination-dependent crops increases both yield and quality, which in turn helps maximize profitability. The dependence of crops on pollination, however, varies, and many important staples (notably the cereals) do not require insect pollination. While the most recent estimates suggest that 35% of the food we eat (2.3 billion metric tons (Mt) annually) benefit from pollination—essentially one out of every three bites—this estimate includes some very large bites come from crops grown at present with a disproportionately small number of honey bees.
Perhaps the most extreme example is the case of potatoes, which constitute an enormous 300 million Mt of annual food production, just over one pollination-dependent bite in ten, but which require an insignificant number of pollinators to produce. On the other end of the scale, there is the pollination of the relatively miniscule 8 million Mt of almonds. The pollination of this crop in the U.S., the leading producer of almonds globally, requires the muscle of the entire U.S. beekeeping industry to accomplish, on account of this crop’s extraordinarily early blooming period. By contrast, other highly pollination-dependent crops that are far more deficient in the U.S. diet have not commanded the same attention. Fruit consumption in the U.S., for example, amounts to less than half the USDA recommended servings per capita, yet the number of colonies needed to pollinate almonds, which belong to a group with near-target consumption, is likely equal to the number of colonies needed to pollinate all fruit crops combined. Furthermore, recent surveys of pollination fees paid to beekeepers reveal that they receive three times the fee for almonds than for other crops. It would appear, then, that CCD is a big problem for the production of almonds, rather than a food security issue more generally.
The connection between food security and CCD becomes even less tenable when considering the overarching effect that economic and political factors have had on honey bee colony numbers and the agricultural landscape they pollinate. Massive global shifts occurred with the collapse of the Fordist state in the West and of the command economies in the East. An early indication of this shift was agricultural upheaval. Cold War trade barriers began to be breached in the early 1970s with massive exports of wheat and soybeans into the Eastern Bloc. Spurred on by inflation, itself partly precipitated by labor militancy and wage demands in the West, agriculture became one of the first areas of attempted restructuring.
This restructuring largely escaped the notice of the New Left, which failed in the 1960s and early 1970s to connect the broad social movements of their time, such as the Civil Rights, student, anti-war, and labor movements, into a coherent renewed anti-capitalist politics. This failure meant agricultural instability could only be resolved through a very limited set of mechanisms, all of which seem necessary only if this larger, prior political failure is taken for granted.
The crisis of the 1970s, as it was manifested in agriculture, resulted in a rapid increase in prices. Beekeepers trebled their colony numbers to capitalize on these new opportunities. However, the elevated output, coupled with increasing market liberalization, resulted in intense global competition. Beekeepers in the U.S., previously buffered from world honey prices by New Deal-era farm price support programs, became mired in financial hardship when the government terminated these programs and increased interest rates. North American colony numbers declined dramatically. This was followed a few years later by an even more precipitous drop in colony numbers in the wake of the economic and political collapse of the Soviet Union. These colony losses far exceed anything exacted by CCD today.
The crisis failed to reinvigorate a Left that had been in decline for decades, and so instead was addressed from the Right through neoliberal economic reforms. From the beekeeping perspective, this was manifested in the stunning increase in production of higher value pollination-dependent crops, such as almonds. Since 1990 there has been an almost 300% increase in the production of these non-staple foods, an increase in output made possible by a 45% increase in honey bee stocks. Beekeeping has become more integrated into agriculture and its ties to crop production still more rationalized. The mainstay of beekeeper incomes, which traditionally depended on the sale of honey, has shifted. In Oregon, for example, beekeepers now derive over 70% of their incomes come from pollination, and most of this (67%) is derived from almonds. Furthermore, the dependency of beekeeping on external forces such as debt financing, equipment, labor, and other inputs has deepened. In a sense, the neoliberal food system is increasingly dependent on beekeepers and beekeepers have, in turn, become dependent on the new food system.
This new integration engenders new productivity, allowing diets around the world to be transformed in previously unimagined ways. It also creates a situation whereby beekeeping is more dependent on society as a whole, since a considerable amount of the work traditionally done by beekeepers and their families has been transferred to workers in the manufacturing and agrochemical sectors. The full realization of this emerging social productivity, however, would require a break from the forces that gave birth to them. That is, full realization of the potentials of modern agro-business are beyond the capacity of neoliberal or any other form of capitalism to realize. Of course, this view stands in sharp contrast to the conservative positions adopted by many activists and intellectuals of today’s Left who often take a negative attitude toward science, technology, and indeed, productivity. To them, there is no sense of possibility latent in the more dynamic elements of agriculture, notably in biotechnology. The difficult work previously taken up by the Left of trying to identify and advance the potential of the present has been replaced by nostalgia for a preindustrial and pastoral past. This is not to say that contemporary agricultural practices are unproblematic. The non-judicious and profligate use of pesticides in hives, for example, is a formidable problem that is likely linked to CCD itself. Nonetheless, in the absence of a Left, there are severe limits to our understanding of how such a problem could be resolved. The currently fashionable approach has been to turn such problems into moral and lifestyle choices (for example, eating organically produced foods or buying brands that donate profits to CCD research), or else to relegate the problem to public and private agencies. But this strategy has already run up against its limits.
The moral dimensions of present-day agricultural populism are exemplified by a lecture delivered by Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture Acting State Apiarist Dennis van Engelsdorp titled “A Plea for Bees,” in which the solution to CCD was suggested to be in re-framing the problem as “Nature Deficit Disorder” (NDD). By romanticizing how humans have “forgotten our connection with nature,” the lecturer claims that “if we are able to reconnect to nature, we will be able to have the resources and interest to solve these problems.” The “easy cure” advanced is to convert urban lawns into meadows.
The phenomenon of CDD does not reveal our alienation from nature but our alienation from social productive forces. The “easy cure” simply reproduces the latter form of alienation by channeling it into the former, satisfying immediate impulses and, in turn, deflecting attempts to reflect or clarify what CCD actually means. While watching bees on flowers in a newly cultivated suburban meadow may seem transformative, in reality the shift would do little more than to reaffirm current modes of food production. “Easy cures” such as those offered in “A Plea for Bees” would only reinforce mass public irrationality in service of undisturbed patterns of production. This is rendered quite clear by a campaign conducted by the premium ice cream brand Häagen-Dazs, which donates money to bee research when consumers purchase products from their Bee-Built Flavors line. In the 1980s, the company licensed to produce Häagen-Dazs in North America, Nestlé S.A., was the target of a successful global campaign against its marketing practices of infant formula in Africa. Having clearly learned its lesson, the company has joined forces with activists in advocating to revoke the New York City Health Department’s ban on urban beekeeping. In effect, it successfully channeled urban anxieties about the food system into a community issue of little real consequence to the large-scale survival of bee colonies.
The opening sequence of Silence of the Bees is of various panned-out urban scenes of masses of people going to work. The footage has been sped up to eliminate any trace of human intention and to prepare for the bee hive footage to follow. The shot is reminiscent of Dziga Vertov’s experimental documentary film Man With a Movie Camera (1929), which portrays a city waking as its population goes to work in a similar way. Vertov’s city dwellers, however, have a curious relation with the technologies of labor and leisure, one that fits the description of “labor tending into play.” Vertov’s 1920s masses stand in striking contrast to the bee-like masses of the present. An active and political Left made possible the understanding of how social labor could become conscious through the politics of freedom. It is perhaps because the politicization of the labor movement has no “connection with nature”—unlike the labor of the bee hive—that it was able to push against all preconceived limits of how society might be configured. Its social imagination was not limited to merely emulating patterns observed in the natural world. The framing of human labor as somehow “natural” is precisely what the Left challenged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is the disappearance of this challenge that draws us back to look for a “connection with nature” and prevents us from identifying the basis of agricultural problems in our alienated labor.
With the collapse of the Left, society looks to experts to provide technological solutions, even as popular mass culture insists that experts flatten their analyses. Experts, in habituating themselves and their study to a society that refuses to mature, participate in restricting the horizon of possibilities even for the “technical” solutions that society, increasingly lacking a consciousness directed toward mass social transformation, increasingly demands of them. Disappearances in such a society are met with adaptation. We will adapt to the disappearance of bees using new technologies to keep them alive. We will adapt to the disappearance of the Left by telling ourselves that the present could not be otherwise. Registering disappearances rather than passively adapting to them, however, opens the possibility of remembering the future. It restarts the unfinished project of uncoupling our labor from a blind, runaway development. It is the precondition for being able to pose clearly the question, “How could bees be managed to nourish humanity in previously unimagined ways?” |P
. Dennis van Engelsdorp, A Plea for Bees (TED Conferences, LLC, 2008), 16 min., 23 sec..
Platypus Review 10 | February 2009
The following interview was conducted as an email exchange between Andony Melathopoulos and Terry Glavin in December 2008. Terry Glavin is a Canadian journalist, an outspoken critic of the anti-war movement's call to withdrawal foreign troops from Afghanistan and a founder of the Afghanistan Canada Solidarity Committee (afghanistan-canada-solidarity.org).
Andony Melathopoulos: You just returned from a trip to Afghanistan and have been busy writing about your experience in the Canadian news media and, most recently, in an online piece in Democratiya ("Afghanistan: A Choice of Comrades," Winter (15), 2008). What are the main points you are trying to convey in your writing?
Terry Glavin: If I'm trying to convey any position of my own about Afghanistan, specifically, it arises from the one firm conviction I have reached in my investigations over the years, which was confirmed over and over again in Afghanistan. And it's this: What we in the "West" say to ourselves about Afghanistan - the way we talk about Afghanistan - really matters. And the implications of the "troops out" position - the spectre that this position might actually succeed, has an enormously corrosive impact on Afghan society.
It's why I'm convinced that the worst threat Afghanistan faces is not the threat of "re-Talibanization" by the theocratic fascists who like to say to the West, "You have all the clocks, but we have all the time." It's from the clock-watching West, and the "international community," which should be saying, unequivocally: "We're staying as long as we're needed and wanted, period. We won't abandon Afghanistan again, ever."
AM: Like you, Fred Halliday and Christopher Hitchens have taken unpopular stands against the anti-war movement. This has been in response to their former comrades in the New Left Review and the Nation for crawling "in bed with the forces of reaction" (Hitchens). Is the Canadian "Left" bedding down with these same forces? Was forming the Afghanistan Canada Solidarity Committee an attempt to provide a positive internationalist response to the anti-war movement?
TG: When the Solidarity Committee came together, we were all in agreement that rather than contribute to an already infantilized conversation, we wanted to try to change the public conversation, and we've seen real successes in doing that. We wanted to provide space for Afghan-Canadian voices, and to make the "progressive" case for engagement in Afghanistan. Our founders were mainly from the left, but we were more than happy to welcome Liberals and even Conservatives, especially of the old "Red Tory" kind. In that way, it's a pretty classic popular-front approach. Our founders included women's rights activists and several left-wing writers and academics, but also a former federal Liberal cabinet minister and two former federal Conservative cabinet ministers. What surprised me, quite frankly, was just how much support there was for the sort of position we were staking out, across the board.
Perhaps less like the U.S, but certainly much like the case in Britain, Canada's "anti-war" movement has indeed crawled into bed with the forces of reaction. I mean this not in some oblique or metaphorical way, but quite specifically. The main "anti-war" organizations in Canada have nurtured fraternal ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, with Hezbollah and Hamas. You can look it up for yourself. When the head of the Canadian Labour Congress refers to the Taliban as the Afghan "resistance" and the New Democratic Party (social democrats) fields "star" candidates who call the Taliban mere "dissidents," you know that something rather unusually toxic is at work.
As for Fred Halliday's analysis, let's remember what his invocation of Spain in the 1930s, in the Afghan context, is about. I don't cite the cause of the international brigades in Spain merely as a spirited call to arms, but rather in the light that Halliday casts on the current situation. Just as Spain served as a proving ground and a crucible of the horrors that were to follow, Afghanistan has provided a training ground and a crucible for a kind of fascism that has been unleashed throughout Central Asia, the Maghreb, and the Levant, to say nothing of the relatively minor horrors it unleashed on New York, Washington, Madrid, and London.
I am offering the observation that history has repeated itself, and is repeating itself, and there is no shortage of isolationist "pacifists" and Little Englanders on the left, and no shortage of Charles Lindberghs, animating the "anti-war" movement today.
AM: How did you first become interested in Afghanistan? Is there a defining moment or incident that drew your attention there?
TG: A few years ago, when I was still writing my column for the Georgia Straight - which claims to be North America's oldest "alternative newsweekly" - I found that the conventional left-wing polemics on the question of Afghanistan simply couldn't be sustained by resort to facts or argument from anything vaguely resembling a working-class, internationalist standpoint.
Most importantly, I started talking to Afghan emigres, and to women who had done progressive work in Afghanistan, and soon realized that the entire "Left" argument was, in a word, a fraud.
I dealt with this rather gingerly at first, writing only about the obvious challenges Afghanistan presented in a Canadian context, and relying on Afghan emigres to provide whatever opinions were necessarily asserted in whatever I wrote. But I quickly understood that even in this, I had transgressed into the heretical.
What I began to see quite clearly - and it was the Afghanistan debate that allowed me to see it, was that in the main, the "Left," on such an epochal question - and related as it was to the rising challenge of Islamist barbarism throughout the Middle East, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia - was simply not on the side of progress, was not on the side of emancipation, was not on the side of "peace", even. Not in the matter of Afghanistan, obviously and certainly. The "Left" had retreated into a sort of parochial isolationism, and there was no role for a journalist like me except to reassure the "Left" of its virtue, assist in the construction of comforting falsehoods, and otherwise engage in the regurgitation of platitudes and pieties.
AM: Clearly the anti-war movement is a different kind of Left than the one you have in mind. Can you tell me a little about where your politics come from? How did you come to the Left in the first place?
TG: When I was a kid I was quite intensely informed by the Irish republican politics in the community, and the Chile solidarity work after Allende was killed, and I was drawn to the Revolutionary Marxist Group and the League for Socialist Action and such Trotskyist groups. But when I got older I noticed it was the old Communist Party warhorses who were always doing the heavy lifting. Not the dizzy ideologues from the universities or the Soviet apologists, but the party's union men and women. You could count on them. For anything. The party was a disgrace, but the partisans were good people. It was like the church in that way. Nobody takes the Pope seriously but when you get in a jam it's the Knights of Columbus you'll be wanting, and they're always there for you. And that's what's really got working people to the point we'd reached by the time I came of age, with all the relative comforts that were available only to the wealthy just a century before.
One of the things you notice about the international volunteers in the Spanish war, for instance, perhaps especially in the enormous Canadian contingent, was a distaste bordering on outright hostility to ideological and party-line considerations, and a searing, gut-felt duty to one's comrades in struggle. The precipice where most people in the world stand today, in so many respects - natural-resource exhaustion, food scarcity and famine, failed states, the implosion of capital markets, entrenched tyranny, slavery, and so on - is no less all-devouring than the abyss the Spanish people faced. Where much of the "Left" appears to be encumbered by a sense of nostalgia or parent-envy, standing in the shadows of its predecessors, I tend to see the conditions humanity faces today as every bit as daunting and terrifying as the conditions faced by our parents' and grandparents' generations, and requiring a stiffness of resolve no less martial. I don't know why we would expect anything less of ourselves today than our predecessors gave of themselves in Spain all those years ago. But the "Left" today calls us to much less. The most charitable thing one can say of the so-called anti-imperialist "Left" is that it summons us to neutrality, to indifference, to the antisocial pathology of "minding our own business."
AM: I am uneasy with the idea that the problems of the "Left" can be solved by simply developing a stomach for getting our hands dirty. Maybe the problems with the "so-called anti-imperialist 'Left' " are not primarily that they lack duty or stomach, but rather, their theory is inadequate, or frozen in the past. Isn't the pragmatism that you deem to be a necessity only so because there is no workers' movement and because there is no theory to navigate even a nascent movement?
TG: I think I might be uneasy with it as well, because developing a stomach for dirty hands alone won't help the Left, and I don't say it will. I'm not in the least bit uneasy about placing a good degree of trust in the basic instincts of ordinary people when they are committed to coming to the aid of their fellow human beings.
I don't know that I simply assign "pragmatism" in the place that I would prefer to see, say, a robust proletarian internationalism, but neither am I certain that a revivified global consciousness needs to wait for a "new" or rearticulated theory, or that any of us need to wait for a revivified democratic-socialist internationalism in order to be able to think clearly or act as effectively as our means allow. At the same time, action without something at least approaching a theory by which to navigate is just as useless. The "anti-globalization" movement might be the most vivid example of such uselessness, although I'm not even sure that its global pow-wow circuit antic-making can be considered "action" except in the symbolic sense. So maybe that's not the best example. The World Social Forum, then. There you go. There was a kind of "theory" that animated its proceedings. Where did that get us?
So rather than simply retreating into theory, maybe the best use intellectuals of the "Left" can make of themselves on this aimless voyage is to strip away and jettison all the ideational-package flotsam from the anti-imperialist, anti-globalization, anti-war, and counterculture "Left", and see if anything remains.
AM: I am sympathetic with your characterisation of the theory of the "Left" as incoherent and its practice as powerless. You don't, however, seem prepared to "jettison" the example of the Canadian volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. Why does this hold a key to a revived internationalism for you? Doesn't the persistence of this historical imagination only prove that the "Left" has never really been able to overcome, or work through, the failed Popular Front tactics of the 1930s? Doesn't this just emphasize how the "Left" is both afraid of taking power and of working for common goals - and by common goals I mean creating a common ideology?
TG: I think I've dealt with the business of "ideology" as far as I'm comfortable in doing, but I am not prepared to simply "jettison" the instructive example of the Canadian volunteers in the Spanish War. I don't know that I'd go so far as to say it holds the "key" to a revived internationalism, but it certainly does set a standard, and a similar popular-front strategy is not doomed to failure at all. In the 1930s, Western armies were not arrayed against Franco, Hitler and Mussolini. Today, the US, NATO and ISAF is in the fight in Afghanistan, and with the exception of the Americans' disgraceful appeasements of the Pakistan military and intelligence complex, the armies of the West are, in fact, on the right side. I really think it's important to acknowledge that, to get over it. The Taliban are not the Vietcong. The Sixties are over. It actually is possible for the American military to be on the right side of a struggle, and as some wag said, "It would be lovely if the Nelson Mandela Appreciation Society had the means to take on the job, but until that happens, I'm afraid we're going to have to settle for the 101st Airborne Division."
AM: In your Democratiya piece you describe the forthcoming Obama presidency as articulating the words that Afghans want to hear most: "We will not leave you. We will not betray you. We will not abandon you". What is it about Obama's approach that makes you think that the U.S. will finally make a serious sustained effort to rebuild Afghanistan?
TG: America's conduct has been far more callous and filthy and duplicitous and disgraceful and foolish than we have time or space to consider here, and yes, in a perfect world, perhaps Donald Rumsfeld would be brought before an American court, tried before an American judge, and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in an American prison. But we're living in the here and the now, in the real world, and all I have to go on as far as the new American president is concerned is his word. I have no cause to doubt what little he has actually said on the subject because it is in America's interests to proceed as Obama has given the world to believe he will proceed. I haven't heard him say America will "finally make a serious sustained effort to rebuild Afghanistan," in such a direct way. And this is what we do have cause to worry about.
Afghans need to believe they will not be abandoned again. They have to be convinced it is true, otherwise they will have all the fight and the hope drained out of them, and they are already reeling from enough dashed hopes. Look at how it came to pass that America returned to Afghanistan in the autumn months of 2001 and you will see why so many Afghans rejoiced just as we did here in Canada, especially here on the west coast, in December of 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. There was jubilation up and down the coast, and there were bonfires. We celebrated, but not because of the terrible thing that had happened to America, but because after two years allied with the British, fighting the Axis powers in Europe, Canadians knew that at long last, America was in the fight. It had become in American interests to join the fight.
You don't need to consult your Hegel to know that from contingency comes opportunity, and after September 11th, Americans were drawn back into the fight in Afghanistan, and anyone who imagines that this was a bad thing simply hasn't been paying attention, and anyone who would wonder why so many Afghans rejoiced has not been paying attention.
Here's what we have cause to be worried about. It is precisely that President-elect Obama will fulfill his promises to the American people efficiently and cost-effectively by striking some sordid arrangement with the three main chains of command within the Taliban in order to get at al Qaeda. 'Give us al Qaeda and we'll cut you loose,' an Obama White House might well propose. And where is the American Left that could prevent or forestall such a squalid betrayal, or mount even a minor protest rally about it? There is no such American Left. It doesn't exist.
With millions of Afghan refugees fleeing to Iran and Pakistan and Tajikistan, and all the schools shut down and the newspapers and radio stations shuttered and looted, the American "Left" would experience something of a frisson. Noam Chomsky would trace the consistent trajectory of American conduct in the region. Cindy Sheehan would mumble something about maybe not challenging Nancy Pelosi again four years down the road. Amy Goodman conduct some brain numbing interview with Tariq Ali, and in the pages of The Nation, Tom Hayden and Naomi Klein might write opposing essays. Klein could gloat over the front-row view we've all been given of American capitalism's true face revealing itself in Afghanistan. Hayden could take the contrary opinion: No, Obama is one of us, he's bringing the troops home, let's get high.
So, for now at least, we're left with all this "hope" and "change" stuff. For now, it will have to do.
AM: You make a distinction between the intervention in Iraq and the intervention in Afghanistan. You only support the intervention in Afghanistan. Why?
TG: Because the distinctions and differences abound. To be painfully specific, the way I would prefer to put my answer to your question is that I wholeheartedly support "intervention" but not necessarily "the intervention" in Afghanistan, and I would have preferred to at least cautiously support an intervention in Iraq, but certainly not "the intervention" as it was conceived and prosecuted.
In the case of Iraq, I found myself on the "no war" side in a specifically Canadian context, or maybe I should say a not-American context, and for reasons that are different from the main anti-war justifications and arguments abroad in 2003. By this I mean two things.
Firstly, I wouldn't have opposed American intervention owing to any squeamishness at the prospect of Americans coming home in body bags from Fallujah, for instance. After all, why shouldn't they be the bodies of Americans? I know this sounds cold, but if any soldiers had to die in the "liberation" of the Iraqi people, it would be hard to argue, given the history of American complicity with the entrenchment of the Baathist regime, that it should not be American soldiers.
Secondly, in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when the debates and arguments really counted, the nature of the decision facing Canadians was wholly different than the decision facing Americans. For Canadians, the questions were: Why should we sign up as a junior partner in a very risky, largely unilateral war, a war of such a massive scale? Why would we sign up with the Americans in the invasion and overthrow of a UN member state, without a clear UN mandate, with world opinion mainly against the idea? Why would we join in an Anglo-American war on evidence that was at best shaky, for purposes that were at best shadowy, and in the absence of any framework for multilateral consideration about which tyranny to invade in the world, and when, and under what agreed-upon grounds?
Afghanistan is almost a mirror-image opposite of the circumstances and trajectory that have prevailed in Iraq. To begin with, Afghanistan re-entered the public consciousness in 2001 as a thoroughly rogue state, with diplomatic recognition only from the Taliban's sponsor (Pakistan) and the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates (the home states of the deranged oil millionaires who helped bankroll them). Afghanistan's seat at the UN was occupied by the Taliban's arch-enemies, the Northern Alliance. The country had been cleaved in half by war and savagery, and every year, the territory under Taliban control was churning out thousands of Chechen, Filipino, Kashmiri, Algerian and Moroccan jihadists to be dispatched to their assignments around the world from well-funded training camps. A quarter of the population was scattered to the ends of the earth as refugees. Almost a third of the unfortunates who remained in the country were on the verge of starvation. The Taliban were hated by the people, the entire, war-blasted place was a humanitarian disaster of the first order. Deposing the Taliban was going to be like a walk in the park. Intervention? What took you so long? What's not to like?
As I have persisted in noticing, for some years, what the Afghan people have been very clear about in respect of what they actually want, and what the "Left" has been arguing for in the rich countries of the world, are diametrically opposed. What the "Left" has been saying, among other absurd things, is troops out. In a baker's dozen's worth of polls I am aware of, the Afghan people consistently and overwhelmingly say they want democracy, peace, security, and jobs, and they want and need international forces to help them achieve these things. Troops in.
So I am forced to decide. And I've made my decision.
AM: This decision seems an accommodation to the fact that an international Left does not exist. Is the decision for one intervention over another any more a decision than the anti-war movement's "decision" to end either war; are not all these "decisions" ultimately determined by the realities of U.S. power? You suggest multilateral actors (e.g. 39-nation ISAF) and the U.N. are capable of overcoming this reality but this doesn't seem consistent with the example of Afghanistan, where the desired U.N. and multilateral attention occurred only after it was in the U.S.'s interest (i.e. following a direct attack). Moreover, I am unsure why you think that multilateral actors and the U.N. are a desirable counterweight to the U.S. Do you think they are agents of the Left? Do you think they are able to pose a challenge to the present system of global capital? Do you think they are a vehicle for developing a worker-based internationalism that can meaningfully challenge and overcome U.S. power?
TG: I don't think any of these things. But I do think that contingency produces opportunity, you work with the cards you're dealt, and sometimes, history will happen to deal you a decent hand. Helplessness and powerlessness are the worst kinds of illusions, and here's how Afghanistan is not like Spain: we don't need to arm civilian volunteers and get them there. Our soldiers are there already. They're well-trained, and fairly well-paid. In Afghanistan, teaching a single girl how to read her own name is a revolutionary act, and $1,500 in Yankee currency employs a teacher for an entire year. Is the "Left" so bankrupt that it can't even do this?
To more directly answer your question, I would go so far as to suggest that, with some "ifs" engaged, then yes, we could even be deciding which military interventions were necessary and useful to the cause of human progress, and which ones were not. It is quite easy to imagine circumstances like that as being well within the realm of possibility. But in order to wield that degree of influence in democratic societies, it would at least help somewhat if we rededicated ourselves to universal human progress, democratic egalitarianism, and freedom from slavery, misogyny, illiteracy and obscurantism. If these things are possible, then yes, "multilateral actors" and the UN could indeed be agents of the Left," and even US power could be harnessed in the cause of the historic mission of the Left, and the irrational occupation with overcoming "US power" might be seen for the irrelevant distraction that it usually is.
I will concede to you, and to Platypus, that in order to even imagine such things, it may first be necessary to give in to "the desire for a tabula rasa, for a start from scratch," as the Platypus statement of purpose puts it. I would further concede that this may well require that the living dead of the "Left" as we now know it should be put down, eliminated, rejected, and jettisoned.
Fine by me. Avante. Allons-y. Let's go. |P
Platypus Review 5 | May—July 2008
A paradox confronts American environmentalists, according to James Gustave Speth, the Dean of Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies: “We now have a flourishing environmental movement, a proliferating number of organisations, more and more money going into this, decades now of environmental legislation and programs, at all levels of government, and the environment keeps going downhill.”
The contradiction, according to Speth, results from the U.S. environmental movement focusing too narrowly on working “within the system.” They lobby, litigate and educate the public to the neglect of an “equally powerful effort to change the system itself.” “We haven’t challenged corporate power and the domination of wealth in our political process, we haven’t… challenged the deep subsidisation of environmental destruction… we haven’t challenged growth itself, we certainly haven’t challenged our own hyperventilating lifestyles.”
The environmental movement, he continues, must move beyond the victories of the 1970s that led to technocratic environmental regulation. It needs to go from being “basically… an inside the Beltway business” towards an “environmental movement that is far more committed to building grassroots political power. We need a real movement and we need to get real political about it.”
A major task of this grassroots political movement is to exert the pressure necessary to transform capitalism towards an ecologically sustainable end. Capitalism, according to Speth, presently cannot reproduce itself without concurrently increasing the level of economic activity. This activity, he maintains, can be “less or more environmentally destructive,” but ultimately undermines sustainable development. “This is the core of the problem. We have a system that is very successful at creating economic growth and this economic growth is inherently destructive and is overwhelming our efforts at environmental clean-up and environmental management.”
The crushing current of capitalist production, however, is one that Speth suggests can be mitigated. Prices can be adjusted to be “environmentally honest” through market-oriented instruments such as emission cap and trade permits. Growth can be tempered by shifting the focus away from traditional statistics that exclusively measure growth, such as Gross Domestic Product, towards ones that measure progress towards sustainability, such as the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare. Finally, the legal structure of large trans-national firms can be recast to make them responsive to environmental and social imperatives. “The corporations should be governed with the participation of all of the stakeholders in the corporation and not just the people elected by… the shareholders… this would change the dynamics of the corporations fundamentally. It would make the corporation a lot more open to protecting local communities where they live and work, it would make them a lot more responsible and responsive to environmental concerns… it would not be a constant war to maximize profits.” He even briefly situates his programme within an earlier revolutionary tradition: “We must dramatically change the publicly traded, limited liability global corporation just as previous generations set out to eliminate or control the monarchy”.
Ironically it was the Nineteenth Century European revolutions to “eliminate or control the monarchy” that primarily enabled the age of industrial capitalism. These capitalist social relations were far more productive and dynamic than the feudal relations that were overthrown. This dynamism and productivity, however, is interwoven with contradictions. The current environmental crisis highlights this contradictory character. Capitalism is not only generative of the blind runaway development that causes the damage, but also of a science which can quantify the damage and model scenarios for its mitigation, cultural currents that redefine use-values to include environmental parameters and even price mechanisms that warn capitalists of ecological constraints on productivity. Ultimately, our ability to both cause and recognise the problem is a product of capital. Dr. Speth’s renewed call to “eliminate or control the monarchy” arises from a growing gap between “how things are” (worsening environmental conditions) and “how things ought to be” (awareness of the possibility of solutions). This gap not only results in crisis, it also provides the revolutionary germ for transcending capitalism and, as such, the possibility of directly dealing with environmental problems. Crises, however, have been historically averted not by revolution, but by policies of reform. The ultimate goal of these reformisms is not the overcoming of capitalism, but rather, to make the necessary changes for it to persist. Unwittingly, by not confronting the fundamental logic of capitalism, reformism provides the basis for renewed contradictions and crisis.
Dr. Speth’s programme, in this sense, is not revolutionary, but reformist. Instead of fundamentally trying to reshape society in an ecologically sustainable way, as he frames his goal at the beginning of the interview, he brackets this transformation within the confines of capitalist production. Like the reformers of the past, he searches for the steps necessary to renew capitalist accumulation in the face of this latest looming crisis.
There are already a number of mechanisms to renew profitability in the face of environmental degradation. Speth provides an example of such a mechanism in his interview. Previous to the 1970s acid emissions grew in-step with economic activity in industrialised countries. Using a combination of stringent regulations (1970s) and a sulphur dioxide cap and trade emission trading system (1990s) the ratio of sulphur dioxide/GDP fell among U.S. firms by an average rate of 9% per year (1970–2000). The environmental crisis of acid rain, consequently, had the effect of encouraging capitalists to adapt and determine new ways of accumulating capital. These new ways increased profitability in spite of mitigation costs. The reproduction of capitalism in this non-polluting form, consequently, acted to restore profitability.
Harriett Friedmann points out “Just as a “coalition of enlightened capitalists, middle-class reformers and militant labor movements brought us not socialism but welfare capitalism” so the coalition of environmental, consumer and fair-trade movements promised not a reorganization of society around the central value of enhancing ecosystem integrity, but green capitalism.” Speth’s reformed capitalism is still capitalism and, as such, it is subjected to the contradictions inherent in all historic forms of capitalism. These contradictions invariably sew the seeds for new and varied crises. A good illustration of the self-perpetuating nature of reformism, and one that is of pressing relevance to the environmental movement, is the string of crises that have plagued agricultural production from the outset of industrial capitalism.
The rapid urbanisation of Britain during the Industrial Revolution resulted in a disastrous rise in food prices. Instead of confronting capitalist production directly, British liberals resolved the crisis indirectly by eliminating agricultural tariffs. The European Diaspora in the Americas and Oceania responded to the opened market and increased their production of food. European capital tied these distant agricultural areas together in a network of railways and shipping fleets. By 1873 this network caused regional wheat prices to converge into a world market. This market expanded considerably and by 1929 its production had increased almost six-fold.
While the reforms of the first food crisis achieved the goal of reducing food costs in the urban industrialised core, it also created the basis for a renewed crisis. This new crisis had a different appearance. Perhaps the most devastating manifestation was the sudden drop in prices that resulted from overproduction coupled with intense international competition. Between 1925 and 1935 prices dropped steeply by two thirds and this undermined the profitability of most farmers.
The more well-known symbol of this crisis, however, was the ecological catastrophe of the “Dust Bowl”. Unlike the scientific focus on long-term soil fertility of the earlier English High Farming, the new era of Diasporic-Colonial farmers ploughed perennial grasslands down without an understanding of how to prevent chronic soil erosion. Within two generations, consequently, North American farms turned their highly productive soil into a wasteland.
The farm crisis of 1925–1935 was addressed in the U.S. by the New Deal reforms that supported beleaguered farmers through government purchases of surplus commodities. This form was replicated after the war by other advanced capitalist countries. Although this policy stabilised farm incomes it had the unintended consequence of subsidising the overproduction of food in advanced capitalist countries, which in turn, depressed production in developing countries. Furthermore, productivity was restored not by returning to High English Farming practices, but by a value maximizing assemblage of industrially-produced inputs, including machinery, agro-chemicals and genetically-improved seeds.
The continued failure to deal with the commodity nature of agricultural production resulted in a renewed food crisis in 1974, in the midst of a period of immense global economic turbulence. Falling profitability of U.S. manufacturers coupled with escalating national balance of payment deficits forced the U.S. to deal with its accumulated food surplus. A massive Soviet-American grain deal in 1972 and 1973 provided the U.S. an opportunity to sell off its massive surplus for needed hard currency. Consequently the reliably abundant U.S. food surplus was suddenly unavailable to developing countries and prices for grains and oilseeds tripled. Furthermore, the crisis precipitated the abandonment of the post-war Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates, which essentially enabled the freer movement of international capital, and consequently, the expansion of trans-national corporations. Corporate dominance, therefore, has more to do with the failure of an earlier reformist policy to deal with the financial instability that plagued the 1930s than, as Dr. Speth asserts, an unfortunate corporate legal structure. From this perspective, the increasing influence of corporate actors in determining agricultural development, from genetically modified crops to monoculture, must ultimately be understood as a historic failure of an earlier reformism rather than a property inherent of corporations per se.
The solution to the food crisis of 1974 was to work towards an international agreement on agricultural trade. We are presently witnessing the failure of this solution, as international food prices again sore in 2008. High food prices were the genesis of the original reforms in 1846 and yet, after three major international food crises, reformist policies have only deepened the problem. The failure to arrive at an international agreement on agricultural trade at the World Trade Organisation’s Doha round has set the stage for the latest reformist attempt to deal with the food crisis. Private capitals have seized on the failure of multilateral agricultural negotiations to establish their own international food standards. These standards have enabled the development of two internationally differentiated food streams: one stream for affluent consumers providing high quality food grown with environmentally sustainable practices and fair-trade labor, while another stream supplies the remainder of humanity with the opposite.
Herein lays a deeper problem with reforming capitalism and one that drives at the heart of the paradox identified by Speth at the beginning of his interview: why in the face of a looming environmental crisis does a mass movement of “common concern” fail to act? The constant cycle of reformism and crisis suggests that an underlying dynamic is directing events rather than the actions of political movements. In the absence of an international politics of the Left, contemporary politics are unable to fully confront or resolve crises and are, thus, understandably disempowering. While the instruments of reform (eg. cap and trade emission trading system, redesigning corporate legal structures) have the capacity to avert crisis, they focus on these “means” at the expense of seriously considering the “ends,” or more specifically, the “reorganization of society around the central value of enhancing ecosystem integrity.” Speth’s “ends” are all mediated indirectly through capitalism. It is this indirect path, I believe, that has made environmental politics resemble more a “will-less football” than the necessary and engaged mass movement that it needs to be. |P