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Archive for July, 2008

Much of the rhetoric surrounding Anthropogenic Climate Change has thus far rested on the notion that human pollution is destroying the world, and that consequently we need to take action in order to save the world…

Put simply this isn’t true. The planet that we live on is far too big, and far too flexible a system for us to ‘destroy.’ Even if we tried really hard, say releasing all the world’s nuclear weapons simultaneously, we wouldn’t destroy the Earth. We would wipe out most currently existing life forms from the face of the planet, almost certainly including humanity, but life would go on, and slowly, over a number of millennia, life would evolve increasing complexity again. Of course a similar kind of scenario occurred about 250 million years ago, in what is known as the Permian-Triassic extinction event, in which 95% of marine life and 70% of land based vertebrates became extinct. The cause of the Permian-Triassic extinction is not definitively known, though many experts believe that the extinctions were the result of an asteroid hitting Earth.

Despite the enormous extent of the ecological damage caused by the Permian-Triassic extinction, life went on. It recovered and evolved over millions of years until we reach today’s state of affairs. The notion that ACC; whose most extreme scientific predictions would see it reach near permian extinction levels, but the vast majority of evidence suggests much lower levels of warming, would destroy life in a way that an asteroid hitting the planet could not is quite comical.

Equally the notion that carbon dioxide is ‘pollution’ that it is a substance which is inherently harmful and bad for the planet is just plain wrong. Without the heat trapped by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases the Earth would be too cold for human life to have evolved. What is happening with anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation is that the stable balance of gases which have allowed our species to flourish are being altered in such a way that the continuation of climatic conditions which permit us to maintain social stability; the ability to feed and shelter everyone are likely to change so that life becomes harder for humans.

So when ecological activists want to take action against ACC, what exactly is it they stand for if it isn’t saving the world? There can be many answers, but for me it is mainly a case of humanitarian action. Unlike the planet, the human species is fairly fragile. Small changes to the ecosystems which we depend upon for food, water, shelter and material prosperity have dramatic effects to the societies which we inhabit. In particular the growth of the global human population over the last hundred years means that hundreds of millions of humans around the globe are highly dependent on the stable ecosystems they reside within. ACC risks destabilizing many of these ecosystems.

For example the fertility of rice flowers falls from 100% at 35 degrees C to 0% at 40 degrees C. This means that even a modest warming of 2 degrees will see rice fertility drop by over 30% in warm climates. Similar trends in crop fertility have been found in wheat, maize, soybeans and peanuts – many staple foods in developing nations. Consequently recent research has suggested that global rice production will fall by 5-11% by 2020 and between 11 and 46% by 2050. Consider for a moment that rising population allied with land change use and the rising cost of oil have created widespread food shortages and food riots in many parts of the world and you quickly see why if these estimates are correct they will lead to human suffering on an enormous scale.

As with most effects of ACC the impacts will not be homogeneous; some areas of the globe where the climate is currently just too cold for crop production will become more fertile, however this will be more than offset by the amount of productive capacity lost. Furthermore many of the harshest impacts will occur in the least developed areas, which are also the least able to cope with crisis, as their lack of wealth means that many areas (particularly in Africa) will not be able to afford to import food from other regions. This impact has nothing to do with the world being destroyed, indeed the specter of millions of poor people starving to death is somewhat more mundane than the meta-narrative of saving the world, but nonetheless this is the path we are currently heading down.

Food production is just one areas where the detrimental effects of ACC to humans are obvious. The increased temperature is a consequence of an increase in energy in the Eath’s atmosphere which will mean an increase of droughts, of floods, forest fires, hurricanes, tornadoes and other extreme climactic events, all of which tend to be detrimental to human life. Equally, the anticipated rise in sea levels will mean the displacement of millions of humans from their homes. Already this has begun on the low lying islands of Tuvalu where evacuation plans have been prepared, and areas of Bangladesh, where villagers are losing their homes to rising waters. The refugee crisis threatened by one impact of ACC and exasperated by the food crisis which is expected to be another suggests that ACC will begin to dramatically increase human suffering and misery in many of the world’s poorest areas.

Whereas the notion that ecologists seek to save the world is laughable, people are trying to effect changes that will greatly reduce human suffering in years to come. I have no interest in ‘saving the world’… It simply isn’t necessary. I am however interested in trying to make the world a less adverse environment for people to live in. That this adversity will mainly be felt by many of the world’s poorest people, whose labour is most likely directly tied to their physical ecosystem through subsistence agriculture, and that it is primarily caused by the world’s richest people – those with jet set lifestyles, private yachts and air conditioned mansions – only heightens the sense of social injustice.

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Naomi Klein’s latest book features a review on the back which says ‘If you only read one non-ficition book this year, make it this one.’ While I’m normally suspicious of such superlative praise, this book may well justify it.

First things first. This is not a chirpy or upbeat book. The first 442 pages are almost unflinchingly grim, stark and bleak… The concluding 20 pages are certainly brighter, but they’re still an awfully long way from euphoria. There are times where this book is liable to make you so angry that you will likely cry. However, despite the darkness there is something that I found deeply comforting about the Shock Doctrine. And out of that comfort springs hope, belief and the possibility of social change.

The Shock Doctrine details the rise of what Klein has termed disaster capitalism, an evolution in capitalist praxis which is more commonly referred to as neoliberalism, globalization or Empire. Klein gives a brilliant exposition of these developments, from their birth in the University of Chicago economics department and the writings of Milton Friedman to their current hegemonic status within orthodox capitalist economics and international institutions such as the IMF and WTO.

Where Klein departs from the traditional path is the comparison she draws between Freidman’s economic shock therapy policies and the shock therapy of Dr Ewen Cameron, an American psychiatric doctor who extensively employed elector-shock therapy and total sensory deprivation to try and turn his patients into a clean slate on which to work. Cameron believed that he could shock mentally disturbed patients well; that by removing the patient from their usual understanding of themselves and the world he could re-create their personalities to conform to social norms. Cameron’s work was overwhelmingly a failure to treat patients, indeed many who suffered from anxiety and other minor ailments ended up severely traumatized and unable to function socially, however his techniques have since been extensively employed by the CIA and US military from the 1960’s onwards, and their influence was notably seen at Guantanamo bay and Abu Ghraib, where sensory deprivation allied with electroshock have proved valuable weapons in torture. Whereas conventional beatings often reinforced the individual’s values and pre-existing notions of right and wrong, sensory deprivation and electro-shock yield a sense of confusion which interrogators have found more useful methods of obtaining information.

Klein’s hypothesis is that the shock of sensory deprivation and electro-shock, with its aim of creating a blank slate on which the doctor is to create anew is analogous to the economic shock treatment advocated by Friedman and his acolytes, which seeks to shock economies into functioning according to a free market model. In order to implement this shock therapy. Whereas Cameron’s shock therapy works on the ecology of mind, at the level of the individual, Friedman’s shock therapy achieves similar effects within the social ecology. Friedman himself has claimed that

Only a crisis, actual or perceived-produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas lying around. That I believe is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable

Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom, 1962 ix

In other words, whist normal social and economic conditions abound people will be opposed to the dramatic changes which Friedman advocated: the privatization of public managed wealth, lowering taxes for the rich, allowing foreign multinational corporations to compete freely with small domestic companies and opposing any form of state intervention in the economy to subsidize (for example) staple foods and water. That such measures would be dramatically unpopular, especially among the poorest sections of society ought to be obvious, and this explains why they have unanimously failed to be implemented via democratic means.

In a crisis however, be it a war, a coup, or a natural disaster; Friedman saw the opportunity (as indeed did Lenin) to implement drastic changes to society while the general population is suffering from the shock of the crisis. Once the crisis is resolved the changes will have been made, and there are stipulations put into practice which make reverting these changes difficult bordering on impossible. Essentially this kind of shock therapy acknowledges that the ideas of the free market are null and void within a democratic society, however in times of crisis and shock democracy can be temporarily suspended, allowing the neoliberals to attain their goals.

While the homology between the sense of shock and disorientation of Friedman’s economic program and Cameron’s electro-shock therapy are in many ways fascinating, Klein has a tendency to overstate the similarities, making things which contain interesting parallels in certain ways, but remain heterogeneous in others appear to be part of a unified and homologous program. The brilliance of this book though is not the overarching theme of psychological and socio-economic shock, as the detailed cases by case analysis Klein conducts, examining where, when and how neoliberalism came to hegemony.

Starting with Pinochet’s coup in Chile, where the democratically elected and popular nationalist leader Salvador Allende was overthrown by the fascistic general whose forces went about ensuring control through overt violence, to the similar scenario in Indonesia, where another nationalist leader, Sukarno, was again overthrown by a bloody and violent military leader, Suharto, to the military juntas in Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia, a similar story is told. Democratically elected leaders removed forcibly, and while the violence surges and the people are left shocked and awed by the scale of the bloodshed economic reforms are implemented which see unemployment soars as the poor get rapidly poorer as the rich and their friends the multinational corporations get vastly richer.

Following the theme of a crisis or a shock, Klein goes on to document how extraordinary circumstance have been used by neoliberals to implement unpopular and often disasterous policies. Be it Thatcher’s use of the Falklands War to revitalize her flagging first term in office, to the way that the Asian Tsunami, Hurrican Katrina and 9/11 have been used as opportunities to push through unpopular laws while the publics’ attention is elsewhere.

Particularly enlightening are the chapters of the transition to capitalism experienced by Russia. Whereas the mainstream media talks of the end of the Cold War as a jubilant time, they conveniently omit to mention the fact that in order to push through the reforms which saw 1/3rd of the Russian population plunged into poverty virtually overnight as state assets were handed out to Yeltsin’s friends and family, the President had to declare a state of emergency, dissolve the elected parliament, and then turn the military’s guns on both the parlimentarians who decried his actions, and many of their supporters.

The story of a nation strangled at birth is repeated in both Poland and South Africa under very different circumstances. The similarity however is that both nations negotiated political freedoms, from Soviet bureaucracy and Apartheid, however their desires for political freedoms were catastrophically undermined by economic agreements they were cowed into signing, which essentially prevented the implementation of the political programs of both the ANC and Solidarity.

Why did I find such tales of suffering, violence and misery in any way positive then? The answer is that by systematically exposing the violence and exploitation that has accompanied the rise of neoliberalism Klein exposes the lies endlessly repeated by the corporate media; that free markets go hand in hand with free people and that neoliberalism has been a democratic success. The truth as the Shock Doctrine exposes is very different, and led to reaffirm these two statements in my mind.

I believe in free people NOT free markets

I believe in democracy not capitalism

Noam Chomsky famously said that he believed people needed to take forms of intellectual self defence against the propaganda emanating from the corporate media. The Shock Doctrine’s exposition of the rise of neoliberalism, divulging the anti-democratic, violent methods by which we have arrived at our current juncture in history serves the function of intellectual self defence by allowing readers not only to glimpse the violence of global capitalist institutions, but also by suggesting the possibility for alternatives to the shock doctrine of the free market; mass movements which instead present alternative values of social solidarity, democracy and freedom.

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book cover

Hardt and Negri’s much lauded text has been a major talking point amongst radical left wing theorists and activists since its release in 2000, being described by some as a Capital for the 21st century, taking its dual heritage from Karl Marx and the radical materialist poststructuralism of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari.

The departure point presented by Hardt and Negri is that since the 1970’s society has undergone a paradigm shift which has rendered traditional forms of activism defunct, while creating an opportunity for new forms to arise. This paradigm shift is described in numerous ways throughout the text as a transition from Imperialist power to Imperial power, from the sovereignty of the nation state to the control society of the world market, from a Foucaultian disciplinary society to a Deleuzian society of control, from modernism to postmodernism or from an industrial economy to an informationalized economy.

While this in itself is not radically new – similar arguments have been made by the likes of Manuel Castells, Fredric Jameson and David Harvey – what Hardt and Negri focus on, unlike other authors, is the possibilities of resistance created by the transition to globalized capitalism.

Indeed, Hardt and Negri trace the roots of the new paradigm to the crisis of modernity presented by the counter-cultural movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s, the feminist, civil rights, gay rights, hippy, punk and other subcultural movements who expressed dissatisfaction with the homogenization and striations of a mass society. Arguing that

Capital had to confront and respond to the new production of subjectivity of the proletariat. This new production of subjectivity reached (beyond the struggle over welfare)what might be called an ecological struggle. A struggle over the mode of life. (p269)

As such, the imperial regime of Empire goes beyond the disciplinary society whereby the formation of subjectivity was tied to specific places and institutions such as the factory, the school and the prison and moves into a struggle over biopower; a struggle over life’s ability to produce and reproduce life itself. Evolving to neutralize the threat of the 1960’s counter-culture, capitalism evolved into its postmodern cultural phase, whereby

More often than not, the Empire does not create division but rather recognises existing or potential differences, celebrates them, and manages them within a general economy of command. The triple imperative of the Empire is incorporate, differentiate, manage.’ (p201)

Difference is no longer seen as a threat to the singular body of the people, but presents the opportunity to sell alternative consumer lifestyles to different groups based on their race/gender/class/taste etc. Difference is no longer an essentialist case of Other and Self, but is understood through numerous immanent and corporeal differences which afford industry the potential to sell different products to different groups of people.

Consequently, Hardt and Negri forcefully argue against numerous postmodern and postcolonial critics who advocate a politics of difference and hybridity, contending that

When we begin to consider the ideologies of corporate capital and the world market, it certainly appears that the postmodernist and postcolonial theorists who advocate a politics of difference, fluidity and hybridity in order to challenge the binaries and essentialism of modern sovereignty have been outflanked by the strategies of power. (p138 )

This leads them to argue that while ‘Postmodernism is indeed the logic by which global capital operates,’ (p151) and within its cultural logic ‘Every difference is an opportunity.’ Essentially Hardt and Negri contend that while a politics of difference was a viable method of resistance to the unitary sovereign figures of modernity, globalized capitalism has incorporated aspects of these critiques within its contemporary make up.

They are however quick to emphasize that ‘The global politics of difference established by the world market is not defined by free play and equality, but by the imposition of new hierarchies, or really by a constant process of hierachization.'(p154) Globalized capitalism may respect differences with respect to consumer choices, however the mode of production and capitalist accumulation requires the creation and maintenance of new hierarchies and new forms of exploitation.

Hardt and Negri are also dismissive of the absolute relativism and rejection of truth espoused by postmodern thinkers such as Jean Baudrillard and Jean-Francois Lyotard, stating that

In the context of state terror and mystification, clinging to the primacy of truth can be a powerful and necessary form of resistance. Establishing and making public the truth of the recent past… appears here as the ineluctable precondition for any democratic future. The master narratives of the Enlightenment do not seem particularly repressive here, and the concept of truth is not fluid or unstable.(p155)

Consequently, Hardt and Negri adopt a neo-Marxist position centering on production, although production within a biopolitical context which creates not only goods, but affects, social networks and communities, in other words production over all of life.

Difference, hybridity and mobility are not liberatory in themselves, but neither are truth purity and stasis. The real revolutionary practice refers to the level of production. Truth will not always make us free, but taking control of the production of truth will. Mobility and hybridity are not liberatory, but taking control of the production of mobility and stasis, purity and mixtures is. The real truth commissions of Empire will be constituent assemblies of the multitude, social factories for the production of truth.(p156)

While the vast majority of Empire is dedicated to analyzing the rise of modern sovereignty and its transition to Empire, Hardt and Negri to begin to sketch the figure of the revolutionary figure; the new social composition of the proletariat, which they see as possessing the potential to replace the exploitation of Empire. This is their conception of the multitude, a concept further explored in the sequel to Empire, which is entitled Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire.

Whereas throughout modernity societies have been ruled by a Hobbsian Leviathan, a single entity, be it the Monarch, the Church, the President, the Party or the People, Hardt and Negri see the multitude as the heterogeneous assemblage of people whose diverse voices have always been overcoded by the sovereignty of the single voice which speaks for them all. The transition to an economy where immaterial labour , communication and information hold a pivotal role, allied with the massive boom in decentralized communications technologies allows for the first time, according to Hardt and Negri an absolute and global democracy, where the multitude is able to self-organize and govern itself, rather than rely on centralized forms of command and control.

Hardt and Negri stress the importance of global resistance to globalized capitalism, contending that

We believe that toward the end of challenging and resisting Empire and its world market, it is necessary to pose any alternative at an equally global level. Any proposition of a particular community in isolation, defined in racial, religious or regional terms, ‘delinked’ from Empire, shielded from its powers by fixed boundaries, is destined to end up as a kind of ghetto. Empire cannot be resisted by a project aimed at a limited, local autonomy… Globalization must be met with counter-globalization, Empire with a counter Empire. (p206)

Consequently, the figure of the heterogenous and plural cacophony of the multitude has been compared to the emergent movement which began with the protest against the WTO in Seattle and has subsequently followed the G8, WTO, IMF and other supranational capitalist institutions around the globe.

Hardt and Negri conclude then that

Far from being defeated, the revolutions of the twentieth century have each pushed forwards and transformed the terms of class conflict, posing the conditions of a new political subjectivity, an insurgent multitude against imperial power. (p394)

That the possibilities for a global and absolute democracy accompanying the overthrow of global capitalism are possible today in ways that have never previously existed. Hardt and Negri end Empire with three demands of the multitude which they see as essential starting blocks on a path to global democracy.

Firstly a universal global citizenship, ending the systems whereby markets and capital are free while people are segmented, striated and bounded to territories.

Second a social wage and guaranteed income for all, extending the social welfare of the global rich to all global citizens, ensuring that no one will starve or die of easily treatable diseases

Finally a right to reappropriation, as the current material inequalities which divide the globe serve to perpetuate the hierarchies born of capitalist exploitation and the legacy of imperialism and colonialism. Reappropriation then is deemed necessary for the multitude’s right to self control and self production.

While these are only starting points, Hardt and Negri seek to avoid imposing a strictly defined teleos on the multitude, stating that

Only the multitude through its practical experimentation will offer the models of and determine when and how the possible becomes real.(p411)

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