Posts Tagged ‘activism’

Commonwealth is the third in the series of socio-political analyses from Hardt and Negri which began with Empire (2000) and continued with Multitude (2004). To briefly summarise the series so far; Empire provided an overview of the changes to the structures of power and economic forces from the 1980′s onwards which Hardt and Negri characterise as moving from a nation state dominated imperial system to a globalised networked imperialist power and Multitude subsequently elucidated the emerging forms of networked resistance to the newfound global hegemonic forces of Empire.

Commonwealth seeks to further build upon the work laid out in the first two books through a deeper and more sustained engagement with some of the key concepts originally presented in the first two books, while dealing with some of the most pertinent criticisms leveled at the theoretical frameworks of Empire and the Multitude by other leading left-wing academics and theorists (a point which I will return to later).

Consequently while the book can be read as a stand-alone piece, it certainly helps to have read the prequels which give a thorough contextualisation of where Hardt and Negri are coming from, and also provide far more detailed analyses of the economic background from which they draw the conclusion that since the early 1980′s there has been the beginning of a paradigm shift away from industrial production and towards a form of information-led production which Hardt and Negri argue requires a revised understanding of both power and contemporary forms of resistance.

While throughout the series Hardt and Negri have referred to this newfound mode of production (amongst other things) as biopolitical production – using a term first developed by Foucault – both the Foucaultian orgins of the term and the differences between Foucault and Hardt & Negri’s usages are proscribed in far greater detail in Commonwealth.

Our reading not only identifies biopolitics with the localised productive powers of life – that is, the production of affects and languages through social cooperation and the interaction of bodies and desires, the invention of new forms of the relation to the self and others, and so forth – but also affirms biopolitics as the creation of new sunjectivities that are presented at once as resistance and de-subjectification. If we remain too closely tied to a philological analysis of Foucault’s texts, we might miss this central point: his analysis of biopower are aimed not merely at an empirical description of how power works for and through subjects but also at the potential for the production of alternative subjectivities, thus designating a distinction between qualitatively different forms of power. p59

Crucial to this reading and Hardt and Negri’s reading of biopolitics then is that as a emerging hegemonic form of power in the globalised world, biopolitical production is constantly producing new subjectivities and affects which escape and exceed the capitalist form of value extraction and thus produces newfound alternatives to global capitalism. While they are at pains to stress that this in itself does nothing to guarantee any kind of crisis for capitalism, or that capitalist contradictions and crises necessarily lead to revolution, they do argue forcefully that this opens up new spaces of conflict and resistance and produces alternative possibilities to the current status quo.

As the book’s title suggest, one of the primary focuses of the book is on common wealth, or the commons, again a concept which Hardt and Negri use in Empire and Multitude, but which is explored in far more depth in Commonwealth. Hardt and Negri employ a Deleuzian ontology which combines two traditionally distinct usages of the common, firstly the demarcation of a non-human commons in terms of the ‘natural world’ which is posited as an outside set of resources ripe for expropriation, and also the socially constructed commons, such as language, social bonds, affects, thoughts, and ideas

Wheras the tradition notion poses the common as a natural world outside of society, the biopolitical conception of the common permeates equally all spheres of life referring not only to the earth, the air, the elements, or even plane and animal life but also to the constitutive elements of human society, such as common languages, habits, gestures, affects, codes, and so forth. Whereas for traditional thinkers such as Locke and Rousseau, the formation of society and progress of history inevitably destroy the common, fencing it off as private property, the biopolitical conception emphasises not only preserving the common but also struggling over the conditions of producing it, as well as selecting among its qualities, promoting its beneficial forms, and fleeing its detrimental corrupt forms. We might call this an ecology of the common – an ecology focused equally on nature and society, on humans and the nonhuman world in a dynamic of interdependence, care and mutual transformation. p171

One important way in which Hardt and Negri extend their conception of commonwealth is the caveat that not all common forms of wealth are liberatory and positive. Indeed they contend that many of the ways in which the commons is currently experienced is through what they deem corrupted forms in which commonwealth is partially constrained and thus creates not a resource for all, but a means of exclusion and expropriation which striates the social field and creates hierarchies. Chief among these corrupted forms of the common identified by Hardt and Negri are the nation state, the corporation and the family.

H&N go on to contend that whereas the common is produced through love, which they trace conceptually back to Spinoza’s writings on love and joy arguing that love is what produces cultural forms of commonwealth ‘Every act of love is an ontological event in that it marks a rupture with existing being and creates new being…To say that love is ontologically constitutive then, simply means that it produces the common.’ (p181) However Hardt and Negri go on to warn that

Just like the common itself, love is deeply ambivalent and susceptible to corruption. In fact what passes for love in ordinary discourse and popular culture is predominantly is corrupt forms. The primary locus of this corruption is the shift in love from the common to the same, that is, from the production of the common to the same or a process of unification. p182

As such the identitarian forms of love such as patriotism, racism and certain religious fundamentalisms which are grounded on a love of the same and seek to impose that sameness or unity upon heterogeneous elements they classify as ‘outside’ of their identity. Thus Hardt and Negri characterise these belief systems and structures not as grounded in hatred, but in a form of love, albeit a corrupted form which seeks to reproduce unity and homogeneity rather than the diverse and heterogeneous positive forms of the common. This they define as evil; not evil as in the traditionally transcendent binary which stands diametrically opposed to the category of good, but as instantiations of particular forms of love and the common gone bad. This theortisation of evil,

Gives us a Spinozan explanation for why at times people fight for their servitude as though it were their salvation, why the poor sometimes support dictators, the working classes vote for right wing parties, and abused spouses and children protect their abusers. Such situations are obviously the result of ignorance, fear and superstition, but calling it false consciousness provides meager tools for transformation. Providing the oppressed with the truth and instructing them in their interests does little to change things. People fighting for their servitude is understood better as the result of love and community gone bad, failed and distorted. The first question when confronting evil then, is, what specific love went bad here? What instance of the common has been corrupted? p194

Whilst this does provide a novel approach for understanding why people fight for their servitude as though it were their salvation, one criticism to be made here is that Hardt and Negri are vague as to what kind of social forms they envision replacing ‘corrupted’ forms such as the family and the state, contending instead that these forms are currently unimaginable and must arise out out of the practical experimentation and experience of the multitude. While there is a logic which reflects their political position in refusing to project a teleology of the multitude, the failure to provide alternatives to contemporary corrupt forms of the common is somewhat unnerving, the lack of propositions for constructive alternatives to current systems makes the focus of Hardt and Negri’s theorising primarily negative, seemingly aimed at combating corrupt forms of the common without really suggesting the kind of positive alternatives they wish to see created. Where I found Commonwelath far stronger, was where Hardt and Neri reiterated some of the concrete proposals they first outlined in Empire with the addition of far more nuanced details in arguing for a living wage for all, the removal of the restriction on human movements imposed by state borders and universal open access to the commons in order to

Develop fully and put into practice the multitude’s abilities to think and cooperate with others. Such an infrastructure must include an open physical layer (including access to wires and wireless communications networks), an open logical layer (for instance, code and protocols) and an open content layer (such as cultural, intellectual and scientific works). p308

The criticism of the lack of concrete progressive forms for the multitude with respects to the family and the state feed into the second major current of criticism of their earlier works which Hardt and Negri seek to contest in Commonwealth. The first strand of critique, as advanced by the likes of Pierre Machery and Ernesto Laclau, is the argument that a plural and polyphonic choir such as Hardt and Negri’s conception of the multitude cannot function as a coherent political actor due to its heterogeneous composition. Whereas in the past the figure of the party, the people, or even the state and the nation have functioned in a way to unify differences and mobilise populations to create social transformation, and certain critics have argues that without a similar point of unification the multitude can act only as a cacophony of contradictory voices which cannot act commonly. Hardt and Negri’s retort to this is that

It is true that the organisation of singularities and decision making is not immediate and spontaneous, but that does not mean that hegemony and unification, the formation of a sovereign and unified power – whether it be a state a party or a people – is the necessary precondition for politics. Spontaneity and hegemony are not the only alternatives. The multitude can develop the power to organise itself through the conflictual and cooperative interactions of singularities in the common. p175

The second main line of critique which Hardt and Negri respond to are the arguments brought forth by Paolo Virno, Etienne Balibar, Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou, that whilst the multitude may be capable of acting as a political actor – albeit one which substantially differs from traditional forms based around unity – there is no guarantee that the consequences of such a political form would be liberatory and progressive. The actual contents of these critiques of the multitude vary widely, from Virno’s realist position which acknowledges that the formal structure of the muiltitude in now way guarantees the contents of its politics, to Zizek and Badiou’s positions which effectively argue that the multitude is merely an oppositional figure to contemporary character, and that this oppositional resistance can never be more than a mere component of that power from whence it derives, and I find myself giving more credence to Virno’s line of thought than Zizek/Badiou’s.This line of critique is dealt with far less effectively, and while Hardt and Negri do outline some very useful protocols for a liberatory or progressive politics of the multitude, and trace a genealogy of progressive political groups and movements, Virno’s critique in particular seems valid when assessing forms of contemporary networked radical Islamist groups, which exhibit many  structural properties similar to the composition of the multitude, however their ideology exhibits extreme forms of what Hardt and Negri descibe as corrupt forms of love and the common.

On the whole then, Commonwealth provides a useful exploration and expansion of a number of key concepts previously presented by Hardt and Negri, while partially addressing some of the most pertinent criticisms directed at their earlier works. As such it certainly provides interesting points for discussion and reflection for people involved in the various social and ecological movements which have grown out of the alternative globalisation movement, and provides some concrete proposals for an alternative to the current global system alongside some detailed analysis of geo-political and economic developments over the last few years. Personally though, I would recommend most readers new to Hardt and Negri’s work to start with their earlier writings, in particular Multitude, which provides a more accessible point of entry to the writings of two of the contemporary left’s most exciting political theorists.

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So it seems that after a flurry of activity for the climate swoop last week where climate activists met at six strategic locations before converging on Blackheath to set up this year’s Climate Camp the mainstream media have largely lost interest in events.

On the Guardian website today we have bibi van der Zee claiming that ‘Five days in and the campers admit things are a little boring – there are no more toilets to put up and the police have vanished. But a plan for direct action should put the zip back into things’

If you took reports like that seriously you would believe that essentially nothing has been going on at camp since the set up on Wedsnesday and Thursday last week. In fact the site has been awash with activity as the camp has hosted roughly 30-35 workshops a day in addition to the daily neighbourhood meetings.

These workshops have covered everything from creating bicycle powered sound systems to the science of climate change and the current state of geoengineering, from creating your own media to understanding the subtleties of carbon trading schemes, from communicating climate science to lay audiences to building your own wind turbines, from direct action and legal observer training to understanding the links between the arms trade and climate change, from consensus based decision making and direct democracy to creating biochar as a green energy source.

In fact there have been so many disparate workshops, seminars and debates that it would be impossible to to attend more than a fraction of them. Meanwhile, the small amount of mainstream media coverage still focusing on the camp (largely in the Guardian) sees the likes of Van der Zee moaning that the camp has come boring because there aren’t campers being beaten up by the police like at the G20. It truly indicates the sad state of corporate media when even the allegedly left wing papers are interested in issues only so long as they are presented with dramatic images of police attacking protesters.

Somewhat bizarrely in yesterday’s Observer Peter Beaumont claimed that ‘the protesters should spend more time convincing others that their actions are sound,’ it’s hard to understand what he believes the workshops on the science of climate change and the careful efforts of campers to provide factually accurate workshops which clearly delineate why they are involved in protesting around these issues, but somewhat unsurprisingly he fails to mention that any workshops are taking place, instead focusing on what he claims are Climate Camp’s ‘often hazy messages and complex inner negotiations.’ Quite how specifically targetting institutions such as the European Climate Exchange, Barclays Bank and Shell, while holding discussions and workshops which communicate precisely why these targets have been chosen can be understood as ‘hazy’ is somewhat beyond me. In fairness it merely appears to be another case of a lazy journalist writing poorly researched rubbish having been disappointed at the lack of sensationalist images of police fighting with protesters.

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Recently George Monbiot has been in the blogosphere for his exchange with Iam Plimer in which he joined the bastion of scientists, bloggers and journalists condemning Plimer’s recent book. Personally I found his debate with Paul Kingsnorth far more interesting,

Kingsnorth criticises Monbiot for seeking to create ‘Liberal Democracy 2.0′ arguing that

‘What we face is what John Michael Greer, in his book of the same name, calls a ‘long descent’ – a series of ongoing crises brought about by the factors I talked of in my first letter, which will bring an end to the all-consuming culture we have imposed upon the Earth. I’m sure ’some good will come’ from this, for that culture is a weapon of planetary mass destruction.’

Monbiot’s retort is that a series of crises would mean billions deaths and an immense amount of suffering, and that this scenario would likely see

‘instead of gathering as free collectives of happy householders, the survivors of this collapse will be subject to the will of people seeking to monopolise remaining resources. Thiswill is likely to be imposed through violence. Political accountability will be a distant memory. The chances of conserving any resource in these circumstances are approximately zero.’

Consequently Monbiot argues that

‘Strange as it seems, a de-fanged, steady-state version of the current settlement might offer the best prospect humankind has ever had of avoiding collapse. For the first time in our history we are well-informed about the extent and causes of our ecological crises, know what should be done to avert them and have the global means – if only the political will were present – of preventing them.’

Of the two perspectives pertaining to the probable and possible outcomes for humanity in the medium term future I would say that I more closely associate with Monbiot’s position of remaining hopefull despite mounting evidence that climate change will create massive detrimental impacts to civilisation as we know it.

Similarly I consur with Monbiot that the likely consequences of inaction are widening global inequalities, which under the current geopolitical climate of nationalism and antagonism fuelled by a neo-liberal drive for competition and self-interest will likely translate into war between nation states for resources, the collapse of social welfare where it does currently exist and a vast amount of suffering for billions. I also agree that this kind of scenario would not represent a positive development.

Where I feel that I differ from both authors however is in the framing of the debate itself. Civilisations are not static objects which can be saved (preserved intact) or destroyed (completely) as some kind of binary pair, they evolve as dynamic processes dependent on a multitude of factors. This means that the actions we take now are relevant as these actions will have an effect on which of the many potential futures we realise. The more sustainable technologies are developed and implemented, the more ghg emissions are cut, the more social solidarity and a sense of community, both locally and globally are constructed in the here and now, the better the prospects for the future will be. The difference may only be a small one, but that will largely depend on how many people decide to actively engage with the problem – larger actions now mean better conditions for the future.

Even if the future looks decidely gloomy, and both Monbiot and Kingsnorth argue that they are, the actions of people today still has some agency (not the myth of unilateral control Kingsnorth critiques, but an active factor in a dynamic causal network) in deciding what the future will be like. While individually our actions are only minutely consequential, collectively they can be massive. That is why I believe in building networks of change from the grassroots up.

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Having mounted a public relations campaign in an attampt to restore the image of the met after the G20 debacle, the police have decided to codename their operation for this year’s Climate Camp Operation Bentham.

The operation’s moniker is a reference to the English social theorist and philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Bentham’s most frequently used concept is that of the panopticon.  The panopticon is essentially a prison where the inmates are constantly aware that they may be under surveillance but cannot know whether anyone is actually watching. Consequently they are forced to act as though they are constantly being surveyed and so internalise the process of surveillance .

The concept of the panopticon was utilised by French theorist Michel Foucault as a metaphor for modern ‘disciplinary socities.’ With the police using badge sized cameras to record activists alongside the report that all campers are to be photographed by the police, we shall wait and see whether the police tactics do indeed revolve around creating an Orwellian situation of self-censoring activists

Alternatively, if the Police do adopt a far more relaxed and less confrontational attitude towards Climate Camp, it will hopefully mean that the huge amount of media attention generated by the camp will actually focus on the issues the camp campaigns around, the workshops meetings and debates which happen at the camp, the array of sustainable technologies used by the camp, the consensus based direct democracy practiced by the camp, all of which has been sadly lacking in the coverage of Climate Camps at Kingsnorth and the G20.

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For coverage of tomorrow and Thursday’s G20 protests acrosss london be sure to check out London Indymedia and UK Indymedia who will be providing live updates on the day’s actions.

As the Police have been talking up the ‘summer of rage’ before any kind of protest/demonstrations have occured it seems likely that there is likely to be some very heavy handed actions initiated by the police, and keeping protestors abreast of events while letting the world know what is really going on in the streets seems like a hugely important job for grassroots independent media.

‘Help report what’s happening by sending your reports from the streets. There are two Indymedia reporting numbers running 28th March – 2nd April: 07588 479 039 : For calling in reports from events – remember the ‘who what when where why’ – and also for sending txt msg updates and MMS picture messages.
08444 870 157: For calling in to leave a short audio recording that can be uploaded to the website. (If you do send pictures or audio messages, include the location and time) Twitter: If you are using twitter and have a report or update for Indymedia, include the hashtag #imcg20 in your message’

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The Three Ecologies is one of the final works published by Felix Guattari (1930-1992), a French philosopher, political militant and institutional psychoanalyst. While Guattari is perhaps best known for his co-authored projects with Gilles Deleuze; Anti-Oedipus, A Thousand Plateaus and What is Philosophy; The Three Ecologies provides an excellent insight into Guattari’s stance on politics, social movements and subjectivity.

The concept of the three ecologies; three interconnected networks existing at the scales of mind, society and the environment, was originally formulated by influential theorist Gregory Bateson in Steps to An Ecology of Mind, however Guattari seeks to elaborate and refine the concept in more detail, while additionally adding a more radical form of poststructuralist Marxism to Bateson’s ecological system.

Pre-empting the global networks of power and resistance described by Hardt and Negri in Empire and Multitude, Guattari argues that ‘The only true response to the ecological crisis is on a global scale, provided that it brings about an authentic political, social and cultural revolution, reshaping the objectives of the production of both material and immaterial assets.’ (28) Whereas previous revolutionary movements have concentrated on creating political changes at the level of the nation state, Guattari claims that the shared nature of the environment that we live in, and our collective impacts on it such as anthropogenic climate change, reveal the commons on which we are ultimately dependent, and thus the ecosophical position he advocates is one of global resistance to what he describes as ‘Integrated Wold Capitalism,’ which is very close to a less deeply theorised version of Hardt and Negri’s Empire, and resonates with Castells’ delineation of the rise of the network society, and Jameson’s understanding of postmodern capitalism.

Such a global and unificatory position may at first appear to contrast sharply with commonly understood models of postmodernism, which following Lyotard claim that postmodernity is marked by the death of the modernist meta-narrative, and indeed some such as George Myerson have claimed that ecology, and ecological crises mark the end of the fragmented and partial era of postmodernism. To such claims, Guattari argues that ‘The ecosophical perspective does not totally exclude unifying objectives such as the struggle against world hunger, an end to deforestation or to the blind proliferation of the nuclear industries; but it will no longer be a question of depending on reductionist, stereotypical orderworlds which only expropriate other more singular problematics and lead to the promotion of charismatic leaders.’ (34) While ecosophy can hold unifying ideas and objectives, these do not insist on a scalar homogeneity – difference and plurality are encouraged at each of the levels of ecology, mind, society and environment – however these differences themselves are not absolute, and so limited unifying objectives aimed at securing freedoms and rights for all subjects are possible under such a philosophical framework.

Consequently Guattari’s argument is that ‘Environmental ecology, as it exists today, has barely begun to prefigure the generalised ecology that I advocate here, the aim of which will be to radically decentre social struggles and ways of coming into one’s own psyche… Ecology must stop being associated with the image of a small nature-loving minority. Ecology in my sense questions the whole of subjectivity and capitalistic power formations.’ (2) For Guattari then, as with Bateson, ecology is far more than a concern for the environment, it is an epistemological system based on an understanding of nonlinear systems governed by feedback loops and nonlinear causality. An understanding of connectivity, of balanced systems, network topography and complexity theory are fundamental to the way in which this ecosophical model operates. In contrast to a capitalist system predicated on economic growth, Guattari’s ecosophy seeks balance allied with a reevaluation of what we value; going well beyond GDP as an indicator of quality of life, in what can be understood as a decentred socialism, or ecologically informed variant of anarchism, where goals are collectively negotiated rather than dictated by economic elites.

According to Guattari, creating such an ecosophical society requires a reorientation of thought, so that we understand ourselves, the society we live in and the ecosystem we inhabit as three different scales of ecology, linked by a series of processes (or abstract machines). ‘Now more than ever, nature cannot be separated from culture; in order to comprehend the interactions between ecosystems, the mecanosphere and the social and individual Universes of reference, we must learn to think ‘transversally’. (43) Indeed Guattari goes as far as to argue that ‘It is quite wrong to make a distinction between action on the psyche, the socius and the environment. Refusal to face up to the erosion of these three areas, as the media would have us do verges on a strategic infantilization of opinion and a destructive neutralization of democracy. We need to kick the habit of sedative discourse, particularly the ‘fix’ of television, in order to apprehend the world through the interchangeable lenses of the three ecologies.’ (42)

The role of mediated communications occupies a central position for Guattari, and he is particularly scathing about the effects of television as a centralising and hierarchical media which privileges economic and social elites’ perspective on public discourse, effectively negating the potentiality for a dialogic and democratic debate about how to create more sustainable and equitable relationships within and between the three ecologies. Indeed, Guattari states that ‘An essential programmatic point for social ecology will be to make the transition from the mass media era to the post-media age, in which the media will be re appropriated by a multitude of groups capable of directing its resingularization. Despite the seeming impossibility of such an eventuality, the current unparalleled level of media-related alienation is in no way an inherent necessity.’

The three ecologies was written a few years before the creation of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee, and Guattari’s death meant that he never saw the explosion of user-generated content and dialogic forms of communication which are currently to be found online, and it would have been fascinating to learn as to whether Guattari would classify some of the co-creative models for collaborative communication such as; Indymedia’s open publishing or the wiki’s used by sites such as Wikipedia and Crocodyl, as examples of ecosophic media.

One hugely positive message to be found within the ecological warning of impending disaster across all three ecological registers (the increase of mental health disorders and stress related disorder; warfare, failed states run by competing warlords, the rise of right wing religious fundamentalisms in both the East and the West, and of course the ecological crises of anthropogenic global warming and natural resource depletion) is that the solutions to these problems are already at our doorsteps. ‘Wherever we turn, there is the same nagging paradox: on the one hand, the continuous development of new techno scientific means to potentially resolve the dominant ecological issues and restate socially useful activities on the surface of the planet, and, on the other hand the inability of organised social forces and constituted subjective formations to take hold of these resources in order to make them work.’ (31) Industrial capitalism has enhanced our knowledge and technological capabilities beyond belief. Yet despite this technical and scientific advancement we still are faced with massive inequalities of wealth, poverty on an enormous scale, millions of annual deaths from easily treatable diseases and numerous wars, both between and inside states. As Martin Luther King famously stated back in the 1960′s “We have learned to swim the seas like fish, and fly the skies like birds, but we have not learned to walk the earth like brothers.’ Guattari’s ecosophy then is a philosophical attempt to remedy this situation, calling for a new way of understanding the world and our place in it allied with a new method of being to create an ecologically sustainable and socially equitable world. (more…)

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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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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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The latest offering from one of Britain’s best known social and environmental activists is a compilation of over 50 of his newspaper articles written over the last few years. As such, for avid Monbiot fans there isn’t really any new material here, however for those seeking an easy to read introduction which demonstrates the breadth of Monbiot’s research and consequent opinions Bring on the Apocalypse summarises the main areas Monbiot cas campaigned around.

While Monbiot is best known (at least in the UK) for his campaigning around climate change, and his previous book Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning, where he aims to illustrate how Britain could implement a 90% cut in carbon dioxide emissions without reverting to a pre-industrial society, Bring on the Apocalypse covers a broad range of topic, with the book being divided into six parts, each of which contains a selection of arguments dealing with the topic. In order, these sections are

1. Arguments with God: In which Monbiot addresses religious fundamentalism, particularly American Evangelical Christianity

2. Arguments with Nature: In which Monbiot addresses environmental issues, particularly anthropogenic climate change

3. Arguments with War: In which Monbiot addresses the War on Terror, especially the War in Iraq

4. Arguments with Power: Which deals with corporate exploitation, transnational non-democratic institutions such as the IMF and issues surrounding neoliberal globalization

5. Arguments with Money: Which investigates various ways in which corporations and the super rich elite who benefit from their prominence avoid paying taxes, and have generally attempted to avoid participating in welfare state styled socialist democracies, preferring a cut throat privatised state whereby the rich get richer and look after themselves while the poor are left to their own devices

6. Arguments with Culture: Wherein Monbiot examines aspects of contemporary British culture, such as anti-speed camera organizations and drivers associations groups whose individualistic values concur with neoliberal ideology, but conflict with Monbiot’s preference for a society based on free people rather than free markets.

In general I found myself nodding along to the vast majority of what Monbiot has to say across a broad range of topics. His knowledge on a vast array of topics is exemplary, and he consistently puts forwards logical and well-reasoned arguments. Part of the reason I enjoyed this book so much was the way that it addresses so many topics, giving a holistic perspective on many of the key areas where social struggles can create a beneficial impact on other people’s lives. It is rare to find a book which is accessible, enjoyable and manages to cover environmental activism, the anti war movement, a critique of aspects of contemporary culture allied with a rejection of religious fundamentalism.

A general criticism of the book would be that on each issue covered, there is far more left out than left in, however given the form of the book this is entirely to be expected, and Monbiot has indeed published far more comprehensively on Climate Change (Heat: How to Stop the Planet Buring), the rise of Corporatism (Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Great Britain), and the anti-democratic nature of the international capitalist institutions and some thoughts as to how to replace them with democratic, transparent and publicly accountable replacements (The Age of Consent).

My favourite quote from this book is contained in the Arguments with God section, where Monbiot addresses reincarnation/the afterlife and gives a materialist perspective not dissimilar to my own:

‘I like the idea of literal reincarnation: that the molecules of which I am composed will, once I have rotted, be incorporated into other organisms. Bits of me will be pushing through the growing tips of trees, will creep over them as caterpillars, will hunt those catepillars as birds. When I die I would like to be buried in a fashion that ensures that no part of me is wasted. Then I can claim to have some use after all.

Is this not better than the awful lottery of judgment? Is a future we can predict not more comforting than the whims of inscrutable authority? Is eternal death not a happier prospect than eternal life? The atoms of which we are composed, which we have borrowed momentarily from the ecosphere, will be recycled until the universe collapses. This is our continuity, our eternity. Why should anyone want more.’

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