The dark tidings of Uri Gordon

Published in 2009 as part of an anthology of contemporary anarchism, Uri Gordon’s essay, “Dark tidings: Anarchist politics in the age of collapse”, remains an important reflection on anarchist theory and practice, which we endeavour to share and diffuse in this post.

Dark tidings: anarchist politics in the age of collapse

Uri Gordon

The writing has been on the wall for decades. Only large helpings of ignorance, arrogance, and denial could conspire to portray an entirely rational prognosis as the irrational rantings of a doom-crying fringe. But now, as reality begins to slap us repeatedly in the face, pattern recognition is finally and rapidly sinking in. There is no averting our eyes any longer: industrial civilization is coming down.

Already the whirlwind surrounds us. Energy prices shoot up, reflecting the recent peak in global oil production and its inevitable decline. Hurricanes, droughts, and erratic weather become more frequent and intense, bringing home the consequences of man-made global warming. Meanwhile soil and water quality continue to deteriorate, and biodiversity is crashing, with species extinctions at 10,000 times the normal rate. The trenchant food price crisis now engulfing the world is the strongest indication yet that no return to business as usual can be expected. Rather, what we are encountering is the final confrontation between neoliberal capitalism’s need for infinite growth and the finite resources of a single planet. No amount of financial speculation or hi-tech intervention will buy the system its way out of the inevitable crash. The time of the turning has come, and we are the generation with the dubious fortune to live and die in its throes.

Many contributions to this volume have celebrated the flowering of anarchist activities and intellectual concerns, as anti-capitalist opposition resurges all over the planet. Yet when coming to offer an international perspective on the future of anarchist praxis, we face dark tidings. Anarchists and their allies are now required to project themselves into a future of growing instability and deterioration, and to re-imagine their tactics and strategies in view of the converging crises that will define the twenty-first century.

This chapter takes stock of the already- unfolding trajectory of global capitalism’s collapse, speculates on some of its social consequences, and situates them as challenges to the future of anarchist praxis. Clearly there is no use approaching this task from a seemingly neutral point of view, one that pretends to simply anticipate trends without going into recommendation, promotion, and encouragement. Inasmuch as an attempt is being made to envision rather than merely predict, there is room for suggesting priorities that anarchists might be encouraged to endorse in the coming years.

Collapse and recuperation

In his recent bestseller, Jared Diamond (2005) surveys the rise and fall of several societies as diverse and separated by time and geography as the Viking settlements of Greenland, Easter Island in the Pacific, and Mesa Verde in the American Southwest. In each case natural systems were abused and resource use was pushed far beyond the point of sustainability. Strained to a tipping point, these societies all collapsed – and Diamond obviously believes that the same will happen to our own global civilization.

The peak in global oil production marks a clear tipping point in this context (for information and updates see www.resillience.org). Without cheap oil there can be no commercial aviation, no monster wheat combines, no communication satellites, and probably no skyscrapers. Apples will not be flown 5,000 miles and sold in strip-lit supermarkets, and cheap appliances and materials will not be imported from China. Modern food systems in particular are almost entirely dependent on oil, from the manufacture of fertilizers and pesticides through the powering of irrigation systems and farm machinery and on to packaging and transport. Without cheap oil, both factory farming and global trade – as well as many other systems we take for granted – will not be possible. There is no real question about the eventuality of collapse, only about its pace and consequences.

To better understand the behavior of complex systems in crisis, we can turn to Kay Summer and Harry Halpin’s recent discussion of dynamic equilibrium and phase transition. Like biological organisms and the Internet, global capitalism is a regenerating complex system, maintained in a state of dynamic rather than static equilibrium. Constant inputs of materials or energy keep the system in flux, oscillating back and forth within certain parameters, like a ball rolling in a valley –also referred to as the system’s “basin of attraction.” However,

[a] massive disturbance, or a tiny disturbance of just the right   kind, [can] set off a positive feedback loop, to get the ball to roll right out of that valley and into another basin of attraction … these major changes, from one valley to another – known as phase transitions – are often preceded by periods of “critical instability”, during which the system is under great strain. It can lurch widely, exhibiting seemly chaotic behavior, before settling into a new, more stable, state. These periods are known as bifurcation points, because it appears that the system could go one way or another.

(Summer and Halpin 2007: 89)

The interesting times we are living in represent precisely such a period of critical instability. Factors like energy scarcity and climate change are pushing the system increasingly closer to the margins of its basin of attraction, with the resultant collapse representing a phase transition of the same order of magnitude as the ones that led from hunting and gathering to agriculture and, more recently, from agriculture to industrial capitalism.

To be sure, one can only take this way of thinking so far when coming to discuss the finer details of social and political developments and their significance for anarchist praxis. For one thing, thinking of a system as a whole obscures its own internal contradictions and rivalries, which will influence how the phase transition plays out socially and politically in different countries. Moreover, growing energy scarcity will likely halt and eventually reverse many of the exchanges associated with economic and cultural globalization, leading to fragmentation and a heterogeneity of post-collapse trajectories. To risk straining the metaphor, imagine that the rolling ball itself is made of liquid mercury, and at the point of bifurcation breaks up into several drops that flow into various interconnected basins of attraction.

How can these new political realities be described? Here one’s vision obviously becomes murkier, but it seems natural to speak of three broad options: new social orders based on freedom and equality, modified social orders based on continued oppression and inequality, or a breakdown of social order altogether. In other words: grassroots communism, eco-authoritarianism, or civil war.

Anarchists and their allies are already deeply involved in activities that pull towards the first basin of attraction, and I will return to them later in the discussion. However, for the moment I would like to spend a little more time on the second basin of attraction. The anticipation of establishment responses to collapse is crucial if anarchists and their allies are to remain ahead of the game, rather than merely reactive, considering that hierarchical institutions are already reconditioning themselves to govern collapse.

In this context, recuperation remains a central strategy for preserving the hegemony of hierarchical social institutions. Recuperation is the process whereby capitalist society defuses material or cultural threats to itself by re-coding and absorbing them into its own logic (cf. Situationist International 1966).

Today, the environmental agenda itself is being subject to a massive campaign of this sort. On the surface, we are finally seeing environmental issues enjoying a prominent place in the mainstream discourses of Western publics. Yet increased awareness of climate change and peak oil, as well as to the excesses that have created the perpetual crisis, are accompanied by a wholesale erasure of the radical conclusions that environmental movements have attached to their warnings. Since the 1960s, environmental activists and writers have emphasized: (1) the essential contradiction between ecological stability and incessant growth, (2) the ideological connection between anthropocentric dominion over nature and the exploitative relations between genders and classes, and (3) the need for equality and decentralization as part of any genuinely sustainable society. In contrast, political and business elites have so far been rather successful in promoting a strategy that frames the issues as technical and managerial rather than social, and that promotes technological innovation and managed markets in an attempt to manufacture enough stability to keep the system running. Thus we are witnessing:

•The normalization of environmental and resource crises, whereby floods, extinctions, and shortages are packaged as an acceptable facet of contemporary life.

•The commodification of the atmosphere, as marketable debt mechanisms are introduced to regulate the emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases (Bachram 2004).

•The re-branding of nuclear energy as a “clean” alternative to fossil fuels, unbelievably reversing its status as a hallmark of destruction (Nuclear Energy Institute 2007), with similar efforts underway to integrate genetic engineering into “sustainable” agriculture and land management (Dewar 2007).

•The absorption of ecological consciousness into consumer culture via new organic food and clothing markets, “green” shopping malls, and the personal carbon offsetting industry (Monbiot 2007).

•A shift in international policy from the promotion of “sustainable development” to an agenda of mitigation, risk management, and damage control (Welsh and Blüdhorn 2007).

Perhaps the clearest outward indication of the elite strategy of recuperation is the transformed function of the Group of Eight (G8) summits in response to the early rituals of demonstration and disruption. As the writers of the Turbulence Collective (2007) observe,

[t]he G8 reinvented itself [and it] became a media-circus that presents itself as the only forum that can deal with global concerns. In other words, as the G8 came under attack, its very purpose became the relegitimation of its global authority. And it learnt its lessons well. At Gleneagles, a big NGO operation sponsored by the UK government saw 300,000 people turn out, not to demonstrate against the G8, but to welcome and “lobby” it in favour of debt relief and aid for Africa […] in Heiligendamm […] the G8 had once again moved on, now seeking to draw legitimacy by seeming to respond to widespread concern about climate change.

All of these processes clearly illustrate an attempt to re-code environmental challenges as opportunities for capitalism, through the creation of new markets and instruments of global governance. Yet such an outward “greening” of capitalist accumulation will only further exacerbate inequalities, create new enclosures, and impose regimes of austerity on the poor even as business elites cash in on the benefits.

Yet capitalism can only go so far in delaying its confrontation with the objective limits to its growth. Thus the ultimate goal of these recuperative strategies is to buy time, prolonging the period of manageable crisis so as to allow hierarchical institutions to adapt away from capitalism. While dwindling energy resources will inevitably require a transition to more local and labor-intensive forms of production, this transition can also be an elite-driven process. Such a process would aim at creating post-capitalist models of alienated production that, while appropriate for a declining resource base, will continue to harness human productive power to arrangements of economic imprisonment. If successful in the long run, such a strategy may usher in new forms of feudalism in which labor is at least partly decommodified and replaced by serfdom – while armed elites retain privileged access to the fruits of a dwindling resource base (cf. Caffenztis 2008).

Since capitalism’s strategy of recuperation can only go so far (not least so because the accumulated experience in anti-capitalist social movements allows them to see through it), its companion strategy – repression – will also remain at the center of establishment responses to collapse. It is in this context that post-modern forms of authoritarian governance continue to be refined – from electronic surveillance and genetic profiling to the growing power of private security firms and on to the planned consolidation of NATO and the European security architecture (Gipfelsoli 2008).

The continuing development of innovations in social control is taking place not only in anticipation of potential geopolitical threats – from resource wars to mass migrations of environmental refugees – but also as a bulwark against domestic dissent, as self-organized grassroots alternatives based on community and mutual aid continue to proliferate against the elite strategy of containment and managed devolution.

Consequences for praxis

What is the significance of these developments for the future of anarchist praxis? In order to answer this question, we may classify the myriad actions and projects that anarchists undertake under three broad categories: delegitimation, direct action (both destructive and creative), and networking. While these categories are not mutually exclusive – a particular instance of anarchist praxis can fall into more than one of them – they do offer useful rubrics for organizing the discussion. In considering each category of praxis in relation to the discussion above, attention is drawn to a number of relevant priorities in each.

Delegitimation refers to anarchist interventions in public discourse, verbal or symbolic, whose message is to deny the basic legitimacy of dominant social institutions and eat away at the premises of representative politics, class society, patriarchy and so on. Unlike protests, which tend to be directed against particular sets of policies and geared to making demands on government and industry to change their behavior, messages of delegitimation are directed against the very existence of hierarchical institutions and implicitly or explicitly call for their abolition. Thus, anarchist participation in actions against the World Trade Organization or the International Monetary Fund went beyond demanding change in these institutions’ policies, rather using the protests as an opportunity to delegitimate capitalism itself. Similarly, anarchist involvement against the Iraq war tended to go beyond highlighting the Bush administration’s contravention of international law or its dubious justifications for invasion, focusing rather on the war’s contribution to capitalist expansion, to the stifling of dissent, and to the“health of the state” more generally.

In the context of anarchist politics in the age of collapse, delegitimation will continue to be a crucial element – increasingly so as a countermeasure to capital’s efforts to absorb the converging crises of the twenty-first century. This has to do not only with the recasting of environmental challenges as market opportunities for those capable of taking advantage of them, but also – and perhaps more importantly – with their deployment as an instrument of social fear. In line with the decline of the welfare state and its functions over the past decades, governments can no longer base their legitimacy on promises of welfare, education, or health. Rather, their self-justification hinges on their promises to protect their citizens from drummed-up menaces, ranging from terrorism to juvenile delinquency. Climate, energy, and food crises can easily become a new weapon in this arsenal. As long as the alarmist talk is not backed by any form of action that would jeopardize the existing structure of wealth and power, environmental threats are a convenient way to keep the public scared and dependent on established institutions.

Against the campaign of induced collective amnesia intended to detach environmental and social chaos from the capitalist system that created them, anarchists and their allies would be drawn to put forward the clear message that the same social forces and structures responsible for this mess should not be trusted to get us out of it. Such a task will increase in difficulty the more that Western governments move in an ostensibly environmentalist and socially progressive direction, as is likely to be the case in the United States and a number of European countries in the coming years. Yet the strength of anarchist perspectives is in their ability to put forward basic critiques that unmask such developments for the time-buying strategies that they are.

In this context, the obverse possibility should also be considered – that rather than an outwardly progressive turn, the effects of collapse will in some countries encourage the rise of eco-fascism. This term refers to the already-extant efforts of parties and organizations on the far right to put an ecological veneer on their authoritarian and racist agendas (Zimmerman 1997). This includes, for example, using arguments about ecological carrying capacity to justify curbs on immigration, or the twisted incorporation of the spiritual and counter-enlightenment content of radical environmentalism into an ideology of integral nationalism (recall German National Socialism’s celebration of a mystical connection between the German people and its soil). Eco-fascism is an especially dangerous enemy because it often presents itself as an enemy of multinational capitalism, though in the final analysis it is parasitical upon it (Hammerquist and Sakai 2002). Anarchists are already at the forefront of resistance to far right forces in Europe and North America, and almost alone when it comes to confronting them in the streets. No doubt this aspect of activity will remain a strong priority, now with increased dedication to pre-empting the far right’s attempts to take advantage of growing instability and dissatisfaction.

This leads us directly to the central area of anarchist praxis – direct action. This term refers to action without intermediaries, whereby an individual or a group uses their own power and resources to change reality, according to their own desires. Anarchists understand direct action as a matter of taking social change into one’s own hands, by intervening directly in a situation rather than appealing to an external agent (typically a government) for its rectification. Most commonly, direct action is viewed under its preventative or destructive guise. If people object, for instance, to the clear-cutting of a forest, then taking direct action means that rather than petitioning or engaging in a legal process, they would intervene literally to prevent the clear cutting – by chaining themselves to the trees, or pouring sugar into the gas-tanks of the bulldozers, or other acts of disruption and sabotage – their goal being to directly hinder or halt the project.

In addition to environmental defense, we can expect direct action in its destructive or preventative context to become increasingly important in the area of resistance to new technologies. In his contribution to this volume, Steve Best has already examined this anti-technological dimension of contemporary anarchism. On the present reading, resistance to new technologies will become more and more significant as institutional responses to ecological crises center around the irresponsible deployment of nuclear power, biotechnologies, and geo-engineering as “fixes” for an increasingly destabilizing ecosystem. What should be emphasized in this context is that one need not adopt a comprehensive anti-civilization perspective in order to endorse such actions. In other words, you don’t have to be a primitivist to be a Luddite.

In an age of declining fossil fuels and the climate changes perpetrated by their combustion, a new generation of nuclear power stations will almost certainly be pushed forward by government and industry. As mentioned above, the nuclear industry is already massively re-branding itself as a “clean” alternative to oil, coal, and gas, and governments are following suit. Yet nuclear power can only buy time for capitalism and Western over-consumption, at the price of permanent contamination. While public campaigning and legal measures may have some success in limiting the creation of new nuclear power stations, direct action will no doubt come to the fore as such measures encounter their limitations. Anarchists and their allies will very likely have to intervene to directly hinder construction, and we may well expect a new round of anti-nuclear struggles to emerge very soon as a defining feature of anarchist praxis. This issue is already being given attention at the yearly Climate Camps, first organized in Britain and already being emulated in Germany, Australia, and the United States (see: www.climatecamp.org.uk).

The trenchant world food crisis will also likely result in an institutional push to expand the deployment of genetically modified food, ostensibly as a way of gaining higher yields, but at the price of ecosystem contamination and a further consolidation of corporate power and control over farmers’ livelihoods. Anarchist resistance to genetically modified (GM) crops already flowered in the1990s, especially in European countries, which unlike the US were not as rapidly swept by commercial growing. In solidarity with militant campaigns against GM crops by peasant movements in Latin America and South Asia, anarchists have played a large part in both campaigning and direct action. “Crop-busting” may well return to the fore of anarchist praxis, even as they promote more sustainable alternatives.

Finally, nanotechnology – the direct manipulation of atoms and molecules – is increasingly entering the consciousness of activists as the latest front of technological assault on society and the biosphere. Taking advantage of property changes that occur when substances are reduced to nano-scale dimensions, a host of novel products incorporating them are already on the market (ETC Group 2003). Nanotechnologies are not only an enabling technology that enhances corporate power in all sectors, but also a platform for the potential convergence of biotechnology, computing, and neuroscience, as the life/non-life barrier is broken on the atomic scale.

More immediately, initiatives enabled by nanotechnology are among those being forwarded as part of the looming menace of geoengineering – the intentional, large-scale manipulation of planetary systems to bring about environmental change, particularly to counteract the undesired side effects of other human activities (ETC Group 2007). Among the many proposals currently being discussed are “fertilizing” the oceans with iron nanoparticles to increase phytoplankton blooms that sequester CO2; utilizing nanoengineered membranes to store compressed CO2 in abandoned mines, active oil wells, and sub-oceanic caverns; and blasting sulfate-based aerosols into the stratosphere to defect sunlight.

Efforts to counter these measures through international law are already taking place. The signatory governments of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), for example, were successfully lobbied in mid-2008 to unanimously agree on a wide-ranging “de-facto moratorium” on ocean fertilization activities. Yet these measures are limited in scope and enforceability – for example, one ocean fertilization company, Climos Inc. of San Francisco, appears to be moving full steam ahead in defiance of international consensus. Hence, direct action may become the only way to prevent dangerous gambling with the stability of planetary systems, the result of the same logic that has already destabilized them to a great degree.

Besides the destructive and preventative aspects of direct action, the term may also signify a constructive and creative enterprise – the self-organized generation of alternatives to capitalism on the ground. These efforts represent utopian experiments in the making, a prefigurative politics aiming to build a new world within the shell of the old. As the writers of the Emergency Exit Collective (2008:5–6) point out, numerous efforts of this kind are already in existence around the planet – far wider than the efforts of anarchists themselves:

From new forms of direct democracy of indigenous communities like El Alto in Bolivia or self-managed factories in Paraguay, to township movements in South Africa, farming cooperatives in India, squatters’ movements in Korea, experiments in permaculture in Europe or “Islamic economics” among the urban poor in the Middle East. We have seen the development of thousands of forms of mutual aid association [that] share a common desire to mark a practical break with capitalism, and which, most importantly, hold out the prospect of creating new forms of planetary commons.

Through the retrieval of commons, people become increasingly capable of releasing themselves from dependence on capitalism and hollowing it out from within. In the coming years, the creation of self-managed alternatives based on commons will become ever more urgent, as communities face the consequences of declining energy resources and climate change. Indeed, such practices may be our only hope for passing through collapse in a way that will result in liberatory and life-affirming social realities, rather than in nightmares of authoritarianism or wholesale destruction.

For anarchists and their allies, it will become increasingly important to be involved in building independent, sustainable alternatives and community self-sufficiency. The growing interest among anti-capitalists in permaculture, natural building, and other aspects of practical ecology is an encouraging move in this direction (for a useful online gateway into this field, see www.permacultureactivist.net). Constructive direct action in this vein is especially relevant in the advanced capitalist countries, where most anarchists are located, since these are societies where both community ties and basic skills have been thoroughly eroded. In both urban and rural projects, the combination of self-sufficiency and egalitarian social relations can amount to a powerful form of propaganda by the deed, displaying attractive models that people can implement. Such models offer not only empowerment but also steps towards food and energy security, and towards independence from an increasingly precarious wage labor market with few remaining social safety nets.

This is where the final category of anarchist praxis – networking – comes to the fore. In both their destructive and constructive direct action efforts, anarchists are acting within a much broader social field and their successes will largely depend on solidarity and cooperation with constituencies outside their own core networks. In this context, the cultural logic of networking that has become a central feature of anarchist political praxis will hopefully continue to bear fruit, as anarchists and their allies extend their ties with additional communities in struggle – from migrants and refugees to the crashing middle classes.

All this does not mean that anarchists should position themselves as a vanguard that leads the masses towards revolution, but rather that they could function as arear guard that seeks only to encourage and protect the autonomy and grass roots orientation of emergent resistances. In the context of building a new society, this would entail subverting attempts to absorb local self-reliance into a capitalist and/or authoritarian framework and – if this is successful – defending self-managed communities as they come under various forms of marginalization and attack.

Ultimately, however, there are no guarantees. Anarchist agency will remain necessary under all conditions, even – and perhaps more so – after the collapse of global capitalism. As Noam Chomsky (1986) argues, anarchism constitutes “an unending struggle, since progress in achieving a more just society will lead to new insight and understanding of forms of oppression that may be concealed in traditional practice and consciousness.” Even under the most favorable scenario, anarchists will have to respond to the re-emergence of patterns of domination within and/or among communities, even if at a certain point in time they have been consciously overcome. Eternal vigilance will remain the price of liberty.

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For further work by Uri Gordon, clique here for his blog.

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