Carlos Taibo: Collapse

Photographs by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre from the series Ruins of Detroit 2005-2010

Carlos Taibo’s most recent monograph is a sustained and detailed study of the probable and imminent collapse of contemporary capitalism, its causes and the possible consequences that may follow.  The essay also places those who describe themselves as anti-authoritarian or anarchist opponents of capitalism before the need to think through and act politically in the context of the collapse.  Taibo’s work is a step in that direction.

We share below, in translation, Taibo’s own summary of some of the main theses of the text, as published on his own website, nuevo DESorden (15/10/2016).  

I have just published a book entitled Collapse: Terminal capitalism, ecosocial transition, ecofascism (Los libros de la Catarata, 2016).  I allow myself here to summarise, with a fundamentally pedagogical aim, some of the theses that I defend in this work.  I do it furthermore with the certainty that the debate relative to an eventual general collapse of the system that we live under is flagrantly absent as much in the disinformation media as well as among those politically responsible.  Having said this, I want to add that I am in no way in a position to affirm emphatically that this general collapse will come about, and even less to be able to state the date of such an event.  I limit myself to pointing out that this collapse is probable.  Not only this: that the information that continues to arrive invites the conclusion that it is ever more probable, something which, on its own, should invite the adoption of a strategy of reflection, prudence and, obviously, action.

1. What is the collapse?

The collapse is a process, or a moment, from which follow various very delicate consequences: substantial and irreversible changes in many relations, profound alterations in what is referred to as basic necessities, significant reductions in the size of the human population, a general loss of complexity in all domains – accompanied by a growing fragmentation and a regress in the flows of centralisation -, the disappearance of previously existing institutions and, in the end, the failure of legitimising ideologies and many of the mechanisms of communication of the antecendent order.

It is important to stress anyhow that some of the characteristics that are attributed to the collapse are not necessarily negative.  This is the case with those that refer to re-ruralisation, to the gains in local autonomy or a general regression in hierarchical relations.  Furthermore, it is reasonable to suggest that the concept of collapse has certain ethnocentric dimension: it is very difficult – or very easy – to explain what is the collapse to a child born in the Gaza strip; it is less so, by contrast, to do so among us.

2. What are the predictable causes of a general collapse of the system?

According to a widespread view, and controversial, it would be necessary to identify two principal causes for the collapse, with the understanding that in the background others would be at work which in this instance could acquire a prominent role or serve to multiply tension.  The two major causes are climate change and the exhaustion of the primary energy resources that we employ.

In relation to climate change, it seems inevitable that the average temperature of the planet will increase at least two degrees with respect to the average before the industrial era.  When this moment is reached, no one will know what will come after, beyond the certainty that it will not be anything particularly healthy.  What are known, on the other hand, are the expected consequences of climate change: in addition to an increase in the temperatures that will result – that is already with us – an increase in sea level, a progressive melting of the poles, the disappearance of many species, the extension of desertification and deforestation, and, lastly, growing problems in agricultural and livestock activities.

With regards to the exhaustion of primary energy resouces, the first thing that has to be emphasised is our dramatic dependence on fossil fuels.  If we renounce petroleum, natural gas and coal, nothing would remain of our thermoindustrial civilisation.  According to one estimate, without these combustible fuels, 67% of the planet’s population would perish.  Antonio Turiel maintains that the peak of the combined sources of nonrenewable energy will be reached in 2018, such that the production of these will ineluctably decrease and their prices increase in a scenario in which ever more energy will be called upon to produce increasingly less energy.  Even though it is possible to imagine changes in the combination of sources that we today employ, with a greater weight being assinged to, for example, renewables and coal, there are no short or medium term substitutes for the current sources.  Any change would demand unquestionablly extremely onerous transformations.

Among the phenomena that accompany the collapse, should it occur, relief should also be given to the following: (a) the demographic crisis; (b) an extremely delicate social situation, with more than three billion human beings condemned to badly live with less than 2 dollars a day; (c) the expected expansion of hunger, accompanied, in many cases, by a scarcity of water; (d) the expansion of illnesses, in the form of epidemics and pandemics, the multiplication of cancers and cardiovascular diseases and the reappearance of illnesses such as tuberculoses; (e) an unliveable environment for women – they are 70% of the poor and they carry out 67% of the labour, yet they only receive 10% of the benefit -; (f) the presumably multiplying effects of the financial crisis, with its aftermath of chaos, instability, loss of confidence and uncertainty; (g) the collapse of many States, closely bound up with wars of pillage driven by the powers of the North; (h) the consequences of the subordination of technology to private interests; (i) an exploding ecological footprint – the bioproductive space consumed today is 2.2 hectares per inhabitant, above the 1.8 that the Earth makes available to us -, and (j) a disturbing idolatry of economic growth.

3. What are the predictable characteristics of the scenario after the collapse?

Any answer to this question must necessarily be speculative.  For this not to be so, we would need to know the major causes of the collapse, if it were sudden or not, its eventual geographical variations or the nature of the reactions engendered.  Even though it is not possible to fix the moment of collapse, it is not unimportant to signal that many analysts refer in this case to the years between 2020 and 2050.  Even so, and it is a matter of identifying the general characteristics of the post-collapse society, they may very well be these: (a) a general shortage of energy, with visible effects in matters of transportation, provisions and tourism, and in the context of a general de-globalisation; (b) serious problems for the preservation of many of the structures of power and domination, and in particular for those most centralised and technology dependent; (c) an acute confrontation between centralising, hypercontroling and hyperrepressive fluxes, on the one hand, and decentralising and liberating fluxes, on the other; (d) disturbing confusions between the public and the private, with a manifest extension of violence of which women will be the principal victims; (e) a general economic development marked by the reduction of growth, the massive closing of businesses, the expansion of unemployment, the disintegration of so-called Welfare States, the increase in prices of basic goods, the breakdown of the financial system, the undoing of pensions and visible regressions in health and education; (f) a general deterioration of the cities, with loss of inhabitants and growing inequalities;(g) a fragile scenario in the rural world, consequence of the bad management of soils, of monocultures, of mechanisation and commodification, and (h) a reduction of the planetary population.

In the precise case of the Iberian peninsula, the antecedents bode ill, as is testified to by the abandonment of renewable energy sources, the squandering and scant efficiency of energy use, the lamentable investment in high speed trains and motorways, the low production of primary energy resources, the high consumption of petroleum and, lastly, in the background, the debt.  Climate change will translate before all else into a notable increase in temperatures in the southern half of the peninsula, with grave consequences for agriculture and an irresolvable crisis for the tourist industry.  To which must be added the planetary phenomena of company closures, the exploitation of labour, impoverishment, the financial crisis, malnutrition, the deterioration of health and the discredit of institutions.

4. What do the movements for an ecosocial transition propose as an alternative?

In substance what they propose is nothing other than a recupoeration of the old libertarian project of a society self-organised from below, a society of self-management, democracy and direct action, of mutual aid.

If it is a matter of identifying, in any event, some of the features of this ecosocial transition, and of the final complementary scenario, they may very well be the following: (a) the re-appearance, in the area of energy, of old technologies and habits, in a scenario of less mobility and a visible regression in the use of the automobile in favour of public transportation; (b) the development of countless decentralised local economies; (c) the establishment of harder forms of work, but in a better environment, without displacements, with slower rhythms, with the desire of assuring self-sufficiency, and with no bosses nor exploitation; (d) the progressive remission of patriarchal society, in a scenario of sharing work and the decline of female poverty; (e) a reduction in the offer of goods, and in particular, of imported products, as a mark of sobriety and voluntary simplicity; (f) the recuperation of social life and practices of mutual aid; (g) decentralised health care based on prevention, first aid and public health, with less use of medicines; (h) the development of extremely decentralised formulas of education/diseducation; (i) a political life characterised by self-management and direct democracy; (j) a general de-urbanisation, with a reduction of the population in cities, expansion of neighbourhood life and the progressive disappearance of the separation of the urban and rural worlds, and (k) an active re-ruralisation, with a growth in the population in the countryside in a scenario defined by small scale agriculture and cooperatives, the recuperation of common lands and the disappearance of large companies.  Five verbs perhaps summarise the fundamental significance of many of these transformations: degrow, de-urbanise, de-technologise, de-patriarchalise, de-complexify.

5. What is ecofascism?

Even though the prefix “eco-” is usually identified with healthy realities, it is not inappropriate to point out that in the Nazi party, the party of Hitler, there was active a powerful pressure group with ecological sympathies, defending rural life and concerned about the consequences of industrialisation and the use of technology.  Of course, this project was tied to the defence of an elected race that should impose itself, without regard to means, on everyone else …

Carl Amery emphasised that we would be gravely mistaken if we concluded that the policies embraced by the German Nazis eighty years ago refer back to a uniquely singular historical moment, conjunctural and therefore fortunately unrepeatable.  Amery puts before us rather the need to study these policies as they can very well reappear before us, no longer defended today by ultramarginal neonazi groups, but put forward by some of the principal centres of political and economic power, ever more conscious of the general scarcity that is on the horizon and ever more decided on preserving those scarce resources in a few hands for a project of militarised social darwinism, that is, ecofascism.  The latter, which in one of its principal dimensions answers to alleged demographic demands, will defend marginalisation, or extermination, of the greater part of the human population and is already presciently manifest in the renewed imperial logic embraced by Western powers.  The general scenario of energetic crisis may of course significantly weaken those active in the service of an ecofascist project.

6. What does the everyday person think of the collapse?

The collapse arouses a variety of reactions.  One of them resides, very simply, in ignorance, visibly induced by the negationism promoted by large companies with regards to climate change or the exhaustion of petroleum.  A second reaction drinks from an unrestrained optimism, translated by a blind faith in that which we desire to become real, in the intuition that the changes will be slow, predictable and manageable, in the certainty that we nevertheless have time or, lastly, in a confidence in those who govern us.  A third position is that of those who believe that technologies will inevitably appear that will permit resolving all of our problems.  There are also those, in a fourth category, who prefer to have recourse to the carpe diem, to seize the day, and in effect they consider that one should only concern oneself with what is immediately present and most near.  There are those who embrace, in sum, the concept of guilt and adduce that although s/he has no obligation to resolve the problems that others created, the human species has nevertheless made itself worthy, through its conduct, of a very severe punishment.

In this same order of things, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified five stages in the processing of the collapse: negation, anxiety, adaptation, depression and acceptance.  Behind many of the reactions mentioned, the goal is evident anyway, among a good part of the population of the opulente North, of not renouncing their present way of life, and of preserving the current levels of consumption and social status.  It is also evident that there is a refusal to think of future generations and of the other species that accompany us on this earth.

7. To elude the collapse?

Capitalism is a system that has historically demonstrated a formidable capacity of adaptation to the most disparate of challenges.  The grand question today is that relative to if, carried by an uncontrolable impulse towards the spectacular accumulation of benefits in a very short period of time, it is not digging its own grave, with the aggravating consequence of course that we will also find ourselves in the grave.

Before the risk of an imminent collapse, in the world of alternatives the responses are in substance two.  While the first understands that there is no other horizon than that of waiting for the arrival of the collapse – it is the only path that will permit the majority of human beings to grasp their obligations -, the second considers that it is necessary to urgently withdraw from capitalism and in this respect, and provisionally, it is within our reach to open up autonomous self-managed, de-commodified and, hopefully, de-patriarchalised spaces, promote their federation and increase their dimension of confrontation with capital and the State.  If some believe that these spaces will not help us to evade the collapse, others believe that it is preferable to conceive of them as schools that prepare us for survival in the scenario after it.  The most probable, anyway, is that we will not be able to avoid the collapse: what is within our reach is rather to defer somewhat its manifestation and perhaps mitigate some of its more negative dimensions.  It seems obvious anyway that there is no serious reason to place our hope in institutions, those of the system, subject to private interests, hierarchised, militarised and aberrantly blind to anything but the short term.  One of the greatest strategies that contemporary capitalism is the beneficiary of is the enormous skill that the system demonstrates when it has us avoid the important questions.  And the principal effort of the capitalism of today is given over to desperately searching for primary resources and technologies that will allow us to preserve what we today dispose of, without permitting us to ask ourselves the most important question: Is it truly in our interest to preserve what we today count on, or better said, what a few count on?

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