For thousands of years there have been cries that the End is Nigh. We are to Repent Now or be swept away in fiery floods and collapse and extinction and whatnot, having displeased the Divine or crossed some uncrossable line.
The Prophets of Doom never seem to get their timing quite right, and they never seem to see what's in store clearly enough or soon enough to affect the disaster that will surely come if we are only patient enough...
Whatever the case with the Prophets of Doom, the Innocents always pay for any transgression. Those who precipitated the Catastrophe -- if they can be identified at all -- never do.
Nowadays quite a few of those who ponder the Ineffable are in a frame of mind to suggest that this time we really are facing the End of Days, actual Extinction and the Ultimate Environmental Collapse from which the Earth cannot recover.
Oh. Dear. That sounds terrible, doesn't it?
Whatever shall we do?
If these Portents and Prophets are correct, there is nothing we can do, there is no expiation sufficient to change our Fate or the Fate of the planet one iota. We are on the high road to Doom, period, and our only recourse is to end things on our terms rather than those of implacable Fate.
I tend to think of these prophesies as ridiculous nonsense. That doesn't mean that Doom isn't just around the corner just the same. It means that -- to me -- those who make these sorts of inevitable predictions of Immanence tend to be clowns putting on a show. That may be a harsh assessment, but as I say, human-kind has been hearing these Prophets of Gloom and Doom for thousands and thousands of years.
We're -- somehow -- still here, still doing our best to muddle through.
However, over at the Baffler, David Graeber gave one of his patented lectures (actually an excerpt from The Democracy Project) on what's needed now. For all the nay-saying we hear in whatever circle of Hell we happen to inhabit, Graeber has always been a positive visionary. The End May Be Nigh in his version of the Future, but so what? The End is probably overdue, and what comes after is probably much better for all concerned. Well. For the survivors, anyway.
"The Practical Utopian's Guide to the Coming Collapse."
I like that.
Graeber's analysis of Revolution follows that of Immanuel Wallerstein, and in large measure, I agree that the image of Revolution we hold in our heads ("storming the Bastille" -- but for me, it's "storming the Winter Palace") thanks to conditioning and education is not really what a Revolution IS. Not in the Modern World at any rate.
Revolution, when it is successful, is not necessarily about seizing power from the rotten and corrupt ancien regime; it may have nothing to do with the regime at all. It's about changing mind-sets, and doing so on a global, not a national basis. In a sense, yes. That's right.
Graeber's positivism constantly surprises. He challenges the Prophets of Doom every day. Despite collapse or calamity, he sees a brighter day coming, no matter what. Well, maybe.
In the meantime, we have to deal with what's really going on right now. In one of Graeber's more insightful passages, he ponders the efforts Our Rulers put into suppressing dissent and ensuring that dissent is not effective:
Is it possible that this preemptive attitude toward social movements, the designing of wars and trade summits in such a way that preventing effective opposition is considered more of a priority than the success of the war or summit itself, really reflects a more general principle? What if those currently running the system, most of whom witnessed the unrest of the sixties firsthand as impressionable youngsters, are—consciously or unconsciously (and I suspect it’s more conscious than not)—obsessed by the prospect of revolutionary social movements once again challenging prevailing common sense?That's certainly an interesting perspective: suppression of opposition is more important than the success of wars and power plays and whatnot. Could it be?
Sure, why not?
Then he made me laugh:
Normally, when you challenge the conventional wisdom—that the current economic and political system is the only possible one—the first reaction you are likely to get is a demand for a detailed architectural blueprint of how an alternative system would work, down to the nature of its financial instruments, energy supplies, and policies of sewer maintenance.
Indeed, that is precisely what I got when I pointed out that Chris Hedges' meltdown over the Black Bloc "cancer" in Occupy was unproductive. "Well, what are you going to do about the sewers and waste removal 'after the Revolution,' big shot? Huh? Huh?" I simply pointed out that there would be working groups and cadres handling those matters... But of course!
Graeber gets into the Problem We Face, collectively and individually, in the following paragraph:
At the moment, probably the most pressing need is simply to slow down the engines of productivity. This might seem a strange thing to say—our knee-jerk reaction to every crisis is to assume the solution is for everyone to work even more, though of course, this kind of reaction is really precisely the problem—but if you consider the overall state of the world, the conclusion becomes obvious. We seem to be facing two insoluble problems. On the one hand, we have witnessed an endless series of global debt crises, which have grown only more and more severe since the seventies, to the point where the overall burden of debt—sovereign, municipal, corporate, personal—is obviously unsustainable. On the other, we have an ecological crisis, a galloping process of climate change that is threatening to throw the entire planet into drought, floods, chaos, starvation, and war. The two might seem unrelated. But ultimately they are the same. What is debt, after all, but the promise of future productivity? Saying that global debt levels keep rising is simply another way of saying that, as a collectivity, human beings are promising each other to produce an even greater volume of goods and services in the future than they are creating now. But even current levels are clearly unsustainable. They are precisely what’s destroying the planet, at an ever-increasing pace.
Precisely. And as I've argued in the past, as horrifying as some of the consequences of the economic collapse of 2007-2008 have been -- and for many millions, they have been awful -- the Crash and its aftermath at least slowed if not reversed the more and ever more consumption ethic that had taken hold here and around the world. While this way of doing it is harsh and cruel to many, and it directly benefits only a few, it's probably better, overall, than some of the alternatives -- like nuclear holocaust and that sort of thing.
But look at this, he goes even farther:
Even those running the system are reluctantly beginning to conclude that some kind of mass debt cancellation—some kind of jubilee—is inevitable. The real political struggle is going to be over the form that it takes. Well, isn’t the obvious thing to address both problems simultaneously? Why not a planetary debt cancellation, as broad as practically possible, followed by a mass reduction in working hours: a four-hour day, perhaps, or a guaranteed five-month vacation? This might not only save the planet but also (since it’s not like everyone would just be sitting around in their newfound hours of freedom) begin to change our basic conceptions of what value-creating labor might actually be.Indeed.
Of course he's on thin ice. This kind of airy-fairy nonsense is not allowed in polite company, not if he wants to hold on to his academic sinecure. One does not discuss "debt jubilee" or "reduction of work" or changing the conception of "value creation" if one wants to be taken seriously.
But go back to Kropotkin. That's just what he did.
Unless minds change on a massive scale -- which is what Graeber argues is the real nature of Revolution -- we're in a spiral downwards. It may not mean extinction, but it certainly means worse conditions in perpetuity for most of us.
Graeber has long said that the way forward is not necessarily through direct confrontation with the Powers That Be, but through making them irrelevant. As we come up on the second anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, we may want to think a bit more deeply about that approach to Revolution.
In conclusion, Graeber says:
All this might still seem very distant. At the moment, the planet might seem poised more for a series of unprecedented catastrophes than for the kind of broad moral and political transformation that would open the way to such a world. But if we are going to have any chance of heading off those catastrophes, we’re going to have to change our accustomed ways of thinking. And as the events of 2011 reveal, the age of revolutions is by no means over. The human imagination stubbornly refuses to die. And the moment any significant number of people simultaneously shake off the shackles that have been placed on that collective imagination, even our most deeply inculcated assumptions about what is and is not politically possible have been known to crumble overnight.That's the key to understanding. Assumptions about what's possible can -- and occasionally do -- crumble away in an instant. Are we ready?