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Looking beyond - Apr 5

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The Shadow of our Downfall

John Michael Greer, The Archdruid Report
...As with some of the other topics I’ve explored here, it’s best to come at this one in a roundabout way, and so we’ll begin from an unlikely starting point and talk a bit about the history of the New Age movement. It’s common for people who hope to be taken seriously in the wider community to roll their eyes when the New Age or any of the movements of thought associated with it come up for discussion. This fashionable scorn, though, misses the chance to watch a crucial barometer of social trends. In any civilization, it’s the cults, fads, and passions of the fringe that point out roads that the rest of society will presently take.

If some prescient Roman scholar of the reign of Nero or Claudius, say, wanted to catch some whisper of the world that would supplant his own, he’d have been wasting his time to listen to speeches in the Forum or lectures in the fashionable academies of the day. He would have had to search out the cultural underbelly of his age, where strange cults from distant lands bid for the loyalties of those long since alienated from the worship of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. The Middle Ages already existed there in larval form, long before anyone in Rome had ever heard of Goths or Huns, or thought of Jesus of Nazareth, if at all, as anything but a footnote in the history of a minor province somewhere back east.

Now the New Age movement is unlikely to become for the coming deindustrial age what Christianity became during and after Rome’s catabolic collapse. If it had an equivalent in the classical scene, it was the Gnostic movement - like the New Age, a diffuse and wildly diverse phenomenon popular among the privileged classes of its time, and reflecting those classes’ attitudes and interests far too closely to survive the collapse of the society that gave them their status. Gnosticism’s Achilles heel was its intense spiritual elitism -- its rigid distinction between the few who had the capacity for gnosis (redeeming knowledge) and the many who did not. The New Age movement formulates its notions of privilege in a different way...and therein lies a tale.

...Now all this [about New Age movements] may seem to have little to do with the themes of peak oil and catabolic collapse that have taken up so much space in this blog, but there’s a direct connection. The myth of progress, like the belief that everyone creates their own reality, raises expectations that the real world - especially in an age of diminishing resources - simply isn’t able to meet. As the gap between expectation and experience grows, so, too, does the potential for paranoia and hatred. Those who cling to faith in progress are too likely to go looking for scapegoats when the future fails to deliver the better world they expect. The explosive rise of a politics of rage on all sides of the political continuum, especially but not only in the US, suggests that this process may be well under way already. As finger-pointing and shouted insults drown out reasoned political dialogue, it seems to me, the real target for the fingers and shouts on all sides may be the projected shadow of the industrial world’s approaching downfall.

That bodes very ill indeed for any large-scale constructive response to the predicament before us. What might be done in the face of this prospect will take up the next several posts on this blog.
(5 April 2007)
John Michael Greer looks farther into the future than most of us: sometimes a stretch, always worthwhile. I'm curious to see where he will go with this train of thought. -BA


World War II as a Metaphor - Part I

Sharon Astyk, Casaubon's Book
The response of the US to World War II has emerged as one of the most commonly used ways of thinking about what will be required of over the coming decades as we confront peak oil and climate change. Because the second world war was a period of remarkable national unity that accomplished some astounding things, we tend to look back at the period as evidence that we as a nation can accomplish equally astounding things in our response to these challenges. And to some degree that may well be the case.

The Hirsch report, commissioned by the US Department of Energy and published in 2005 uses World War II repeatedly as an analogy. We are told that a program that was similar to but *in excess of* the World War II response would be required in order to effect a transition away from fossil fuel dependency *in 20 years* - the word used more than once is "unprecedented." So to do climate change writers use WWII as an analogy. Joseph Romm, former Assistant Secretary of Energy under the Clinton administration writes in _Hell and High Water_, "This national (and global) reindustrialization effort would be on the scale of what we did during World War II, except it would last far longer." (Romm, 235). Romm's book and the Hirsch report are among dozens of books I am aware of that use reference to World War II scale changes as a useful model or analogy.

Such analyses imply that not only would we need to do what we did in World War II, as Niels Bohr put it, "turn the entire nation into a factory," but also that the same mobilization of civilian resources would be required - that is, ordinary Americans would be called upon in similar ways to World War II. During the second world war, Americans endured rationing, women were called upon to enter the workforce, factories were staffed 24 hours a day, imports were restricted and nearly every aspect of daily life was altered.

But if we are to use World War II as evidence, metaphor or argument for our capacity to transform our society, we need to understand which parallels are relevant and which are not - that is, we need to know what enabled the World War II response, and what is similar or different in our own society. I am not attempting to assess the whole of our national capacity to respond to peak oil, or whether World War II is the best or only analogy, but merely to analyze how likely it is that the same strategies used during the 1940s would be available to us now.
(5 April 2007)


The limits of eco-localism: Scale, strategy, socialism
(PDF)
Gregroy Albo, Socialist Project
The shadow cast by neoliberalism over the prospects of the Left in the current period has been unrelenting. A few rays of hope have broken through with signs of a resurgence of the Latin American Left, the defeat of the Nepalese monarchy, and a number of specific campaigns, both local and global, in opposition to the privatization of basic services.

But scepti­cism about universal projects and collective struggles for societal transforma­tion - a scepticism reinforced by theoretical antagonisms toward integrative paradigms - remains entrenched even on a broadly defined Left, where the embrace of more socially limited and spatially local projects has replaced revolutionary ambitions.

...The attraction of the local has also been marked on the radical Left, re­inforced by the demise of the ‘national projects’ of social democracy and authoritarian communism, and revolutionary disappointments in third world states. Local resistance and community alternatives to the competitive imperatives of the world market have figured prominently in the demands of the anti-globalization movement, notably in the call of the International Forum on Globalization for ‘discriminating actively in favour of the local in all poli­cies’.

...The case for political action focusing on the territorial scale of the local (and sometimes at the scale of ‘the body’) has been especially characteristic of the ecology movement. The political slogans that the ‘greens’ have con­tributed to the Left - ‘think globally, act locally’, ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’, ‘walk gently on the earth’ - are especially representative of the localist emphasis of their socio-ecological practice.

...The green case for localism, then, rests on a critique of the existing resource-intensive and pollution-extensive system of industrialization. That system is seen, for the most part, as existing independently of the specific market sys­tem and social-property relations of capitalism, and thus as being amenable to transformation within that system to more ecologically-sustainable develop­ment trajectories.

...The following critique of eco-localism and its conceptualization of a transition to a sustainable economy encompasses five dimensions: (a) the effectiveness of prices for transmitting ecologically sustainable decisions for place-based regulation; (b) the limits of technical and organizational change - apart from issues of distribution and social relations - as a solution to eco­logical problems; (c) the coordinative and ecological failures of bioregional and community-based economic alternatives; (d) the issue of whether all supra-local scales are ecologically perverse; and (e) the scale and role of de­mocracy in any ecological transition that is socially just.

...Political organization also makes more widely accessible - both in knowl­edge and active solidarity - the class struggles of one place with those of other places, thereby accomplishing in practice what conceptual abstraction allows in theory. But it does so in a structured way, so that political mobiliza­tion, reflection, debate and learning can move fluidly across scales. Political organization allows a depth to strategic thinking and action in a way that international justice fairs, although they can be remarkably open spaces for cross-sectoral dialogue, cannot. The internet can generate fantastical amounts of global e-mail information and outrage but this can rarely be backed up, however much it is used to project an organic spontaneity onto the multi­tude, with social mobilization. A developing political capacity is necessary to translate local militancy into wider demands and socio-ecological pro­grammes at other territorial scales of democracy and ecological sustainability.

...The eco-socialist political challenge is to connect particular local struggles, generalize them, and link them to a universal project of socio-ecological transformation, against the universalization of neoliberalism and capitalist markets as the regulators of nature and society.

The politics of eco-localism have been, in a sense, quite the opposite of the agenda just sketched here. Eco-localism projects the local as an ideal scale and conceives communitarian eco-utopias in a politics that is individualiz­ing and particularizing. Under neoliberalism, eco-localism has evolved into a practical attempt to alter individual market behaviours, and to disconnect and internalize local ecologies and communities from wider struggles and political ambitions.

But there is no reason to support, and every reason to op­pose, any suggestion that the national and the global are on a scale that is any less human and practical than the local. This is not to deny the importance of the local in anti-neoliberal politics; nor the importance of the question of appropriate scale for post-capitalist societies. It is to insist, however, that local socio-ecological struggles cannot be delinked from - and are indeed always potentially representative of - universal projects of transcending capitalism on a world scale.
(Feb 2007)
A 17-page analysis that seems to agree with ecologist E.P. Odum who said "Small is beautiful, but big is powerful." The essay contains a history of the tension between local efforts and large-scale leftism, and points out the weaknesses of a purely local approach. There are some good points, but ugh, is the style ponderous! There's no need for capitalist governments to censor Marxist writings as long as the prevailing style is so indigestible: overly abstract, lacking in fresh images and specific examples, and the inevitable quotes from Marx (not the most accessible of writers). The 19th century pamphleteering style just doesn't cut it in 2007. -BA

The author Gregory Albo is a Canadian Marxist scholar:

Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, York University, Toronto. He is on the editorial boards of the journals Studies in Political Economy, Socialist Register, Relay, Capitalism, Nature, Socialism (New York)... Professor Albo's research interests are the political economy of contemporary capitalism, labour market policies and democratization. He teaches courses on the foundations of political economy, Canadian political economy, alternatives to capitalism, and democratic administration.

Socialist Project is an anti-capitalist, non-sectarian grouping. (Founding Statement.)

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