I must be in a mood today– half irritated, half amused –because I find myself ranting. Of course, that’s not entirely unusual. So this afternoon I came across a post by a friend quoting something discussing the environmental movement that pushed all the right button. As the post read,
For mainstream environmentalism– conservationism, green consumerism, and resource management –humans are conceptually separated out of nature and mythically placed in privileged positions of authority and control over ecological communities and their nonhuman constituents. What emerges is the fiction of a marketplace of ‘raw materials’ and ‘resources’ through which human-centered wants, constructed as needs, might be satisfied. The mainstream narratives are replete with such metaphors [carbon trading!]. Natural complexity,, mutuality, and diversity are rendered virtually meaningless given discursive parameters that reduce nature to discrete units of exchange measuring extractive capacities. Jeff Shantz, “Green Syndicalism”
While finding elements this description perplexing– I can’t say that I see many environmentalists treating nature and culture as distinct or suggesting that we’re sovereigns of nature –I do agree that we conceive much of our relationship to the natural world in economic terms (not a surprise that capitalism is today a universal). This, however, is not what bothers me about this passage.
What I wonder is just what we’re supposed to do even if all of this is true? What, given existing conditions, are we to do if all of this is right? At least green consumerism, conservation, resource management, and things like carbon trading are engaging in activities that are making real differences. From this passage– and maybe the entire text would disabuse me of this conclusion –it sounds like we are to reject all of these interventions because they remain tied to a capitalist model of production that the author (and myself) find abhorrent. The idea seems to be that if we endorse these things we are tainting our hands and would therefore do well to reject them altogether.
The problem as I see it is that this is the worst sort of abstraction (in the Marxist sense) and wishful thinking. Within a Marxo-Hegelian context, a thought is abstract when it ignores all of the mediations in which a thing is embedded. For example, I understand a robust tree abstractly when I attribute its robustness, say, to its genetics alone, ignoring the complex relations to its soil, the air, sunshine, rainfall, etc., that also allowed it to grow robustly in this way. This is the sort of critique we’re always leveling against the neoliberals. They are abstract thinkers. In their doxa that individuals are entirely responsible for themselves and that they completely make themselves by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, neoliberals ignore all the mediations belonging to the social and material context in which human beings develop that play a role in determining the vectors of their life. They ignore, for example, that George W. Bush grew up in a family that was highly connected to the world of business and government and that this gave him opportunities that someone living in a remote region of Alaska in a very different material infrastructure and set of family relations does not have. To think concretely is to engage in a cartography of these mediations, a mapping of these networks, from circumstance to circumstance (what I call an “onto-cartography”). It is to map assemblages, networks, or ecologies in the constitution of entities.
Unfortunately, the academic left falls prey to its own form of abstraction. It’s good at carrying out critiques that denounce various social formations, yet very poor at proposing any sort of realistic constructions of alternatives. This because it thinks abstractly in its own way, ignoring how networks, assemblages, structures, or regimes of attraction would have to be remade to create a workable alternative. Here I’m reminded by the “underpants gnomes” depicted in South Park:
The underpants gnomes have a plan for achieving profit that goes like this:
Phase 1: Collect Underpants
Phase 2: ?
Phase 3: Profit!
They even have a catchy song to go with their work:
Well this is sadly how it often is with the academic left. Our plan seems to be as follows:
Phase 1: Ultra-Radical Critique
Phase 2: ?
Phase 3: Revolution and complete social transformation!
Our problem is that we seem perpetually stuck at phase 1 without ever explaining what is to be done at phase 2. Often the critiques articulated at phase 1 are right, but there are nonetheless all sorts of problems with those critiques nonetheless. In order to reach phase 3, we have to produce new collectives. In order for new collectives to be produced, people need to be able to hear and understand the critiques developed at phase 1. Yet this is where everything begins to fall apart. Even though these critiques are often right, we express them in ways that only an academic with a PhD in critical theory and post-structural theory can understand. How exactly is Adorno to produce an effect in the world if only PhD’s in the humanities can understand him? Who are these things for? We seem to always ignore these things and then look down our noses with disdain at the Naomi Kleins and David Graebers of the world. To make matters worse, we publish our work in expensive academic journals that only universities can afford, with presses that don’t have a wide distribution, and give our talks at expensive hotels at academic conferences attended only by other academics. Again, who are these things for? Is it an accident that so many activists look away from these things with contempt, thinking their more about an academic industry and tenure, than producing change in the world? If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, it doesn’t make a sound! Seriously dudes and dudettes, what are you doing?
But finally, and worst of all, us Marxists and anarchists all too often act like assholes. We denounce others, we condemn them, we berate them for not engaging with the questions we want to engage with, and we vilify them when they don’t embrace every bit of the doxa that we endorse. We are every bit as off-putting and unpleasant as the fundamentalist minister or the priest of the inquisition (have people yet understood that Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus was a critique of the French communist party system and the Stalinist party system, and the horrific passions that arise out of parties and identifications in general?). This type of “revolutionary” is the greatest friend of the reactionary and capitalist because they do more to drive people into the embrace of reigning ideology than to undermine reigning ideology. These are the people that keep Rush Limbaugh in business. Well done!
But this isn’t where our most serious shortcomings lie. Our most serious shortcomings are to be found at phase 2. We almost never make concrete proposals for how things ought to be restructured, for what new material infrastructures and semiotic fields need to be produced, and when we do, our critique-intoxicated cynics and skeptics immediately jump in with an analysis of all the ways in which these things contain dirty secrets, ugly motives, and are doomed to fail. How, I wonder, are we to do anything at all when we have no concrete proposals? We live on a planet of 6 billion people. These 6 billion people are dependent on a certain network of production and distribution to meet the needs of their consumption. That network of production and distribution does involve the extraction of resources, the production of food, the maintenance of paths of transit and communication, the disposal of waste, the building of shelters, the distribution of medicines, etc., etc., etc.
What are your proposals? How will you meet these problems? How will you navigate the existing mediations or semiotic and material features of infrastructure? Marx and Lenin had proposals. Do you? Have you even explored the cartography of the problem? Today we are so intellectually bankrupt on these points that we even have theorists speaking of events and acts and talking about a return to the old socialist party systems, ignoring the horror they generated, their failures, and not even proposing ways of avoiding the repetition of these horrors in a new system of organization. Who among our critical theorists is thinking seriously about how to build a distribution and production system that is responsive to the needs of global consumption, avoiding the problems of planned economy, ie., who is doing this in a way that gets notice in our circles? Who is addressing the problems of micro-fascism that arise with party systems (there’s a reason that it was the Negri & Hardt contingent, not the Badiou contingent that has been the heart of the occupy movement). At least the ecologists are thinking about these things in these terms because, well, they think ecologically. Sadly we need something more, a melding of the ecologists, the Marxists, and the anarchists. We’re not getting it yet though, as far as I can tell. Indeed, folks seem attracted to yet another critical paradigm, Laruelle.
I would love, just for a moment, to hear a radical environmentalist talk about his ideal high school that would be academically sound. How would he provide for the energy needs of that school? How would he meet building codes in an environmentally sound way? How would she provide food for the students? What would be her plan for waste disposal? And most importantly, how would she navigate the school board, the state legislature, the federal government, and all the families of these students? What is your plan? What is your alternative? I think there are alternatives. I saw one that approached an alternative in Rotterdam. If you want to make a truly revolutionary contribution, this is where you should start. Why should anyone even bother listening to you if you aren’t proposing real plans? But we haven’t even gotten to that point. Instead we’re like underpants gnomes, saying “revolution is the answer!” without addressing any of the infrastructural questions of just how revolution is to be produced, what alternatives it would offer, and how we would concretely go about building those alternatives. Masturbation.
“Underpants gnome” deserves to be a category in critical theory; a sort of synonym for self-congratulatory masturbation. We need less critique not because critique isn’t important or necessary– it is –but because we know the critiques, we know the problems. We’re intoxicated with critique because it’s easy and safe. We best every opponent with critique. We occupy a position of moral superiority with critique. But do we really do anything with critique? What we need today, more than ever, is composition or carpentry. Everyone knows something is wrong. Everyone knows this system is destructive and stacked against them. Even the Tea Party knows something is wrong with the economic system, despite having the wrong economic theory. None of us, however, are proposing alternatives. Instead we prefer to shout and denounce. Good luck with that.