Hoping for the Worst

Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth is a collection of essays published by PM Press that explores the politics of apocalyptic thinking across the political spectrum. In her essay, ‘Left Catastrophism’, Sasha Lilley focuses on the left’s peculiar attachment to disasters. Recently she spoke to Samuel Grove about why a politics of impending doom should be avoided.

What is left catastrophism?

Left catastrophism, which runs through much of the radical left, is an outlook rooted in political despair. It takes two forms, although they can elide. One is based on the notion that capitalism will mechanically abut internal or external limits—for example, owing to a "terminal" economic crisis or peak oil—and come crashing down without concerted struggle. The other is rooted in the idea that the worse things get, the better they will be for radical prospects. Hence, periods of economic crisis or state repression are welcomed for finally providing the conditions in which ordinary people will lose their illusions about the system and move leftward. Many on the left oscillate between these two versions of catastrophism. Both presume that out of the ashes a new world will be born—the world that we radicals have not been able to create by ourselves. While it often serves as unexamined conventional wisdom, a “common sense” of sorts, catastrophism is counterproductive for anticapitalists.

So there are two dimensions to left catastrophism. The first concerns the objective conditions for revolution, the second, the conditions for a revolutionary subjectivity. Let's begin with the first. You are not questioning that capitalism produces catastrophes are you? Rather, as you say, that these catastrophes are in themselves sufficient to break the system. What is a better way of interpreting the relationship of capitalism and catastrophe—particularly in the absence of concerted struggle? 

A good place to start is by distinguishing between catastrophes and catastrophism. Capitalism, by its very nature, is catastrophic. Yet while it is crisis-prone, it also needs crises. That is, crises help the system renew itself. Just look at how the capitalist class has used the current economic crisis to ratchet up productivity to achieve soaring profits, exploiting workers’ fears that they may lose their jobs. So to imagine that an economic crisis will, by itself, bring on the collapse of capitalism is misguided. Similarly, the burning of accessible petroleum reserves—which is certainly catastrophic for humanity, fuelling global warming—does not create an insurmountable limit against which capitalism cannot survive, as some peak oilers suggest. Rather, the depletion of current reserves has driven the search for new sources of petroleum, opening up new avenues of accumulation and profitability. To the point that the United States is predicted to surpass Saudi Arabia in five to eight years as the world’s leading petroleum producer.

The point about Marxist theory, and in particular Marx’s critique of liberal economics, was to show that what was assumed to obey determined natural law was really the result of human action? Nevertheless you take a lot of Marxist theory to task for succumbing to catastrophism.

That’s true. As ever, one needs to distinguish between Marx and many of his 20th century inheritors, who turned his arguments into mechanistic dogma. Various political tendencies under the Marxist banner held that iron laws of history would bring an end to capitalism, and that victory was preordained. Although Marx indulged in rhetorical flourishes himself, he was clear that human beings make history through struggle. Over time his views evolved about crises as a trigger for social upheaval. Marx and Engels greeted the 1857-58 economic crisis with the assumption that it would automatically set off a revolutionary wave. That didn’t happen and they subsequently abandoned such expectations. Furthermore, while Marx viewed crises as a central feature of capitalism, he did not equate crises with the system’s collapse.

If Marx came to realize that capitalism would not collapse because of crises, many of his successors did not. Hence, in the early 20th century, European radicals became embroiled in debates over the coming inevitable breakdown of capitalism. Collapse was constantly seen on the horizon, with deleterious political consequences: complacency on the one hand and adventurism on the other. An example of the latter was furnished by militants in Estonia, where an insurrection was launched without mass support because of the presumption that capitalism was in its death throes: “At 5.15am on December 1, 1924, two hundred and twenty seven Communists started a revolution,” wrote C.L.R. James, “and by 9 o’clock were completely defeated, doing untold harm…”

Is this still something that afflicts the left?

The idea that capitalism will collapse under its own weight has much less traction today, in our markedly anti-utopian times, but it does appear in various forms. I’ve mentioned peak oil: the group Deep Green Resistance argue that come 2015 industrial capitalism will start to unravel as a result of diminished oil reserves and will be ripe for take down by a small group of committed militants. We also saw, at the start of the financial crisis, some glee on the radical left that capitalism was unravelling and that our time had finally come. Clearly, that didn’t turn out so well and such euphoria has mainly receded. But it has a hold on the imagination of leftists of various stripes, from anarchist to Marxist, such as Immanuel Wallerstein who draws on the notion of Kondratiev waves to argue that capitalism has been stagnating since the early 1970s and in twenty to thirty years will no longer be with us, replaced by either something better or worse. 

I should emphasize that I think it’s entirely reasonable for radicals to desire the end of capitalism. In historical terms, it is quite a new system and there is nothing eternal about it. But I believe it is mistaken to imagine that this end will come mechanically, without widespread struggle.

The other form of catastrophism—the notion that increasing economic immiseration or state repression move people to the left—is more common amongst radicals today. In the last decade, insurrectionist ideas have become more popular, boosted in one form by the bestselling book The Coming Insurrection. Insurrectionism celebrates increased conflict and concomitant repression as providing a catalyst for revolt. A less exciting version of this notion has had widespread appeal on the left with the assumption that austerity would provoke renewed radical movements. It’s premised on a very simplistic idea of politicization—that people are deluded about the system they live under and need a shock in order to see things as they really are. But this notion, which is quite patronizing, misunderstands the complexities of what moves people to action. It’s ripe for vanguardism.

Historically, perhaps the most appalling example of the worse, the better can be found with the leaders of the German Communist Party in the 1930s who believed that if the Nazis came to power, they would pave the path to revolution. The party informally adopted the slogan, “After Hitler—our turn”, and encouraged its members to vote for the Nazis in the Prussian state elections. It need hardly be said that it ended quite badly for them.

Nevertheless Marx held to the idea that there were certain contradictions in capitalism which are ultimately unsustainable. For example the planet cannot support compound economic growth forever.

Indeed. Marx didn’t, of course, make that particular argument, but it’s a very legitimate one. Yet if capitalism were to wholly destroy the basis for compound growth, one imagines that point is not imminent, as perilous as global warming, ocean acidification, deforestation, the destruction of the coral reefs, mass extinctions, and the poisoning of our bodies have become. That’s because of the alarming yet remarkable ability of capitalism to leap over “natural limits” of various kinds. Out of scarcity, capitalism frequently opens new avenues for profitability and accumulation, some material and others immaterial, and often by incorporating new fields of life into the commodity form—from the body to the ocean floor—by enclosing what had been outside of the market. And capitalism, premised as it is on creative destruction, often uses moments of devastation for the same purpose: just think of the trade in pollution credits, remediation of toxic spills, or even expanding healthcare costs for particulate-related heart and lung disease. That this would be able to continue indefinitely is hard to imagine, but if capitalism were not able to expand at a 3% compound rate of growth, it’s not clear that it would simply collapse, rather than limping along in highly uneven ways for a time, with some regions contracting and others not. Either way, it’s a pretty bleak path for reaching a postcapitalist world. 

If crises don’t always produce widespread struggle, is it fair to say that widespread struggle nonetheless requires some sort of precipitating crisis in order to get underway? For instance the most progressive period in US labour history was in the 1930s during the Great Depression.

Clearly social unrest doesn’t appear out of thin air. And I’m certainly not suggesting that social struggles can’t emerge during times of economic crisis—they obviously can. But often such crises only appear to be the catalyst for struggles. There are many crises, economic or political, that could, and perhaps should, ignite upheaval and do not—countless police murders that don't start riots, austerity programs that don't trigger uprisings, and so on—which are then forgotten. 

Pinpointing the ingredients that spark protest is always tricky since so many factors tend to be at work. Contrary to received wisdom on the left, however, many struggles come not out of worsening economic conditions, but rather periods of expansion. The Great Depression, as you mentioned, is often held up as the prime example of an economic crisis providing fertile ground for radical social movements. But it should be noted, even there, that perhaps the most militant episodes in that struggle—the iconic factory occupations and sit down strikes of 1936-37—took place not during a worsening economic crisis, but a recovery, when the employment rate had increased by thirty percent from the depths of the depression. And that’s telling: often social movements get the most traction when people’s expectations rise and they have a sense of their own collective power, not weakness. The movements of the Sixties in the US, similarly, arose from a time of economic expansion and relatively high wages. It was the backdrop for tremendous rank and file militancy, which fell off after the severe economic crisis of the early 1970s.

One of the few welcoming consequences of the 2008 economic crisis was the dent it inflicted on notions of capitalist invincibility. For instance Naomi Klein suggested that the Wall St. Crisis was for 'neoliberalism' what the fall of the Berlin Wall was for 'communism'. If nothing else then crises can serve to put discussion of revolution and postcapitalist arrangements back on the table. In light of this is catastrophism necessarily a bad thing?