Review of Catastrophism



Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth

By Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen, and James Davis

PM Press, 2012, 192 pp.


The politics and rhetoric of doomsday shadows the left, right, and environmental movements in the Global North. What this trend means is the focus of a new book titled Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth. Catastrophism is the view that society is on the path to collapsing—ecologically, economically, and morally. For some catastrophists, a collapse would spur a rebirth and cleansing.

The book’s authors agree that capitalism does generate catastrophes. The most visible one is climate change; others are less easy to see, with species die-off a dire case in point.

Meanwhile, the political and rhetorical use of fear unites leftists, rightists, and environmentalists. This may seem strange. Yet, strangeness apart, the rub is that for the right-wing, secular, and sacred, fear works to galvanize support for ruling-class power. By contrast, fearful politics and rhetoric tend to paralyze the left and environmental movements, a critique at the heart of Catastrophism.

Doug Henwood, author and financial journalist, in the foreword sets the anti-catastrophe table for the four chapters to follow. To this end, he maintains that dystopian narratives weaken progressives and are rooted in mistaken views of reforming and overturning the system.

Eddie Yuen explores the uses of catastrophe in the environmental movement. He surveys how, in part, catastrophes are normalized, contextualized, attributed, and prophesized—from former Vice President Al Gore to Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus. Yuen suggests that presenting the public with fearful facts about the climate crisis, for instance, is insufficient to encourage them to engage in social solidarity. For him, self-organized movements are the key node of resistance to environmental devastation, everyday people coming together to combat their isolation in the face of corporate capitalism’s relentless attacks against them and the planet.

Sasha Lilley critically unpacks left-wing views of collapse as a means to awaken and cleanse society. Why? Catastrophists on the left, she argues convincingly, are mired in “a deep-seated pessimism about mass collective action and radical social transformation.”

Against the backdrop of such defeatism over recent decades, Lilley defines one flavor of left catastrophism as that of determinism: the capitalist system’s limits alone will herald progressive social change. She evaluates the evidence of this from currents in anarchism and Marxism, past and present. For Lilley, some Marxists misunderstand Marx’s view of history, seeing it as a mechanical unfolding of social change. Yet, he placed at the center of this process the actions of living human beings collectively cooperating to end their oppression, with the overthrow of apartheid in South Africa being a modern example.

For Lilley, there is also a voluntarism viewpoint of left catastrophists: grim material conditions alone (“the worse the better”) will spur radical possibilities. She takes up one variant of this outlook in part with an analysis of far-left groupings such as the Weather Underground during the 1960s.

James Davis explains how the U.S. right views part, or most, of the 20th century as a series of catastrophic defeats for apple pie. We see such wound-licking in the apparent GOP re-set after decisive defeats in the 2012 general election, propelled in part by an emerging minority-majority electorate opposed to the agenda of the Republican Party.

David McNally wraps up the book with a brilliant chapter on the history and imagery of monsters under capitalism, especially zombies—a cultural and historical critique that is quite readable. We journey from the England of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein to France’s colony of slave-laborers in Haiti and Pennsylvania during de-industrialization. McNally pulls the curtain back on what does (not) happen to working people on and off the job every day, the routine “dead-time” of labor services for pay, a catastrophe that finds cultural expression in monster tropes.

Underpinning the book is the authors’ sense of urgency. Their view is that an informed understanding of the actual character of the capitalist system can empower dissidents mobilizing together to build an anti-system movement.

Catastrophism launches a vital conversation for our crisis-laden era. In a time of real dangers and unreal cures, this is a book to read and savor.


Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento. Email