Monthly Archives: February 2010

The End of Work(fare)

I just came across two really powerful accounts of the crisis of our times.  One was an article in the New York Times that discusses the record setting numbers of long-term unemployed, people who are, according to the article, likely to remain unemployed despite the uptick in the U.S. economy.  The article cites some really shocking statistics:

During periods of American economic expansion in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, the number of private-sector jobs increased about 3.5 percent a year, according to an analysis of Labor Department data by Lakshman Achuthan, managing director of the Economic Cycle Research Institute, a research firm. During expansions in the 1980s and ’90s, jobs grew just 2.4 percent annually. And during the last decade, job growth fell to 0.9 percent annually.

“The pace of job growth has been getting weaker in each expansion,” Mr. Achuthan said. “There is no indication that this pattern is about to change.”

In the face of this long-term structural decline of decent work, the already weak U.S. social safety net is coming undone, leaving many thousands of previously middle class people – who are now unable to find any kind of work, let alone well-paid work – on the edge of homelessness.

The other piece was an interview with journalist Seth Wessler, who’s just written an article for the ‘zine Colorlines about how poor women in Hartford, capital of America’s insurance industry, are forced to sell their food stamps at dimes on the dollar, in order to get money to buy shoes for their children.  What was really amazing about the interview, broadcast on Democracy Now, was that it was followed by commentary by a local community organizer who worried that Wessler’s muckraking piece was likely to spark not sympathy from those in power but more scapegoating of the poor.

But sympathy may be a red herring.  As Terry Eagleton puts it (in a very different context): “The idea that lack of sympathy springs from lack of knowledge is a typically liberal mistake.  It is a matter of structures, not just of sympathies.”  What the poor need now is some viable counter-power to the unchecked and baleful power of the rich.  A bread riot or two wouldn’t hurt either.

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Survival

“The first sign of a bankrupt form of society is that the ruling classes cannot agree how to save the situation.” – CLR James

Ever since the effective collapse of the Copenhagen Climate Summit, I’ve been thinking about how we represent survival and futurity in a conjuncture in which hegemonic ideology is so clearly bankrupt and the ruling classes in the world’s most powerful nations are so transparently unwilling to take the steps necessary to save civilization.

One the one hand, it seems important to note that, with the failure of Copenhagen, humanity (as well as most of the planet’s flora and fauna) is truly in dire straits.  Heading into the conference, activists such as Bill McKibben joined scientists such as James Hansen to argue that humanity needed to agree on a plan to diminish atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide to 350ppm in order to forestall run-away climate change (we are currently approaching 400ppm, with an increase of roughly 3ppm annually).  Meanwhile, there seems little chance that any legislation to address climate change will get through the U.S. Congress, and the legislation that passed the House of Representatives is so toxic that it’s better left as a dead letter.  In addition, lack of action in the U.S. gives developing countries such as China, which recently surpassed the U.S. in terms of cumulative emissions, a perfect excuse not to cut back their own atmospheric pollution.  Finally, a recent analysis by scientists at M.I.T.’s Sustainability Institute concludes that the emissions reduction pledges agreed to at Copenhagen would allow global mean temperature to increase approximately 3.9° Celsius, a level that could see global warming run out of control. “Under the current proposals, global emissions of greenhouse gases would increase 0.8C a year between now and 2020,” the joint report warned.  In short, we seem to be witnessing a scramble for the atmosphere akin to the scramble for Africa unleashed by inter-imperial competition during the European colonial era; we all know where such inter-imperial competition led.

On the other hand, it makes little sense to panic.  As Neil Smith and Cindy Katz argue, apocalyptic rhetoric (environmental and otherwise) almost always plays into the hands of the forces of reaction.  This is because apocalypticism essentially evacuates the political imaginary, implicitly ceding it to the Right.  Sort of the way that the threat of a filibuster by the Republicans in the Senate has produced total gridlock that dooms any and all progressive legislation.  Of course we need to develop both utopian and pragmatic responses to the current crisis if we progressive rather than neo-fascist solutions to the current crisis are ever going to gain any popular traction.

But if it’s true that millenarian thinking is dangerous, it’s nonetheless safe to say that we are currently living through a potent resurgence of the apocalyptic imaginary.  Hollywood has been churning out end-of-the-world fictions – from 2012 to Avatar - with increasingly frenetic energy.  I think this is an important phenomenon inasmuch as it at least registers the cul-de-sac into which ideologies of globalization and neoliberal deregulation (not to mention capitalism itself) have backed.  Apocalypticism constitutes a distorted recognition of the crisis; better this that know-nothing climate change denialism. Against the know-nothing idiots in Washington who have been chortling in the past two weeks about the record snowfall and suggesting that this indicates that climate change is bunk, some sort of recognition of our calamitous future under a business-as-usual scenario is necessary.

What will the cultural politics of survival look like as we move into the dystopian future we are currently seeding?  As Marc Abélès observes in his recent book The Politics of Survival, climate change and the crisis of the model of development disseminated globally by the U.S. over the last half century has placed a new paradigm of sustainable development at the core of emergent global geopolitics.  This paradigm, to quote Abélès, “places the horizon of survival and threat at its center, orienting political action around that horizon.”  How, Abélès asks, shall we define the politics of survival today?  To this question, which I regard as the seminal question for our times, I would add that this attempt to define the politics of survival is a question of struggles for hegemony over what survival might mean, and who will be counted as human in projects to ensure survival.  I will be reviewing Abélès’s book on the Social Text website soon.  In the meantime, this post kicks off a series of incidental pieces that I will be writing focused on the cultural politics of survival.

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