Monthly Archives: March 2013

What We Communists Want

Following on my last post concerning the danger of reproducing the dismal logic of contemporary capitalism in representations of uneven development, this morning I began thinking about the question of what we communists want.

well-being-map-gallopPart of the problem in trying to think this question today is that utopian horizons have been smashed and discredited by the patent failures of “really existing” socialism around the world during the last half century. But another strong problem is the way in which capitalism has gotten under our skin and into our minds, defining what is possible.

So, if we’re going to insist that another world is possible, what kind of world do we want it to be?  Certainly not the one we currently inhabit. The New Economics Foundation (NEF) has been doing a great deal of work on the issue of Well Being. Two key facts they mention: since 1970, the UK’s Gross Domestic Product has doubled, but people’s satisfaction with life has not changed; 81% of Britons believe the government should prioritize creating the greatest happiness rather than the greatest wealth.

The NEF has participated in some important attempts to redefine Well Being on a national and international level, shifting the conversation away from GDP, which, as they point out, can be augmented through increased sales of guns and tobacco just as much as through increased spending on education and child care facilities. The projects of theirs that are worth checking out: Happy Planet Index (the “leading global index of sustainable well being) and the National Accounts of Well Being project.

Part of the problem here is that prescriptions for well being can often come across as pretty banal. NEF’s Five Ways to Well Being thus includes a list of actions that seem pretty obvious:

  • Connect
  • Be Active
  • Take Notice
  • Keep Learning
  • Give

They also seem hopelessly oriented to middle class citizens of affluent, overconsuming nations of the global North. It makes sense on some level to target such hyperconsumptionist subjects since the materialistic values that we Northerners have been coaxed to embrace are at the leading edge of destroying the planet through anthropogenic climate change, and our materialism is being disseminated through the global media as the paradigm to which all developing countries should aspire. We have to shift values in the global North if we are to avert catastrophe.

We also need to dismantle the skein of false desires generated by capitalist culture. This has been a dominant preoccupation of the Left over the last century, from the Frankfurt School intellectuals’ dyspeptic critiques of consumer culture, to Thomas Frank’s more recent discussion of the rise of Right-wing sentiments among the U.S. working class in books like What’s Wrong With Kansas?, to Sara Ahmad’s The Promise of Happiness, which discusses the ways in which the imperative to be happy leads to straightened and oppressive definitions of the self and social being.

Despite, then, the importance of this discussion of alternative definitions of well being in the North, it’s important to simultaneously ask what the question of well being would look like from a global South perspective. A partial answer to this question is given in the Vivir Bien project. Growing out of the insurgent Bolivarian movement in Latin America, the project is explicitly anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist.

An immediate set of demands on the path to well being were articulated at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth.  The People’s Agreement crafted at this conference in Bolivia includes the following demands:

  • harmony and balance among all and with all things;
  • complementarity, solidarity, and equality;
  • collective well-being and the satisfaction of the basic necessities of all;
  • people in harmony with nature;
  • recognition of human beings for what they are, not what they own;
  • elimination of all forms of colonialism, imperialism and interventionism;
  • peace among the peoples and with Mother Earth;

I’d be very interested to hear what kinds of other models of well being have been articulated by social movements around the globe in recent years. At the beginning or the end of these lists, of course, should come the abolition of capitalism and its drive to ceaseless accumulation, which is of course at the roots of everyone’s unhappiness as well as the threat of planetary extinction.

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Uneven Geographies

uneven 2In his important book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Rob Nixon discusses the efforts of writer-activists to document what he describes as forms of “attritional violence whose effects are scattered across time and space.” How, he asks, do such intellectuals made visible the otherwise hidden, imperceptibly gradual but nonetheless deadly impact of environmental toxins such as depleted uranium.

I’ve been thinking about these questions as I write an essay for an edited collection focusing on the visual arts and critical landscapes. My piece looks in particular at artists such as Allan Sekula, George Osodi, Ursula Biemann, and the World of Matter collective.

My argument is that these artists are intent on documenting the forms of accumulation by dispossession that uneven 1characterize contemporary capitalism. One of the most interesting questions that I have come across while working on this essay has been the issue of how the visual arts can engage in forms of what Fredric Jameson called cognitive mapping while avoiding simply reproducing the soul-crushing landscape of exploitation that characterizes uneven development today. How, in other words, can you document without enervating?

It seems to me that this is a crucial question which many on the left are asking today. I think, for example, of Judith Halberstam’s recent The Queer Art of Failure and Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism, each of which in its own way grapples with the pessimism of our current historical moment.

In thinking through these questions, I found the catalog essay by TJ Demos for Uneven Geographies, a show he uneven 3co-curated at the Nottingham Contemporary Art Museum, particularly useful. Demos puts the issue in the following terms: “in focusing on uneven development today we risk simply reaffirming its existence in the realm of representation.” How are visual artists, curators, and intellectuals more broadly to respond to this dilemma?

Demos argues that we may respond to the dismal moment in which we find ourselves by engaging with creative work that does not simply document but also responds to the uneven geographies of capitalism in a variety of modes and genres. We also need, he suggests, to document movements which are intent on articulating alternatives to the present suicidal state of affairs. Here is Demos from the exhibition catalog:

The exhibition’s ambition has been to highlight numerous aesthetic approaches—sociological as well as affective, documentary as much as performative. These approaches not only record, map, and explore forms of inequality related to neoliberal globalisation, but also reveal the power of oppositional and creative energies that are already directed against its economic-political arrangements, and open up other modes of globalisation. They thereby complicate and challenge the analysis of uneven geographies as an otherwise potentially disempowering fatalism.

Demos’s argument resonated for me in particular in relation to environmental issues. As Eddie Yuen argued recently in Catastrophism, “the politics of failure have failed.” While we need to be clear about the extremely grave future we face as a result of anthropogenic climate chaos, trying to galvanize public opinion through further displays of environmental catastrophe is a losing proposition. We need to concentrate our intellectual energies on viable alternatives to the grim present, as well as on articulating plausible alternative futures.

 

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Cartographic animations of casualties from US drone strikes

geographical imaginations

Following up my post on the air campaigns waged by the United States and by Pakistan inside the Federally Administered Tribal Territories and the North-West Frontier Province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), here are some screenshots from Chris Herwig‘s remarkable cartographic animation of casualties from US drone strikes from 2004 through to the present (data from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism):

You can see the rapid escalation of strikes in 2009-2010 and their contraction in 2011-2012.  There is also a tendency for later strikes to cause fewer casualties; the Bureau suggests that this may have been the result of a deliberate decision to limit civilian casualties (the CIA was already reported to be using new, smaller missiles with a restricted blast field and minimal shrapnel by the spring of 2010, so the later change is likely to be down to a mix of better intelligence and greater circumspection) and, more recently…

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Representing the Landless

images-3Earlier this week I went to see a film in the MOMA New Directors/New Films series. The film was They’ll Come Back, a meditative, beautifully immersive film directed by the Brazilian Marcello Lordello.  The film tells the story of a teenage girl from a wealthy family who is left by the side of a road in the middle of the countryside as a punishment for fighting with her brother. Her parents do not return – we learn later that they are both left in a coma after a car hits them – and the girl, whose name is Cris, is left by herself when her brother hikes off in search of a gas station.

They’ll Come Back follows Cris as she moves from one good Samaritan to the next. She initially is helped by a boy who takes her to stay with his mother and sister, who are squatters on land occupied by other landless families under the leadership of members of Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement. The film shows Cris’s disorientation in the rural world inhabited by these people, and traces her gradual return home to the affluent but sterile, reactionary world of city-dwelling bourgeois family. Of course she returns home completely changed.

images-1Lordello’s film offers a gentle critique of the massive inequalities of contemporary Brazilian society. The film’s conceit of following the unformed girl Cris reminded me in some ways of Hollywood’s anti-apartheid films of the 1980s. The assumption behind those films was always that white audiences couldn’t or wouldn’t identify with black actors, so each film had to have a middle class white protagonist, whose eyes are opened to the injustice of apartheid by an increasingly violent train of events. Similarly, They’ll Come Back clearly expects Brazilian audience members to identify with the middle class, extremely white character Cris as she journeys through the worlds of her poorer, darker-skinned compatriots.  What sort of film, I wondered as I sat watching They’ll Come Back, would result if the lens were turned around and a kid from the rural regions of Brazil were suddenly catapulted into the antiseptic elite world into which Cris was born.

This thought set me wondering about representations of the landless. With exceptions such as the Courbet painting at the outset of this post, the Western landscape tradition has tended to represent rural areas as idyllic zones of repose and retreat from the hectic crowds of modern urban life. Sebastiao Salgado’s photograph above offers a far more challenging view of the militancy of landless workers that is clearly influence by the Brazilian context.

Given the forms of accumulation by dispossession that David Harvey analyzes as increasingly characteristic of contemporary capitalism, what kinds of representations of landless people do we find in the media today? They’ll Come Back offers a glancing one, at best. Here’s the film’s trailer; it starts at the end of the film and works back to the beginning. As this clip shows, the MST interlude is a brief one:

A brief search turned up a couple of other films, both documentaries, depicting Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement (whose acronym in Portuguese is MST).

History Did Not End is a documentary about the MST directed by the Italian Mario Alemi:

The NGO Other Worlds, which is also behind the Harvesting Justice project, has also done a documentary about MST:

In addition to such visual representations, there’s also the recent important book by Wendy Wolforth, This Land Is Ours Now, which discusses the rise and subsequent crisis of the MST.

We need more fictional or at least creative representations of such organizations. Such representations can offer us a sense of why such movements arise, what keeps them alive, and how they might be linked more effectively to one another.

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Profiting from Climate Insecurity

philliThese days, virtually everyone knows that the world we take for granted is becoming more precarious as a result of climate change. The key question is what we do as a result of this knowledge.

The official answer is various forms of mitigation and adaptation. In reality, however, there are many sectors of the economy and state in overdeveloped nations such as the U.S. that are primed to benefit financially and politically from climate chaos.

One of the main areas which stands to profit from climate change-induced social precariousness is the security industry. Policy analysts in this sector are already predicting that the security industry and the military will have to be augmented to deal with the social displacement and turmoil generated by climate change. Instead, in other words, of thinking about how to establish solidarity with affected nations and climate refugees, policy wonks in the U.S. and elsewhere are entrenching the lifeboat ethics that characterizes current racist anti-immigrant policies.

images-2Examples include a recent report by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences called The Security Implication of Social Stress from Climate Change. The same agency also recently released a report discussing the national security implications of climate change for the U.S. Navy.

Such efforts by the security industry and military to profit from climate change are itemized and denounced in a key recent article by Nick Buxton and Ben Hayes. The Secure and the Damned, which excerpts a forthcoming book, provides an overview of the rationales advanced for securitizing climate change, and challenges the basic logic of such moves. Here is a paragraph from the article that summarizes some of the key issues:

In a world already demeaned by concepts like ‘collateral damage’, participants in these new climate war games need not speak candidly about what they envisage, but the subtext to their discourse is always the same: how can states in the industrialised North – at a time of increasing potential scarcity and, it is assumed, unrest – secure themselves from the ‘threat’ of climate refugees, resource wars and failed states, while maintaining control of key strategic resources and supply chains? In the words of the proposed EU climate change and international security strategy, for example, climate change is ‘best viewed as a threat multiplier’ which carries ‘political and security risks that directly affect European interests’.

Christian Parenti works some of this same territory in fascinating detail in his book Tropics of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. This is dangerous trend that the movement for climate justice is going to have to fight with all its power. We should remember, as the Cochabamba Declaration underlines, that the military is the source of a significant amount of world-destroying greenhouse gas emissions rather than a just solution to climate change.

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Indigenous activists and their allies stand up to big oil.

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The Politics of Climate Change

xin_15212061620171092619063Some good academic work has been coming out on the politics of climate change lately.  Here are a couple:

The latest special issue of the ACME, an online, open access journal of critical geography, is devoted to this topic, and features articles by Erik Swingedouw, Kelvin Mason, and David Featherstone, among others.

The Open Humanities Press, another open access project, has a series of books devoted to Critical Climate Change. Particularly interesting in this regard is Impasses of the Post-Global, which has contributions by a fantastic group of scholars working across a wide variety of genres.

Finally, the most recent issue of American Book Review, which I edited, has some great essays on Post-Apocalyptic Literature. Contributors include Jayna Brown, Brooks Landon, Rob Latham, Tavia Nyong’o, Lee Quinby, Sukhdev Sandhu, and myself.

(Un)happy reading!

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