META-POLITICS – This is the first episode in a new conversation series between Layman Pascal and Matthew T. Segall. After touching on the deep strangeness of our time, and on the importance of finding a new post/metaphysical nexus for politics, religion, and ecology (a reintegration of the value spheres) Layman and Matt take up an extended reflection on meta-politics and the shape of a post-progressive political movement. They delve into such topics as developmental politics, the integral critique of modernity, the religious dimension of social movements, and a meta-progressive vision for social upgrade.
Imagining a Gaian Reality After the Virus
by Matthew Segall
What follows is a brief paper outlining a path forward for post-pandemic humanity. It attempts to integrate Marxist critiques of capitalism with the efforts of contemporary Whiteheadian philosophers to compose an alternative ecological civilization.
A specter is haunting modern civilization—the specter of Gaia. All the powers of the global capitalist market have been entering into a holy alliance to exorcise this specter. The name “Gaia” is borrowed from the scientific hypothesis of James Lovelock, who himself borrowed it from author William Golding, who in turn borrowed it from Hesiod’s ancient Greek cosmogony. Do not imagine an anthropomorphized goddess, “Mother Nature,” when you hear this name. Imagine instead an immeasurable assemblage of coevolving lifeforms precariously poised along a far from equilibrium thermodynamic gradient of self-organizing geochemical feedback loops whose fragile entanglements are necessary for maintaining the habitability of this planet. For several hundred years, this living Earth has been treated as a mere background to human activity, a storehouse of raw materials to be violently extracted, a passive stage upon which our technological progress could unfold indefinitely. But Gaia could not be dispelled by the industrial might or monetary magic of global capitalism. Gaia has only been further provoked by it. “Matter Strikes Back,” as the process theologian Catherine Keller put it in her recent Gaian dreamreading of the Apocalypse of John.
Despite the wishful thinking of capitalist economists, the market is not a “perpetual motion machine” insulated from the biophysical inevitabilities of entropy and extinction. Since the end of the last ice age 12,000 years ago, the human economy as we know it has only ever existed at the grace of the Earth’s ecology. Whether agricultural, industrial, or digital, our species has undertaken each new mode of production with tremendous Promethean creativity, but also with increasing ignorance of the geophysiological conditions making it all possible.
“Gaia’s intrusion,” as the philosopher Isabelle Stengers has referred to it, has always been inevitable, but until very recently, it was for the most part only decipherable scientifically through complex data sets and computer simulations of global temperature rise, biodiversity loss, and many other abstract metrics detailing the fraying of its feedback loops. Timelines stretching to the end of this century warned of the dire consequences of failing to take bold action to curb greenhouse gas emissions and reverse other ecologically unsustainable practices. Insurance companies were beginning to feel uneasy about the increasing severity of droughts, wildfires, and hurricanes, but surely Gaia could wait for the market to adapt. With the rapid and virulent emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic (likely a spillover effect of habitat loss*), the situation is just as it was before, only massively accelerated. After a decades-long trial period, planetary transformation is now no longer optional: “we do not have any choice, because [Gaia] will not wait.”
What remained a specter before the pandemic—a barely perceptible threat safely hidden behind the noise and smog of business as usual—has now brought the entirety of modern human civilization to its knees. The continuing public health threat posed by the virus remains potentially catastrophic on its own. And with most of the world’s human population unable to consume or produce at the ever-increasing rates required of our capitalist system, the economic fallout threatens to become even more severe.
Marxist philosopher Fredric Jameson once said that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” Jameson’s statement was borrowed from H. Bruce Franklin, who originally posed it as a question: “What could [our species] create if [we] were able to envision the end of capitalism as not the end, but the beginning, of a human world?” With the old world now on the brink as humanity is brought to its knees by Gaia,—the for too long taken for granted ground beneath our feet,—our species has a fateful decision to make. Will we continue to pray to the God of the Market by imposing another round of what Naomi Klein has called “disaster capitalism,” or might we invoke an older god?
To Marxist ears, the invocation of a god, especially one with the mythic residue of “Gaia,” resounds of ideology. Why leave our capitalist chains behind only to succumb to a new, or ancient, opiate of the masses? Worse, my narrative account of our current situation as the disruption of the human political economy due to the intrusion of a seemingly outside natural power appears to be a textbook case of the process Roland Barthes warned about more than half a century ago, whereby “the bourgeoisie transforms the reality of the world into an image of the world, History into Nature”; this, according to Barthes, is “the very principle of myth: it transforms history into nature.”
But Gaia has not come in any form recognized by the terms of the modern constitution, signed by Marxists and capitalists alike, which placed a metaphysical chasm between human society and physical nature: the historical realization of freedom on one side, mere matter to be mastered by it on the other. “If man is shaped by the environment,” Marx wrote, “his environment must be made human.” Even Marx’s dialectical materialism remains insensitive to Gaia’s non-modern mode of composition. Gaia is not “the environment,” not “Nature” as modern people have conceived of it. Gaia does not passively suffer our historical projects. Nor has Gaia come in the ancient form imagined by our ancestors. Gaia is not natural and not mythical. Gaia is a geohistorical hybrid, to use Bruno Latour’s favored definition. Latour asks us to face Gaia not as a transcendent mythical or immanent natural unifier, but as a cosmic power demanding that we come “down to earth,” to concrete, earthbound existence. Gaia’s revenge is a reminder to moderns that we are not masters of “Nature,” but members of Whitehead’s “democracy of fellow creatures.” Gaia is just as much an historical agent as we are. Given our continued lack of political will to respond to her summons, perhaps more so.
Finding ways to get along with the bizarre biological neighbors modernity has for several centuries prided itself on ignoring will not be easy, as the still unfolding COVID-19 crisis exemplifies. Human survival in this new/old Gaian reality will require reimagining our political, religious, scientific, and artistic forms. Our concept of “society” will need to be expanded to include non-humans. Time itself will need restorying: History has always been ending; myth endlessly beginning; and creation forever ongoing. We are not the rational animal capable of calculating profit and loss in advance of our exchanges. We are not lords of the land and owners of private property. We are creatures coevolving with a community of others, of a kind with the mycorrhiza fertilizing the soil, with the grass and trees that share our atmosphere, with the bees that pollinate their flowers, with all the other plants and animals. Becoming Gaian is not so much a matter of reinventing ourselves as “merely” biological organisms as it is of shedding our god-like Promethean ambitions, of learning to settle down here on the earth beneath the sky instead of setting sail once more, this time beyond all finite horizons, as if Mars, too, could be colonized and commodified. Contrary to the dualisms of the modern world view, the capitalist economy cannot float above its material conditions like a perpetual motion machine. Contrary to Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, our species is not destined for space capitalism. All that is solid has not melted into air. Even the “cloud” that hosts our digital economy depends upon massive super-cooled server farms and undersea cables to power its invisible networks.
Marx and Engles could not have foreseen the specific condition—a viral pandemic—that would finally initiate the dialectical self-overcoming of capitalism. But they did predict that capitalism, by expanding the market over the entire surface of the globe and establishing connections everywhere, would at last compel each of us to face with sober senses our real conditions of life, and our true relations to others of our kind. Our conditions of life, and our shared vulnerability, have never been more apparent than during this planetary quarantine. Millions have already perished, and billions more need an economic and, indeed, a psychospiritual lifeline. All humanity, despite our social distancing and our cultural diversity, must now unite against a common enemy. But who is this enemy? COVID-19? If we are no longer modern, we cannot so easily disentangle ourselves from this viral agent, as though “Nature” had raised a microscopic army against us. After all, maybe we are the virus. Maybe COVID-19 is a Gaian antibody. Nonsense: we, too, are Gaians. We, too, have a place on this planet, if only we would turn from hubris to humility.
What would it mean to be civilized in a humbler non-modern, or ecological way? Alfred North Whitehead was willing to consider that even some squirrels may be capable of it. For Whitehead, civilization implies conscious participation in the creative power of ideas—like freedom or love—to shape history. Whitehead is not an idealist, however. He is an organic realist. Ideas only have power when the material and historical conditions are ripe, when a particular social habitat is patient enough to shelter their ingression.
Many moderns, Marx included, have too anthropocentric an idea of ideas. Ideas were already active in evolutionary processes long before conscious human beings emerged on the scene. Ideas are not just conjured up in human heads or typed into computers by human hands. Whitehead’s philosophy of organism is an invitation to consider the possibility that the idea of the Good participates in generating the light and warmth of the Sun no less than the nuclear reactions and electromagnetic radiation known to physicists, that the idea of Beauty is at work in the evolution of peacocks, butterflies, and roses and not just in Beethoven’s 9th or the Mona Lisa. Ideas don’t just shape history, they shape geohistory and indeed cosmic history.
Whitehead: “The basis of democracy is the common fact of value-experience, as constituting the essential nature of each pulsation of actuality. Everything has some value for itself, for others, and for the whole.” Every bacterium enriching the soil, every bumble bee making honey in the hive, every human building the future, every star spiraling in the galaxy has value for itself, for others, and for the whole. Nonhumans not only have value, they are themselves agents of value creation.
What is value? Debates continue to rage among economists about the differences between use and exchange value, or between objective and subjective value, but Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Marx all agreed that, under capitalism, value is a social relation determined by the amount of labor time required to produce a commodity. The implication is that only humans create value by working on raw material or dead nature.
Is all value really produced by human labor alone? Is there nothing extra-human that supplies value? In Whitehead’s cosmos—and the Gaian reality we moderns are stumbling into—there is no more mere matter or dead nature, no inert or raw material to be appropriated by someone called Man. “We have no right,” Whitehead admonishes us, “to deface the value-experience which is the very essence of the universe.” Value is typically linked to agency. Moderns, whether Locke, Marx, or Hayek, have limited agency and thus value creation to human beings (what’s worse, within capitalist social relations, value creation is even further delimited almost exclusively to those lucky enough to be owners of capital).
Despite his recognition of a growing “metabolic rift” between humanity and nature under capitalism, Marx was fully modern in his commitment to what Latour calls the “double task of emancipation and domination.” The emancipatory task was political: to end exploitation of humans by humans. The task of domination was techno-scientific: to become masters of nature.
Gaia’s intrusion in the form of a viral pandemic is turning our lives upside down and outside in. Perhaps now, from the perspective it has granted us, we will come to see that we are in a crucial sense surrounded by the Earth, enclosed within it, trapped, earthbound. We cannot escape to any beyond, Musk and Bezos’ extra-terrestrial utopianism notwithstanding.
We must re-think human freedom and human-earth relations as though Gaia mattered, as though matter mattered. Humans are not as free and teleological as moderns have imagined; nor is nature as dumb and deterministic. Marx said that the worst human architect is distinguished from the best honeybee by the fact that the former designs his building ideally before constructing it materially. Man has a plan. Bees, apparently, are simply automatons obeying blind instinct. But is this really how human or bee creativity works? Organic architect Christopher Alexander studied how medieval cathedrals were generated over generations in a purposeful but not centrally planned way. This is akin to the way insects build their nests, following a simple organizational patterning language out of which emerges enduring, functional forms of beauty. Buildings that are designed and built in the way Marx imagined tend to be dead structures meant for money-making rather than living. Consciousness of the power of ideas does not mean mastery over ideas. Ideas possess us, purpose us; we participate in their powers of proposal, co-workers and not free inventors.
Where to go from here? In place of the deterministic teleology of techno-utopianism, we need organic processes of relational creativity. In place of individual competition and class hierarchy, democracy and social solidarity. In place of a Big Plan from on high, playful kin-making with the community of nonhuman beings we breathe, eat, love, and otherwise share this planet with. Instead of providential history, we must settle for what anthropologist James Clifford calls “big enough” stories that remain “ontologically unfinished” and “situated in zones of contact, struggle, and dialogue.”
We who are no long modern need new practices of aestheticization, new stories, new rituals (or perhaps we need to respectfully recover “old” practices, stories, and rituals) to help sensitize us to the values of non-humans. Our survival depends on it.
Becoming sensitive to the values of non-humans doesn’t mean there is no hierarchy of values that recognizes the unique evolutionary accomplishments of cosmogenesis. As Whitehead says, “life is robbery.” But, he continues, “the robber needs justification.” What is the human, anyway? Are we one species among many? In an obvious sense, of course we are; and we ignore our dependence upon and embeddedness within wider ecological networks to our own peril. In another sense, we are not just another species. We have become, for better or worse, a planetary presence, a geological force. How are we to justify our presence on the Earth? What does ecological justice look like when the idea of justice is expanded beyond just human society? These are questions any civilization hoping to survive the next century is going to need to answer.
Human history is a geophysical event. Whether we date the history of this event to the emergence of symbolic consciousness 200,000 years ago, the Neolithic revolution 12,500 years ago, the capitalist revolution 500 years ago, the industrial revolution 250 years ago, the nuclear age 75 years ago, or the information age 30 years ago, it is clear that the Earth has by now at least entered a new phase of geohistorical development. Whether we call it the Anthropocene, the Capitalocene, the Plantationocene, the Chthulucene, the Entropocene, the emergence of the Noosphere or the Ecozoic Era, diagnosing the metaphysical roots of the present ecological catastrophe is a necessary (though not sufficient) part of imagining and materializing a post-capitalist world.
Marx, of course, was not unaware of our profound connection to the Earth: “Nature is man’s inorganic body, that is to say, nature in so far as it is not the human body. Man lives from nature . . . and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.” In Capital, he writes of labor as a process “by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates, and controls the metabolism between himself and nature. He confronts the materials of nature as a force of nature.” I do not mean to downplay the extent to which Marx’s dialectical understanding of the human-earth relation goes a long way toward describing our new Gaian reality. But he still could not shake the all too modern tendency to treat Earth as dead and awaiting the value-creating power of human consciousness. So with Whitehead, I have argued that value is not just a human social construct or free creation of human labor or desire, but a cosmological power upon which our human values and potentials depend.
* Whether the virus ends up being a lab leak or not, research underway at the virology lab in Wuhan was ongoing precisely because of the dangers of spillover. “Horseshoe bats are the natural reservoir for SARS-CoV-like virus and that civets are the amplification host highlight the importance of wildlife and biosecurity in farms and wet markets, which can serve as the source and amplification centers for emerging infections” (from a meta-analysis of medical studies on coronaviruses).
Neil Irwin, “One Simple Idea That Explains Why the Economy Is in Great Danger” in the New York Times, March 17th, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/17/upshot/coronavirus-economy-crisis-demand-shock.html?referringSource=articleShare
Sarah Zohdy, Tonia S. Schwartz, Jamie R. Oaks. “The Coevolution Effect as a Driver of Spillover.” Trends in Parasitology, 2019; 35 (6): 399 DOI: 10.1016/j.pt.2019.03.010
Isabelle Stengers, In Catastrophic Times, 50. https://meson.press/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/978-1-78542-010-8_In-Catastrophic-Times_Stengers.pdf
Fredric Jameson, “Future City,” New Left Review 21 (May/June 2003), 76.
Franklin, “What are we to make of J.G. Ballard’s Apocalypse?”; https://www.jgballard.ca/criticism/ballard_apocalypse_1979.html; credit is due to Matthew Beaumont for pointing out Jameson’s sources (see “Imagining the End Times: Ideology, the Contemporary Disaster Movie, Contagion” in Zizek and Media Studies: A Reader (2014).
Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine (2007)
Roland Barthes, “Myth Today,” in Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (London: Vintage, 1993), 141, 129.
Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia (2017) and We Have Never Been Modern (1993)
Whitehead, Process and Reality (1929) and Modes of Thought (1938)
Karl Marx, “Estranged Labor” (1844).
Catherine Keller, Facing Apocalypse: Climate, Democracy, and Other Last Chances (2001).
Sean Kelly and I delivered this a few weeks ago at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, CA at our philosophy program’s annual retreat.
Below is a recording of my talk (a video first, then audio only that includes the discussion afterwards). I’ve also included an extended draft of some notes I took to prepare my talk. Finally, I’ve included my notes taken while listening to Jason Moore during yesterday’s opening lecture.
Fifth annual conference of the World-Ecology Research Network
“Planetary Utopias, Capitalist Dystopias: Justice, Nature, and the Liberation of Life”
California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, CA
May 30-June 1, 2019
Matthew T. Segall – “Whitehead and Marx: A Cosmopolitical Approach to Ecological Civilization”
A few words about the words in the title:
“Cosmopolitics” is an effort on the part of thinkers like Isabelle Stengers, Bruno Latour, and Donna Haraway to think beyond the modern human/nature and fact/value divides, or what Whitehead called the “bifurcation of nature.”
“Civilization“?!? This phrase, “ecological civilization,” comes from China’s Communist Party. Achieving ecological civilization is one of their stated goals for the 21st century. In China there are now about 35 graduate programs and research centers devoted to Whitehead’s thought and process studies.
What does it mean, to Whitehead, to be “civilized”? He does not use the term in an exclusivist sense and is even willing to consider that some animals some of the time (e.g., squirrels) may be capable of it (see Modes of Thought). But usually not. It means a conscious recognition of and participation in the creative power of ideas–like freedom or love–to shape history.
“We find ourselves in a buzzing world, amid a democracy of fellow creatures.” -Alfred North Whitehead (Process and Reality).
Whitehead is not an idealist, however. Ideas only have power when the material and historical conditions are ripe, when a particular habitat can support their ingression.
Many moderns, Marx included, have too anthropocentric an idea of ideas. Ideas were already active in evolutionary processes long before conscious human beings emerged on the scene. Ideas are not just conjured up in human heads or scratched onto paper pages by human hands. Whitehead invites us to expand our conception so that we can sense that the idea of the Good generates the light and warmth of the Sun no less than the nuclear reactions and electromagnetic radiation known to physicists, that the idea of Beauty is at work in the evolution of peacocks and butterflies and roses and not just in Beethoven’s 9th or the Mona Lisa. Ideas don’t just shape history, they shape geohistory and indeed cosmic history.
“The basis of democracy is the common fact of value-experience, as constituting the essential nature of each pulsation of actuality. Everything has some value for itself, for others, and for the whole.” -Alfred North Whitehead (Modes of Thought 151).
Every bacterium enriching the soil, every bumble bee making honey in the hive, every human being participating in society, every star spiraling in the galaxy has value for itself, for others, and for the whole. Nonhumans not only have value, they are agents of value creation.
Whitehead (in a conversation with his wife Evelyn and the journalist Lucien Price in 1944) was asked if the prior half-century or so had any political thinkers as daring as those who inaugurated the new relativistic and quantum physics, he answered “There is Marx, of course; though I cannot speak of him with any confidence.” But he goes on to describe Marx as “the prophet of proletarian revolt” and marks the singular relevance of the fact that the first practical effectuation of his ideas [Soviet Russia under Lenin] occurred in a society dominated by farmers. Here we see Whitehead was ahead of his time in recognizing the importance of food sovereignty. Any serious resistance to capitalism must begin with soil and seeds.
What is value? We can discuss the differences between use v. exchange value, objective v. subjective value, but ultimately Marx says value is a social relation determined by the amount of labor time it requires to produce a commodity. Humans create value by working on raw material or dead nature.
Is all value really produced by human labor alone? Is there nothing extrahuman that supplies value? In Whitehead’s cosmos there is no mere matter or dead nature, no inert or raw material to be appropriated by something called Man.
Whitehead: “We have no right to deface the value-experience which is the very essence of the universe” (Modes of Thought 111).
We can link value to agency. Moderns, whether Locke, or Marx, or Hayak, limit agency and thus value-creation to human beings.
According to Latour, the abstract, idealistic materialism of classical Marxism misses the activity/agency of the world.
Latour: “We have never been modern in the very simple sense that while we emancipated ourselves, each day we also more tightly entangled ourselves in the fabric of nature.”
Despite his recognition of metabolic rift, Marx was fully modern in his commitment to what Latour calls the “double task of emancipation and domination” (We Have Never Been Modern 10). The emancipatory task was political: to end exploitation of humans by humans. The task of domination was technoscientific: to become masters of nature.
“The fabric of our collectives has had to be radically transformed to absorb the citizen of the 18th century and the worker of the 19th century. We need a similar transformation now to make space for non-humans created by sciences and techniques.” -Latour (We Have Never Been Modern 185-6).
Latour’s Gifford lectures on Gaia invite us to transform our imagination of the earth as modern globe by turning it inside out, such that we come to see that we are in a crucial sense surrounded by the earth, we are enclosed within it, trapped, earthbound. We cannot escape to a beyond, Musk and Bezos’ extra-terrestrial utopianism notwithstanding.
How are we to think human freedom and human-earth relations after modernity? Humans are not as free and teleological as moderns have imagined; nor is nature as dumb and deterministic as moderns have imagined. Marx says that what distinguishes the worst human architect from the best honey bee is that the former designs his building ideally before constructing it materially. Man has a plan. Bees, apparently, are simply automatons obeying blind instinct. But is this really how human creativity works? Is this really how bee creativity works? Architect Christopher Alexander discusses how medieval cathedrals were generated over generations in a purposeful but not centrally planned way. This is akin to the way insects build their nests, following a simple organizational patterning language out of which emerges enduring forms of order and beauty. Buildings that are designed and built in the way Marx imagined tend to be dead structures meant for money-making rather than living. Consciousness of the power of ideas does not mean mastery over ideas. Ideas possess us, purpose us; we participate in their power, co-workers and not free inventors.
Donna Haraway: “in so far as the Capitalocene is told in the idiom of fundamentalist Marxism, with all its trappings of Modernity, Progress, and History, that term is subject to the same or fiercer criticisms. The stories of both the Anthropocene and the Capitalocene teeter constantly on the brink of becoming much Too Big. Marx did better than that, as did Darwin. We can inherit their bravery and capacity to tell big-enough stories without determinism, teleology, and plan” (Staying With the Trouble, 50).
What does Haraway propose we do instead? In place of deterministic teleology, she proposes process-relational creativity; and in place of a Big Plan from on high she proposes playful communal kin-making with the ecological beings we breath, kill, eat, love, and otherwise communicate with on the daily down here on planet Earth. She credits James Clifford (Return) with the notion of a “big enough” story, a story that remains “ontologically unfinished” and situated in zones of contact, struggle, and dialogue” (Return 85-86).
How do we become sensitive to the values of nonhumans? We need new practices of aestheticization, new stories, new rituals (or perhaps we need to recover “old” practices, stories, and rituals) to help us become sensitive to the values of nonhumans. Indigenous peoples can help us develop these. I think something like this is going on even in major documentary films like the new Attenborough film “Our Planet” (problematic as its title is, and as Attenborough’s ecological politics are): e.g., the images of a mass suicide of walruses in northeastern Russia.
Becoming sensitive to the values of nonhumans doesn’t mean we don’t still have a hierarchy of values that in many cases puts humans at the top. As Whitehead says, “life is robbery.” But, he continues, “the robber needs justification.” What is the human, anyway? Are we one species among many? In an obvious sense, of course we are; and we ignore our dependence upon and embeddedness within wider ecological networks to our own peril. In another sense, we are not just another species. We have become, for better or worse, a planetary presence, a geological force. How are we just justify our presence on Earth? What does ecological justice look like when the idea of justice is expanded beyond just human society?
There are a number of ongoing polemics among anti-capitalist scholars, particularly metabolic rift theorists and world-ecology researchers (e.g., John Bellamy Foster and Jason Moore; incidentally, Foster seems to get Latour all wrong), regarding the proper way to understand the relation between human beings and the rest of the natural world. I would want to approach these disputes in a diplomatic manner. I am not here to choose sides, and anyway I don’t even know the whole story. But at this catastrophic moment in geohistory, those of us resisting the mitosis of capital might do well to focus less on widening abstract semantic divisions and more on imagining and materializing the shared future we hope we one day achieve on this Human-Earth.
Human history is a geophysical event. Whether we date the history of this event to the emergence of symbolic consciousness 200,000 years ago, the Neolithic revolution 12,500 years ago, the capitalist revolution 500 years ago, the industrial revolution 250 years ago, the nuclear age 75 years ago, or the information age 20 years ago, it is clear that the Earth has by now at least entered a new phase of geohistorical development.
AP headline on May 6th, 2019 reads “UN report: Humanity accelerating extinction of other species.” The first line reads: “People are putting nature in more trouble now than at any other time in human history, with extinction looming over 1 million species of plants and animals, scientists said Monday.”
NY Magazine headline also on May 6th, 2019 by Eric Levitz: “Humanity is About to Kill 1 Million Species in a Globe-Spanning Murder-Suicide.”
He concludes: “Earth’s ecosystems did not evolve to thrive amid the conditions that a global, advanced capitalist civilization of 7 billion humans has created. And that civilization did not evolve to thrive on a planet without coral reefs, wetlands, or wild bees — and with global temperatures exceeding preindustrial levels by 1.5 degrees. Bringing our civilization’s ambitions and modes of operation into better alignment with the environment’s demands no act of altruism. It merely requires recognizing our own collective long-term self-interest, and changing the way we grow food, produce energy, deal with climate change and dispose of waste, on a global level, through international cooperation.”
Whether we call it the Anthropocene, the Capitalocene, the Plantationocene, the Chthulucene, the Entropocene, or the Ecozoic, diagnosing the metaphysical roots of the present ecological catastrophe is a necessary (though not sufficient) part of imagining and materializing a post-capitalist world.
Marx is not unaware of our dependence upon the natural world, writing that: “Nature is man’s inorganic body, that is to say, nature in so far as it is not the human body. Man lives from nature . . . and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.”
Marx also writes in Capital of labor as a process “by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates, and controls the metabolism between himself and nature. He confronts the materials of nature as a force of nature” (https://isreview.org/issue/109/marx-and-nature).
Marx is dialectical in his understanding of the human-earth relation, but he still treats nature as dead and awaiting the value-creating power of human consciousness.
With Whitehead, I have argued that value is not just a human social construct or free creation of human labor or desire (modern thinkers as diverse as Locke, Marx, and Hayek agree on this, as I noted above) but a cosmological or ecological power from which our human values, and our human power, derive.
Citations for the above:
Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead by Lucien Price, p. 220.
Thursday, May 30th
Notes on Jason Moore’s opening talk
-The planetary era began in 1492 (“the globe”) not in 1968 with earthrise photo
-the end of the world has already happened, many times.
-Man and Nature as “real abstractions” (non-European people and European women were considered part of nature); we must break down CP Snow’s two cultures, beyond “coupled systems” analysis, to a “flow fo flows” that integrates humans as earthlings
-“civilization” as a dangerous, colonial word? What is this term meant to denote? The opposite of savagery and barbarism?
-climate change as a “capitalogenic process” (what about Soviet and Chinese communist contributions?)
-“Nature is a class struggle” – “Nature” is part of the capitalist project
-we need more Marxist histories of climate change to avoid ceding the ground to neo-Malthusians
-the Earth has always been a historical actor; the present ecological crisis is not novel in this respect (see William Connolly’s “Facing the Planetary” and “The Fragility of Things”)
-climate is not exogenous to civilization and modes of production.
-Marx on labor as metabolic mediation between man and nature (man transforms nature, nature transforms man).
-from geology and history to geohistory
-Capitalism emerged out of late 15th century geographic expansion; credit, conquest, and coerced labor were essential (“capitalism’s triple helix in formation”)
-new world genocide led to regrowth of managed forests and CO2 dip, which led to little ice age; why didn’t this produce a terminal crisis in capitalism? Because of slavery frontier
-why is cotton gin not considered as important as steam engine as impetus for industrial revolution?
-“blue marble” photo of earth as “environmentalism of the rich”
-Marx acknowledged that human labor is itself a force of nature (?)
-alternative to collapse narrative (Jared Diamond)?
The following was originally written in 2012 as a chapter in a short book titled Philosophy in a Time of Emergency. It feels relevant given our current political situation, so I’m sharing it again.
The Nature of Human Freedom
By Matthew T. Segall
The Naturphilosoph comes to understand “Nature as subject.”1 This is not the Kantian position that nature necessarily conforms to the transcendental structure of the human mind, but rather the inverse proposition that human consciousness is itself a recapitulation of the uncanny subjectivity of nature. Where Kant says we can’t know nature in itself, and Fichte says nature is my own projection, Schelling turns us back upon the strangeness of our own humanity to ask “do we really know who and what we are, or where we came from?”
Most people turn away from what is concealed within themselves just as they turn away from the depths of the great life and shy away from the glance into the abysses of that past which are still in one just as much as the present.2
In his celebrated 1809 treatise, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, Schelling begins by exploring traditional theological, cosmological, and anthropological answers to the question of human nature. He re- emerges, not with more answers, but with surprising new questions. Schelling discovers that the freedom of human reason, rather than being above or outside nature, bottoms out into the sublime tension inherent to cosmogenesis. Freedom is found to be grounded in the eternal struggle between gravity and light, the polarity originally constitutive of nature itself.
The human freedom to decide to be good or evil, despite being grounded in nature’s primordial scission of forces, nonetheless irrevocably sets us apart from the animal kingdom. Human beings are conscious of their enactment of original sin, making it impossible to explain sin merely as a regression to brute instincts, since this would imply a lack of consciousness and freedom. For Schelling, evil is unmistakably spiritual in origin, meaning it is a possibility only for absolutely free beings. Schelling draws approvingly upon the work of his theosophical collaborator Fr. Baader:
it would be desirable that the corruption in man were only to go so far as his becoming animal; unfortunately, however, man can stand only below or above animals.3
The spiritual freedom of the human being should not be confused with a “capacity” for freedom, e.g., the ability of a consumer to choose Corn Flakes or Cheerios for breakfast, as this characterization entirely conceals the literally decisive importance of the originating act of freedom. Freedom is not a capacity or ability, as this would imply the pre-existence of some more foundational subject who could employ freedom as a means to its own ends. Freedom is the very ground of subjectivity, the abyss from which subjectivity first emerges. As a human spirit, I am essentially nothing more and nothing less than the freedom to decide for good or evil. This de-cision is the essence of my freedom—which in fact is not mine at all. It is more correct to say that I belong to freedom.4 There is no me behind or before the spiritual crisis of this originally free deed. My personality just is the decision between good and evil, a decision made eternally time and time again. Original sin—the natural human propensity to do evil—is a necessary side- effect of our independent free will. The divine freedom of which we partake forces us to live in conflict, caught between the desire to secure the particularity of our own organism and the general will of God toward universal love. For this reason, according to Schelling,
the will reacts necessarily against freedom as that which is above the creaturely and awakes in freedom the appetite for what is creaturely just as he who is seized by dizziness on a high and steep summit seems to be beckoned to plunge downward by a hidden voice.5
Such dizzying spiritual freedom, though unique, is not best understood as a special human difference, some distinct capacity present only in our species. As Jason Wirth puts it:
the kind or species that marks the human marks the place where the discrete nature of natural kinds itself returns to its originary crisis. The human kind is the kind that can complicate the discourse of natural kinds.6
Our uniqueness as humans is that we recapitulate the very essence of nature itself. Further, because nature remains our ground, the reflection of our consciousness upon this ground generates self-consciousness: humanity is nature become conscious of itself as subject. While other organisms remain submerged in the unity of natural becoming, the human, like the divine, is eternally beginning, always deciding anew to re-create itself in an attempt to overcome the irreducible otherness within itself (i.e., evil). Unlike the divine, however, for the human there is no necessary assurance that love will overcome evil, that the otherness will be dynamically re-engaged in the eternal circulation of sacred marriage. Hence the fall into history, the rise of the state, and the suffering and confusion of earthly human life wherein evil is constantly externalized and projected.
Schelling saw no hope in nationalistic politics or state bureaucracies. He believed the state was ultimately an affront to free human beings and would eventually wither away as the human spirit awakened to its true potential. Schelling characterized secular modernity by its tendency to “[push] its philanthropism all the way to the denial of evil,”7 thereby reducing the complex theological significance of sin to the more easily manageable problems of techno- science.8 The present military-industrial techno-capitalist empire can thus be said to be predicated upon the pretense that the total rationalization of human life can eliminate evil.9 After all, evil doers can quickly be destroyed by laser guided missiles launched from remote-controlled drones, depression and anxiety can be cured with mood-enhancing psychiatric chemicals, and climate change can be reversed through a bit of simple geo-engineering.
Joseph Lawrence follows Schelling in calling for a renewed inquiry into the nature of good and evil, an inquiry now even more untimely than it was in Schelling’s day—untimely because such theologically-laden concerns run counter to the self-understanding of the secular Enlightenment, whose founding myth involves the throwing off of traditional religion in favor of the supposedly self- grounding power of instrumental rationality. Lawrence asks how we are to understand modernity’s hubristic elevation of rationality to a secular religion at the same time that it prohibits genuine metaphysical or theological investigation:
If reality were recognized as truly rational, we would encourage the attempt to understand its inner meaning…we would also place our trust in it, instead of relying as heavily as we do on politics and technology to hold the world at bay. Metaphysical irrationalism is thus the deep premise of modern rationality. It alone provides the explanation for why practical and instrumental reason have achieved such dominance over theoretical reason.10
It is modernity’s repressed fear of chaos and meaninglessness, in other words, that leads it to turn away from “the big questions” in favor of the instrumental solutions and superficial palliatives of modern life. Inquiring into the essence of human freedom is especially terrifying for the narcissistic ego used to the pampering of consumer capitalism. The willing soul must learn, according to Schelling,
to stand alone before the infinite: a gigantic step, which Plato likened to death. What Dante saw inscribed on the door to hell must (in a different sense) adorn the entrance to philosophy: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Whoever wants truly to philosophize must be stripped of all hope, all desire, all longing. He must want nothing, know nothing, feel his naked impoverishment, and be capable of surrendering everything for the sake of winning its return…one will have to be taken quite simply into the beginning, to be born anew.11
Even the divine has to pass through the purifying fire of the abyss and overcome the fear of existence in order to realize its creative freedom.12 Unlike human beings, who have the ethical community to console them, for God, the primal being, there is no one else to come to its aid: “in its stultifying solitude…[God] must fight its way through chaos for itself, utterly alone.”13 Human beings can take refuge in the social mores of the day, which in the consumer capitalist context offer an untold number of options for temporary escapist diversion from the soul’s inevitable encounter with the purifying fires of eternity. When radical evil does break through the thin veneer of bourgeois social order, it is always neatly localized in a deranged criminal who can be impersonally (and so guiltlessly) executed by the state.14
Unlike Hegel, who deified the state as an end in itself, Schelling understood it as a means made necessary by the fall, nature’s way of maintaining some semblance of social order given the sinfulness of individuals.15 Schelling realized the paradoxical results of any attempt to justify the existence of the state, since if a just state were able to establish the conditions necessary for the genuine moral freedom of its citizens, this would imply that it no longer reserved the right to exercise coercive force to uphold its laws, and to that extent, that it no longer served a social function and so could be dissolved.16 Though an aging Schelling was dismissed as a reactionary apologist for the conservative Christianity of the Prussian state by Engels,17 Lawrence argues for a revolutionary Schelling who consistently sought liberation for humanity through ethical renewal and authentic religiosity, rather than state politics.18 The true but greatly misunderstood task of the modern age, according to Schelling, “is to shrink the state itself…in every form.”19 Even if the state cannot be abolished outright, a redeemed humanity would at least ensure that “the state…progressively [divested] itself of the blind force that governs it, [transfiguring] this force into intelligence.”20 Far from an apologist for state power, while still in Munich Schelling had openly defied the Bavarian government by lecturing on theological issues, and when he was called to Berlin by the Prussian king in 1841, he agreed only on the condition that he be granted complete academic freedom.21
From Schelling’s perspective, true human salvation does not lie in the false gods of the market and the state, which in their attempt to repress and deny the chaotic abyss at the root of nature only further empower it. Evil becomes real precisely when a human being or society denies the evil in itself to wage war against it in others. It is precisely in order to avoid feeding this “dialectic of revenge”22 that Jesus tells his disciples, “resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”23 Love can only exist along side the possibility of evil, since both are grounded in freedom. To eliminate the possibility of evil would be to eliminate freedom and therefore love.
By metaphysically rooting evil in the darkness of divine nature, Schelling transforms the traditional moral obsession with theodicy into the aesthetics of theogonic tragedy.24 Instead of interpreting suffering as the punishment of a vengeful God, as in traditional theodicies, Schelling repeatedly emphasizes the extent to which suffering is inherent to the creative process itself, even for God. It was God who, in an eternally past act of absolute love, provided “the prototype of all suffering innocents.”25 Schelling calls us to live up to the nature of our complicated human kind by reconciling our sense of fallenness with our divine likeness, thereby finding the endurance necessary to pass through the spirit-forging fire of God’s eternal beginning to be born again, now not only of water but also of spirit.26
Devin Zane Shaw critiques what he calls Schelling’s “mythologization of politics” from a Marxist perspective, arguing that he mystifies the material conditions of social relations by emphasizing spiritual cultivation (Bildung) over democratic political engagement.27 Shaw seems to misunderstand Schelling’s call for the mythopoeic revitalization of the public sphere by conflating it with totalitarianism:
the a priori conception of universality as organic totality ignores or disregards the fact that the political space itself is the domain of the struggle over what the definition of universality (and political inclusion) is.28
While it is not misleading to refer to Schelling’s conception of the ideal relationship between individuals and their community as “organic,” this relationship need not be “totalizing” in the sense that Shaw suggests. From his time as a young professor in Jena through to his role as Secretary General of the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich (a position he held from 1808 to 1821), Schelling sought the transformation of society by way of philosophical education.29 The highest form of social organization could not be imposed externally by state magistrates pretending to some a priori knowledge of true universality; rather, Schelling saw this form emerging freely from the citizenry itself as a result of their artistic, scientific, and religious cultivation.
This rigor of enculturation, like the rigor of the life in nature, is the kernel out of which the first true grace and divinity poor forth like blood.30
Contrary to Shaw’s claim that Schelling disregards the importance of the democratic struggle for political inclusion, Schelling recognized that genuine democracy is only possible given a citizenry aware of the cosmological, anthropological, and theological grounds of authentic freedom. Without a philosophical culture capable of sustaining inquiry into the cosmic and spiritual depths of human nature, the equality rightly demanded by members of democratic societies can only devolve into the leveling homogenization of consumer capitalism, where freedom is reduced to the ability to identify with the corporate brand of one’s choice. The trivialization and inversion of freedom inherent to techno-capitalism makes human beings forgetful of their divine-cosmic ground, functioning not only to alienate individuals from their communities, but humanity from earth.31
1 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 202.
2 Schelling, The Ages of the World, trans. Wirth, 207-208.
3 Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Love and Schmidt, 40.
4 Martin Heidegger, Schellings Abhandlung Über das Wesen der menschlichen Freiheit (1809), trans. Joan Stambaugh, 9.
5 Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Love and Schmidt, 47.
6 Wirth, The Conspiracy of Life, 197.
7 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Lawrence, 7:371.
8 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 169.
9 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 167.
10 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 170.
11 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Lawrence, 9:217-218.
12 Schelling, The Ages of the World, ed. Schröter, trans. Lawrence, 40; “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 181.
13 Schelling, The Ages of the World, ed. Schröter, trans. Lawrence, 43; “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 181
14 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 172.
15 Lawrence, “Philosophical Religion and the Quest for Authenticity,” Schelling Now, 25.
16 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, 7:461-462; Devin Lane Shaw, Freedom and Nature in Schelling’s Philosophy of Art, 140-141.
17 Alberto Toscano, “Philosophy and the Experience of Construction,” The New Schelling, 106-107.
18 Lawrence, “Philosophical Religion and the Quest for Authenticity,” Schelling Now, 26.
19 Schelling, Grundlegung der Positiven Philosophie: Münchener Vorlesung WS 1832/33 and SS 1833, ed. Horst Fuhrmans, trans. Matthews, 235.
20 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Shaw, 7:464-465.
21 Schelling, The Grounding of Positive Philosophy, trans. Matthews, 10.
22 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 172.
23 Matthew 5:39.
24 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 174.
25 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 181.
26 John 3:5.
27 Shaw, Freedom and Nature in Schelling’s Philosophy of Art, 116.
28 Shaw, Freedom and Nature in Schelling’s Philosophy of Art, 117.
29 Schelling, On University Studies, 22.
30 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Wirth, I/7, 393.
31 Such freedom is “inverted” because it elevates the periphery (our animal egotism) over the Center (our spiritual potential for love); Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Love and Schmidt, 34-36.
I’m about halfway through The Half has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (2014) by Edward Baptist.
Baptist’s book embeds an economic history of post-revolutionary America in the personal stories of slaves. He brings into question the still dominant version of American history, “the half that has ever been told,” which argues that slavery was an old world anomaly set apart from the rest of the early nation’s growing capitalist economy. “Stories about industrialization emphasize white immigrants and clever inventions,” writes Baptist, “but they leave out cotton fields and slave labor” (xviii). Painting slavery as somehow outside the modern capitalist system–more a drag than a boost to America’s young economy–meant that none of the massive quantities of wealth accumulated as a result of the cotton trade could be claimed to be owed to African Americans.
Many white historians have long argued that slave labor was less efficient than paid labor, and that market forces made its eventual demise inevitable. The evils of slavery, they argue, are reducible to the denial of liberal subjectivity to enslaved African Americans. “Surely,” writes Baptist, “if the worst thing about slavery was that it denied African Americans the liberal rights of the citizen, one must merely offer them the title of citizen–even elect one of them president–to make amends” (xix).
By tracing the westward expansion of US borders from the 1780s to 1860, Baptist unveils a more troubling reality. As the borders of the young nation expanded and its economy boomed, so, too, did the slave industry. From the time the Revolutionary War ended to the start of the Civil War 80 years later, America’s slave population quintupled. During the same time period, enslavers marched about 1 million men, women, and children chained in heavy iron coffles hundreds of miles southwest from the old slave states to the new frontier states (xxiii). US cotton exports soared after white enslavers developed elaborate methods of torture to force enslaved African American migrants to pick cotton faster and more efficiently than free people (e.g., one lash for every pound a slave fell short of his or her daily quota). Slave labor thus “rapidly transformed the southern states into the dominant force in the global cotton market” (xxi).
“What enslavers used was a system of measurement and negative incentives. Actually, one should avoid such euphemisms. Enslavers used measurement to calibrate torture in order to force cotton pickers to figure out how to increase their own productivity and thus push through the picking bottleneck. The continuous process of innovation thus generated was the ultimate cause of the massive increase in the production of high-quality, cheap cotton: an absolutely necessary increase if the Western world was to burst out of the 10,000-year Malthusian cycle of agriculture. This system confounds our expectations, because, like abolitionists, we want to believe that the free labor system is not only more moral than systems of coercion, but more efficient. Faith in that a priori is very useful. It means we never have to resolve existential contradictions between productivity and freedom” (130-131).
In 1800 the US exported fewer than 200,000 bales of cotton per year (a bale is a compressed box of cotton weighing about 450 pounds). By 1860, exports had skyrocketed to 4 million bales (1 billion 800 million pounds) per year, such that 75% of the cotton imported by Britain’s textile mills was being picked by slaves in American labor camps. 19th century African American slaves worked the land of their owners to produce massive amounts of the most important raw material powering the industrial revolution. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that African Americans carried as much economic weight as steam engines during the same timeframe.
“Both South and North depended on slavery’s expansion. The products generated form the possibilities of co-exploitation explain much of the nation’s astonishing rise to power in the 19th century. Through the booms and the crashes emerged a financial system that continuously catalyzed the development of US capitalism. By the 1840s, the US had grown into both an empire and a world economic power–the second greatest industrial economy, in fact, in the world–all built on the back of cotton” (413).
Baptist’s historical research can serve an emancipatory role in the present. Along with reminding us of the collective need to address the historical trauma of slavery, Baptist’s book returns our attention to the inherent contradictions of the still expanding global capitalist market. Capitalism is an economic model predicated upon the exploitation of labor and land so as to “generate” (that is, steal) a monetary profit. In reality, capitalism generates nothing but (unequally distributed and thus sociopolitically powerful) symbols. All real physical generation is done by Gaia and her organisms. Despite neoliberal fantasies, the soul’s salvation cannot be achieved by transforming all bodies into commodities, by giving everything on earth a price tag and reducing it through one innovative financial instrument or another into a universal quantitative value so that it can be traded on the global market to the highest bidder. The generativity of earth and her creatures is inversely proportional to the productivity of the global marketplace. As GDP goes up, Gaia’s carrying capacity goes down. This contradiction in capitalism is referred to by ecomarxists as a “metabolic rift.”
That capitalism is inherently exploitative is clear. It was not the inherent logic of the market that ended slavery, but the agonizingly slow evolution of the American conscience. If anything, the capitalist profit-motive was the primary engine driving the intensification of slavery during the 19th century.
What is not clear is where we are to go from here. The first step must be refusing the nihilistic justification of capitalism offered by neoliberalism (that it is the best we can hope for given the greed and selfishness inherent to “human nature”). We have not always been capitalists. We need to fight against the inertia of the present and continue struggling to unleash the latent potentials of our species, such as our capacity for justice. “Never forget,” Cornel West reminds us, “that justice is what love looks like in public.”
With ecological catastrophe looming, economic instability as the new norm, and the political sphere reaching a boiling point, the path forward is fraught with difficulty. References to “love” are apt to feel sentimental. Yet it may be that only a miracle can save us now. “Miracles do happen,” Whitehead acknowledged; “but it is unwise to expect them.”
This post is largely in response to this interview with the ecological Marxist John Bellamy Foster. Foster spends most of his time responding to criticisms of his work by Jason W. Moore.
I haven’t read Moore’s work, so I’m not sure whether the misunderstanding of Latour arose with him or with Foster’s characterization of the latters “constructionism” in the interview. Moore and/or Foster seem to reduce Latour to a social constructionist who thinks “nature is subsumed within society,” as Foster put it. I interpret Latour’s ontology through Whitehead’s, which is neither naively monist nor dualist, but pluralist. Not “neutral monism” but creative process, the many becoming one and being increased by one. In proper dialectical fashion, seems to me that Foster and the position he is critiquing need to be overcome. Yes, capitalist society can be distinguished from the earth metabolism for the purposes of analysis; but ultimately isn’t capitalist society’s metabolic rift with earth only comprehensible as a kind of cancerous tumor or autoimmune disease? Our species wasn’t parachuted in from a higher dimension so far as I know; rather, we grew out of geochemistry. The Whiteheadian trick, as I see it, is to push talk of “social construction” all the way down, such that agency and value are understood to permeate cosmogenesis rather than existing exclusively within the human domain. Reality is socially constructed by collective agencies operating at all levels. Latour’s modes of existence are important here as descriptions of different ways that humans and our closest non-human companions construct reality. Politics is one way humans have found to compose and decompose common worlds. Economics is another (as are science, religion, art, etc.). Translating between the modes happens all the time but is never complete. The modes are irreducible one to the other. No one mode can “subsume” the others. And yet it seems to many of us that “capitalism”–that is, the privatization of everything from healthcare and education to prisons and war, along with the externalization of hidden costs on people and earth–presents an existential threat, that it appears to be subsuming everything around it, converting the community of life on earth into use-and-dispose consumables for the sake of accumulating digits in some offshore bank account. Others disagree. It all depends on the signifier “capitalism,” which I admit verges on reification in some Marxist discourse.
For better or worse, actually existing capitalism is way ahead of our attempts to theorize about it. This makes political action in relation to it almost impossible. Indeed, more and more it seems like capitalism has gained a monopoly on possibility. Bernie’s “movement” (we will see in the next several months and longer if it deserves that name) may be an example of a new possibility for political action. In his live webcast last night, Bernie said:
In a democratic civilized society, government must play an enormously important role in protecting all of us and our planet. But in order for government to work efficiently and effectively, we need to attract great and dedicated people from all walks of life. We need people who are dedicated to public service and can provide the services we need in a high quality and efficient way.
Some of my more libertarian friends have been mocking this statement. It is hard to deny that magnifying the reach of agencies that operate in the style of the TSA and the DMV into our everyday lives is pretty frightening. But still, I agree with Bernie that public projects are where we should be pouring our energy right now. Yes, government as it currently operates is almost always less efficient than the “free market,” but maybe a shift in priorities that drew more capable people into public office would improve the situation. We need to reverse the self-fulfilling prophecy that is draining our government at local, state, and federal levels of capable, honest people who cynically shun politics, because by doing so they are allowing that government to be taken over by increasingly incompetent and corrupt egomaniacs.
Some argue that “capitalism” will transform itself faster than government could ever hope to “fix it.” Maybe. But I worry that allowing the private sphere to subsume the public will leave our communities with little legal protection from the sorts of social and ecological injustices that capitalism has thrived upon (e.g., cotton slavery, fossil fuel industry, etc.). Shrinking the power of government and privatizing everything is only going to open the door to racist, nativist regression and further destroy ecosystems, since the metabolic forces that shape these social and ecological realities do not respect the abstract borders of our maps or the metaphysics of our money. As the #Occupy movement taught us, the concepts of “debt” and “ownership” need to be thoroughly reevaluated.
Thank you, President Subbiondo. Thanks also to our Academic Vice President Judie Wexler, to our honorary degree recipients Angela Davis and Josef Brinckmann, and to all CIIS faculty and staff for the work you have done to make this day possible for me and for my fellow graduates.
I am a philosopher, which is not to say that I know the answer to every question, but that I tend to ask what some people may think of as annoyingly obvious questions. If you don’t also happen to have the philosophical itch, I hope you will forgive me for asking the following: What is a university? What are we doing here today, “graduating” from one? I’ll offer the simplest answer I can think of: a university is a community of learning, and we, as university graduates, are supposed to be learned to some degree or another.
Now, unfortunately, university education, especially in the humanities, is increasingly under threat in our country. I’ll let the great philosopher Martha Nussbaum (who teaches at the University of Chicago) set the scene: “nations all over the world will soon be producing generations of useful machines, rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticize tradition, and understand the significance of another person’s sufferings and achievements. The future of the world’s democracies hangs in the balance.”
Our profit-driven economic system–the industrial growth society–has decided that science, technology, and engineering alone should shape the future (with barely a feigned nod to art, culture, wisdom, or a thorough grasp of history). As the late Berkeley sociologist Robert Bellah put it, contemporary American universities, while they may on rare occasions still function as “instruments in the class struggle,” are increasingly being transformed into “wholesale knowledge outlets for consumer society.” The entire educational system is being re-designed to produce efficient, responsible corporate or state worker-consumers. In our present economy, we are told to seek a university education, not for culture or learning, not to become more sensitive human beings, but for job preparation. Even at CIIS, this reality cannot be ignored. We need jobs to survive, to eat, to pay rent, after all.
But for those of us who chose to come to CIIS, I believe something deeper than mere survival is motivating us. We came here to learn how to thrive; to learn how to heal the human psyche and body; to learn to philosophize; to learn the wisdom of the world’s various religions, spiritual paths, and indigenous ways of knowing; to learn about present possibilities for social and institutional change.
I might stop there, having basically read the names of the degrees on the diplomas that we are receiving today. But I want to probe a bit deeper for a moment. What is beneath these specializations? What is university learning really about at, well, the most universal level? I want to suggest that at the deepest level and in the most general sense, a university should help each human being find their unique role not only in society at this particular historical juncture, not only their profession in this particular job market, but their role in the ongoing evolution of the community of life on earth, 4 billion years in the making. The purpose of the university is to prepare us for life in the Universe, itself 14 billion years in the making. Universities should help orient us and to encourage us to become creative participants in this wondrous miracle we call existence. Yes, yes, earning a living is also important. But as the late geologian Thomas Berry suggested (and I paraphrase), “universities must decide whether they will continue training persons for temporary survival in a declining [industrial civilization,] or whether they will begin educating students for [what we hope is an emerging ecological civilization].”
CIIS is one of the few educational organizations to have taken the evolutionary crisis Berry is pointing to seriously. It has decided to be (and I quote from the mission statement): a “university that strives to embody spirit, intellect, and wisdom in service to individuals, communities, and the earth.” Such an unorthodox mission has not made it easy for this non-profit university to survive in an educational marketplace offering more prestige, technical training, and higher salary expectations. At several points going back to the founding in the 1950s of CIIS’s earlier institutional incarnation (the American Academy of Asian Studies) by the international trader Louis Gainsborough, this university has needed the generous philanthropic support of the business community to continue and expand its activities. The Academy’s dean in the early days, the well-known philosopher and mystic Alan Watts, reported that Gainsborough’s initial vision for the school was as an “information service” on Indian and Chinese religions. Watts, of course, made it clear that he and the other founding faculty (including Frederic Spiegelberg, Haridas Chaudhuri, and Judith Tyberg) “had no real interest in this nonetheless sensible idea of an information service.” “We were concerned,” Watts says, “with the practical transformation of human consciousness.”
I believe the transformation of human consciousness is still the underlying concern of CIIS’s educational efforts. Jobs are important, yes. But the jobs that CIIS graduates want to work at to a large extent do not yet exist. The political parties that graduates of CIIS want to vote for do not yet exist. The world that graduates of CIIS want does not yet exist. Our role as graduates of this university is to play some part, small or large, mediocre or monumental, in the creation of new worlds. We don’t yet know what the future of life on this planet will look like, which is why I’ve pluralized “world.” We are called to participate with one another in the creation of new worlds. We should experiment with as many new world-formations and forms of consciousness as we can imagine, because the way forward is uncertain. Some of us may create something beautiful and enduring. Some of us may fail. If we are honest with ourselves, the entire human species may fail in its response to the present social and ecological crises. I don’t know, but I remain hopeful that, as the Indian yogi and integral philosopher Sri Aurobindo said, “By our stumbling, the world is perfected.”
I will leave you with a challenge. It is a challenge for my fellow graduates and for myself. I challenge us to continue to be of service to the evolution of this nation, of our species, of all species, and ultimately of the Universe itself. I challenge us, in whatever form our work in the world takes, to remain awake and engaged in the task of planetary transformation, to refuse to lose ourselves in the somnambulance of consumer culture. We cannot be sure where this journey will lead. All we can be sure of is our own intentions as active participants in the adventure. We must ask ourselves, what are we doing here? And we must never stop asking it. Is it merely to survive? To pay the bills? To play the lotto and strike it rich? I don’t believe so. According to the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, “The task of a university is the creation of the future.” As university graduates, this is now our task.
Blow rightly points out why Trump’s campaign manager is sorely mistaken about the prospects of winning over Bernie’s supporters in the general election. It’s not going to happen. Yes, there is a shared distrust of Hillary. But the similarities end there.
But Blow is also missing the point. Bernie’s support is not coming from people who think the political system is broken. The political system is actually functioning exactly as it has been designed to function. Bernie’s supporters are angry because democracy has been replaced by neoliberal capitalism. Voting has thus been reduced to another consumer choice based on brand identity. The two-party system is designed to protect the super wealthy from the threat of growing class consciousness. The two major parties do everything they can to prevent large sectors of the population from thinking about the real causes of the socioeconomic imbalances in our system and instead find ways to divide up the electorate based on identity politics: race, gender, sexuality, etc. Not that there are not injustices that need our attention in these areas (Trump’s rise shows we have lots of work to do on this front). But by continuing to allow the oligarchs to frame our political process for us, we remain vulnerable to the temptation to continue fighting with one another over the table scraps they throw us. Identity politics has played an important part in the process of liberation for marginalized peoples, but thus far this liberation has only been allowed to unfold in the framework set by neoliberal capitalism. In other words, the civil rights movements for women and for black, gay, and lesbian people have succeeded in securing many of the legal protections afforded white men (again, more work remains on the cultural front). But the framework these liberatory movements have unfolded within assures that the most that can be achieved is equal status as a wage-earning consumer within the capitalist profit-machine. I recognize that my positionality as a white male makes it perhaps all too easy for me to say this, and I welcome other perspectives to help me see my blind spots, but it seems to me that at this point in the game we need to begin recognizing the various identities we employ to brand ourselves are a means of political transformation, rather than an end. If they are an end in themselves, then the transformational process can only produce further social fragmentation among the 99%, thus further inhibiting our collective ability to overthrow oligarchy. Does equality mean equal right to work 60 hours a week for stagnant wages so we can all afford to lease a car, pay rent, and send our kids to college to become indentured servants to banks for the rest of their lives? Maybe we’ve forgotten what individual freedom and social flourishing really mean.
There is more at stake in this election than the mainstream media’s talking heads are allowed to let on. What does the next century hold in store for America? Capitalism’s fantasy of never-ending economic growth is being severely challenged by the ecological and social crises. Back when capitalism was first establishing itself, colonial theft of unspoiled land and labor from non-Europeans made it seem like profits would never end. In the 20th century, capital relied upon the energy produced by fossil fuel to replace all that emancipated slave labor (though of course it still depends upon the wage-slavery of large sectors of the “developing” world). But now the petroleum interval is ending, the third-world is demanding higher wages, and the Earth is reminding us that its carrying capacity is not unlimited. From this point forward, capitalism can only secure growth by making sure 99% of us remain insecure and continue to bicker at one another about “family values.” Divide and conquer: it is the oldest ruling class strategy for domination in the book. The oligarchy is counting on us to continue believing that there are no economically viable alternatives to capitalism.
In reality, there has never been a better opportunity to fundamentally transform the economic model that has gotten us into this social and ecological crisis. Whether we look to the secular approach of Naomi Klein or the spiritual approach of Pope Francis for this transformation, let us not forget that there is hope on multiple fronts.