“Escalation and Collapse” By Edgar Morin

Escalation and Collapse 

By Edgar Morin

June 6, 2022

[See also Morin’s earlier article from March 9, 2022 “On the Edge of the Abyss or, How to Wage War on War?”]

            Outside the actual war zones, we live in a warlike peace, our bodies settled in peace, our minds among bombs and rubble. We attack an enemy with words, who threatens us in return, but we sleep in our own beds, not in a shelter. 

            And yet we are participating in the real war without having entered it by bringing in weapons and ammunition. 

            The war in Ukraine has been progressively internationalized. Humanitarian aid and then food aid to the Ukrainian people, victims of Russian aggression, has been followed by military aid in the form of weapons, first defensive and then counter-offensive, the quality and quantity of which are increasing mainly due to the massive contribution of the United States, accompanied by those of most European Union countries. 

            The strategy of the Russian army is relentless. It is the daughter of Zhukov’s strategy during the Second World War, which gave the leading role to formidable artillery bombardments, not only against the enemy army, but also against the cities to be taken, with the last one being the total crushing by heavy artillery of the capital of the Reich, Berlin. Like any victorious army, but more terribly with the Soviet advance in Germany, killings and rapes multiplied. We knew it then, but we were careful not to denounce them, explaining them as revenge for the enormous suffering and death inflicted by Nazi Germany on the Soviet population.  

            In the case of Ukraine, whose people are brothers or at least close cousins of the Russians, one wonders if the killings and rapes are due to the disorder of some troops, to the fury of failure, or to a will to terrorize. 

            We still don’t know if the first intention of Putin’s aggression was to make the whole of Ukraine fall like a low-hanging fruit by decapitating it with the first assaults. It seems that the current ambition, under pressure from Ukrainian resistance, is to permanently conquer the predominantly Russian-speaking regions of the Donbass and the Azov Sea coast. At the time of writing, the struggle is fierce and uncertain: the Russian offensive is very powerful, but the Ukrainian army, in the course of its war since 2014 against the Russian-speaking separatists, has established entrenched and staggered fortifications, which so far have considerably slowed down the Russian advances, themselves still not very decisive. 

            Barring a coup d’état in the Kremlin or a fatal military coup or a diplomatic feat (ceasefire, peace compromise), it now seems that the war is likely to last and intensify with the increasingly abundant supply of Western weapons and Russia’s increasingly extensive retaliation. The international character of the war in Ukraine is growing. It is true that the Western camp led by the United States declares that it is not at war with Russia. But its military intervention in Ukraine is an indirect war, to which is added an economic war increased by the imposition of sanctions.  

            We are in the middle of an escalation, maintained by new bombings, new mutual accusations, new waves of reciprocal criminalization; the indirect war included in the war in Ukraine can at any moment be widened by bombings, accidental or not, in Russian or European territory. 

            On top of that, Putin has resumed his announcement of a “lightning fast” retaliation if a certain unspecified threshold of hostility or interference threatens Russia, mentioning a decisive weapon, unknown to any other country and which Russia alone might possess. 

            Based on a seemingly rational argument, well known since the Cold War, this threat is not taken seriously by the United States and its allies. If Russia wants to annihilate us, an immediate retaliation would in turn annihilate Russia. This rational argument, however, does not take into account a possible mishap and a possible irrationality. The possible mishap would be the unintentional launch of a nuclear device at the potential enemy, which would trigger an immediate nuclear response. The possible irrationality is that of a dictator in a rage or delirium. 

            In any case, it is currently probable (knowing also that the improbable can happen) that from one slip to another the war will spread to European territories, and will be amplified by intercontinental missiles on Russian and American territories without sparing Europe. A third world war, of a new type, using tactical nuclear weapons with limited range, drones, and cyberwarfare to destroy the communication systems that sustain the life of societies would be the logical outcome of the amplification of the current internationalized war. 

            Let’s add an important observation: in countries in conflict, war introduces controls, surveillance, the elimination of any opinion deviating from the official line, and the unleashing of propaganda for the permanent justification of its acts and the ontological criminalization of the enemy.  Putin’s Russia was already an authoritarian state under the orders of a dictator. The war has intensified control and repression, hitting those who not only opposed the aggression, but also those who questioned its rationale. In Ukraine, the hunt for spies and terrorists has given rise to a control of the population. The excesses committed by some of its troops or by bandits are hidden, and while denouncing real abuses, propaganda is unleashed against a totally criminalized enemy. In France, although not belligerent and still enjoying the ultimate comforts of peace, we only have access to the most misleading assertions of Putin’s Russia and to the images of the destruction it causes. And Russian artists and athletes are banned in a hysteria that confuses a great culture, a great people, and its current leader. 

            We are caught in an escalation of inhumanity and a collapse of humanity, an escalation of simplistic thinking and a collapse of complexity. But above all, the escalation towards globalized war signals the tumbling of humanity towards the abyss. 

            Can we escape from this infernal logic?  

            The only alternative would be a compromise peace that would establish and guarantee the neutrality of Ukraine. The status of the Russian-speaking regions of Donbass could be dealt with by referendum. The status of Crimea, a Tatar region partly Russianized, would deserve a special status. In short, the conditions for a compromise, however difficult it may be to establish, are clear. But the radicalization and the amplification of the war has set back the possibilities in an undefined way. The geo-political position of Ukraine and its economic wealth in wheat, steel, coal, and rare metals make it a prey for the two great predator superpowers. The tilting of Ukraine towards the West after Maidan has aroused Russian aggression and the Russian aggression has aroused not only the support of a nation victimized by invasion, but also the will to integrate it into the West, which corresponds moreover to the wish of a majority of Ukrainians 

            Ukraine is a martyr not only of Russia but of the worsening of the conflictual relations between the United States and Russia, including of course the enlargement of NATO, itself inseparable from the concerns raised by the Russian war in Chechnya and its military intervention in Georgia. 

            The salvation of Ukraine would be not only to free itself from the Russian invasion, but also to free itself from the antagonism between Russia and the United States. This double liberation would also allow the nations of the European Union to free themselves from this conflict and to seek to link security and autonomy. 

            One cannot know up to what point the sanctions against Russia, while hitting hard not only the Putin regime, but also the Russian people, will also hit the sanctioners by turning partially back on them: it is not only the latter’s supply of energy and food that is threatened; with increased inflation and the restrictions to come, their entire economies and social life will undoubtedly be hard hit. An economic crisis always in itself generates authoritarian regressions and the durable installation of societies of submission. 

            Putin’s Russia is an abominable authoritarian regime. But it is not comparable to Hitler’s Germany; its pan-Slavic hegemonism is not, as was Hitler’s, the will to colonize Europe and to enslave racially inferior peoples. Any Hitlerization of Putin is unwarranted. 

            We are in a world dominated by antagonisms between superpowers and given over to ethnic, nationalist, racist, and religious delusions. 

            However repugnant the superpowers may be in various ways, the appeasement of their conflicts is a sine qua non to avoid generalized disasters. So we must aspire to a compromise. Humanity would not be saved for all that; but it would gain a reprieve, and perhaps also a hope. 

Edgar Morin 

                                                                                     translated by Sean Kelly

“On the Edge of the Abyss or, How to Wage War on War?” By Edgar Morin

On the Edge of the Abyss

or,

How to Wage War on War?

By Edgar Morin

March 9, 2022

Now in his 100th year, Edgar Morin is a leading French public intellectual. A radically transdisciplinary thinker, Morin is the author of more than fifty volumes on complexity theory, sociology, human nature, ecology, popular culture, politics, and more, including Thinking about Europe and The Nature of the USSR: Totalitarian Complex and New Empire.

Writing these lines, I am reminded of the anguish that gripped me during the Russian missile crisis in Cuba in 1962. I was hospitalized in New York and my friend Stanley Plastrick told me daily that New York was in danger of being annihilated by an atomic bomb. Then the compromise came in extremis and Khrushchev withdrew his missiles.

Today, once again I see us on the brink of an abyss, and in the absolute uncertainty of tomorrow.

The simple and the complex

Let us try to see clearly what is simple and at the same time complex. The simplicity lies in the fact that there is an aggressor and an aggressed, that the aggressor is a great power and the aggressed a peaceful nation. The complexity is that the Ukrainian problem is not only tragic and upsetting but has multiple intertwined implications and multiple unknowns.

Let us then try to imagine a possible peaceful solution that would not spell the peace of the graveyard for Ukraine.

Let us also recall that Ukraine was divided at the end of the 18th century by Poland (itself subsequently divided), the Russian Empire, and the Austrian Empire. It became independent during the wars following the revolution of 1917, but was defeated in 1920 and integrated into the Soviet Union. Its peasantry suffered cruelly from the kholkozification of agriculture and the great famine of 1931. For a while, Ukrainians had the illusion of being delivered by the Wehrmacht; in 1941, Bandera, an independence fighter who had become a collaborator, proclaimed a pseudo-independent republic under the German occupation. Ukrainians, however, actively participated in the resistance to Nazism.

It is during the decomposition of the USSR that Ukraine and Belarus gained independence in agreement with Russia, led by Yeltsin. 

The situation of Ukraine worsened concomitantly with the worsening of relations between Russia and the United States.

Ukraine is not only a major geopolitical prey for Russia and America, it is also a major economic prey. It is the leading European reserve for uranium, the second for titanium, manganese, iron, and mercury.  It has the largest area of arable land in Europe and 25% of the world’s black soil. It produces and exports barley, corn, and other agricultural products.

Following a democratic revolution, Ukraine came under increasing pressure from Russia and in 2014 aspired to join the European Union. Putin then annexed Crimea and fostered the uprising and autonomy of the Russian-speaking region of Donbas. It must be recognized that Crimea is a Russianified Tatar province but not Ukrainian and that keeping the Donbas in Ukraine would require a federal solution. Putin justified his action by proclaiming on March 18, 2014, “they lied to us repeatedly, they made decisions behind our backs, they presented us with a fait accompli. This happened with the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO] to the east, as well as with the deployment of military infrastructure on our borders.”

In fact, an ongoing war in the Donbass had begun despite the Minsk agreements.

In an article published in Le Monde on May 3, 2014, I predicted the danger: “Unfortunately, as far as Europe is concerned, the impotence of the West is not only military in character. It is not only an impotence of will. It is an impotence of political thinking, and of thinking as a whole. It would be desirable that Hollande, Fabius, and Manuel Valls become aware of the merciless rise of the perils and propose the only coherent plan of peace, that of a federal Ukraine, a link between West and East. We are no longer in the time when we must seek the best, we are in the time when we must avoid the worst.”

Since 2014 the infernal feedback loop of East-West conflict has worsened and the worst has happened in March, 2022.

The fatal spiral

This conflict has been provoked both by Putin’s growing ambition to integrate the Slavic part of the Russian Empire into his domain, and by the concomitant enlargement of NATO around Russia. It is more broadly determined by the intensifying conflicts of interest between the two superpowers following the Bush-Putin entente of 2001.

There was the reconstitution of Russia as a military superpower, establishing its zones of influence in Syria and Africa, the bloody reintegration of Chechnya through two wars (1994-1996 and 1999-2001), the military intervention in Georgia (2008), and then the growing pressure on Ukraine. At the same time, without a UN mandate, the second war of invasion of Iraq by the United States in 2003 was catastrophic for the entire Middle East, followed by internal wars at least until 2009, and the invasion of Libya in 2011. Finally, the United States was engaged in a war in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2021.

While in 1991 the American president had verbally promised Gorbachev that NATO would not be enlarged to include the former People’s Democracies, in 1999 NATO integrated Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, then the Baltic republics, followed by Romania, Slovenia, then Albania and Croatia in 2004, creating a de facto encirclement of Russia (with two gaps, Georgia and Ukraine).

This “objective” encirclement has reminded the Kremlin of the encirclement of the USSR by the capitalist countries between the two wars and the “containment” policy of the Cold War.

Hence, from a more subjective viewpoint, we see the development of an obsessive psychology in Putin and the hardening of his authoritarian regime.

Under the guise of war against Afghanistan, the USA has installed military bases in the former Soviet republics of the south, in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, while also in practice pursuing encirclement in Siberia.

We cannot hide either the role of growing opposition between two superpowers to extend or safeguard their areas of influence, or the role of encirclement by NATO.

A significant development is that, since the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States is now determined to avoid any distant war while the Ukrainian government aspires to be protected by the European Union and NATO.

However, it is necessary to consider that Vladimir Putin feels more and more strongly that what is tolerated for the United States, especially military interference in sovereign countries, is condemned for Russia. He will not tolerate Ukraine’s move to the West. He knows that the United States would not intervene militarily if he invades Ukraine. He may be thinking of a quick invasion and he has already organized reserves in case of economic sanctions, which he underestimates in the long term, but maybe he thinks that everything will be settled in the short term. Without wanting to be psychological, I can imagine the evolution of this authoritarian personality, for whom Western democracies are decadent, who is increasingly hardening his military-police regime in Russia, who believed for a time in 2001, in mutual sympathy with Bush, that the United States would treat his great country with dignity. He tends to hide the fact that his wars in Chechnya, his interventions in Georgia and finally in Ukraine in 2014 have put America and Europe on alert.

Cautious and cunning at first, Putin became bold in 2014 and is now driven by a terrible rage. 

It should also be recognized that, while Russian troops were concentrated on the border of Ukraine, Biden made a speech on March 1, 2022, intransigent in tone but where there is a small capital phrase—”we will not make war”—which, while legitimate, has upset the United States in the balance of power. And similarly, no people, no government in Europe has considered going to war over invaded Ukraine, despite the constant appeals of President Zelenski and Macron’s multiple attempts to negotiate with Putin. 

The difficulty of waging war on war

The heroic resistance of President Zelenski, his government, and the Ukrainian people has undoubtedly surprised Putin as much as it has aroused our admiration. It even made Putin abandon the huge lie of denazification, speaking now instead of Ukrainian nationalists. It has undoubtedly helped to unify democratic and national Ukraine.

Similarly, Putin’s war is unifying Europe, in its disapproval and reaction, at least for a while. The West is trying to do everything short of outright war: this would be a generalized catastrophe that would plunge Ukraine, Europe, and America into a terrifying new world war. Hence the economic response of multiple and generalized sanctions (personally I deeply oppose sanctions against culture, music, theater, the arts); then the response is amplified by economic aid, then with military assistance to Ukraine, and the organization of reception of refugees. And then we have the formation of a legion of volunteers to fight in Ukraine. One of the features of the tragedy is that we can afford neither weakness nor strength and that we are forced to navigate between the two in an uncertain manner.

That said, it should be remembered that sanctions also hit those who carry them out. Thus Europe will risk a shortage of gas and other products.

The economic war could be effective in the long term but by then Ukraine will have been swallowed. It could have major effects in Russia, impoverish the population, arouse a strong opposition (accurate information is already coming through a thousand private channels in Russian cities), and strengthen or overthrow Putin’s authoritarian power.  

Where is the borderline between economic warfare, assistance in arms, the intervention of volunteers, and the war itself? 

The distant bombings, the ruins, the deaths, the exodus that hit Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan are on our doorstep. 

At this point we have Putin’s repeated threat of an unstoppable weapon against those who would attack Russia: “you would all be vitrified”. Would he, in an excess of rage, be capable of taking action? In any case, the slippage towards a war that would exceed in horror the two previous world wars is not an impossibility.

As I write these lines, Kiev has not fallen.

Macron has made a new and valiant effort with Putin, without result.

Everything is uncertain, everything is dangerous.

The compromise solution acceptable to all would be a neutral and federal Ukraine, given its ethnic and religious diversity. It is currently unattainable.

A peaceful settlement of the war would allow for more general negotiations between Russia, the United States, and Europe. I don’t know if the Unity acquired during the crisis by the European Union will be maintained; there will be a new element: German rearmament, which will give Germany a hegemony that will not be only economic.

While waiting for a hypothetical solution, the permanent danger remains.  How can we find the way between culpable weakness and irresponsible intervention?

In any case, we have very often seen that the consequences of interventions go against intentions and decisions, both in the East and in the West.

………………………

English Translation by Sean Kelly

PDF of this article:

“Another End of the World is Possible” by Servigne, Stevens, and Chapelle

“How could we call ‘rational’ an ideal of civilization guilty of a forecasting error so massive that it prevents parents from leaving a habitable world to their children?”
—Bruno Latour

“The system is collapsing all around us just at the time when most people have lost the ability to imagine that anything else could exist.” 
—David Graeber

Servigne, Stevens, and Chapelle’s book focuses on the importance of imagining new stories, enacting more earthly spiritualities, and transforming industrial mentality into a more mature—and wiser—form of human consciousness, all in the midst of an accelerating collapse of civilization. The authors quote Roy Scranton, who affirms Socrates’ original statement (see Phaedo 67e) that “philosophy is learning to die,” adding that this means “we have entered humanity’s most philosophical age—for this is precisely the problem of the Anthropocene,” i.e., to learn to die not only as individuals, but as a civilization (193). Collapsophy is one way of framing and engaging with these literally epochal challenges.

The nature of the still dominant industrial mentality makes these needed re-imaginations especially difficult, since it has fostered both amnesia and anesthesia, that is, it has made us increasingly forgetful of our past and incapable of feeling or emotionally processing the present (201). Modern mechanistic ontology (with its attendant myth of progress, culture of consumerism, and technocratic solutionism) has structured the “invisible architecture” (113) of our social imaginary so as to prevent us from forging much needed mutual aid networks with other members of our own species, and especially with non-humans. Relentless repetition of the old story of human separation is leading many to double-down on attempts to take technological control of the Earth System/Gaia. Transhumanists, for example, forget that their immortality project is “irreversibly dependent on a socio-politico-technical system [that is] addicted to oil and rare earth [minerals]” (116). They know of no other possibilities than such “power-over” approaches, since the idea of “power-with” would not only imply a softening of the human/nature division, it would require a total reorganization of the hierarchical pyramid structure of our societies. 

We are used to sharply distinguishing between fact and fiction, but an increasing number of authors are turning to the sci-fi genre in an urgent attempt to sensitize us to the consequences of our actions in the present, and to the narrowing possibilities of the future. The authors draw upon the work of Starhawk to warn of the risks of allowing the world-making potency of imagination to become depoliticized (116). She calls upon artists to interrupt the zombie-like repetition of the dominant narrative by mobilizing the subversive force of alternative stories. Ursula La Guin is also cited for her emphasis on the way living imaginaries ripe for collective adoption can only emerge from works of deep personal significance: “The further [the artist] goes into himself, the closer he comes to the other” (117).

The authors then turn to the emerging fields of ecopsychology and ecofeminism. They draw upon various scholars, including Carolyn Merchant and Sylvia Federici, to show how the degradation of nature and of women’s status in society has the same origin (133). Patriarchy, they argue, emerged with the Neolithic Revolution as men discovered their potential as farmers and as fathers (168). It was intensified with the Scientific Revolution, which arose contemporaneously with witch hunts across Europe and colonized North America. It is estimated that as many as 100,000 witches were executed. The analogies between the Baconian method of natural science and the violent interrogation of witches is hard to miss. Merchant (The Death of Nature, 1980) is famous for her argument that “Nature” was equated with a public woman that science must subdue and strip naked so as to unveil her secrets (169). Federici expands the links between the social and natural consequences of patriarchy by tracking the connections between colonial expansion and the rise of capitalism. To assert its world domination, capitalism first needed to disenchant nature (which included the extermination of witchcraft and peasant healing traditions), destroy the autonomy of village communities, and privatize the commons via enclosure (170).  

The authors credit ecofeminism with highlighting the political importance of embodiment, aesthetics, emotion, imagination, and magic. They also point out the ways that men, too, suffer under patriarchy. They discuss the role of masculine and feminine archetypal polarities within each of us, calling for us all to cultivate gender identities in a more balanced way, both collectively and within ourselves (171-173). Rituals of reconciliation are recommended to further the healing process (176).

Joanna Macy’s “Work that Reconnects” is put forward as an avenue toward world view renewal (125). Macy offers several mythic images of our moment, which is both a “Great Unravelling” and a “Great Turning.” The authors celebrate her efforts to shift our social imaginary from its obsession with short-term economism by sensitizing us to the deep time of cosmogenesis. By transposing the history of life on Earth onto a calendar year, our place in the multibillion year process of evolution is made more apparent: If the planet is said to have formed on January 1st, then life appears in late February; in early April, photosynthesis is invented, which remains the primary process by which energy from the Sun is welcomed into the biosphere; metazoa do not emerge until late September; plants begin to inhabit land in late November; early December witnesses the rise of the reptiles, with mammals following a few weeks later; primates appear on Christmas Day; Homo sapiens do not show up until 1 minute before midnight on New Years Eve, with the Industrial Revolution occurring only within the final second of the cosmic year (154). Re-living our evolutionary journey in this way helps put the “little second of thermo-industrial civilization, this tiny period of disconnection and forgetfulness of who we are” into perspective (155). It also aids in our remembrance of how much gratitude we owe our ancestors, without whose struggles to survive and rituals of celebratory renewal we would not be here. 

The authors lament the way “science, technology, and capitalism have taken the sacred out of everything” (138), but in another sense, modern techno-industrial civilization has given rise to surrogate “pseudo-sacreds”—that is, to various forms of “misenchantment” (link is to a dialogue between myself and Rick Tarnas on this issue). Whether its the latest iPhone update, juicy celebrity gossip, or Super Bowl Sunday, the religion of consumerism provides plenty of faux enchantments to distract us from the psychological, sociological, and ecological catastrophes transpiring just behind our screens. We are in dire need of genuine forms of communion with the sacred, as the authors make clear that it is not possible to approach the end of the world without spirituality (160). But what is the sacred? In addition to the gratitude for our ancestors already mentioned, the authors emphasize the importance of rituals and initiations that afford opportunities for communion with one another, and with that mysterious power which grants us our lives, and which reminds us of the meaning of our deaths. They quote the spiritual teacher Martín Prechtel: “True initiations will be impossible until the modern world surrenders to the grief of its origins” (196). Truly comprehending the sacred, according to Prechtel, requires accepting the darkness along with the light. The authors contrast this point of view to the insistent positivity of New Age spiritualities, which typically refuse to look at the shadow, and thus fall victim to what Buddhist teacher John Welwood has called “spiritual bypassing.”

Collapsophy is the cultivation of the wisdom needed to live with collapse. It is also the wisdom of learning to die. It includes reason and science, which are vital to ongoingness in any form, but also makes ample room for aesthetics, emotions, ethics, and spiritual intuitions. The authors bring their book to a close with the call for an “interspecies diplomacy” that would foster the development of a common language shared by as many as possible of the beings of our living planet (195). 

A review of Michael Hogue’s “American Immanence: Democracy for an Uncertain World” (2018)

MICHAEL S. HOGUE, American Immanence: Democracy for An Uncertain World. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018: 238 pages. [Reviewed by: MATTHEW D. SEGALL, Philosophy and Religion Department, California Institute of Integral Studies, 1453 Mission Street, San Francisco, California, 94103, USA. <msegall@ciis.edu>.] 

Michael Hogue has written a timely theopolitical intervention drawing from (and contributing to) the American stream of philosophy in service of democratic and spiritual renewal. By the time American Immanence was published in 2018, humanity’s longest running national experiment in democracy was already embroiled in what Hogue (following Robert Bellah) calls “its fourth major trial” (2). Each of the last four centuries has seen the United States thrown into an epochal crisis of identity and destiny that tests and transforms our bonds as a people. The great trial of the eighteenth century was formative: the Revolutionary War. The nineteenth century crisis, the Civil War, was seeded by the moral contradictions implicit in the first: American colonists won political freedom from the British Crown on the basis of Enlightenment values only to turn around and build a society that not only tolerated native genocide and African enslavement but actively engaged in them as a matter of official state policy. The twentieth century brought the rise of America’s nuclear powered global military empire in the wake of the world wars as well as the civil rights crisis of the 1960s, which finally gave legal and political substance to the nominal freedom won in the prior century. As America stumbles into the third decade of the twenty-first century, its citizens continue struggling to responsibly inherit the unresolved collective traumas of their history. The fourth national trial is also challenging us to develop a new consciousness of our shared future vulnerabilities. All the old moral contradictions are still making the news. But something wickedly novel has emerged that recontextualizes everything.

Hogue’s book takes a step beyond current partisan divides by reminding us of the emergent planetary context of our shared political life. Whether first marked by the appearance of symbolic consciousness, agriculture and cities, colonization, industrialization, nuclear energy, or the microchip, there can be no doubt that we now live in the Anthropocene, a geological epoch dominated by human modes of production and their unintended climatic blowback. The wave of reactionary nationalism that carried Trump into office is but the latest symptom of a more all-encompassing spiritual and ecological emergency.

For Hogue, the Anthropocene brings an end to the era of human exceptionalism, as all who had been externalized (poor and marginalized people, as well as the climate, the soil, the rainforests, etc.) are now rushing back to reclaim their agency. Gaia (or the Earth System, if you prefer) is not passive before the industrial projects of global capital. The reasons and desires shaping our political and economic lives are inescapably entangled with and thus limited by the flow of energy around the Earth, such that there are thermodynamic conditions of human freedom. Humans are evolved and evolving mammals who make useful tools that remake us in turn. Our moral ideals and social order did not arise ex nihilo from Zeus’ forehead. The history of human cultural evolution cannot be told in abstraction from its energy extraction regimes (foraging, farming, fossil fuels, etc.) (70). Concomitant with the increased awareness of the material and biotic conditions making human consciousness possible, fissures in the ideological matrix of modern liberal secularism are widening. While some may feel suffocated by the deluge of dire factors weighing upon the human future[i], Hogue seeks to fill the postliberal, postsecular gaps in the social imaginary with new theopolitical possibilities (10).

Drawing upon what he calls the American immanental tradition (particularly William James, John Dewey, Alfred North Whitehead, and their more recent interpreters), Hogue reimagines the social and political role of theology in more pragmatic and world-loyal terms, shifting away from traditionally religious obsessions with the afterlife and more recent “death of God” theologies to focus instead on “natal concern for the complex creativity immanent within the world and emergent through nature” (14). Defining the political as the domain of ongoing, open-ended negotiations of power and value in the context of common life (15), Hogue sets to work in chapter 1 demystifying the “redeemer symbolic” that has functioned throughout American history to legitimize certain theopolitical conceptions of power and value rooted in a dual logic of exception and extraction. This moral logic is typified by the elevation of a savior (human, divine, or both) to a special ontological status exempt from the normal conditions, contingencies, and constraints of creaturely coexistence and authorized to extract value and externalize cost in service of the redemption of a chosen people (29). Hogue traces the destructive effects of this symbolic constellation through its colonial, national, imperial, and neoliberal phases. While historians may prefer thicker descriptions of the events described, Hogue’s sketch suits his insurrectionist purposes. He begins by using the political theory of Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt to elucidate the anti-democratic decision-making and environmental racism of former Michigan governor Rick Synder, which precipitated a still ongoing humanitarian crisis in the impoverished, mostly Black city of Flint. The tragedy in Flint provides a synecdoche for the longer historical arc of American exceptionalism, from America’s Biblically coded ex nihilo creation story (31) to Trump’s election as the “apotheosis of [neoliberalism],” such that “capitalism has become a sacred crusade, [with] the market as the model of all other social relations” (50). 

Chapter 2 unpacks the wicked entanglements characterizing the Anthropocene, detailing the intimate but until recently unacknowledged bonds between humans and the Earth. Among the most striking entanglements is that European colonization of the Americas may have left a mark on the atmospheric record: after disease ravaged and displaced indigenous populations were no longer able to manage the forests, a precipitous reforestation of the Western hemisphere concentrated enough CO2 to at least contribute to the emergence of a mini-ice age in Europe (57). Hogue favors interpretations of the Anthropocene that identify it as primarily a colonial phenomenon driven by industrial growth capitalism. Hogue amplifies scholars like Eileen Crist (61), Jason W. Moore (62), and Dipesh Chakrabarty (64) who challenge the name chosen by geologists to mark this epochal transformation. Moore’s proposal of “Capitalocene” better captures the historical reality (and is no more infelicitous than the current misnomer) (63). 

Chapters 3 and 4 are the theoretical heart of the book. Hogue brilliantly reconstructs viable concepts of power and value in the context of Dewey’s pragmatic naturalism, James’ radical empiricism, and Whitehead’s process-relational philosophy. These chapters warrant deep engagement from process-oriented thinkers. I only have space to critically address one issue: Hogue’s treatment of God as both concept and symbol. While he champions Whitehead’s aesthetic and “grassroots” (97) approach to metaphysics as “a blueprint for deep social change” (99), Hogue questions whether Whitehead’s process theology obeys its stated embargo on ontological exceptionalism. While Whitehead demotes God to the status of a creature of Creativity like all others, God’s creatureliness retains a special status in the universe as the most ultimate (in its primordial role as valuer of eternal possibilities) and most intimate (in its consequent role as fellow sufferer and tragic poet). For Hogue, Whitehead’s insistence upon a God who is “constantly concrescing, never satisfied, and nonperishing” (111) raises the suspicion that he may be smuggling ontotheological contraband. But rather than offering a sustained rebuttal of the “metaphysical necessity” of Whitehead’s God concept or divine function, Hogue focuses instead on the “pragmatic religious sufficiency” of such a God symbol (112), determining that contemporary political theologians are better off inheriting “Whitehead without God” in service of “a fuller, more vital, religiously world-loyal appreciation for the creative process of reality” (113). 

While pragmatic considerations of the individual and social function of religious symbolism are essential, I do not think we can so neatly divide metaphysics from social praxis. There is some risk in overapplying Deweyan instrumentalism in search of a “useful” image of God that we end up reinstituting the very anthropocentrism Hogue means to overcome. Hogue nowhere mentions the essential role of Whitehead’s divine function in granting relevant novelty to finite occasions of experience, which might otherwise be overwhelmed by the onrush of unfiltered infinite Creativity. It is not clear that Whitehead’s scheme of prehending and concrescing actual entities remains coherent if “the primordial created fact”[ii]has been excised (or misunderstood as a “metaphysical necessity”). While the contingency of cosmic and earthly evolution cannot be denied, it is just as evident that the course of nature’s creative unfurling displays a tendency toward organized complexity. Where does this tendency to self-organization originate? Surely not in human symbol systems, which are rather an expression of it. Hogue suggests the creative advance can be sustained merely by the combinatory effects of finite occasions of experience, without any need for God or eternal objects. He goes on to argue that “the potential for novelty [would then be] ontologically distributed through the cosmos rather than concentrated within God’s primordial aspect” (111); but on my reading, Whitehead’s divine function is already radically distributed in the form of an “initial Eros” providing “the mirror which discloses to every creature its own greatness.”[iii] It is also not clear how reference can still be made to “potential” (and in particular, relevant potentials) in a universe composed only of actual entities and sealed off from the ingression of eternal objects and divine lures.

Nor am I convinced that Hogue’s pragmatic emphasis on natality in the face of death adequately addresses the practical and existential concerns of the growing masses of people suffering through the current multiform planetary catastrophe. While it is true that some sects of Christianity verge on the status of death cults for their overemphasis on crucifixion, sin, and the need for otherworldly redemption, our religious imaginaries would be equally diminished by an exclusive focus on natality without regard for the moral import of death and the afterlife (or our images of it). Our religions must integrally address the miraculous facts of birth and death in their symbolic formations lest the encompassing divine mystery of human life be obscured. It is not clear to me that, on pragmatic grounds, belief in some kind of afterlife necessarily diminishes world-loyalty. A belief in reincarnation, for instance, can be construed as superlatively loyal. 

In the closing chapter, Hogue turns to Grace Lee Boggs in an effort to inspire a theopolitics of lasting annunciatory revolution in place of more short-lived denunciatory rebellions (153). Hogue’s book makes an important contribution to the task of disrupting and demystifying the dominant symbolic complexes that have shaped our collective emotions and habits for centuries. Whitehead warned almost a century ago that “societies which cannot combine reverence to their symbols with freedom of revision must ultimately decay either from anarchy, or from the slow atrophy of a life stifled by useless shadows”[iv] (quoted by Hogue, 98). Hogue has deftly heeded this warning by showing how reverence and revisioning can coexist. 


[i] A team of Israeli scientists recently calculated that the total “anthropogenic mass” (overall material output of human activities) has now reached or exceeded the total living biomass of Earth at approximately 1.1 teratonnes. See Elhacham, E., Ben-Uri, L., Grozovski, J. et al. Global human-made mass exceeds all living biomass. Nature (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-3010-5

[ii] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 31.

[iii] Whitehead, Religion in the Making, 139. 

[iv] Whitehead, Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect, 88. 

Meta-Politics – a discussion with Layman Pascal on “The Integral Stage”

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.

Whitehead and Marx: A Cosmopolitical Approach to Ecological Civilization

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.

image

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.

https://www.apnews.com/aaf1091c5aae40b0a110daaf04950672

http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2019/05/un-report-humans-are-driving-1-million-species-extinct.html

 

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)?

jwmoore@binghamton.edu

My political autobiography

It has become a truism: every election is the most important of our lives. Is this any more true of the 2020 presidential election? Of course it is! As we approach what is already shaping up to be another prolonged and contentious primary season, I want to offer an autobiographical preamble to my ongoing commentary and campaign involvement. Our political opinions do not arise in a vacuum, as though the product of purely rational reflection on universal human nature. They are steeped in the circumstances of our upbringing, in our dreams and ideals, in our adventures abroad and the calamities that befall us at home, and in the company we keep and that keeps us. I’m sharing my personal story with the hope that it provides context for my perspective on the 2020 election.

In 1996, I was the ten year old child of divorced middle class parents living in Hollywood, Florida. Bob Dole and Bill Clinton were running against one another for the presidency. I remember waiting in the lunch line at elementary school talking with a friend. He asked me who my parents were going to vote for. I said I wasn’t sure. With a look of sympathetic superiority, he informed me that Clinton was one of Satan’s henchmen and that only Dole could help America realize God’s plan (his parents were evangelical Christians). I should warn my parents right away, he said.

Something felt off about my friend’s opinion, but at that point I had little basis upon which to question his perspective. I didn’t warn my parents, who were and remain largely apolitical (my mom’s Christianity is mostly private, and my dad, an agnostic Jew, lost his 60s idealism waiting out the draft in Mexico). They never spoke to me about politics as a kid. My friend’s warning is one of my first explicitly political memories. I can recall earlier memories of CNN’s coverage of Gulf War 1: being impressed by new laser guided bombs accurate enough to fly into exposed air conditioning vents on building rooftops in Bagdad, being frightened about Saddam’s chemical weapons landing in my backyard and poisoning me and my family, and so on. I was only six, but having already watched my fair share of action movies, I had the vague sense that all this war business seemed awfully theatrical and made for TV. It was an early hint of the way the dominant political order was fabricated and maintained.

But it wasn’t until the 2000 Bush vs Gore election that I really began to feel the uniquely American frenzy first described by de Tocqueville that overtakes our nation during election season (“As the election draws near, intrigues multiply and turmoil spreads…The whole nation descends into a feverish state…“). Though I was just entering high school and still wasn’t old enough to vote, the electoral college fiasco, the recount chaos that unfolded just north of me in Palm Beach, and the Supreme Court finally interceding, all left a lasting impression. I watched George W. Bush’s inauguration and wondered if the country could ever unify behind him. Then, 9/11 happened. The images, emotions, and conversations of that day remain etched in my mind with great clarity. War was upon us, this time much closer to home. I was suspicious of how quickly the country lined up to support their commander-in-chief, and of the rush to seek revenge on the “evil doers.” I was especially struck by images of Bush standing on a pile of rubble in NYC, with his arm around a fire fighter and a bullhorn in the other hand through which he shouted promises of revenge over chants of U-S-A U-S-A!! I can’t say I didn’t feel pangs of patriotism in my chest as I watched this. We were under attack, after all. But again, the way the whole thing seemed staged and made for TV kept me from succumbing to these feelings.

It was in the aftermath of these events that my intense interest in politics began. I enrolled in advanced courses in European and American history at school, and at home began reading Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. The discrepancy between my history textbooks and Zinn’s People’s History was a stronger hint that in politics, neither truth nor power lies on the surface for all to see. I was still too young to vote when I came to the conclusion that our nation’s “democracy” was more of an ideal than a realized state of affairs.

I started offering my political opinions as editorials editor for The Nova Vue, my high school newspaper. Most of my op-eds were standard liberal takes, anti-Bush and anti-war, pro-gay marriage, etc.; nothing too radical. I watched as Bush went after the Taliban in Afghanistan first, a bombing campaign I didn’t cheer but didn’t protest much, either. Then, with some WMD sleight of hand, Bush worked to convince the nation that a full-scale invasion of Iraq was necessary to bring all the evil doers to justice. “Operation Iraqi Freedom” was launched with little protest from anyone in congress or the US press. Having read some of the policy papers from the neoconservative think-tank the Project for a New American Century that propelled Bush into the White House, I knew that the plans to invade Iraq and recolonize the Middle East were put in place long before the 9/11 attacks. I also read about the recent history of the region, how the US installed Saddam Hussein and trained and funded the Taliban and al Qaeda back when they were the enemies of our enemies. I read about the more distant history of British colonial rule and the artificial drawing of the map of Iraq, which somehow was supposed to include Kurds, Sunnis, and Shias within a single national identity. In the run up to war, I began to entertain some of the 9/11 conspiracy theories. I don’t know what really happened that day, but it seems clear enough that the official story is suspect. US history is full of false flags, so why should 9/11 be ruled out? I am not a true believer or “9/11 Truther,” but nor can I dismiss or belittle the folks who are. I simply do not know. What I do know is that Americans have a special talent for ignoring history when forming opinions about the present.

I was a college freshman at the University of Central Florida when the 2004 primaries wound down and John Kerry emerged as the Democratic nominee. I now had my first opportunity to participate in the civic ritual of voting, an exciting experience that was clouded by an inner conflict I’ve since grown all too familiar with: lesser evilism. Kerry, like Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Chuck Schumer and other establishment Democrats, voted to authorize the Iraq war in 2002. I preferred him to Bush, of course, but my heart was with the independent party candidate Ralph Nader. But I knew he could not win and that, practically speaking, a vote for Nader was a vote taken from Kerry and given to Bush. The cynical part of me viewed the whole electoral process as merely symbolic anyway, akin to Catholic transubstantiation: through the miracle known as representation, my vote was supposed to allow me to partake in the democratic selection of my nation’s leader. In reality, my vote was but a tiny drop in a giant lake whose damn was ultimately controlled by the Electoral College and the Supreme Court. I remained conflicted until I walked into the polling place on election day. My heart told me Nader, but I didn’t want to throw my vote away and unintentionally assure the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld war machine another term in the Oval Office. I voted for Kerry.

Image result for bush kerry debate handshake

The frustration of lesser evilism, not to mention Bush’s re-election victory, squashed my budding political idealism. I was dumbfounded by my country’s decision. The war propaganda machine was too powerful to subvert: prime time coverage of “shock and awe” bombing campaigns followed by Monday Night Football kept the country in line. The faux debates between the puppets of the corporate duopoly were too carefully curated and narrowly defined for genuine democratic self-governance to be possible. I started turning away from politics and corrupt worldly institutions and instead immersed myself in the study of existentialism, depth psychology, and Eastern spirituality. I read Nietzsche, Alan Watts, Carl Jung, Stanislav Grof, and Sri Aurobindo. I became fascinated by the 1960s counterculture, especially Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert/Ram Dass’ experiments with psychedelics. I discovered Terence McKenna’s books and video lectures on YouTube (Leary once called McKenna “the real Tim Leary”). I gave up on the lost cause of American politics and decided to “tune in, turn on, and drop out.”

I became convinced that the real revolution would be an inner one, an evolution of consciousness rather than a revolution of political order. Only when people “woke up”–not “woke” to class or racial identities, but to divine identity–would real democracy be possible. I started thinking seriously about selling my car to fund a one-way trip to India where I hoped to meet my guru and live out my days in an ashram exploring the realms of the human unconscious. Allen Ginsberg’s integration of revolutionary politics and psychedelic spirituality was a helpful corrective to my one-sided otherworldliness during this time, but his bodhisattvic commitment to the suffering of this world was not enough to bring me back into earth orbit, much less down onto the ground.

It would take another few years to lure me back into the political fray. The first important influence occurred in 2005. I was invited by Hillel, a Jewish student organization at my university, to travel to Israel for two weeks as part of a “birthright” trip funded entirely by the Israeli government and Jewish-American philanthropists. It wasn’t quite India, but it fed my hunger for spiritual roots and promised a dangerous adventure that the pages of books and the shopping plazas of suburban Orlando could not match. The trip indeed proved to be spiritually nutritious, particularly a pair of mystical experiences, one at Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem, and another alone under the stars in the Negev desert. My time in Israel also re-ignited my social and political conscience. I had read enough Chomsky to be critical of Israeli militarism and to sympathize with the plight of the Palestinian people. I was still unprepared for the onslaught of Zionist propaganda that greeted my young tour group at every step of our journey across the tiny but proud nation. They wanted we Americanized Jews to realize that we were part of a sacred tribe, that we belonged in Israel, and that God and history were on our side. The government even offered to help pay for our marriage (to another Jew) and find a house if we moved to the country and accepted citizenship. For anyone under 26, this also meant a year or two of military service in the IDF. The offer stirred a primal desire in me to belong to a people and a place, to feel special, exceptional, chosen. I was tempted, I admit. But the identities of “Jew” and “Israeli” felt too small for me, too fake. And the evils of the occupation weighed too heavily on my heart.

In 2008, there was no Democratic presidential primary election in Florida. If there had been, I probably would have voted for Dennis Kucinich. After watching a few Republican primary debates, I decided to temporarily register Republican so that I could vote for the anti-war candidate Ron Paul. Despite the worsening quagmire in Iraq, Paul, Mike Gravel, and Kucinich were the only true anti-war candidates that year. Gravel and Kucinich were largely ignored, but Paul got some attention because of his fundraising success. US foreign policy and the military-industrial complex were the issues that stirred the most passion in me, so his outspoken opinions about the immorality of the Iraq invasion and the “blow back” theory of terrorism got me fired up. I loved seeing him attack US imperialism on the debate stage next to hawks like McCain, Romney, and Huckabee.

Back in the first decade of the 2000s, social media was just beginning to impact political discourse. But it wasn’t yet the main outlet for debate. By 2007, however, I was posting videos on YouTube about politics (and about philosophy and religion). Ron Paul was the first to inspire this sort of engagement. His battle with the US war machine was short-lived. It didn’t take long for me to grow disenchanted with him due some of the less inspiring aspects of his ideology, including his belief in the magical “invisible hand” of the free market and the taint of racism.

In November 2008, as the global economy convulsed, I was just settling in to San Francisco to attend graduate school. I voted for Obama over McCain, of course. I wasn’t entirely convinced he could bring about real change, but his message was way closer to my ideals. I watched the election in a dive bar on Market Street. When Obama won, everyone spilled out onto the street to celebrate. Cars honked enthusiastically as they slowly weaved through the growing crowds. Strangers high-fived and hugged one another. Obama wasn’t as outspoken about it as Paul, Gravel, or Kucinich, but he was against the war resolution in 2002 and promised to withdraw troops as quickly as possible if elected president. His other progressive positions, including his commitments to campaign finance reform and addressing climate change, excited me. I was truly hopeful when he was elected. I thought the system might change.

Alas, Obama became the president of Wall St. bailouts, drone strikes, domestic spying, and oil production booms. His major accomplishment during his first term was the Affordable Care Act, but despite having control of both houses of congress, the Democrats capitulated to the for-profit insurance industry and didn’t even include a public option in the new law. I will give Obama the benefit of the doubt by saying the White House changed him. I believe he went into office with high ideals and that the office killed them. The weight of the Pentagon, the Federal Reserve, the US intelligence establishment, corporate lobbying, etc., were too much for him to counter. So he went along with what was expected of him. He still talked smart on TV. He showed genuine emotion in tragic moments. He seems like a good guy. But behind the scenes, he continued the corporate sponsored, imperialistic status quo.

In late 2011, the Occupy movement was born. I didn’t live at the San Francisco or Oakland encampments, but I joined in defending them on several occasions, and participated in marches and direct actions, including a general strike that shut down the Oakland port. I also tried to keep some spiritual perspective on the events: “Notes on the Occupation from the Mountaintop.”

Occupy raised my awareness of the extreme economic inequality present in the United States and globally. Alongside American foreign policy and militarism, political economy now became one of the most crucial issues for me. Neoliberal capitalism is a religion, a political theology. Opposing it makes one an iconoclast. (Here’s a taste of how I have come to view the importance of political theology with help from process theologian Catherine Keller.)

Lesser evilism prevailed again in 2012 when I voted for Obama over Romney. I needn’t comment on my reasoning, as it should be obvious. I became even more cynical during Obama’s final term, criticizing his allegiance to the military-industrial complex and his support of neoliberal theology. I began to fall back into the somewhat escapist perspective of my late teens, the idea that progressive politics was pointless because real change could only unfold because of transformed human hearts. Obama was the most progressive president I could imagine winning office, and yet even he continued largely to defend and maintain the same old neoliberalism and militarism.

In mid-2015, I decided to take a chance on Bernie Sanders and hitched myself to his presidential campaign. He carried forward the spirit of the Occupy movement by rejecting the entire neoliberal establishment. It was obvious from the start of the 2016 Democratic primary that Hillary Clinton had already been chosen by Democratic power players. Nobody expected Sanders to make a dent. I made calls for him in state primaries all across the country. These phone conversations taught me how little most Americans kept up with the economic and political issues affecting them. It was discouraging. But I also realized the importance of authenticity to capture the attention of those who’d given up on politics. Even in places I thought would be solidly conservative, like West Virginia, people were open-minded. They were also very kind!

I won’t re-hash here what I’ve already written about the 2016 primaries as they unfolded (“Hillary v. Bernie and the Future of American Democracy,” “Democratic Socialism or Corporate Cronyism,” “In defense of other possibilities“). I will just say that it was clear enough to me as the primaries wound down that Clinton was the weaker candidate against Trump. The country was in the midst of a populist uprising and there was no way another (particularly unpopular) neoliberal corporate-funded centrist was going to win. Sanders spoke to the pain of the poor and working class people who didn’t trust Clinton. His authentic populist firebrand was the only antidote to Trumpism.

As recent events in France make clear, the populist uprising continues to unfold. Bernie is older and by no means the perfect candidate. But I have not seen anyone else yet who I believe can (a) win an election against Trump (or a more articulate right wing populist should Mueller’s investigation bring Trump down) and (b) at least begin the political revolution necessary to achieve the economic, social, racial, and ecological justice that this country and the world so desperately needs. Elizabeth Warren, Tulsi Gabbard, and Kamala Harris are possibilities, but I have nagging questions about each of them (Warren has voted for Trump’s military budgets, Gabbard seems to have a homophobia problem, and Harris hasn’t yet proven she is willing to follow through on crucial policies like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal).

Schelling’s Philosophy of Freedom

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

 

Footnotes

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.