ON THE ETHICS OF CLASS SUICIDE
Are we living through a catastrophic age? And if so, what should we do? What is our responsibility?
Everything seems to suggest that a universal catastrophe is upon us. The Dow Jones industrial average, the index of US industrial activity, has lost more than half its value in less than a year. The economic mechanism that has held up American consumerism through loans over the past 30 years, the finance and banking industry, is at a standstill, and at least according to some experts, in large part out of business. Unemployment is reaching double-digit levels in many parts of the country, and along with it, of course, there come increases in home evictions, poverty, and hunger. And all this, as it turns out, is rather mild version of what’s happening throughout the rest of the world: entire countries are going bankrupt or are on the brink of bankruptcy, their economies merrily restructured by the International Monetary Fund (which does not seem to have heard the death knell of neoliberalism), tens of millions more people thereby sinking into all-too-predictable destitution.
Meanwhile, symptoms of Global Warming are suggesting that even if the economic logic of consumer capitalism and its foundational institutions could somehow be salvaged, a persistent use of the fossil fuel-based technologies that constitute its actual substance (from anything made of plastic to cars to most power plants) will result in massive ecological imbalances, and, quite possibly, the extinction human life.
One might even argue here that Obama’s “Green New Deal,” while it will go some way toward reducing Carbon emissions—how much and how fast, however, is not quite clear—will do little to the economic structure of capitalism, since it is largely premised on re-establishing the status quo ante. But it is precisely this system—premised as it was on ever-increasing consumption of commodities produced in the Third World by an ever-more impoverished middle class in the First (which is precisely where lending came in)—that is no longer an option.
Catastrophe thus does seem the order of the day. Environmental prophets are screaming it to whoever will listen; religious prophets (all denominations included) are depicting it in the terms of their favorite image, that of The Apocalypse: the Christians call it ‘rapture’; the Moslems call it Jihad; the Jews call it ‘Palestine ’. Even the Marxist prophets are here for the reunion, resurrected it seems, especially for the occasion, to rub their hands in terminal glee.
But if we take a step back for a moment, if we ask ourselves precisely what is a ‘catastrophe,’ this interpretation—let us call it the catastrophist interpretation—seems substantially less compelling.
When you think about it the concept of ‘catastrophe’ is rather paradoxical. On the one hand, catastrophe is a category of history. It denotes a historically identifiable event, the extinction of the Dinosaurs for instance, or the collapse of the Roman Empire. On the other hand, it is that category of history which designates the end of what it belongs to, namely the end of the historical process. After that famous meteor shower that had catastrophe written all over it, for instance, the history of the dinosaurs had come to an end. The catastrophe is thus both inside and outside history. It exists in history, however, only as the after-image of the end, a phantasmagorical image of something that happened—or more precisely, that stopped happening—in the past, projected ever-forward in the future. The perceived or divined catastrophe is both a symptom of humans’ remarkable consciousness of their mortality and the projection of their greatest fears into a future that is ultimately indecipherable.
But the real catastrophe, the Real of the catastrophe to speak the language of the philosophers, is only retrospective, it is only what can be recorded retrospectively about someone or something else. No one lives through a catastrophe: that is the definition of catastrophe.
So this is one problem with the catastrophist thesis: the catastrophe cannot be lived in the present. It can only be remembered as an abstract historical memory. Or, it can be experienced as a fantasy of the future, in the mode of science fiction, so to speak.
The other problem with the view that we are living through a catastrophe today is that it is a lie, what in more “sophisticated” language one might call a mystification. Think about it this way: bankers, Wall Street wizards, various industry lobbyists, and their flunkies (who compose most of the political establishment), as well as a full supply of academic geniuses inhabiting social science and philosophy departments have been crowing in the same choir for 30 years or so. Let’s call all these people the elite. Their song? A paean to the free market, consumerism, ceaseless economic growth (and the endless construction of ugly malls, ugly houses, ugly buildings that accompanies it), deregulation, privatization; a song whose chorus was “There is no alternative,” or TINA.
Now, in common parlance a catastrophe is no one’s fault, it is unforeseen, and thus unavoidable. But that is precisely what the current situation never was. Global Warming and environmental collapse have been known quantities since the early 1970s. By 1981 there were federal government scientists who were filing official reports predicting that if significant reductions in Greenhouse gases were not made in the medium term really bad things would start to happen.
When as for the global economic meltdown critics like Susan George were starting to get the picture of what would happen by the mid-80s, as they studied the result of neo-liberal policies imposed by the IMF/World Bank complex on Southern countries like Nigeria and Mexico that were defaulting on their international debt. It was then that many people started realizing that the financialization of the world economy, the emphasis on American consumption (fueled by personal credit) as the solution to ever-increasing productivity premised on a stagnant or shrinking global wage was a recipe for disaster. By the late 90s and the crisis of the so-called “Asian tigers” (South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, etc…) the writing was on the wall. No one needed to be a genius, then, to see that sooner or later this situation would no longer be tenable. The housing market was a stop-gap that lasted just long enough to get George W. Bush reelected, but here again it wasn’t difficult for whoever wanted to see what was happening to get the picture.
But that’s just the problem: no one wanted to see. Profits were good, regardless of means—which in any case were now legal—and so the elites patted themselves on the back, toasted to the death of communism, gorged themselves on war profiteering, and waved a flag in front of other people’s eyes in order to avoid too many embarrassing questions.
Thus, neither global warming nor the world-economic depression we are now entering can seriously be called catastrophes. They were avoidable and they could have been avoided… had it not been, that is, for the nature of elite rule.
In fact, the Greeks had a very precise term to describe the kind of self-imposed blindness our elites have been practicing for the last three decades: tragedy. Most famously, of course, this notion is illustrated by the story of Oedipus who, blinded by his hubris, kills his father and marries his mother, only to realize too late, that he has sinned against the gods, and that his sin is unforgivable. As self-imposed penance Oedipus appropriately pokes his eyes out, so as no longer to be blinded by his sight.
The only ethical question the US—and perhaps the world—faces today is this: how can the financial, corporate and political elites perform penance for their hubris over the last 30 years? But the answer is self-evident: they should give up what it is that has made them blind to their sight: all the money and political power they have. That is indisputably what the outcry about American Insurance Group (AIG) executive bonuses is about. Indeed, the outcry about AIG is but a logical extension of the nearly universal condemnation of the Wall Street-over-Main Street bail out currently engineered by both the Federal Reserve and the Treasury department. The universally understood ethical imperative is clear: the elite should commit the economic and political equivalent of seppuku, the traditional Japanese suicide.
Short of that—and all countries with, perhaps, the exception of Japan will fall short—the only “moral” solution to the current situation is to erect gallows on every bloc of Wall Street and K Street and start purging elite hubris, forcibly.
Of course, morality’s answer to every situation is to demand sacrifice—of oneself or of others, it does not matter. That is because the premise of all morals is that only sacrifice can appease the Deity and restore humanity’s good graces. Only blood can quench the Divine thirst for blood. If, however, we wish for something else than an imaginary solution to our problem—imaginary because the heads that roll today will be replaced tomorrow by brand new ones that will be just as blind—we have to think beyond morality, beyond praise and blame, beyond, in other words, good and evil.
Perhaps the first thing to do will be, aside from the recognition of tragedy and of the sinful stain on the rich and powerful that follows from it, to refuse the catastrophist premise in all of its practical and existential implications. It’s not simply that the death rattle of consumer capitalism will be a good thing for the Earth, but that the well-deserved bankruptcy of American and European finance would most likely mean the redistribution of wealth downward for the first time since the 1930s. The mortgage crisis itself could possibly give birth to a houseless urban dwellers’ movement similar to the progressive Brazilian Landless Peasant Movement which is reclaiming land from rich landowners by squatting on it.
In fact, what economic depression could mean, under the proper circumstances—i.e. those of massive popular mobilization—is what might be called an exodus from the structures of capitalism. One can imagine this exodus in a number of different ways. And it is being imagined as such already: think for instance of those Chicago factory workers who, outraged by the manner in which they were being laid off, took over their own factory. Of course, they did not take the next logical step, which would have been to run it themselves. But that may certainly become a more distinct possibility in the near future. As a sequence of events reminiscent of what is now going on in the US and which took place in Argentina between 1999 and 2001 suggests, it is remarkable how suddenly peoples’ desire to regain control of their lives can manifest itself in ways that no one would have guessed. One day they wake up and they decide that if their bosses don’t want to run the factory anymore, they will.
The skeptics may huff and puff: “it can’t happen here,” they may say. But I like to remember the posse of Wisconsin farmers who got together in the early 1930s and who decided to “repossess” their repossessed farm equipment from the banks. They called themselves the Red Army Posse, and they would show up at their banks’ warehouses and reclaim their equipment—at gunpoint.
And this might yet be the best result of this crisis: the demotion of the ideal of private property in the American imagination. And that “catastrophe” seems like it would be well worth toasting to!