Hoping for the Worst

Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth

by Samuel Grove
New Left Project
July 4th, 2013

Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth is a collection of essays published by PM Press that explores the politics of apocalyptic thinking across the political spectrum. In her essay, ‘Left Catastrophism’, Sasha Lilley focuses on the left’s peculiar attachment to disasters. Recently she spoke to Samuel Grove about why a politics of impending doom should be avoided.

What is left catastrophism?

Left catastrophism, which runs through much of the radical left, is an outlook rooted in political despair.  It takes two forms, although they can elide.  One is based on the notion that capitalism will mechanically abut internal or external limits—for example, owing to a “terminal” economic crisis or peak oil—and come crashing down without concerted struggle. The other is rooted in the idea that the worse things get, the better they will be for radical prospects. Hence, periods of economic crisis or state repression are welcomed for finally providing the conditions in which ordinary people will lose their illusions about the system and move leftward. Many on the left oscillate between these two versions of catastrophism. Both presume that out of the ashes a new world will be born—the world that we radicals have not been able to create by ourselves. While it often serves as unexamined conventional wisdom, a “common sense” of sorts, catastrophism is counterproductive for anticapitalists.

So there are two dimensions to left catastrophism. The first concerns the objective conditions for revolution, the second, the conditions for a revolutionary subjectivity. Let’s begin with the first. You are not questioning that capitalism produces catastrophes are you? Rather, as you say, that these catastrophes are in themselves sufficient to break the system. What is a better way of interpreting the relationship of capitalism and catastrophe—particularly in the absence of concerted struggle?

A good place to start is by distinguishing between catastrophes and catastrophism. Capitalism, by its very nature, is catastrophic.  Yet while it is crisis-prone, it also needs crises.  That is, crises help the system renew itself.  Just look at how the capitalist class has used the current economic crisis to ratchet up productivity to achieve soaring profits, exploiting workers’ fears that they may lose their jobs. So to imagine that an economic crisis will, by itself, bring on the collapse of capitalism is misguided.  Similarly, the burning of accessible petroleum reserves—which is certainly catastrophic for humanity, fuelling global warming—does not create an insurmountable limit against which capitalism cannot survive, as some peak oilers suggest. Rather, the depletion of current reserves has driven the search for new sources of petroleum, opening up new avenues of accumulation and profitability. To the point that the United States is predicted to surpass Saudi Arabia in five to eight years as the world’s leading petroleum producer.  

The point about Marxist theory, and in particular Marx’s critique of liberal economics, was to show that what was assumed to obey determined natural law was really the result of human action? Nevertheless you take a lot of Marxist theory to task for succumbing to catastrophism.

That’s true. As ever, one needs to distinguish between Marx and many of his 20th century inheritors, who turned his arguments into mechanistic dogma. Various political tendencies under the Marxist banner held that iron laws of history would bring an end to capitalism, and that victory was preordained. Although Marx indulged in rhetorical flourishes himself, he was clear that human beings make history through struggle. Over time his views evolved about crises as a trigger for social upheaval. Marx and Engels greeted the 1857-58 economic crisis with the assumption that it would automatically set off a revolutionary wave. That didn’t happen and they subsequently abandoned such expectations. Furthermore, while Marx viewed crises as a central feature of capitalism, he did not equate crises with the system’s collapse.  

If Marx came to realize that capitalism would not collapse because of crises, many of his successors did not.  Hence, in the early 20th century, European radicals became embroiled in debates over the coming inevitable breakdown of capitalism.  Collapse was constantly seen on the horizon, with deleterious political consequences: complacency on the one hand and adventurism on the other. An example of the latter was furnished by militants in Estonia, where an insurrection was launched without mass support because of the presumption that capitalism was in its death throes: “At 5.15am on December 1, 1924, two hundred and twenty seven Communists started a revolution,” wrote C.L.R. James, “and by 9 o’clock were completely defeated, doing untold harm…”

Is this still something that afflicts the left?

The idea that capitalism will collapse under its own weight has much less traction today, in our markedly anti-utopian times, but it does appear in various forms.  I’ve mentioned peak oil: the group Deep Green Resistance argue that come 2015 industrial capitalism will start to unravel as a result of diminished oil reserves and will be ripe for take down by a small group of committed militants. We also saw, at the start of the financial crisis, some glee on the radical left that capitalism was unravelling and that our time had finally come.  Clearly, that didn’t turn out so well and such euphoria has mainly receded. But it has a hold on the imagination of leftists of various stripes, from anarchist to Marxist, such as Immanuel Wallerstein who draws on the notion of Kondratiev waves to argue that capitalism has been stagnating since the early 1970s and in twenty to thirty years will no longer be with us, replaced by either something better or worse.

I should emphasize that I think it’s entirely reasonable for radicals to desire the end of capitalism. In historical terms, it is quite a new system and there is nothing eternal about it.  But I believe it is mistaken to imagine that this end will come mechanically, without widespread struggle.

The other form of catastrophism—the notion that increasing economic immiseration or state repression move people to the left—is more common amongst radicals today. In the last decade, insurrectionist ideas have become more popular, boosted in one form by the bestselling book The Coming Insurrection. Insurrectionism celebrates increased conflict and concomitant repression as providing a catalyst for revolt. A less exciting version of this notion has had widespread appeal on the left with the assumption that austerity would provoke renewed radical movements. It’s premised on a very simplistic idea of politicization—that people are deluded about the system they live under and need a shock in order to see things as they really are. But this notion, which is quite patronizing, misunderstands the complexities of what moves people to action. It’s ripe for vanguardism.

Historically, perhaps the most appalling example of the worse, the better can be found with the leaders of the German Communist Party in the 1930s who believed that if the Nazis came to power, they would pave the path to revolution.  The party informally adopted the slogan, “After Hitler—our turn”, and encouraged its members to vote for the Nazis in the Prussian state elections. It need hardly be said that it ended quite badly for them.

Nevertheless Marx held to the idea that there were certain contradictions in capitalism which are ultimately unsustainable.  For example the planet cannot support compound economic growth forever.

Indeed. Marx didn’t, of course, make that particular argument, but it’s a very legitimate one.  Yet if capitalism were to wholly destroy the basis for compound growth, one imagines that point is not imminent, as perilous as global warming, ocean acidification, deforestation, the destruction of the coral reefs, mass extinctions, and the poisoning of our bodies have become.  That’s because of the alarming yet remarkable ability of capitalism to leap over “natural limits” of various kinds.  Out of scarcity, capitalism frequently opens new avenues for profitability and accumulation, some material and others immaterial, and often by incorporating new fields of life into the commodity form—from the body to the ocean floor—by enclosing what had been outside of the market. And capitalism, premised as it is on creative destruction, often uses moments of devastation for the same purpose: just think of the trade in pollution credits, remediation of toxic spills, or even expanding healthcare costs for particulate-related heart and lung disease.  That this would be able to continue indefinitely is hard to imagine, but if capitalism were not able to expand at a 3% compound rate of growth, it’s not clear that it would simply collapse, rather than limping along in highly uneven ways for a time, with some regions contracting and others not. Either way, it’s a pretty bleak path for reaching a postcapitalist world.

If crises don’t always produce widespread struggle, is it fair to say that widespread struggle nonetheless requires some sort of precipitating crisis in order to get underway? For instance the most progressive period in US labour history was in the 1930s during the Great Depression.

Clearly social unrest doesn’t appear out of thin air.  And I’m certainly not suggesting that social struggles can’t emerge during times of economic crisis—they obviously can.  But often such crises only appear to be the catalyst for struggles.  There are many crises, economic or political, that could, and perhaps should, ignite upheaval and do not—countless police murders that don’t start riots, austerity programs that don’t trigger uprisings, and so on—which are then forgotten.

Pinpointing the ingredients that spark protest is always tricky since so many factors tend to be at work. Contrary to received wisdom on the left, however, many struggles come not out of worsening economic conditions, but rather periods of expansion. The Great Depression, as you mentioned, is often held up as the prime example of an economic crisis providing fertile ground for radical social movements.  But it should be noted, even there, that perhaps the most militant episodes in that struggle—the iconic factory occupations and sit down strikes of 1936-37—took place not during a worsening economic crisis, but a recovery, when the employment rate had increased by thirty percent from the depths of the depression.  And that’s telling: often social movements get the most traction when people’s expectations rise and they have a sense of their own collective power, not weakness.  The movements of the Sixties in the US, similarly, arose from a time of economic expansion and relatively high wages. It was the backdrop for tremendous rank and file militancy, which fell off after the severe economic crisis of the early 1970s.

One of the few welcoming consequences of the 2008 economic crisis was the dent it inflicted on notions of capitalist invincibility. For instance Naomi Klein suggested that the Wall St. Crisis was for ‘neoliberalism’ what the fall of the Berlin Wall was for ‘communism’. If nothing else then crises can serve to put discussion of revolution and postcapitalist arrangements back on the table. In light of this is catastrophism necessarily a bad thing?

The crisis did shake, at least early on, the idea that capitalism was invulnerable.  But as you intimate, this was even more so for neoliberalism (which has often become a synonym for capitalism amongst some leftists, but clearly is just one form). A number of prominent figures on the left proclaimed, if not the downfall of the capitalist system, at least the death of so-called free market capitalism. But that proved overly optimistic—it was nothing like the fall of the Berlin Wall. Neoliberalism may have been discredited in some quarters, but it remains the order of the day in the Global North.

Any renewed discussions of revolutionary change and life beyond capitalism would be all to the good, although I’m not sure the degree to which that has happened in any extensive way during the current crisis. As I’ve been emphasizing, there is nothing automatic about the relationship between crises, politicization, and radical action. During crises people may move to the left or to the right, or stay where they are, trying to get by individually. Fear—and this is a point made by James Davis in Catastrophism—tends to tilt right, not left.  When people are fearful, they’re more likely to accept authoritarian solutions and the scapegoating of immigrants and others.

As Eddie Yuen argues, we need to remember that, living in crisis-wracked times, many people suffer from catastrophe fatigue.  Another jolt is not going to make them decide that revolution is the answer.  They don’t need convincing that something is wrong, or that the system we live under doesn’t work for them. They simply have no faith that anything can be done to change it.  And a catastrophist outlook does nothing to address that basic problem. In fact, it hinders coming to grips with it.  It attempts to bypass the often difficult job of reaching out to others who don’t agree with you and helping them to organize themselves.

Is war any different to other forms of crisis—either for its revolutionary or counterrevolutionary effects?

Yes, war could be seen as an exception.  Historically, wars have seemed to beget revolutions.  The great revolutionary waves of the 20th century followed World Wars One and Two, as did the disintegration of the colonial empires. Those who had been asked to sacrifice, or to kill and risk being killed, are much less likely to want to return to the old order.

But wars also give the state even more coercive power in the name of national security, as we know.  They’re marked by great repression and jingoism, when radicals frequently are unable to make themselves heard above the xenophobic or nationalist din, and wars often unleash the forces of the far right.  And the lessons of the 20th century, from World War One to the Vietnam War, have not been lost on the ruling classes. They realize that conscripts, even from imperialist countries, can be radicalized. Hence they now tend to rely on proxy forces and drones, as we’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

One sometimes hears that revolutions are a thing of the past because war has changed.  But it’s worth noting that the most significant revolutionary situation to occur in Europe in recent memory—the events of May 1968 in France—was not fuelled by war, but took place in a reasonably prosperous society at a time of peace, if we can call it that.

If there is nothing particularly new about ‘catastrophism’ what are the particular contemporary circumstances which make this idea attractive? If as you say ‘catastrophism’ is offered as a substitute for the hard work of organisation and struggle, to what extent is ‘catastrophism’ a symptom of the difficulty of engaging in struggle?

That’s a key question. Catastrophism appears to be most prevalent during periods of political defeat for the radical left. To borrow E.P. Thompson’s phrase, it’s the chiliasm of despair, if we define despair in political, rather than psychological, terms.  Hence the old chestnut about it being easier to image the end of the world than the end of capitalism—something that has marked the last forty years, with the defeat of the radical left and the emergence of neoliberalism with its mantra of being the only possible way.

During this period social movements have been, by and large, in disarray, while the working class has been incorporated into neoliberal capitalism through the nexus of finance.  In the United States, there have been moments of great mobilization in recent years—the massive antiwar demonstrations of 2003, the immigrant workers strike of 2006 (numerically the largest general strike in US history)—but creating sustained, ongoing movements has been more difficult.  Even Occupy flared up spectacularly and then waned.  The old ways of organizing—especially the vanguard party model—have been discredited, but the purportedly horizontal forms of recent years have also been beset with problems.  Political despair and a crisis of organization lend themselves to the hope that an external jolt will replace the arduous work of reaching out to and organizing others.  Add to this the very real urgency that many people feel about the need to stop the ravages of capitalism—global warming being the most obvious—and catastrophism is eminently understandable. Catastrophism will not go away simply by pointing to its negative effects. Nevertheless, as radicals attempt to renew a widespread anticapitalist project, ideas matter. As tempting as catastrophism is, it’s an outlook that should be rejected.

As you say though, if ‘catastrophism’ is no solution to hopelessness and compromise on the left, then simply abandoning ‘catastrophism’ isn’t a solution either. It strikes me from what you are saying that just as ideas matter—so does history. There is something quite ahistorical about catastrophism, not just in the sense that it pays no attention to overcome crises, but also in proposing a radical break from all that has gone on before, catastrophism has a kind of wilful blindness to previous struggles on the left; struggles that have brought with them real victories.

It’s generally true that catastrophists undervalue past battles, although not always.  There are some, especially of the determinist variety, who would situate themselves at the pinnacle of prior historical struggles. But for the most part, previous struggles—and what made some successful and others not—are less than relevant. Catastrophism is, amongst other things, about shortcuts and the messy business of fighting and losing some times and winning others can be shunted to the side.

You seem to be pointing to an idea that has appealed to sectors of the left over time, of broad social transformation or revolution as a great cleansing, a moment where we start the calendar anew.  In terms of radical breaks with the past, I’m sympathetic to the impulse. But there is no such thing as building from scratch, of creating a new society that’s not made out of some of the elements of the old.  In earlier debates one side has argued that revolutionary change is not about annihilating the past—a negative sense of revolution—but instead building on the positive elements of the world that exist already in the struggles that we are waging. The other, negative, sense of social change is not confined to catastrophism, but one can see it in the catastrophist notion of a cleansing rupture. Not surprisingly, catastrophism tends to stress our collective weakness, rather than our collective power.  And that I think is to be avoided, no matter how grim things sometimes appear, because it’s actually inaccurate.

Samuel Grove is an independent researcher and journalist

Back to Sasha Lilley’s Author Page | Back to David McNally’s Author Page | Back to Eddie Yuen’s Author Page | Back to James Davis’s Author Page