Sasha Lilley's Blog

Apocalypse and the Left

The end of history arrives today. While the Maya never actually predicted that the world would end on 12.21.12, apocalypse tourists have been flocking to Guatemala for the occasion, much to the chagrin of many indigenous people there. Others have been heading to a small village in the French Pyrenees, where they believe a spaceship, hidden in a mountain peak, will whisk those present at the appointed time to a new era. In southern Ohio, New Agers inspired by rightwing conspiracist and erstwhile sports commentator David Icke, have been caught planting quartz crystals and aluminum foil (baked in muffin tins) in the Native American Serpent Mound, the largest effigy earthwork in the world, to open a “stargate” when doomsday arrives this week. 

These predictions are easy to laugh off. Certainly, anything that brings together Icke, evangelical Christians, and Brittany Spears is hard to take seriously. Yet the allure of the notion of collapse and rebirth has a strong hold on more than the New Agers. It resonates with what many feel about the times we live in, which are indisputably catastrophic. Global warming is not something looming in the future, but is here already, as the inundation of Manhattan and the destruction of the Jersey shore have shown (and have been even more magnified in the Global South, hit as they have been by the worst effects of climate change). The global financial crisis has upended the lives of those who did not already feel like their jobs were increasingly precarious. Why not hope that out of the ashes of the present, a better—or different—world might take shape? 

The left has a long history of catastrophism—expecting collapse to lead to social transformation. So has the far right, with its emblem of the phoenix muscularly rising out of the embers of the old. For the left, such hopes have frequently been based on the idea that capitalism will run up against internal limits and then come crashing down. The beginning of the financial crisis was met with glee from some quarters that finally the behemoth that is capitalism, that we had not been able to vanquish over the last four decades of accumulated defeats for the left, had imploded under its own weight. Unfortunately, such hopes were short lived as the crisis proved—and as crises under capitalism tend to prove—an opportunity for elites to force concessions out of workers that would have been more difficult in less fraught times. In the United States, profits are at an all time high, while wages are at a record low as a percentage of GDP. So much for the self-destruction of capitalism.  

The idea that the current order will be transformed through collapse and rebirth is frequently connected to peak oil—the notion that readily accessible petroleum reserves are becoming scarcer and scarcer, ultimately leading to the unraveling of industrial society and the blossoming of a new way of living. Like apocalypse-predictors of old, peak oil catastrophists have no compunction about putting a date on the collapse, frequently in the immediate future. But as with the financial crisis, they lose sight of the destructive dynamism of capitalism, which sees such barriers as not final roadblocks but hurdles to overcome, opening up new avenues of investment and profitability. Hence, rather than teetering on the edge of a Mad Max-like scenario of oil scarcity and industrial collapse, the International Energy Agency recently announced that the United States will surpass Saudi Arabia in the next decade as the world’s leading oil producer, thanks to a destructive boom in hydraulic fracturing or fracking. Unfortunately, it appears that we have more than enough accessible petroleum to roast the planet, long before reserves run out. 

Since these ideas tend to be misguided, why are such scenarios so appealing to those on the left? And why have they become particularly appealing—at least in certain forms—in recent decades? I would suggest that their allure is rooted in a politics of despair, resulting from the defeats the left has suffered over the past forty years and the ebbing of hopes for large-scale anti-capitalist social transformation. Or, to quote a phrase often attributed to Fredric Jameson, it’s become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. That’s unfortunate, because there is nothing eternal about capitalism. It is a fairly new system historically and hopefully we will usher it out one day. But expecting it to collapse under its own weight or because of peak oil is ill advised. Such catastrophism—that harrowing external forces will bring about changes that we have lost faith in our own capacity to achieve—lends itself to bad politics: to the limited, sometimes desperate, actions of the few, and the paralysis of the many. 

Fear and fear-based politics, do not tend to serve the left in the way that they serve the right. The idea of a cleansing catastrophe flows naturally from reactionary politics. The right thrives on fear. And it has a simple solution for the alarmist scenarios that it is constantly invoking: scapegoat the “enemy”—whether immigrants or other easily targeted populations—and demand authoritarian fixes. These do not work for the left (nor should they). Fear tilts right. Leftists enter into fear mongering at their peril. 

A new beginning emerging from a fiery end has been predicted countless times before. In 1844, the followers of American Baptist preacher William Miller sold their possessions in anticipation of the return of Christ. What did not, in fact, follow is known as The Great Disappointment. It is unlikely that the aftermath of the 2012 apocalypse will leave such a mark. Who remembers now the rapture predicted on May 21st of last year? Or the follow-up, “corrected” date of October 21st? But it should remind us nonetheless of the limits of catastrophist avenues for social change–and the need to go about constructing our own real collective ones, drawing on our collective strengths, not our weaknesses. 

Sasha Lilley is a radio broadcaster, writer, and coauthor of Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth, published by PM Press. 

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